Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).
IT WAS AUTUMN now in Moscow; the leaves had turned and begun to fall. I had forgotten how beautiful the interaction of autumn colour and sun light looks. The horse chestnut tree outside the flat had dropped the conkers of my childhood on to the pavement below. I wondered if children in England still went conker crazy in autumn or if the sounds of sega gameboys had replaced the sound of shattering horse chestnuts.
I had also forgotten how painfully beautiful the northern autumn is. Not the rich sensual beauty of Keats' ode, but the austere promise of the coming winter, the tightening of the light and the first hint of the pinching cold to come.
The train had worked its gentle magic. The day we left Tashkent we had waited, at 3 AM, near the railway station. I had felt as empty as a station platform in the dim hours of early morning, when the bustle of the day is just a stale echo lingering with the litter in the shadows. Old and tired and disgusted; bitter and tired and bitterly disappointed; sick of being treated like a piece of luggage or an idiot child. Stand up. Sit down. Look away. Don't speak. Everything is Ok, everything is just as it is and you don't need to understand, just do as you're told.
But after three days on the train, I eddied out. It was time to leave that flow, time to concentrate on other destinations. After a while the landscape I had denigrated as flat and boring becoming soothing; the houses and villages I had dismissed as squalid were now simply the way the world was. The gentle, alien beauty of the Registan, lingered, hauntingly, long after any sense of disappointment had gone. Like thousands before me down the centuries I had left the mountains for the city and the plain, seeking a place that only existed in my imagination. I knew that sooner or later I would begin to see the funny side of the trip to Samarkand, if only I could live long enough. Perhaps I would laugh about it as I strode up Senlac hill to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in October 2066.
We returned to Moscow in the early stages of the political argument that reached a climax when Russian tanks shelled the Russian Parliament on the orders of the Russian president. I have avoided the word crisis, because, for us, there was none. History might record those last days of September as being the turning point in the evolution of the Russian move towards "Democracy". For me they were gentle days in which we trailed around Moscow, without any purpose except our own pleasure. It was a valuable history lesson. How many people heard the shot that started the revolution and understood its significance? The day the bastille fell, how many parisians were waking up with hangovers, or getting drunk, or making love, or going to work, or dying?
As we drove past the White House on the way back from the station I saw a line of policeman on the steps. On the bridge across the river motorcycle police were stopping pedestrians and checking their papers. I was distracted by Blodwyn's laughter. She had just asked her friend Katya to fry her hair after she had had a shower. I asked what was happening, and Victor said: We are staging a small political crisis so you won't be bored now you have returned to Moscow.
I tried to find out what was going on. Tanya's little radio struggled to receive the BBC world service. I learnt that a descendant of Robert the Bruce was organising a service out side Westminster abbey to exorcise an age old curse. There was a crisis of some sort in Israel and the British media were still discussing the fact that Keating had touched the Queen.
I tuned out and found Radio Australia. Sydney had gained the olympics for the year two thousand. Whacky do. There would be newspaper articles about the feeble state of sport in schools, there would be huge amounts of government money pumped into sport, and it would be a national disgrace requiring committees of inquiry and investigation if Australians didn't run faster, throw further and jump longer than the rest of the world. Of course, if we did swim faster and ride harder the press would be howling with nationalistic glee and schools would still be facing cuts in their funding and you'd still have to wait an age for an operation someone else decided wasn't important. Ho hum. There was also a political crisis in PNG. Of Moscow, not a word.
Next morning I finally succeeded in talking to my wife. She was obviously worried. She didn't know what was going on, but It, whatever It was, was bad. And did I know the Broncos had made it to the grand final having finished in fifth place, and no team had ever won from outside the top three? No I didn't, and I still didn't know what was going on in Moscow.
We finally discovered a version of what was happening by reading the free English language paper in Pizza Hut.
But there was no fighting then. The odd convoy of Black Limos raced along the streets, with noisy motorcycle escorts, and I thought I heard a few shots on the friday night. But we were too busy searching for that holy grail of a good cup of coffee to take much notice. We finally found one in the cafe on the ground floor of a large hotel. The service was friendly, the coffee excellent, and the cake cheap and fine. But the atmosphere was cramped and negative, a group of Armenian men, in tatty clothes but hideously expensive reeboks, and their overdressed women, reminded us of all the stories we had heard about organised crime in the city. So we left, to find a church Blodwyn wanted to see.
As a special favour the caretaker took us upstairs to see the iconstatis. The floor was genuine. original. 14th century. We were stopped and ordered to put on felt overboots. While we gazed, a wedding party arrived, which included a man with a video camera and a woman in an ill fitting green dress with a remarkable resemblance to miss piggy with anorexia.
No one stopped the wedding party and insisted they put on felt shoes. The caretaker wouldn't let them film the wedding couple on the steps of the alter, but Mr Fix-IT waved roubles in plenty around. The caretaker weakened visibly. As someone said about the trade in Icons, a customs official can earn more by not doing his job for ten seconds than he can by doing it for a month. They had their picture taken. The babushka in charge kept pushing us out of the way, muttering, ah the young. The bride looked bridal in white, the boys looked like the mafia brothers, and miss Pigglova Piggivich looked like she was hoping Kermitsky was about to put in an appearance. We left. Laughing.
The flat, no longer shabby, no longer uncomfortable; a new guitar, courtesy of Victor, filling the kitchen with its music. We had a huge celebratory party, and the Admiral and Blodwyn stayed the night. I kept thinking that the evening should be set to the music of Norwegian Wood, it had the right self mocking tone.
The flat, no longer shabby, no longer uncomfortable; a new guitar, courtesy
of Victor, filling the kitchen with its music. We had a huge
celebratory party, and the Admiral and Blodwyn stayed the night. I kept
thinking that the evening should be set to the music of Norwegian Wood,
it had the right self mocking tone. I lent Blodwyn my bed and crawled off
to sleep in the hall after making the Admiral a bed in the kitchen.
All through the journey we had been scaling new heights of the bizarre, but that breakfast set an altitude record. Blodwyn decided she wanted to make cafe au lait with UHT milk. I tried to explain to her that boiling it and beating it to death with a fork was not going to turn it into frothy cappuccino. But she wouldn't listen. All the way down the river we had heard stories of what a great cooker she was, and now she seemed determined to prove it. The Admiral and I watched her performance, and when she finally set the coffee down in front of him he asked; "Do I frame it or drink it."
What a man. What courage. How could I have ever thought he was droopy? While Blodwyn tried to deal with this blow to her culinary self esteem the Admiral and I got into a discussion about history. He believed that Russia needed a new Stalin. A strong man who would lead them. The past, for all its brutality and waste and stupidity, was preferable to the present with all its uncertainties. He believed that we cannot know the present until it had become the past and the documents relating to it studied.
He had an almost childish faith in documents and facts, which, for a man living in a country where rivers, mountains and cities were left off the maps because they were politically unacceptable, and history was rewritten with enthusiasm to suit the political climate, seemed a little too bizarre. I could understand how an old person, having survived the terror and the crippling mediocrity of life for forty or fifty years, could feel lost in a new world where there were an infinite number of directions but few signposts. I couldn't understand how an intelligent person could long for the blatantly cruel and inefficient stalinist times.
It really was time to go home.
In Moscow airport the customs official still seemed bored, and to enliven his afternoon insisted I put my kayak through the x ray machine. Victor and I tried to tell him it wouldn't fit, but he wouldn't believe me until I actually jammed the nose in the entrance. Poor Boat stuck, with his tail in the air like a bent banana. The roller whined sadly. The customs official waited for something to happen. Nothing did. He waved us through.
Good bye, remember to write, see you next time.
There is a plastic paddy pub in the departure lounge, you get Irish coffee and a certain smoky ambience for a dollar. Next time perhaps. Green signs and shamrocks. Oh Bogle, Eric, where were you when I needed you. I decided to buy something to read for the long ride home. Don Juan was finished and re-read. The bookshop had an understandable array of books about Russia and by Russians, and I dithered between Robert Byron's First Russia then Tibet and a set of Chekov's stories.
I should have gone for the Byron. Feeling a melancholy fit about to fall I made the mistake of buying a travel book about Australia written by an English journalist. The blurb promised me I would laugh at every page. I should have known better. Just over a year later, I was back in Moscow airport having traveled there by train from Beijing. The bookshop had gone, replaced by a shop selling CD's. I didn't make the plastic paddy pub either.
The expedition finally died in Tokyo airport, in the clean surroundings of the departure lounge, with piped musak and coffee I couldn't afford. For five weeks we had been filling the unforgiving minute, now I was killing time. I had ten hours between flights. Ten hours was a Chatkal day, two and a half times our stay in Samarkand. I estimated I had been gone from home for approximately 964 hours. Ten of those I spent in Tokyo airport watching the planes take off and land. I wish (I wish I wish) there was a way in which you could bank time; store the hours you didn't need, the empty dreary minutes, and be able to retrieve and use them when time was at a premium.
So I slept, and in the sick space between sleep and waking, in that awful haunt of the jet lagged and exhausted, I decided I had died and the planes were carrying dead souls to a variety of unpleasant destinations. The clear precision of the announcer's voice only emphasised the fact; All souls for the second circle, please board your flight located at gate C83; the old and crippled will be boarded first, please have your boarding pass, ticket and authenticated list of sins ready for inspection; have a sad eternity.
But the toilets betrayed the fact that this could not be hell. They sparkled with reflected light. The washbasins filled with hot water at the turn of a tap and the toilets flushed, noisily, enthusiastically. I visited them often, to marvel at their cleanliness. And the abundance of soft white toilet paper. I know hard core expedition boaters aren't supposed to worry about such things, but only someone who had been forced to choose between Byron's Don Juan and the Lonely Planet guide book to the USSR to solve the toilet paper shortage in Tashkent could appreciate this abundance of soft white tissue. (I couldn't do it to Byron, he'd been too good a travelling companion, though I suspect he would have laughed at the dilemma. Note: write to makers of guidebook and suggest they use softer paper in future.)
I hadn't eaten since the breakfast on the plane, so I watched a pair of lovers having a noodle fight with some reservations. A small English girl did endless repeats of the same card trick for her patient grandpa and no matter how many times I watched her I couldn't work out how she did it. A ragged looking Australian woman in tatty hippy gear smoked steadily and kept staring at me. If I smiled back I knew she'd call me deary and tell me her life story. I was homesick for Moscow, for the crylic alphabet and the crowded metro, only now realising how much I had enjoyed the company of our Russian friends. And I was homesick for home, and my family.
I heard the first English voices as I boarded the plane. Mr and Mrs Fat; he with glasses, a squashed red face and a belly contained under an untucked shirt; she in double knit suit, small and beaten, with a thin pointy nose and aggressive little eyes, and their children, son fat, with the same style glasses on his squashed red face which was stubbled with adolescent whiskers and pimples, his belly close to bursting out of his silk patterned shirt, and daughter fat, long lank blonde hair framing a pale dead face, also pimpled, thick thighs straining against the seams of her trouser suit, giving me the once over and turning up her spotty nose. They wobbled their way down the tunnel making loud stupid fat jokes about the Japanese flight attendant.
It seemed such a long time since I had sat on a plane, sipped red wine, and made jokes about expedition suffering.
Three elderly English people sat in the row in front of me, twitching and fretting and fussing the way the English do. Were they in the right seats/ Were they on the right plane/ Could they move out into the empty central isle later on. What happened if the food was only that Japanese sushi stuff? They seemed to take a perverse pleasure in anticipating every possible and impossible discomfort.
Thinking "I've been smuggled into Kirgizstan, busted in Samarkand, seen the sun rise and set in valleys where the rivers of heaven run," I watched them all with that smug, unjustifiable superiority which one suffers from when one thinks one has done something really hard and worthwhile and superior. The feeling didn't last. It never does. There's always someone who has gone further or faster or higher or harder, and after all, you're not the only one dancing with the bear.
The customs officials in both Cairns and Brisbane had obviously been on exchange to central asia; as helpful and friendly as our Provodnik going north they reminded me of the thug in uniform I had met in Samarkand. With malicious glee they strutted their stuff, and I watched and thought, welcome home.
In Brisbane airport the Baby Bears were waiting; loud, happy to see me, they fell over each other in their enthusiasm to help carry poor scratched Boat to the waiting car. The house was festooned with balloons and handwritten posters I couldn't read. At two in the morning I woke up and didn't know where I was...
I dreamt I had been appointed cook to Ghengis khan, I was chasing sheep with a meat cleaver, prior to preparing shashlik. I woke to the sounds of foot falls near the tent.
Today we split up. Jackie and Trevor leave with Andrei the climber for Rumski doodle, and we pack and leave for Tashkent. If all goes well tomorrow we'll be in Samarkand, and in eight days time I'll be home.
We didn't pack, we didn't leave, but it was a perfect day all the same.
Autumn had come to this beautiful part of the world. The sound I had heard in the morning was the ripe walnuts falling from the trees and rolling down the hill amongst the dead dry leaves that littered the hillside. I watched the sunlight slip down the mountain wall on the western bank, and then watched the shadows rise.
The climbing party left. We watched them struggle up the steep slope to the road. Then we read our books, swapped addresses, and slept in the sun. The walnut gatherers rained walnuts on the campsite. A man shook the trees and two women in trousers and over skirts collected them in the inevitable iron pails. They sat in the shade, watching us, laughing and blushing, and seemed to eat as many walnuts as they put in the buckets.
Towards evening we climbed the steep slopes of the river to the road and wandered into the village of Palvanak; Sasha was looking for milk. The same brown, blank buildings, cows ambling along the street; the smell of farms: children staring at us. A group of men sat at the bus stop and we stopped to shake hands and talk. They dispatched a youth on a push bike to lead us to a house near the shops and post office. We went past the school, to the village square. The setting is awesome. Everywhere you turn you see fractured mountain faces, rising abruptly.
We found the house we were looking for, entered a dim courtyard and emerged into a wild garden with water piped around it. The buildings made two sides of the square. A woman dressed in a purple headscarf with large dark eyes made us welcome and insisted we sit down at the table. She brought out a tray of sweets, then home made bread, pancakes, delicacies, and bowls of something I thought was Yoghurt but which Blodwyn was adamant wasn't. By this stage I was too sick to care.
As soon as a male arrived our soft eyed hostess (how's that for a nineteenth century description) retired. Mark had begun reading A Ride to Khiva which describes how much a tadjik bride cost in the nineteenth century. At the modern rate we figured one would cost us about 200,000 roubles. We had that much between us. Look what I brought Mum, better than any T shirt.
Men wandered in and out, shook our hands, sat down to drink tea with us. A little girl in red stockings and woollen beanie loitered by the steps; a snotty nosed boy played eyebrows with us round the corner of the door, and an indeterminate child with a face blotched with running sores eat a peach.
The hospitality daunted me. They came home from work, found strangers in their house, and stopped whatever they were doing and sat down to talk. The man who owned the house worked in the military police. He and Sasha were talking, as far as I could follow, about the war in Tadjikistan which had denied us access to the Zeravshan. Sasha wanted to know how a people so kind and hospitable could turn on each other. The man was convinced the war was being stirred up by agents of Saudi Arabia and America, creeping over the Afghan border.
They had no milk, but they filled our bags with bread and sent their women up one of the trees in the garden to get us apples, refusing any payment. Sasha disappeared with the owner of the house and reappeared with two pieces of cut timber. He seemed very happy. He makes brooches and pendants from wood.
We walked back. A beautiful quarter moon hung in a cloudless sky. I asked Sasha about the Space race. What Paul Theroux had once described as its `Looney Nationalism' had cost so much and seemed to promise so much, and had drivelled out into endless attempts to park highly sophisticated junk in orbit so we could watch 132 channels of shit on the tv and the American military could bomb targets no one could see. Sasha said the Russians had been proud to get the first man into orbit but disappointed that the Americans had been the first to put a man on the moon. He had not been surprised; the Americans had more money, more Germans, and better qualified people . . .
. . . The room asserted its familiarity. I could hear the distant sound of nocturnal surf. I wondered how my friends were. The news was full of pictures of armed Russians. There were tanks out side the White house, and prophecies of impending Civil war. I had no way of knowing if the climbing party had got back to Moscow, or if Blodwyn had managed to leave for home...
. . . That last day, after we had said goodbye to the Admiral, we had gone to the Lenin Hills, and found refuge from the bitter wind in a grey smoky cafe where pidgeons stuttered around the floor. Despite the bone aching cold a well dressed lady daintily eat a choc-ice with a plastic spoon. Two lined, hard looking women served us coffee in plastic cups. Three thuggish looking men with cropped hair and leather jackets smoked steadily at a corner table eating sausage and drinking vodka, joking loudly with the women. Blodwyn and Katya discussed lovers and love affairs and, inevitably, marriage. The cake we bought was dry and tasteless. The coffee was vile. Its only redeeming feature was that it was warm...
. . . Near where I live there are coffee shops that serve the most beautiful coffee, and cake shops that twist your mind into knots of indecision with their arrays of delicacies. There are shops you can wander in to where the cups are clean, the service fast and friendly, and the beer cold. But they have no value if there is no time for meetings in places like these, no time for the conversations that measure themselves out in the empty cups that stretch across the table. There should be time for evenings by the water, when the sun sets over the towers of Surfers Paradise and the place looks like a fully functioning star trek set. Time for family and friends and conversation, for music and dreams of other destinations. Not pinched time stolen or squashed between the demands of your working day. There should be space and time to allow us to be human.
If a thousand hours can be crammed with such discovery; why not a whole
life time? One year is roughly 7,410 hours. A lifetime, 65 years, is 481,
There should be time, too, for all the problems that await us, which we will endeavour to negotiate, like the rapids we have left behind, with humour and grace; there will be time to be gentle, time to face up to our fears. There must always be time for another dance with the bear.
And yet, There is only
(Traditional Inuit Poem. Translator unknown.)
End of Book
. . .
On behalf of the expedition members I would like to formally thank the following, in alphebetical order, for their support. The reasons for our gratitude are explained in the body of the text.
The Australian Geographic Society
We would also like to thank Brent Mccunn at Red Bear Travel in Melbourne for his assistance in getting us to Moscow.
I would like to steal this opporunity to thank the many people who made Dancing with the Bear such a success and who may not have figured prominently in the narrative. Firstly, my greatest debt is to Sasha Statiev, without whom I would never have thought of going to Moscow in the first place, and without whose good humour and patience the trip would never had happened. Without Victor Smegin, who organised everything from Moscow, we could not have reached our rivers. Tania and Larissa played mum for Mark and me in Moscow, and Sergie and Ulyia looked after us in St. Petersburg, and their hospitality and hard work remains one of the best memories of the expedition. I have recorded my debts to Olga in the body of the text but it is a gratitude that will not be worn thin through repitition. To all the nameless people whose hospitality we enjoyed in the mountains, on the trains and in the cities, who will never read this, my thanks.
My thanks to our Russian rafting friends, especially to the Admiral and Gena and Sasha, for all their tireless efforts on our behalf. The trip would have been so much less without Blodwyn that it is hard to imagine what it would have been like without her. Above all my personal thanks go to Mark Silburn, Jackie Kiewa, and Trevor Robertson, for proving me right in thinking they were the best people I could have chosen to go with, and to Mrs G and the Baby Bears, for still being there when I got back..
Wattery Ron (Watters) read an early version of this manuscript and his generous encouragement and advice will go some way to offset the memory of his Birmingham Chili. My appologies go to Peter Hart, because the Russian chapters began life as a letter which he still hasn't received.
Lastly I'd like to thank Ron for putting the thing on the Internet and to hope It goes someway to say thank you to the Outdoor Program at ISU for the great times I've had in Pocatello.
This Book is dedicated to the memory of Heather Leese.
End of Acknowledgments . . .
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