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).
THE PART OF the expedition the public hears about, in newspaper report and magazine article, is a mere fraction of the whole. Much more time and effort goes into getting it together than is ever spent on the trip itself.
Exactly how I came to meet Sasha Statiev is one of those bizarre chains of coincidence that makes me feel justified in adopting a totally fatalistic attitude to life.
In a rare spasm of altruism I had helped to found a canoeing club. I have always been wary of these monsters. In my experience most clubs consist of little cliques who don't get on with the other little cliques. They spend most of their time having meetings about the colour of club jerseys or the provision of hot dogs for the next race rather than actually going paddling. Still, together with some other local paddlers we formed a canoeing club to "improve the recreational possibilities in the area". If this sounds pretentious, it wasn't, it was a well meaning move on the part of the other people involved. I should have known better. Soon I was involved, as secretary, in seemingly endless meetings about the colour of the club jersey and the design of the club's float in the local carnival and how we could make money at the come and try canoeing day on the local dam. If we went paddling as a club it was to the dam or to the local river, which is long and brown and flat.
As soon as the club was up and running I decided to resign. A couple of weeks before I did I received a small package addressed to the secretary of the Ipswich canoe club. It began:
One sixth of the world's land surface is yours to explore...
and went on to detail a variety of wild and remote rivers in the former Soviet Union which the writer claimed he could take me to.
For a cost.
I still find it difficult to believe how Sasha got my address. In Moscow or Berlin he had found a tourist brochure advertising Ipswich. (This is only funny if you know Ipswich). He had written to the tourist board requesting the names and addresses of any adventure groups who might be interested in rafting in the USSR. They had sent back the address of the canoe club, which was making a lot of noise at that period, and the Scouts. I've always wondered how the Scouts reacted. At the time I remember being curious rather than excited. I wrote back. Sasha replied and his letter mentioned a river called the Zeravshan, which sounded vaguely interesting, and then he dropped the magical name: Samarkand. Had he searched for bait to hook me with he could never have been so successful.
The name sums up all that is romantic about distance, an historically resonant symbol of the inaccessible. In the four hundred years leading to 1850 only two Europeans are reputed to have visited the city. If we all have our own Everests, then most travelers have their Samarkands, and we dream of reaching them, trading the present against our hopes of arrival.
Planning a trip is like being an adolescent in love; it's the idea and what it represents that is attractive, not the particulars. And Samarkand was everything you could hang your dreams on, like some distant beauty: familiar enough to be enticing but alien enough to remain remote. Trevor was quite happy to switch his plans from a New Guinea trip that was becoming increasingly ludicrous to an area of the world haunted by the ghosts of some of history's largest figures. Alexander, Marco Polo, Ghengis Khan, Timur-I-Leng, had all been there. And now we were going too.
If I had realised it would take me three years to get there, I might have hesitated. But I doubt it.
* * *
Getting a team together wasn't easy. It never is. I had learnt in the French Alps that building a team from the best paddlers available is not a good idea. It's more important to have a group of people who can live and travel together. I didn't want hairboaters out to make a reputation, or gun boaters who would risk their lives and everyone else's when sanity said walk this rapid. I wanted a group of people who would be flexible enough to deal with what promised to be a wonderfully bizarre experience.
So I sent out the invitations. For a variety of reasons I wanted a mixed Australian and American team. Trevor Jackie and Mark would provide the Australian contingent because, on instinct, I trusted them.
My first meeting with Trevor and Jackie was a little daunting. After a humorous phone conversation about the possibility of going to PNG they turned up at my house. They brought their stack of videos with them and we sat in my front room and watched Trevor hurl himself over a variety of awesome looking waterfalls. I really didn't know how I was supposed to react to all this. There seemed to be a radical dichotomy; the mild mannered man in rather respectable doctor type clothes and the yahoo lurching over the lip of huge New Zealand waterfalls. Since then I have come to realise that most of us suffer from a similar kind of professionally induced schizophrenia and Trevor's is only a little more obvious than that of ninety nine percent of the population. The mild mannered doctor, treating his patients with care and concern above and beyond the call of medicare, becomes Waterfall Man at the weekend, boldly falling where no one has dropped before.
Jackie Kiewa is a rare article in Queensland: a female paddling regularly at grade three and above. Unlike America or Britain, where you can meet many female paddlers, there are very few in our corner of Australia. The fact that she is also a fine rock climber has proved invaluable on some of Trevor's more entertaining portage lines.
I met Mark Silburn on the way to the Nymboida river. Actually I was crammed up against him in the back seat of Trevor's car. I remember thinking he didn't look like a kayaker, and then thinking I didn't know what a kayaker looked like. He is one of the best paddlers I have seen, despite an apparent lack of formal technique, with a fine eye for the line down a river. This is offset by a rather casual attitude to being thrashed in huge stoppers which sometimes makes me feel a little nervous. There are very few people I would care to follow down a rapid sight unseen who I would also feel comfortable sharing tents and rooms with in some out of the way part of the world, but he is one of them.
While I wrote to Sasha and he wrote back, with a patience and humour that was both reassuring and attractive, I went looking for sponsors to offset the cost of the expedition.
Most people who are interested in expeditions have heard stories about Fred Fandoogleberry who raised ten thousand dollars in a week so he could climb Rumdoodle 2 and we all assume that if Fred can do it so can we. While planning to go to New Guinea I had gone looking for sponsorship with the conviction that some one, somewhere, wanted to sponsor a group of kayakers to go to a place everyone said was not a good place to go to, to run rivers that were described as murderous on their good days. With the aid of a new word processor (no paddler should be without one) I had kept Australia Post in business for a couple of years.
Any potential sponsor has every right to ask what you can deliver in return for their money, and what I could offer, at that stage, wasn't much. Besides, going after sponsorship is a delicate ethical business. I was always aware that there are so many worthier causes than a reckless desire to go and paddle in the wilderness. I live in a crazy place, where the ambulance service has to hold a raffle to put defribulators in every vehicle but where the state Government is prepared to underwrite the staggering losses of the Gold Coast Indy car race. It makes looking for sponsorship a dubious exercise.
Most of the big companies I contacted did reply, most of them politely, one or two in such a way that disappointment was offset by amusement. A company which had been using white water rafting in their publicity told me that they could see some connection between what I was planning and their advertising but they had already put together an advert using a kayak. When I later saw this piece of foolishness I didn't know whether to be disgusted or amused. They had preferred to put a dummy in a kayak and then fake it shooting a small drop into a pond to using real dummies, like Trevor, hurling themselves over twenty metre waterfalls.
I have been told on numerous occasions during my life that I am unrealistic, but one thing I did learn during the New Guinea experience was that realism is a very relative term. The advertiser preferred a ludicrous dummy that turned the whole advert into a joke. When the Courier Mail wanted to put the grandly labeled Central Highlands Kayak Expedition on the front cover they wanted an action picture, so they faked white water on the Bremer river (which is flat and brown and poisonous) by having a hoon in a jet ski whiz up and down in front of me. See how close you can get to him, urged the reporter, and I sat there helplessly, as the hoon roared closer and closer, with a glory look in his eyes. When I discussed filming the New Guinea trip with one man he said: Of course, you'll have to have birds of Paradise. There aren't any where you're going, so we'll film them at Taronga park zoo in Sydney and cut them in after we've finished in PNG.
Attempts to find sponsors for the Russian trip were equally hopeless.
This time I got a response to my request for assistance from the Queensland
Canoe Federation but they said they couldn't see how there could be any
benefit to them in our trip and wished us luck. The company who used
the kayak and the dummy were equally polite but non committal. I suspect
that telling them their advert was a national joke didn't help my case.
* * *
In my naivety I had seriously underestimated the amount of work involved in putting such a trip together. The Americans finally had to opt out because they couldn't get leave at that time of year. Sasha wrote to say that sadly he was emigrating to Canada and had to go before we left for Uzbekistan. The film crew I had been chasing turned out, for reasons I never discovered, to be incapable of delivering the goods.
And perhaps it is this that makes so many fine expeditions die stillborn. The newspapers and those who aren't involved will ask you why you want to go. They don't know that the why of it is irrelevant. The answers are usually too vague, too personal, and usually essentially too selfish to be enlightening. Even if you could articulate them they wouldn't understand. There is a fundamental gulf between those who do and those who don't which no amount of good will can bridge in the clipped banalities of a newspaper interview or polite coffee cup conversations. It is the same gulf which exists between the adolescent in the throes of their first serious infatuation and all the worldly wise adults who are telling them it's just a phase they're going through and they'll get over it and all the other earnest and boring sayings adults use at this time which are meaningless to those involved.
What matters in terms of expeditions is not why you want to do it, but how much you want to do it. When the people you talk to tell you you're crazy, that you're going to die, that they're disgusted that you intend to leave your wife and children, that they had a friend who did something like this who wished they hadn't; when the letters you write aren't returned and the ones that are are impersonal form letters where they, that faceless, infuriating, insulting, blank unanswerable "THEY" haven't even bothered to chose between the sir/madam on the letter; when it means staying up when you're exhausted to write one more letter on the off chance the recipient might have that piece of information you want or might be talked into giving you that small advantage you're looking for; when the film crew turns out to have been a waste of time; when your partners seem to do nothing but stall and prevaricate; when you realise life would be so much easier if you just opened another stubbie and flopped down in front of the television and watched the football...you have to ask yourself do you want to go badly enough to keep beating your head against this brick wall entirely of your own making and choosing, until you break your head or the wall caves in? Why you want to go is really irrelevant. How badly do you want to go is the crucial question. I found a slogan on one of those inspirational business tapes that seem to be so ubiquitous: "If you meet an apparently insurmountable obstacle, the obstacle must give way: FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION" I made it into a poster and stuck it to my wall.
Desperate to get fit, as all the films I'd ever seen showed that real expedition paddlers were super fit athletic types, I even went to the local gym. I suffered the free fitness test, and the lady who did it added up her figures, (Hers was fat free) consulted her charts, and told me that I was only just below the average fitness mark. I had eight months before I was going to leave. Ho Hum.
I started to learn Russian, by correspondence. This is almost as ludicrous as it sounds. I knew that having survived the medieval welsh of Dayfd ap Gwyllum's poetry I could do it. But the course didn't seem designed to make learning this tortuous language any easier.
There is a bizarre comic poetry to most foreign language text books which suggests their authors posses a wicked sense of humour cleverly hidden under a concern for grammatical form. Why else would they have their students recite: "It is not my mother who sings; It is your mother" if not for their own perverted amusement?
When I was at school learning French, in lust with my French teacher, the class would stare, glassy eyed, at the pictures on the screen and chant: in French, "Here is Jean Luc, Jean Luc is in the bathroom, he is taking a shower. Oh says he, the water is hot." I didn't give a damn about Jean Luc in the shower. The French teacher in the shower was a different matter. I wanted to be able to say: "You have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. Let's find somewhere private to discuss my infatuation."
Had I been taught French like that I would have been a far more diligent student.
My Russian would have improved rapidly if I could have learnt essential phrases like: "Help I'm Drowning" or "Swim you silly bugger, swim". Instead I found myself repeating, ad nauseam, "it is not my mother who is singing, it is your mother who is singing" which I knew would be useful in the villages of Central Asia. Unfortunately no one has ever written a Russian Language course for Byron reading folk song singing kayak paddling English teaching medievalists and until that day prospective linguists will have to battle with useful phrases like: "My brother's teacher is an Engineer. He sings well."
Trevor, to his credit, signed on the dotted line and went to night classes
at the University.
* * *
After two years of letter writing we moved towards setting a date. Suddenly time was in short supply. The gym went first. Then the Russian study. It was more important to check up on visas and tickets and keep hassling the film crew, continue sending letters out and spend ages on the phone than to tell the world that my brother has a teacher who sings beautifully. Listening to one of my sons reading I realised that I wasn't even at grade one standard in Russian. Given the time I had left before we flew out I wasn't even going to be Kindergarten standard. To confirm my suspicions, when Trevor tried out some of his Russian on me I couldn't understand a word he said, and realising that he was the one attending night classes with an instructor and I wasn't, I gave it away.
Finding Brent Maccun at Red Bear Travel was a mixed blessing. Finding any one who didn't say "You're barmy" was a relief, and finding someone with a knowledge of Russia who specialised in organising travel within the country was a bonus. But Brent had his own Russians who wanted our business and so every time I talked to him we seemed to be at cross purposes. He probably thought I was an idiot and I grew increasingly frustrated with the seeming impossibility of having a straightforward conversation with him without having to defend my decision to stick with Sasha and his crew. It would have been so much easier to let him arrange the whole thing but it was an irrational decision, based on a sense of loyalty that had no realistic basis except for the fact that I had actually met Sasha Statiev and I knew that I could trust him.
There were times it all seemed ridiculous and I had trouble believing we were going. My paddling was hitting rock bottom in more ways than one. I was planning to go all the way to Russia to paddle a grade five river when I was walking grade three rapids in Australia. There was an attempted coup in Moscow, then a civil war in Tadjikistan closed down the Zeravshan. Jackie wanted to go in June, to Siberia, but I was dreaming about Samarkand and held on, even when it looked as though I might have to go on my own. I was so determined by this point that I seriously asked Sasha if they'd take me if I turned up on my own.
Sasha suggested that with the Zeravshan closed to us because of the civil war we should go to the Chatkal and Pskem rivers. He sent me a copy of an article by Earnest Seeman who had rafted the Chatkal with him. This described the river in glowing terms but detailed his problems with "Vodka soaked-Horse riding shepherds," who had stolen some of their equipment. The Chatkal sounded beautiful but the Pskem, "deeper, faster, more powerful" sounded daunting. Mark kept pointing out that if we described the rivers we usually run according to the Russian system of counting rapids over grade three they too would sound horrendous. Jackie, however, was worried. She was to remain worried until we reached the river.
There were also times, naturally, when I felt like giving up. Only a
natural bloody mindedness kept me going, that and a determination that
having failed twice I wasn't going to fail again. Failure was not an option.
I was going to Samarkand.
* * *
Things only started to fall into place as departure day approached.
JAL, apparently impressed by an article I'd written about a descent of
the Herbert river, offered to sponsor us by giving us a fifty kilo
baggage allowance, and in so doing saved us approximately three thousand
dollars each. Quality Kayaks in New Zealand, impressed by a copy of our
video of the Herbert offered to do a deal on La Luge Kayaks, which Trevor
and Jackie jumped at. I had been warned that dealing with the Russian embassy
would be like "trying to make love to an elephant." Never having had the
opportunity to pork a pachyderm I approached the task with a certain amount
of curiosity. The people at the Russian Embassy were polite and helpful,
and despite all the rumours we had heard to the contrary, swift and efficient.
After the surf Trevor sat in my room pumping Mark full of a variety of inoculations, and I fielded final questions about the trip. Even at that late stage the plans seemed more optimistic speculation than credible timetable. The journey divided itself into three phases. Phase one was getting to Moscow, Phase two getting to the rivers, and Phase three was paddling them.
It never occurred to us that we had left out phase four; getting home.
The journey there was going to be harder than the rivers themselves. Going to Central Asia was not going to be like hopping into the car and driving to Northern New South Wales or flying to New Zealand or Nepal or North America where they're set up for people like us. Where we were going they may not have seen Kayaks before. That was part of the attraction, a shot at making a little bit of kayaking history.
I knew JAL could get us and our boats to Moscow. After that, everything was nebulous. We had been told to avoid the internal planes, as they were reputed to be unreliable and dangerous, so we had opted for a three day train journey the guide book said was closed to foreigners.
I had been working on the assumption that our boats would travel with us on the train, and Sasha had told me that in the absence of a baggage car we would have to buy a sleeping compartment for them. The idea of putting my boat to bed and reading it a bed time story was appealing, but now Brent's Russians were adamant that the boats would never fit in the sleeping compartment. This left us with no guarantee that we could get our boats from Moscow to the rivers.
From Dzhambul, if we got there, there were three hundred miles of bad road to the river. We would paddle the Chatkal, 110 kilometres with 51 rapids graded three and above, vodka soaked horse riding shepherds permitting, then the Pskem, with its three kilometre portage, then we would split up. Trevor and Jackie were to go mountaineering while Mark and I moved on to Samarkand. After that we would take the train back to Moscow.
For three years I had been moving at an infuriatingly slow speed towards the expedition, but now the pace began to pick up and time seemed to compress and then disappear. At work things were becoming unbelievably hectic, and though I thought I had it under control I was too worried about finishing everything before I left to concentrate on the trip. With the visas in our hands and our tickets in my top drawer, there was little else I could do. People who knew I was going kept asking me if I was excited or scared, but I was too busy worrying about grade twelve marking to think about grade four rapids. There was a time when I was sitting facing a pile of papers that refused to get any smaller when I realised with frightening clarity that the trip was impossible. Gibbering thumb sucking imbeciles aren't allowed to leave the country.
I wasn't too tired to be amused by the variety of reactions to the trip. Most people assumed I was going to compete in something because they are programmed to see sport as competitive and competition as something very healthy and wholesome. At first I'd patiently try to explain that I wasn't going to race anyone, but after a few unsuccessful attempts I gave up. Had I been doing something socially useful; like ploughing up and down a chemicaly infested swimming pool in the hopes they'd raise the flag and play the national anthem at the end; or if I'd been contributing to the progress of civilisation as we know it by running around a field after a ball, everything would, apparently, make sense.
If I wasn't trying to win a medal or a ribbon, if I wasn't in a Team Representing My Country, perhaps I was going to make money out of this. That too would make it respectable. And if I wasn't going to do that, perhaps it was really very dangerous and I was either very brave or very stupid. You could see the banner headlines forming behind their eyes: Australian Kayakers drown on Killer Central Asian rapids.
There were times I felt like wearing a placard:
No, I'm not competing.
There was a television documentary about Soviet Nuclear testing in Kazakstan and one of my colleagues, concerned for my safety, walked into my classroom in the middle of my lesson to tell me about it. My dad rang one morning to tell me that there was an epidemic of diphtheria, malaria and cholera in Moscow. One of my students asked me if I was scared of getting shot. It seemed an ironic question when almost every night on the news there was a report of yet another senseless killing in Queensland. The world seemed dark and cramped and bitter that August. There was little laughter, just rage and anger and an overwhelming helplessness. Two men broke into a house, tied and gagged a 17 year old boy, stabbed him 44 times and slashed his throat. I had nightmares about his eyes.
One of my students looked at me quizzically and asked, but Mr Guilar, don't you have to be fit for this kind of thing. I would carry that like a mantra through Central Asia, and every portage; every time I had to lift one of those huge Russian rucksacks or haul my boat up and down a mountain side, her words would echo in my head and I would evoke the bemused look on her face.
A growing understanding of the scale of what I was going to be attempting gradually began to seep through in the oddest of ways. The week before I left I snuck out with Gordon Hemphrey for a surf while Bronwen was in hospital recovering from the birth of their baby. As I tied my boat back on the roof rack I turned to him and said: "The next time this boat is on the water it'll be in Kirgizstan." That night, walking home from the local shops, I suddenly realised the implications of what I was doing. Someone finally tore back the curtain and said look! And there it was, a vision stretching away composed of images of the Kremlin, the Aurora on the Neva and stark mountains and white rivers leading to the blue domes of Samarkand.
I had a sudden feeling of vertigo. Like a diver realising the true height of his proposed dive the true enormity of my own ambitions became apparent. And I shook all the way home.
As it was I didn't think about packing until the Thursday, and finally
left it to the Friday night. I wasn't ready. Mentally, physically or emotionally.
But you are never ready for something like this. You just have to take
a deep breath and step off the edge of your own tidy world.
End of Chapter
2 . . .
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