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CHAPTER 8
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).

Chapter 8: Trains and Buses

"IT IS ONE O'CLOCK in the morning of the 30th. And the carnival is over. Trevor and Jackie have arrived and it feels crowded now and our holiday is finished and we need to concentrate on the serious business of a kayaking trip. Re-adjust. Re-align.

We went to the Arbat, in search of coffee. The Hari Krishna were parading. At the head of the column, the true devotees, in orange robes, with shaved heads, with drum and microphone, shuffled up and down the pedestrian area between the buildings. Behind them those in a mixture of robes and western dress, and then those with neither shaved head nor orange robes. Then the women. 

We headed in the rain to Olga's half renovated flat and waited, writing postcards and waiting, and finally they arrived, clomping up the stairs in plastic mountaineering boots, loud and exhausted and the whole paradigm shifts. So it is one O'clock, and I have spoken to my wife who sounded small and hoarse, and I have a letter from her about the boys, and I wish I was home now playing with them.

Enough of this. You chose to be here.
 

30th August. 1993:

"Moscow, in the rain, singing the Carnival is over. In my room are two piles of paddling gear ready to be packed. I feel as though someone has pulled an obscure plug and I don't know if it's exhaustion or T and J's arrival. We make our maps and then find they are inadequate.  The great metro stations are not only a monument to Soviet engineering but an exhibition of struggle. The brave strong workers overthrew the capitalist menace; now the communists are the menace  and I suspect that Russians, with their long tradition of totalitarianism, will adopt a pure form of Capitalism including the brutal myth that since all have equal opportunity to succeed those who don't are responsible for their own failure. Gloomy thoughts. There are those who read 1984 not as a warning but as a text book."
 

Midday:

We are sitting in a steamy bus outside a metro station and have been doing so for nearly half an hour. I suspect we don't move until the bus is full. The guide looks like an ex boxer and is enthusiastically trying to entice more people into the bus. This morning's torrential rain is easing. In the subway a man collapsed. No one helped him. Drunk, dying, for the crowds an entertaining little break in the morning's monotony. 
 

12.45: 

We are parked outside a monstrous puddle near the Kremlin wall. The bus has negotiated the narrow back streets to show us banks and the Lubyanka, and now we're sitting outside the Kremlin and the guide is talking non stop.  Even Olga has given up trying to translate. Jackie is asleep and Trevor and Mark are reading.  It is pointless, a waste of time and we are only doing it to avoid the rain. I'm glad we walked into Red Square. Saint Basils looks drab from the steamy window of the bus.  Other colours are very strong. Dirty brown puddles, deep deep green grass, the gold of the church domes and the deep red of the Kremlin brick.

 I wish this man would shut up. I didn't bring Byron with me."
 

 He didn't. He kept talking. Our only programmed stop was in a cemetery. The rain had stopped, the sun was out, and I didn't want to get back in the bus.

After lunch in a subterranean Armenian restaurant Mark and I returned home to wait for Victor, who was going to take us and our gear back to Olga and then to the station for the ten o'clock train to Dzhambul.

We were about to step off the edge of the world. When Tanya came to say goodbye and wish us luck all the excitement I had anticipated on leaving Australia rose up and hit me. I felt like a soldier off to a war; perhaps the presence of the military and so many ex-army trucks on the roads encouraged the metaphor; perhaps it was the sudden shift of context from gob smacked tourist to kayaker. As we drove to Olga's, Moscow put on a show. Wrapped in soft orange light the city and the river looked genuinely, coyly, beautiful.  The summer would be done when we returned.

Victor crammed our gear and the other three into his car and set off, arranging to meet Olga and me at the station. We took the metro. Her parents had lived in a communal flat where there were 11 people and two children. Some of the old people were bordering on the insane, some were sick, tempers flared, silence was unknown.  She had lived there until six years ago. 

I asked her how she managed to be married in these conditions, but it seemed she and her husband had not lived together, they just met from time to time, and decided to have a child. Now the husband lives with another woman who "Is very beautiful and they are very happy and very much in love." He pays Olga three hundred roubles (about thirty cents) a month in maintenance. (Ten eggs cost roughly two hundred, a Mars bar nine hundred roubles)

Outside the station a long line of silent people faced the entrance. Each held something; a sausage, a cooked chicken, some tins of fish. They said nothing, they just stood there.  We had seen numerous people selling things this way in the subways, simply standing stock still, holding out the item for sale. In the subway leading to the Arbat the people were selling pets. Only the eyes move, following each passer by, without registering any emotion. 

The station was crowded but this time there was a huge pile of gear in one corner. I guessed it was ours because Jackie was sleeping on it. There seemed to be people everywhere with some sort of connection to our journey, and we were introduced to an alarming number of them whose names and reasons for being there I promptly forgot.  Our passports reappeared and Mark was reassured that he could get back in time to take off on a guided tour of soil erosion sites.  An impromptu discussion of Dostoevski's characterisation seemed out of place so we settled into waiting mode. We were baggage again.

Andrei the climber put in an appearance. We had met him in Olga's flat where he had discussed climbing plans with Trevor and Jackie.  He was going to meet us in Bishmulla with their climbing gear, and then they were off to climb a mountain that sounded suspiciously like Rumski Doodle. He was reputed to be able to speak English but I couldn't understand a word he said. He didn't seem to understand Trevor's Russian. I hoped that on the mountain communication would be possible through hand signals.

"Liam?" he handed me something wrapped in a series of bags. "River guitar." I lost the rest, something about Sergei in St. Petersberg.  While marvelling at this little piece of thoughtfulness, we were finally introduced to the TEAM. A droopy looking bear of man with a sad face and down turned gaze beneath an American baseball cap was introduced as Volodya. He crushed my hand.  I recognised  Gena as the stranger who had raided our fridge a few days earlier. We had been staying in his flat.  He seemed hooked to some invisible source of electricity. He hopped around, went away and came back again, smiled nervously, was never still.  Third was another Sasha. He was small, wiry, greying, with austere blue eyes. To distinguish him from Sasha Statiev, we christened him Sasha Sputnik as he had worked on the space program.

And last to arrive, a pair of girls in jeans. The blonde one introduced herself as Christianne. "You must look after me. I am the translator." She said goodbye to her friend who seemed to act as though she never expected to see Chris alive again.

The reason for the huge number of camp followers became apparent when the time came to take the gear and put it on the train.  We hurried along the platform over burdened with bags, apologising to anyone who got in our way and was trampled in the rush.  As we reached our carriage door an argument broke out. An angry woman was standing in the entrance waving her arms and shaking her head.

"She is saying we have too much gear". Victor disappeared inside the carriage. It was, I thought, no contest. The woman didn't have a chance. Victor reappeared and we were on. All we had to do was solve the simple problem of fitting all our bags into two compartments and leaving room for the eight of us. 

Goodbye goodluck, no band, no streamers, and the windows were locked. No dangling out and waving to the receding figures whose names I never learnt. Olga had brought the guitar to the carriage and left. 

The Russians produced food and vodka, and we settled into the rhythm of discovery. Sasha talked at length, emphatically, eager to share his knowledge of the rivers with us. After three glasses of vodka his voice began to blend with the sound of the wheels and bed beckoned.

When I was a child the train journey from Coventry to London, all ninety something miles of it, was an epic adventure. "Look," my parents would say, "Cows!"  My sister and I would rush to press our noses against the glass and stare in awe at the animals in the fields. "Look, Sheep!" and we would rush to the other window and stare at the sheep.  The beauty of train journeys is that they deny you any responsibility for your own progress. You can be a child again, with your nose pressed to the window.

Insulated from the need to deal with people we couldn't communicate with, looked after by enthusiastic companions who felt their role in life was to keep us comfortable and fed and out of mischief, there was nothing to do but settle back, relax and enjoy the experience. I had Byron's Don Juan, a guitar of sorts, and three of the most voracious readers I have met as travelling companions. (We may not have been the best kayakers who ever left Australia, we were certainly the best read.)
 

Day One:

The samovar at the end of the carriage provided an endless supply of hot water for tea and coffee.  The Provodnik, a small man who rarely smiled, had his cabin there and shared it with a variety of other people who may have been friends relatives or groupies. Provodniks are, as most people who have been to Russia seem to agree, a force all of their own. Your provodnik is the little God of the carriage to who it has not occurred that you are the paying customer and he is but a servant. The windows stay shut or open depending on his or her whim. The toilets are clean or foul depending on his attitude to work. 

On our return journey our Providnik was a Joe Stalin look alike who had obviously studied in the Ghengiz Khan memorial charm school. He was a hard working man who kept his carriage scrupilously clean, but we fell foul of him when the Admiral began to open a large cardboard box that was taking up vital melon storage space. Seizing his property the Provodnik stormed off. He had his first go at us when we asked if we could borrow his small hand held vacuum cleaner to clean the carpet in our compartment. "My friends," he bellowed, standing at the door and obviously enjoying the attention he was attracting,"My friends, you are pigs, you live like pigs." Later, as the Admiral and Chris stood in the corridor, enjoying the beauty of the sunset and the spectacle of the train flowing round a long gradual curve in the line, he abused them roundly for being up when he wanted to go to bed. His final dig at us was by far the best; we had returned the bedding and hand towels as we approached Moscow station, and he came striding back to stand in the compartment's door: five foot nothing of affronted dignity: "My Friends, I gave you this towel to wipe your hands and faces on, not your bottoms." 

Our Provodnik going south did very little to keep the carriage clean, apart from walking along the corridor sprinkling water on the carpet to lay the dust. He was absolutely dead set against opening the windows, despite the heat. The only place you could grab air was in the space between carriages. But since this was also the only place smoking was allowed the air wasn't fresh. There was a notice there proclaiming that fighting was forbidden. Our Provodnik also commandeered the toilet at his end of the carriage for his personal use. There was much debate about the legality of this. Most of us were adopting a policy of avoiding the toilet and so didn't really care. Chris decided she would ignore him and use it. He spent the time on his knees peering through the grill at her. She discovered this when she tripped over him on her way out.

I had been wondering about food on the train. There was a restaurant car but it consisted of a lot of empty bottles and a grotesquely fat man who seemed to have melted into a shapeless heap and was either very drunk or very tired, because on the two or three occasions we passed through the diner he was either falling asleep, waking up or snoring. On the way north the train had a cook, but his meals were as devesating as the Mongol army on the war path and the smell was seen to clear corridors. 

As the train pulled into each scheduled stop people flocked on to the platform. Amidst the usual meetings and farewells, a market would spring up. On the first station we stopped at they were selling mainly fruit, and while Trevor filmed, Gena and Sasha haggled over a bucket full of plums and apples.  A Woman walked up and down the platform holding aloft roasted chickens, another pushed an old pram selling potato pancakes wrapped in cloth; a man had bread and beer for sale, someone else wandered down the corridor selling home made vodka. 

A line of small trees, a snowbreak of sorts,  shadowed the line and occasionally broke to reveal the flat landscape stretching away to the horizon. It was so dully similar that little things made a huge difference and I took to keeping note of them. A few hayricks, some small houses; a young man waiting by a lamppost; a motor bike and sidecar disappearing into the distance, two men in a field standing by a horse, and the little houses turned their backs on us and the pallid Russian skies went on forever.

Exciting view from the window

We crossed the Volga. It was a huge expanse of water, and we trailed it for a while before turning to cross it. Down this river the Vikings came, and then the Russians in their push to the south. This was the home of Stenza Razin, whose song we heard for the second time, this time getting Chris to tell us the story. It seems Stinky Rodney was a bandit hero, sailing down the volga with his mates, and the local Lord gave him a princess.  When the time came to leave, Stinky was caught in the traveller's traditional dilemma. Leave her, chorused his friends, return to the river and the journey. The woman fluttered her eyelashes (the precursor of facial twitching, now sadly relegated to cartoons) stay with me she pleaded. Stinky dumped her in the river and went on his way.

We applauded his decision.

The river banks are cluttered with the functional litter of a people who work their river. Off in the distance there were many small boats dotting the surface, presumably fishing, and close in, on the shore line by the oil slick, there were wooden launches and rowing boats and cabin boats tied to rotting jetties. Larger boats waited by silent cranes, and a line of barges disappeared northwards. 

At the Samovar end of the carriage there was a family with a small blonde daughter. She had just started to learn English, but all we could get out of her was one giggling hello and then she retreated to blushes and silence. Her mother was the first person to offer us a place to stay in Dzhambul if we needed somewhere.

Another man was travelling home to Japan after spending three years wandering round the world. He listed the places he had visited, and when I asked him how many languages he spoke he said:"English, Japanese, some French." He didn't need languages to travel, and waved his hands around to show how he communicated. At the other end of the carriage was a fat man who spent his time staring out the window dressed in his pyjamas, and in another compartment there was a hard looking woman who Mark claimed looked as though she was naked despite her clothes. The Provodnik may have agreed, because he actually smiled at her, and once let her use his private toilet. (Whether or not he got down on the floor to peer up at her through the grill I don't know.)

We were also trying to work out our Russian companions. It would have been easy to label them as inscrutable. I made the mistake of asking Sasha, through Chris, to identify something I saw out the window. Twenty minutes later he was still explaining, Chris had given up translating, and I'd forgotten what it was I'd asked about. Gena smiled a lot, seemed to have the food organised and spent most of the first day sewing a harness for what we would later identify as our food barrel. We also learnt, to my surprise, that Volodya was to be the Admiral, the man in charge. He seemed too droopy for the job. Sasha was the obvious leader, although we later learnt he was an unknown quality as far as the others were concerned. Someone pointed out that of the three Russians in the train Vlod was the only one who spoke English.   He seemed reluctant to use Chris as a translator. We learnt how good his English was when Trevor decided to film "convivial scenes" in the carriage. He set up an interview in which Mark was to ask a series of simple questions. The conversation went like this:

"So, Vlod, Tell me, What are the rivers like in the Caucuses?"

"EH?"

The Admiral smiled and leant closer, pointing his ear at Mark's mouth. Chewing his thumb he repeated the word Caucuses over and over to himself.

"Ah." He blushed, and shook his head."No, I think Gena is a better cook than I am." Later, when I showed the video Trevor had made to Christainne and Sasha, I learnt how confusing the conversation actually was.  While Vlod was confusing cooking and caucuses, Trevor was helpfully repeating what he thought was the Russian for mountains.  What he was actually saying was "hero, heroes." 

Trevor spent much of that first day trying to get together a glossary of river terms that might be useful for us in the future. Russian is, in many ways,  such a precise language that confusion was inevitable even if Trevor and Vlod could understand each other. On the other hand Russian is also infuriatingly vague. As far as we could make out the verb to paddle a raft and to swim the river were the same. After a morning of riverspeak Vlod became convinced that scouting a rapid was called "Prevention." It became a standing joke, river running's answer to safe sex;"We paddle to the gorge, then we get out. Prevention first, then we swim the rapid." 
 

Day Two:

September the First

We have crossed into Kazakstan, though I don't  know when. It is early morning and the sun is bright and the landscape dreary; a hot yellowed grass land reaching to a horizon devoid of trees or any other distinguishing feature. Drop a human being down in it and you'd lose them, geographically in an absence of landmarks, spiritually in the vastness of the place. This is nomad country, where the horse and the camel rule; Genghiz Khan country metaphorically if not literally.  It's the kind of place that makes you realise how ridiculous is the idea of owning land. Last night we stopped, or appeared to stop, for a long time, with harsh voices seeming to argue over loudspeakers. I was expecting some uniformed Customs official to slide the door open and turf us out but nothing happened.

The train lurched and twitched like a plane without the drone, and the piped music was mournful and minor and a suitable accompaniment to the landscape. After a while the eye grows weary of bleached flat stillness and looks for movement. A road parallels the line and two or three trucks move along the horizon. A crow sits on a fence post, cawing silently; a man on a wooden cart is pulled by a tottering pony across the world framed by the window. It's like an art gallery where one picture shivers into another; now framing two shepherds lying in the sun while their dogs watch the ragged sheep, now framing a small town with the international dilapidation of the rural poor; the squalid looking buildings, half finished or half started, reminding me of rural France and the back lanes of Brittany. 

We stopped again, and piling out amongst people selling bread and sausage and cooked chicken, felt the first thrill of the market. We were in Asia now, and the sunlight had changed, the black earth was brown and the people were beginning to look different.

There is no poetry in poverty. Small stone buildings; broken, their windows removed, their rooves gone, and old wooden structures, low and squat, with hay drying in the rooves. Grazing horses and a man riding a camel.

"Camel?" said Trev. "Where, let me film it." And after that it became a game; "camels!" we'd shout and Trevor would leave his attempts to teach Volodya English river terms and learn the Russian ones and rush for the video or someone else would grab a still camera and the Russians would smile tolerantly and go back to playing dominoes, which they did with the seriousness of domino players the world over.

The trees had been replaced with telegraph poles, their bases splinted, pacing the train as they ticked off the distance and proclaimed the presence of other roads across the steppe. When the telegraph lines converge, you find a town, and the town is a strange collection of the dirty and commonplace.  A group of men work to build a house; some boys loiter on motorbikes, chatting up the girl under the trees, a smaller girl struggles with the weight of a water bucket and a woman, thin and brown and dirty, her bright dress covered in red dust, stares blankly at the train.

The evening was lovely; the colours rich and soft as the sun set uninterrupted by clouds.  What seemed flat and dead by day took on the tones and hues of the setting sun which cast shadows to soften the landscape. A line of camels lolloped along, in a landscape still changing, becoming increasingly arid.
We were standing at the window, staring. Desert ships, said a small smiling lady, then corrected herself. Ships of the desert. She explained that she had been listening to me singing and figured we were English. She had been teaching English in Chimkent for nearly twenty years, but had never met a native speaker. The simple accident of our presence on the train meant that all her Christmases had come at once. Her English was very good, but what she wanted to do was sing the English songs she knew with native English speakers. So we did, and she didn't just smile, she beamed at us, and gave us her address, and told us that we were welcome to stay with her in Chimkent if we couldn't find a place in Dzhambul.
 

Day three:

Lost between clock time and river time we were discovering train time. It is curiously divorced of external references.  There was time to crawl out of bed, time to eat breakfast which the Russians prepared so methdodically, time to drink tea; the time when the queue for the toilet was non-existant; the time when everyone seemed to congregate in the corridors.  And in the spaces in between measured out by the wheels and the shifting, meaningless view from the window, lost time, when we all but ceased to exist.

On this, the last day, the view from the window changed three times; it began as arid desert, became green fields, and then turned mountainous.

At first the landscape remained monotonously flat, punctured occasionally by a small village, announced by the obvious convergence of roads and telephone lines.  Out side each settlement there was a small collection of well constructed brick buildings which Sasha identified as the town cemetery.  Apparently the people lived in poverty and spent eternity in rather grandiose mausoleums. It was at this point that we discovered an embarrassing ignorance of Islam.  Christianne, who was studying Russian and Theology, thought she had heard something about a seventh Heaven in which men lived surrounded by beautiful celestial virgins, but that was the limits of our knowledge. 

It seemed strange that between us we could have given a good account of Christianity in its many doctrinal and historical mutations, Judaism, Bhudism, Zen Bhudism and Taoism, I could even add Shamanism, and various hypothetical interpretations of European witch cults while Jackie could have probably thrown in the mythologies of Greece and Rome, and at a pinch we could have included the mythologies of Egypt and Central America, but of Islam, one of the most powerful forces in the latter twentieth century, and, if the papers are to be believed,  after the decline of Communism as a state driven institution, potentially the most potent political driving force on the planet, we knew nothing apart from some highly publicised features which we in the west deemed barbaric.

I have often wondered since if my disappointment in Samarkand was partly due to my failure to understand the forces that had built the place.

I returned to my bunk and stared at the ceiling.  Playing the guitar, reading Byron, or staring were ways of giving time some kind of meaningful shape. The idea of an afterlife, the idea of dying even,  was far more attractive if it opened up the possibility of meeting the people one admires.  The Celestial virgins I could do without, thank you very much, they sounded like trouble. Heaven had to be an endless river, preferably continuous grade fours, where the sunrise and sunsets were stupendous against vast mountain backdrops of which one would never tire, and idyllic campsites free from sandflies, with access to all the books I hadn't got round to reading, where language was no barrier, where the bread was always fresh and didn't come sliced in plastic bags and the wine red and tasting of the blood of the earth. The conversations and the music would be endlessly varied, provocative and entertaining.

I would like to talk with the man who first mouthed the lines of Beowulf, or wrote down the Epic of Gilgamesh.  I would like to listen to the teller of the Tain, and meet the mind that shaped the Mabingion, discuss the truth of early English history with Vortigern and Hengist, and spend some time with Edwin. Talk with Sterne, Stevenson, Peter Fleming and Rider Haggard, Bruce Chatwin, Marco Polo, "Sir John Mandeville". Share a meal with Mary Kingsley. 

But I fear the people I would most like to meet would have failed the entrance exam. I can't imagine eternity without Byron or Burton, and both those sinners would have failed according to conventional criteria. I guess Malory and the first Plantagenets might not have got there either.  Wouldn't it be awful to be too good to go wherever they were, not because you were virtuous but because you never had the courage to do the things that might have earned your own damnation. 

Maybe God has more humour and a better taste in poetry than her followers, and like Ghengiz Khan (now wouldn't that be a meeting) a greater tolerance of divergent opinions about how one should lead one's life. 

I had a ludicrous vision of wandering round heaven asking "anyone here seen Arthur".

"Arthur who?" says a man who looks painfully like John Cleese.

"King Arthur, the famous knight of the round table."

"There's an Arthur King over there." says Michael Palin, resting between journeys  round the globe. "Oi Arthur, did you have a night on a round table...." 

I was drawn back to reality by the conversation in the bunks below. Someone was reading bits of the Snow Leopard, and an argument was in progress about the value of "philosophy".  It seemed to me that the ability of the individual to perceive reality is of crucial importance to anyone who wanted to write a book about their travels.

The view out of the window, as it framed each little tableau and passed on, denying the coherence of context, inviting speculation without ever offering the possibility of investigation, was the perfect metaphor for what we were doing; seeing without understanding, and not ever seeing clearly through the thick glass of a dirty window.

Filters.  Later, drunk, I told Andrei that when I was young I wanted to change the world, when I grew older I wanted to understand it, and now all I want to do is describe it.  But before you do that you have to understand what removes you from the real object and shapes the object you perceive.

If I was going to write about this experience, if I was going to have the arrogance to change a private record into a public utterance, I would have to foreground me, so the reader knew where they were.

Such speculation passes the time. We passed the ruin of a fort which Sasha said was thirteenth Century. Its walls were crumbling into jagged pieces, leaving the suggestion of a tower, the outline of the base, and the train moved on. Hard to believe anyone would have fought over this land, but to our left or right, somewhere, was the Oxus of History, and we were moving into Great Game country that had been fought over since Alexander at least. Silk roads, Mongols, Samarkand. 

No one had ever danced with the Mongol bear. As one contemporary writer put it, "They came, they uprooted, they burned, they slew, they despoiled, they departed."    (Quoted by Blount in The Golden Road to Samarkand. A different translation is given by Chatwin in Songlines. The latter also gives a different version of the story of Stinky Rodney in an essay in What am I Doing Here.) Only those who had run and run quickly had ever got away. The rest had been hacked to death. 

Even those  who had laid down and played dead had discovered that the armies had never been bored by the work of slaughter. When the city of Merv surrendered each mongol in the army is thought to have been responsible for the execution of 300-400 citizens. The death toll is estimated at half a million people. And this is in the days of the sword and the lance and the bow.

We are victims of a series of accidents, says a character in The Sirens of Titan. And it seems true of nations as well as individuals. The Mongol armies had been poised to smash their way across the rest of North Western Europe. Think of how different France or Germany would be today if they had developed under Mongol rule. The only thing that stopped that from happening was not the mounted chivalry of Europe, which had been smashed in Austria and Hungary, but by the simple accident of a quarrel over the succession to the Khanate. 

And thinking of accidents one thirteenth century English chronicler claimed that King John, during his altercation with the Papacy, sent a delegation to the Emir of Cadiz and offered to convert England to the Islamic faith if he would accept John as his vassal. Imagine, an Islamic England in the thirteenth century.  We are victims of a series of accidents, but in hindsight our past connects together like the stations on the railway line, and we think the line we have travelled is the only one that exists. 

Did my presence on the train depend on a decision I'd taken one Thursday afternoon in Birmingham? Or could I have arrived at that point on the line through a different series of accidents. And if not, then how far back did you have to go to find the first accident that led me to that point? If my Aunt hadn't met Colleen and she hadn't taken me camping would I still have gone canoeing, or if my Grandmother hadn't gone for a walk in Hyde park on the day the war ended in 1918 would she have met my grandfather somewhere else?  How far back down the line do you have to go?  After three days in the train such speculation provides an endless rubric's cube which if not actually entertaining passes the time.

At the stations the air was thin and hot and we sniffed at the coming excitement of Asian markets. The buying became aggressive. If you didn't know what the people were saying it sounded like they were squaring up to fight rather than trade. Sellers dragged their melons in old tin bathtubs on the chassis of an old pram. We bought beer and hot potato samosas from men with squinting weather beaten faces under small turkish caps, and women with bright floral headscarves framing flat and wrinkled faces. After stopping at one station where there was a train laden with dust covered tanks I found a very precise slit in one of my pockets. Someone had taken a razor to it.

"They can't recognise Kayakers here," said Mark.

"What."

"Well who in their right mind would think a dag like you would have anything in his pockets worth stealing."

We rose into mountains; green mountains speckled with snow, not beautiful but abrupt, and we began the long business of getting our gear out of the compartments and into the corridor. The military metaphor returned; second world war parachutists ready to jump, waiting patiently beside lines of gear. But the journey was all but over. Phase one and two had gone well. Now, if our boats were waiting for us at the station, phase three would begin in Dzhambul. We would finally be in familiar territory and be no longer baggage. After all, we reasoned, no matter how ridiculous, a car shuttle is a car shuttle is a car shuttle.

We were wrong.
 

End of Chapter 8 . . .
To continue with the story: Chapter 9
To go to the previous chapter: Chapter 7
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Copyright Information
     The book Dancing With the Bear is copyrighted (© 1999 by Liam Guilar) and has been used by permission. Links to these pages are welcome, but if you wish to reprint or reproduce significant portions of it, you should first obtain permission from the author Liam Guilar at: dbk@ausinfo.com.au. [Return to top of this page]
 
 
 

 

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