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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 6: A Gradual Love Affair

IN MOSCOW we learnt that the mind has a finite capacity for awe.  If the cathedrals were beautiful, and the exhibits in the armory exquisite, there was a limit to our admiration, and after two or three days of gawking at exhibits we reached that point.  There were times I felt sorry for Mark, and wondered if he had regretted his decision to spend this week in Moscow, but as long as we satisfied his addiction to coffee and his need to eat every couple of hours, he seemed happy to tag along, developing a fine cold as he sloshed through the numerous pools of water lying in the cracked and cratered pavements and roads. 

One day the curators of museums will recognise that putting five hundred masterpieces of the silver smith's craft in a series of cases does little but numb the minds of the average onlooker.  For this reason my memory of the Kremlin armory is a vague blur of table wear and  carriages and dresses and armor, and the only thing I remember in any detail is a dress with an incredibly narrow waist. I only remember this because we'd been identifying tourists by the size of their stomachs, and Olga had been talking about Russian men who don't like the thin image of western women, saying, "Are we dogs to gnaw bones?" 

We had anticipated huge queues in Moscow for food and other things. Amongst the statistics thrown at me by various helpful people before departure was the fact that the average Russian spends one third of their waking life in one queue or another.    Although the shops bustled, the queues were no worse than in the supermarkets back home.  The only big one I saw was outside the Pushkin Museum and the people there were waiting patiently to get into an exhibition of Matisse's paintings. 

We had time to kill before going to Victor's for dinner so we took Olga to Mcdonalds, as she had told us she was addicted to strawberry milkshakes.  I suppose within the world of politically conscious green vegetarian gourmets the health conscious and environmentally minded will scorn such thoughts, but the big McDonalds in Moscow is not the hideous place I had anticipated.  The outside is almost modest and the interior is almost muted.  No garish colour scheme inside or revolting building imposed on the older architecture of the area. The entrance is as crowded and as noisy as any McDonalds anywhere but the inside is imaginatively decorated with a variety of frescoes. 

Mcdonalds may represent the globalisation of the I want culture, it may be everything that is cheap and tacky, the ultimate in ephemeral dehumanisation of the individual,  but it is a godsend for travelers.  When you're sick and exhausted, or want a break from unfamiliar foods which have tied your stomach into knots, there is always the golden yellow M and the knowledge that the food will be predictable, bland and familiar.  Stranded in Paris, one hot bank holiday on the way back from the Alps, we wandered along the Champs Elysee with not enough money to buy anything, until we found Mcdonalds, and getting over the  shame of eating burgers in the gastronomic capital of the universe, were able to at least afford to eat. While Russians find McDonalds expensive, hence Olga's guilty enjoyment of her milkshake, to a westerner the prices are ridiculously cheap.

Leaving McDonalds we headed to Victor's flat.  The outside was shabby as the building we were staying in, but the inside was opulent. One wall was covered with a mural of mountain scenery. The furniture and wall hangings suggest a level of affluence we had not yet encountered in Moscow, as did the presence of a huge television and VCR. The flat had beautiful views of parkland and the river and the distant city.  Sailboards and sailing boats described lazy figures on the river in the evening breeze. 

We flipped a coin and I won the shower, the first hot water we'd enjoyed since our arrival; reappearing, clean and warm and sleepy, I had hardly sat down in the front room when Victor said: "What do you think of Lenin and Stalin."

Inconsequential small talk was obviously not going to be on the menu. I didn't know how to answer.  And Olga had flipped into translator mode and wasn't offering any suggestions. So I told them what I thought, and asked for his opinion.  Victor, I suspect, is like a lot of modern Russians, who have seen the possibilities inherent in the future.  And while an intellectual like Olga might express her fears by saying she doesn't  believe that Russia has a future, people like Victor are busy making it happen. 

He had been trained as a nuclear engineer, but was now working in a variety of jobs, one of which was his travel company. His wife, Natasha, was also an engineer, but was retraining as an accountant. For him Socialism was a dream, a beautiful dream, but an impractical one.  He wanted to be a capitalist.  He wanted to build a successful travel business, and I had the feeling that he had the drive and the ambition and whatever ruthless instincts are necessary to succeed. He was curious to hear our reaction to his city, to the people we had met, greedy for information about our own country and our lives.

When Mark emerged from the shower we sat down to a huge meal, with Vodka of course, although Victor was driving us home and would not drink with us.  The vegetables came from their Dacha outside of Moscow. 

Victor continued to pump us for information, and I think we began to sound very defensive.  The word Utopia means there is no such place, and there are snakes in any Eden, just as there are rainbows in any hell; living in Australia you have to deal with Australian problems, and if these sound relatively minor to a Russian struggling with the problems of life in Russia, then I felt like pointing out that to someone in Mogadishu, Moscow would seem like paradise. Our conversation began to sound like the famous Monty Python sketch in which a group of Old men sit around in a circle and reminisce about how hard their lives were: "You were lucky," one speaker begins, "I used to dream of living in a hole in the road..."

After dinner we moved to another room to see Victor's slides, and I suddenly realised we had come all this way to go kayaking. Apart from our fractured conversation with Victor at the beginning of the week I hadn't given it a thought since we had said goodbye to our boats at Moscow airport. We watched slides of landscapes unfamiliar in their beauty, and raging rivers familiar in their shape and difficulty. Olga later said, you do not look like sportsmen.  I know I said, neither Mark nor I are very athletic looking. No she said, you looked scared.

I was. I hadn't paddled for so long I was wondering if I could deal with rivers of this standard.

Victor had been rafting for nearly twenty years, and for nearly twenty years he had run at least one major wilderness river a year.  Rafting had been a popular sport in the Old Soviet Union, but had developed along distinctive lines to cope with two problems. The first was lack of transport.  To kayak you have to have access to a car, and roads to rivers. So the Russians had developed the Cataraft, a raft made of two inflatable sponsons with a rigid frame. The cataraft could be broken down into carryeable loads and transported on planes and trains across the vast landmass of the Soviet Union.  When the roads or rail lines stopped, the boats could simply be packed into the rivers. The frame could be left at home and one made from wood at the river bank.  Sasha had told me of one trip he had done where they had to walk for ten days before they had reached their river.  Hard men, these Russian boaters. 

Russian cataraft

The other problem the Russians faced was the unavailability of equipment. They had solved this by making their own, and the way in which they had obtained their materials was to manipulate the system. A rafter heard a local Army officer was willing to exchange some parachute silk for vodka. The rafter went and obtained the vodka, not because he wanted the parachute silk but because he knew someone who was willing to exchange some hypalon for the silk. With the hypalon he could build the floats for the cataraft. Paddles were improvised out of anything the paddler considered suitable; we saw at least one that looked as though it had been made from corrugated tin.  Buoyancy aids were made by putting children's balloons, one inside the other and inflating them, then putting them into canvas pockets.  The average Russian buoyancy aid provides up to 50kgs of buoyancy. The standard non Russian one provides 6. 

We left late, to the view of the city lights across the river and a fat northern moon slipping between the high rise buildings.

                                    *              *                *

We had one more day in Moscow before leaving for St. Petersberg, and Olga and I took the train and then the tram to visit the Andrei Rubalov museum.  This is a tribute to the greatest Icon painter in Russia, or so I'm told.  As we entered the museum we found two elderly ladies and a police man at each door.  Icons have become an item on the international market, and in one church we would see a blank space, left to remind visitors of the theft of the icon that had once hung there.   While we loitered through the hall ways, I heard the sounds of an English voice and drifted over.  A Russian guide was explaining the icons to two English speaking tourists, her descriptions translated by a rather stilted English speaker. Olga suggested I follow. The guide had an obvious passion for her subject which animated her whole being. She told stories, and even if I didn't speak enough Russian to follow, I knew they were good stories. It was like listening to someone singing in a foreign language, and the lilt and cadence of her words were enjoyable even if I didn't understand a thing she said.  Her translator on the other hand seemed mildly bored by the whole thing, and the effect was the same as listening to John Williams and an orchestra in full flight on the concierto de Aranjuez and then hearing someone trying to reproduce the performance on a cheap and tuneless banjo.

The Icons were beautiful; like so much of Russia alien in their unfamiliarity to eyes accustomed to three dimensional paintings.  The pictures of the Madonna being comforted by the child were strangely moving. We picked up Mark and tried to go for a boat ride on the river, saw some dreary modern art, and headed home.

The train stopped at Fili station, and after a while everybody got out.  We followed. The train doors closed, and the train left us all standing on the platform.  Soon another train arrived. We piled in, waited, and then everybody got out.  We did this several times until it got monotonous and we tried to think of plan B. Mark and I were never any good at plan B. We couldn't ask anyone where we were or what was happening.  Just as we were going to leave and attempt to find a taxi everybody piled into a train and it left, with us sprinting to catch it.  It got some way down the track and then stopped, while men in uniform walked up and down looking at what might have been an electrical cable that had fallen on the line. I do not know at what point patience becomes something else, resignation,  indifference perhaps, but it seemed to me the people on the train, and many of the Russians we had met, had crossed the line between them.

Victor drove us to Leningrad station. We were going to take the night train to Saint Petersburg, which would be our introduction to Russian train travel. All the way to heaven is heaven, I'd known that phrase of Catherine of Seinna's since Dixon had used it on the South Fork in 1986, but I didn't understand it until I was driving though Moscow, late one evening on the way to catch a train. We drove in silence, to the muted sound of the radio, along long empty roads, lit by pale street light, to the city centre.  I have always loved night driving; always loved the feeling of separation it creates from the world on the other side of the window, and I wanted to keep going, to drive through the night and not stop, never have to face up to a new set of circumstances that would have to be dealt with once we'd stopped.

But we did stop. The station was crowded, travelers sat on the floor with their luggage, or slept on benches, others shared food in small family groups. We loitered with Victor, and having made my first and last grammatically accurate Russian sentence in praise of Olga's English, we lapsed into an embarrassed silence that didn't end until Victor said goodbye and left us to our two berth compartment.

End of Chapter 6 . . .
To continue with the story: Chapter 7
To go to the previous chapter: Chapter 5
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     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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