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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.
Dedicated to the memory of Heather Leese.

Text and photographs © 1999 by Liam Guilar and are 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 Liam Guilar at dbk@ausinfo.com.au.

Introduction to Dancing With the Bear

Capital Letter IN 1993 THREE Australians and one Englishman took their kayaks to two rivers in what used to be called Soviet Central Asia. As far as we can ascertain, it was the first time kayaks had been taken into Uzbekistan and Kirgizstan, and probably the first time kayaks had been taken down the Chatkal and Pskem rivers.*

First descents are really only worth claiming if they make the sponsors sit up and take notice.  As there were no sponsors involved and as the Russians have been hurling themselves down these rivers in a bizzare variety of home made craft, the above claim should be treated with the disrespect it deserves. 

What we did do was travel in Russia and the Central Asian republics at a time when the dust caused by the breakup of the USSR had still not settled and the Central Asian republics were struggling to find their feet. Unlike the journeys described in most travel books about Russia, we did not travel as guests of the state, chaperoned by nervous officials, nor did we travel as individuals only able to make random contact with passing strangers.  We travelled with a group of Russian rafters whose attitude to the rules is best described as indifferent. In Moscow and St.Petersberg, living as guests of these hospitable people, we were able to see some of the reality of life in modern Russia. To get from Moscow to our rivers we took a three day train journey my guidebook said was closed to foreigners, and which a more up to date one describes as dirty and unsafe.  Travelling on the fringes of legality in Central Asia- we were "smuggled" across the Kirgiz border, and fell foul of the police in the ancient city of Samarkand- we were able to see a way of life in the hills that was untouched by the tourist trade. We returned to Moscow in the middle of a political dispute which ended when Russian tanks shelled the White house. 

This book is the story of that journey, and the things we did and saw. 

It is worth stating right from the start that there are two ways of looking at what we did. 

The first is to see it as an achievement: a footnote to a rather small page of history, but a foot note nonetheless. There aren't many rivers in the world worth kayaking that haven't been kayaked, and most of the world's wild places have not only been visited but developed to cater for people like us who like throwing ourselves down rivers in small pieces of plastic.  We ran two very difficult rivers, without any incident, and established good relationships with a group of people who up until ten years ago were seen as a Threat To Civilisation As We Knew It. Travelling unofficially, and sometimes illegally, we were able to see a way of life that has vanished from the "western world" before the developers get in and turn the rivers into places for western rafting yahoos. 

The other way of looking at it is to see it as an expensive, slightly unusual holiday which provided us with the opportunity to escape all the worries that usually beset us and, for five weeks, allowed us to do not only what we enjoy but what we are good at doing.  The opportunity for such a combination is rare. There was no great purpose to our journey other than our own gratification, and if we had never gone, the world would not be a poorer place. 

You may choose which version you prefer. 

If you want an objective report of an expedition, this isn't it. The objective report is filed with the Royal Geographical Society in London. This story is subjective and personal.  I am not an expert on Russian Politics and it is over ten years since I studied Russian History. I am slightly embarrassed by the fact that I had never read a poem by Pushkin or finished a novel by Doestoevsky. I have not even attempted to amass a wealth of fascinating information about the lives of the villagers we met. I have no bibliography and have avoided footnotes except to record the source of a quotation or an alternative reading. I was only in the country for five and a half weeks, and although we crammed enough living into that to pack a book, it does not make me an expert in anything, except perhaps in filling the unforgiving minute. 

Having nailed the colours to the mast, so we can't be accused of flying under a false flag, we should raise the anchor, hoist the mainsail, sing yet another hearty chorus of the Drunken Sailor, and leave the safety of port.  And I promise to avoid such longwinded metaphors in future. 

What I did learn in the C.I.S. was that the Chatkal and Pskem, for all their idiosyncratic beauty, are merely parts of the one River: begun when a scared fat boy blobbed down the river Wye in a bath tub of a boat. A series of opportunities, taken or rejected over a span of twenty years, meant that my arrival on the banks of the Sandalash river with three Queenslanders, five Russians and a Blonde German Aerobics Instructor, was not only not unusual, but somehow appropriate, even inevitable. 

End of the Introduction . . .
To continue with the story: Chapter 1
Information on team members
Information on the author
Author's acknowledgments
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     * As far as we can ascertain. It is always possible that someone slipped down the river before we did. [Return to text


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