Friday, 13 July 2012

The river Don
I soon realised however, that in order to get my passport with its visa registered with the local powers-that-be, a procedure binding on all visitors to Russia, i’d need to have a domicile of some kind. With this in mind, around lunchtime i checked into the august Hotel Rostov; expensive by Russian standards but, again, appreciably less than one would pay in the west. The staff knew the drill about registering my passport, and i enquired about getting my sleeping bag repaired; it had started leaking feathers, rather like a chicken coop that has been infiltrated by a fox. Led into the basement, the lady in charge of laundry said she’d fix it free of charge, as a contribution to the pilgrimage! In nice weather my next priority was to visit a church, but the one i found looked closed, so i bought a map of southern Russia and perused it in a cafe. I then visited the office of a local newspaper, on the off-chance that i could interest them in my trip and introduce them to Mary’s Meals. The editor was very friendly, and over the course of a 20 minute conversation we established that i was not a Mormon, but as far as i know an article never appeared. They told me however that the church i’d visited (another one dedicated to the Nativity of Our Lady) was actually open, so i went back to find that a service with excellent singing, as one expects in Russia, was in progress. After praying for the intercession of St Nicholas, returning to the hotel i bought a box of chocolates for the lady repairing my sleeping bag, and also made her a card with a nice picture of Our Lady.
   The previous autumn, on a boat at Avonmouth dock near Bristol, while volunteering for a charity called ‘Stella Maris’, it happens i’d been able to help a seafarer from Rostov-on-Don to call home. He then gave me his number and told me to use it, if i ever found myself in town. Since my hotel room had a connection to the local telephone exchange, i thought i’d better try and make contact. It turned out he was away at sea, and i spoke only to his mother, but even so it was a nice conversation, in which she told me how pleased she was that her boys were working, and i talked a bit about my meeting with her son in England.
   After a very comfortable night and breakfast i headed east in grey but dry weather, crossing a bridge over the Don, then using a narrow ledge along the highway to a satellite town called Bataisk, whose ‘welcome’ sign featured a commendably unpretentious slogan: “Together we will make Bataisk better.” I had a nice coffee in an Armenian-run cafe, after which the weather picked up. Then in late afternoon, reaching the last outposts of human habitation, a truck pulled over and a young man offered me a lift. Sometimes of course i refused such overtures, but i only had a total of 20 days on my visa. From the point of view of reaching the Pacific, that’s barely enough time to get across Russia in a passenger aircraft; but even Kazakhstan, i realised, is one heck of a long way away. So i got in, and was taken a considerable distance into Russia’s fabled steppes; vast verdant expanses, some cultivated, and demarcated in this region with long straight borders of deciduous trees and thickets (a landscape in fact broadly similar to that of eastern Ukraine). My driver, in his thirties, was writing an account of the time of his life, to pass on to his children, not least because the official historical record has changed no less than three times since he was at school; the sort of thing which makes many ordinary Russians distrustful of their politicians. In early evening he dropped me at a junction with a petrol station and diner where i had another coffee. From there i walked south along the side of a flat, fairly straight road for a couple of hours, before opting to bed down in an empty drainage channel.
   Sleep that night was patchy, but Thursday the 12th of May, dedicated to SS. Achilleus, Nereus and Pancras, started brightly, amid a profusion of flowers and birdsong. Over some tasty pancakes with my drink at the next cafe, the TV news carried a story about a curious footballing contest from the previous evening, in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, about 300 miles to the south east. Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Fabien Barthez, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman were among the stars of yesteryear in a World XI which lost 5-2 to a team made up largely of members of Grozny’s local administration. Mysteriously, the old pros raced to a 2-0 lead, including a free-kick by Maradona, but faded thereafter, reports suggesting that they competed less than fiercely whenever Ramzan Kadyrov, the 34 year-old president of the Chechen Republic, got the ball.
   At about midday i reached a village called Rassypnoye, and was ‘all ears’ when told by the shopkeeper, that in that locale i should beware wolves, which have a reputation for attacking and even killing people. In other words, overnight i could conceivably have been discovered and set upon by a pack of these proverbially ravenous beasts. I hadn’t especially kept the dazer to hand, because it didn’t strike me as wolf habitat - i would have thought they needed more cover, but apparently they make do with the narrow corridors of trees and undergrowth, delimiting the steppes. In the worst case scenario i could have vanished from the face of the earth, my remains, if there were any, lying undiscovered for months or years, or even forever. 

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