Friday, 13 July 2012

   On the far side of Rassypnoye, crossing a small river over which terns sailed gracefully to and fro, i accepted an offer of a lift from three young guys, returning from a fishing trip. The driver had hunted wolves, and reiterated the threat they pose, saying there were “a lot” of them about, as we motored along a track which became increasingly muddy and un-navigable. On three separate occasions in fact, in an extraordinary procedure, the two passengers got out, changed into their fishing waders, and pushed the car through extended stretches of virtual swamp – the only way to get a vehicle without caterpillar tracks through that mire. I didn’t feel bad about this, until they let on that they were taking me along that road specially! They dropped me with only a short distance to Krasnaya Polyana where, cutting rather an odd figure with my poncho in the drizzly rain, a policeman stopped me and summoned me back to the nearby station. Here i was asked to sit in the back of a nice dry car where i was soon joined by a colleague of his, in plain clothes. We had a pleasant conversation, in which i gathered that the danger from wolves had receded in this neighbourhood, but he asked if i knew about ticks, the bloodthirsty little arachnids which transmit sometimes life-threatening maladies. Of the non-lethal, but nonetheless debilitating types of infection, perhaps the best known is Lyme disease. More dangerous is a virus called Crimean–Congo hemorrhagic fever.[1] Another delightful example is tularemia, caused by a bacterium highly prized in the field of biological warfare. I confessed i hadn’t given them any thought, and privately assumed they’d be quite infrequent, as they are in Britain, but it was just as well to be on my guard. He took me to Krasnaya Polyana’s cafe, where i enjoyed a brew while he tried pulling some strings to find me a place to stay, but this turned out to be impossible. He did however drive me a few kilometres to the start of a cross-country track, a short cut to the main road east. Contending with very wet and muddy shoes, when i came within sight of the road i decided to reconnoitre a little abandoned outhouse, and set about blocking up the door and windows; “I’ll huff, and i’ll puff, and i’ll blow your house down” was the refrain which came to mind. Very useful for this purpose was a decrepit old bed; the woolly filling of its worn-out mattress was also good for drying out my boots and getting a decent night’s sleep. I only hope that a brood of swallows in the rafters was not unduly flustered by my intrusion.
   There was more rain on the morning of Friday 13th May, dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima, so when a fellow in a minibus pulled over and asked if i’d like a lift, i said ‘Yes please’. We drove for half an hour or so to a town called Gorodovikovsk, inside an enclave of the Republic (within Russia) of Kalmykia, where i was amazed to see a majority of Chinese-looking locals. Picking up passengers of both ‘Caucasoid’ and ‘Mongoloid’ ethnicities we headed south to the Stavropol Region,[2] no one minding, when the driver asked them, the idea of my getting a free ride. On the journey discussion ranged from the pilgrimage, to soviet schooling, and the relative abilities of Russian footballers in the English Premier League. More important though was the fact that Russia had just defeated arch-foes Canada in the Ice Hockey World Championship quarter-final in Slovakia, recovering from 1:0 down to emerge 2:1 winners. I was dropped near a diner on the eastern edge of Ipatovo, and gave the driver a little card with a photograph of Our Lady of Fatima, and my email address.
   Further on i saw for the first time a large grey raptor, probably a Pallid harrier or close relative, known locally as a ‘steppe eagle’. After not-a-very-long walk, just as a raincloud approached in the early evening i made the acquaintance of a farmer by the side of the road. With the onset of a thunder storm he bade me go to his house for a cup of coffee, which was great, and i chatted to his wife while he carried on tending his cattle in the rain. Then i was all set to be off again, but he phoned home to say that friends had been invited over for drinks, so i had to stay for the evening and overnight! With another couple, neighbours of theirs, we enjoyed some nice food and had a very Russian, most enjoyable vodka-fuelled soiree, conversation largely revolving around my photos from the walk. I got up very early (as did everyone else in the house), watched an interesting documentary about the Arctic, and a soviet-era ice hockey cartoon over breakfast, then set off again, leaving the Russian book of prayers to Our Lady which i’d been given in Ukraine, and promising to send a postcard.

[1] Under normal rules of scientific nomenclature, this one should have been called ‘Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever’, but superpower politics played a part in the 1973 decision to adopt the ‘Crimean-Congo’ arrangement.
[2] Birthplace of Solzhenitsyn, as well as two General Secretaries of the communist party of the soviet union: Yuri Andropov (1982-84) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91).

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