Friday, 13 July 2012

St Francis of Assisi Church, Kellerovka
   The change to my train ticket also afforded me more time to make a pilgrimage to Ozjornoje. I took a coach that evening back to Akkol, where i’d been over a fortnight previously. In drizzly rain, making my way from the highway into town, a friendly young Tatar chap stopped his car and persuaded me to get in. At first he was going to take me to a hotel, but then he invited me to come back and stay at his family home, suggesting only that i might help him buy some groceries. I was happy with this arrangement, so we went to a shop, then came back to his little bungalow, where i met his wife (who was Russian Orthodox) and their two children, 3 and 4 years old. It was a very nice evening with good food, in which my photos made another appearance. Then at about midnight he went to his work as a security guard, and i settled down for an excellent repose in my sleeping bag on their sofa. On the morning of the 22nd of June, dedicated to SS John Fisher and Thomas More, he returned, and after breakfast insisted on driving me to the station and seeing me onto a train. At a shop there i bought a little puzzle for his children, and wonderfully was able to buy a key ring with a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe for his wife! Also, while we waited for the train, i joined in an exchange he was having with a taxi driver friend of his, who turned out to have been an eyewitness, as a soviet soldier, to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

   On the train, a mother and daughter sitting opposite told me that the name of my host in Akkol, ‘Beibut’, means ‘peace’ in Tatar. They also introduced me to Kurt; little balls of dried, salted cottage cheese, and on the same journey i spoke to a couple of migrant workers from Mongolia. Alighting at Kokshetau, after a visit to an internet place i was determined to try to cover some ground on foot, and made it as far as a petrol station, where in familiar fashion i learnt that i still had further to go than i’d realised. While there i got into conversation with a middle-aged chap who asked if i had a place to sleep; when i said ‘no’ he invited me to stay in his little metal hut in a nearby field. Over a glass or three of vodka i had a very nice evening there, discussing the pilgrimage and some religious questions before getting a sound sleep on the floor.
Kittens in the presbytery, Kellerovka
   Rising at 7am on Thursday 23rd June, St Etheldreda’s day, having given my host some ‘pryaniki’ biscuits and promised to write, i struck north again, contending with very thick mud along the edge of the road to reach a village where i hoped to buy provisions. An elderly lady of whom i asked directions told me the shop wouldn’t be open for an hour, but suggested i come back to her house for a hot drink. There i met her housebound husband, and had a nice chat over tea, to which was soon added a nourishing bowl of porridge. One thing that struck me though, was that although the walls were thick, the house was quite dilapidated; i wondered how well it could really keep out the ferocious cold of winter in that region, where temperatures can plunge as low as -40 degrees Celsius. When my hostess said she thought i was brave to be walking, i replied that she was brave for enduring winter conditions that we simply cannot imagine. “Ah yes,” she said, “but that’s only three months(!)” Promising to pray for them in Ozjornoje, on the way out of the village i had a shorter conversation with a lady who insisted on paying for my bread and drinking water, to which she threw in a block of exceedingly tasty cheese, containing walnuts, and a big bag of sweets. The weather was then bright and sunny as i made my way to a petrol station where the nice people wouldn’t let me pay for my coffee, another reminder of the compensations of walking. The road along there was being widened, and among snatches of conversation with workmen i learned that gold is mined in that neck of the woods[1]. In the afternoon, knowing that my goal was still a long way off, i accepted a lift from a young man in his giant dumper truck, who told me that work goes on normally, even when it’s -20 degrees or less. Then i hitch-hiked again, grateful to get a lift of 40 or so kilometres from a Muslim native of Ingushetia, in Russia’s Caucasus region; we discussed relations between Christianity and Islam as well as politics. He took me to a town called Kellerovka, where i stopped in to a motel-cafe, with the pertinent name ‘Eurasia’. After some refreshment there, the owner came outside to show me the way to the Catholic church, then wound up arranging for me to get a lift with friends of his, a young couple with a little boy on the back seat. It was quite late, about 9.30pm, so when no one answered the presbytery doorbell i was resigned to surveying the parish grounds for a suitable berth where i could spend the night. Before doing that though, i was on the point of copying out a Russian language prayer to Blessed John Paul II when the priest, another Pole, arrived, accompanied by one of the seminarians whom i had met in Astana some weeks before. So in the end i came into the presbytery, had a nice cup of tea and conversation in Russian with the priest, and then a great sleep on the sofa. There was a good shower in the morning to boot, and i took photos of two minute kittens. I also visited the church, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, in which a statue of the Virgin Mary is the only remnant of a Catholic church that served Kellerovka in the first years of the 20th century, before suppression by the bolsheviks. My host wouldn’t accept the gift i had for him, a Swiss roll, but i stuck two pictures in his visitors’ book, one of the stained glass image of St Adalbert of Prague in the Polish church in Bristol, another of Blessed John Henry Newman. I also promised to write, before setting out in bright sunshine to cover the 30 kilometres of barren steppes to Ozjornoje.

Road through the steppes to Church of Our Lady, Queen of Peace, Ozjornoje
   It seems that one of the drivers who offered to give me a lift may have tipped off the parish priest in Ozjornoje that i was coming, because there was a beautiful welcome and delicious supper when i arrived, at about 8pm, having had a bit of a soaking from rain in the last half hour or so. It was 24th June, the birthday of St John the Baptist; exactly one year since my arrival in Jerusalem on the previous pilgrimage. Fr Lucian (another Pole) told me that the Armenian Catholic church where i had prayed in front of the Blessed Sacrament on that day, Our Lady of the Spasm on the Via Dolorosa, is one of just five which have been proposed (one for each of the continents of the earth), as sites of Perpetual Adoration and prayer for the intentions of Our Lady Queen of Peace. Ozjornoje is another. After dropping my stuff in splendid new pilgrim accommodation i was taken on a memorable excursion in the parish van, in driving rain, to the lake.

[1] Kazakhstan’s relative prosperity derives from her endowment with tremendous mineral resources, not least oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea region, second only to Russia among countries of the former USSR.

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