Siberian towns offer a glimpse into the past

Posted June 12, 2009, at 9:12 p.m.

Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

The Russian Federal Highway is the only road which crosses the entire country. Entering Siberia, you reach a point where the pavement suddenly stops. In its place, a dirt road dissipates into remote wilderness occasionally interspersed with small towns. Five hundred miles later, the pothole-riddled path kisses asphalt once again and leads to the small city of Chita.

Before leaving the U.S, my friend Ellery and I put a great deal of planning into surviving this section of off road. We carry a lightweight water filter, wind-proof lighter, and antibiotics in case of a medical emergency. As I push my bicycle off the asphalt, I feel as if we are embarking on an entirely new trip.

Seconds after we enter the dirt road a trucker pulls over to ask us where we are from. When we say we’re American, he excitedly runs back to his truck and returns with a digital camera.

“Can I take a picture of you?” he asks smiling.

The query is not abnormal. Each day, hordes of Russians stop their cars to take pictures of us as if we were animals in a zoo. This pattern amazes me; it is astounding just how many people around the world now possess the technology to take digital photos.

“Be careful on this road,” the trucker cautions us before leaving. “There are no police out here, no laws, and a lot of drunks,” he says, flicking his index finger against his neck in that odd Russian custom which signifies drunkenness.

Like hearing a distant cry in the night, his admonitions later evoke a sense of vulnerability within me; sometimes over an hour passes before we see a car. We are more or less alone out here.

This section of the Federal Highway is nearly brand new. For decades, the Trans-Siberian railroad was the only link between Moscow and the Pacific Coast. Steep mountains arching out of northern China made this road’s construction a lengthy and difficult process which was not begun until after the fall of the Soviet Union. We are some of the first people ever to cross this road on a bicycle.

In 1989, three Americans and four Russians were granted permission to ride bicycles across the Soviet Union. When these brave adventurers reached the same point that we have, they spent weeks slowly pushing their bikes along wilderness trails, railroad tracks, and baloto, the large sections of swamp which invade Russian to-pography. One of the Americans, a man named Mark Jenkins, wrote a book about their adventure entitled “Off the Map.”

The Siberia which Jenkins describes in his book was pastoral in nature, the author recalling afternoons spent with old women milking cows and accepting gifts, like a sack of potatoes, from humble villagers. Twenty years later, we find that many of the rural Russian villages in this part of the country have changed little. Entering them to buy food, we observe bands of cows and goats meandering along dusty streets past families who inhabit modest log cabins and are often found outside tending their gardens or chopping firewood for the coming winter.

Cycling into isolated Siberian towns on the off road often feels like peeking through a window into the past — the simple way of life here makes it seem like a whole century has been washed away. As we enter the small town of Magadachee one evening, the subsistence farmers toiling in their gardens appear like a daguerreotype magically come to life, animated and painted with vibrant colors. Yet this sensation can disappear instantaneously. In seconds, a group of teenage boys sees our bicycles and rushes up to greet us. They each pull out a cheap digital camera made in nearby China or cell phone with the ability to take photos and ask if they can snap shots of us. In a split second, I’m back in the 21st century.

Traveling to parts of the developing world in years past, I once loathed these moments, fearing that the infiltration of modern technology into distant corners of the earth erodes local culture. On this trip, my attitude changes while watching the boys curiously observe our bicycles. We show them how we use small solar panels on the backs of our bikes to charge our cell phones. Ellery and I are trying to promote the use of clean energy around the world as we travel. After we pose for photos with the boys, we hand them cards with our Web site address where they can find more information about the uses of green energy. As we leave, I hope they will show these photos to their friends and tell them about us and our mission.

After the end of the Soviet Union, my mother traveled to rural parts of Russia and Kazakhstan with a group from Maine to promote peaceful relations between these countries and the United States. Today, I wonder how simple things, like cell phone cameras and the Internet, might have facilitated the spread of their ideas, so that their presence in villages like these would have left a more widespread and positive impact long after they had left.

I, too, am a recipient of the benefits of modern technology. Before leaving the U.S., we found Mark Jenkins’ e-mail address online. He now writes for National Geographic. We e-mailed him several questions about cycling across Siberia, and, to our delight, he responded.

“You boys will be just fine,” he wrote, in reference to the kindness and hospitality of Russians. “Absorb the landscape, absorb the culture. Just remember that the bicycle is the only means; the point is to be where you are soaking up the present.”

Making my way down this dirt road, I can’t help but compare my experience here with Mark’s and ponder how this section of the world might change over the next 20 years.

The answer may just lay with the road I am riding along, I think to myself one day.

A massive project to pave this dirt road and create a real highway here is currently under way. Every few days, we pass Russian and Chinese workers stringing the first guard rails along the roadside. An efficient highway will undoubtedly bring new businesses, opportunities and, maybe even running water to these communities, but what else? I stare out at the wilderness as I pedal my bike, and shudder imagining a McDonald’s sprouting up from the forest.

During one of our first days on the dirt road, we are caught in a torrential rainstorm. The water reduces the road to a quagmire and my tires spin in the mud. I rest on a small bridge running over the Trans-Siberian railroad. Below me, an old service road runs parallel to the tracks. Bushes and ferns now grow above the vague im-prints of tire tracks, erasing the days when this road once served as the sole link between two rural villages. Looking down, I envision Mark pushing his bike through the muddy road beneath me 20 years ago.

“The bicycle is the only means,” I imagine him saying to himself.

I gaze downwards at the new road beneath me, and, once again, find myself amazed by how the slowness of bicycle travel allows one to glimpse the subtle changes of the world around you — to fully absorb the enormity of the present. Pushing off down the muddy road again, I suddenly feel stuck somewhere between the re-moteness of the past and uncertainty of the future.

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