Hospitality alleviates cycling-trip setbacks

Posted July 03, 2009, at 11 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.

On a hot early summer afternoon in Russia, we push our bicycles into an expanse of grassland near a roadside cafe and set up our tents.

In the distance, rising mountains ring the outskirts of Chita, the eastern Siberian city where we have just rested after cycling the first 2,000 miles of our trip. We left Chita so late in the day that we decide to stop at the city limits. Earlier, I wasn’t sure we would make it out of the city.

That morning, we discovered that an eyelet, a small threaded fitting on the back of the bike frame that the rear rack screws into, had broken off the bike. Our back panniers, the waterproof bags in which we carry our food and clothes, rest upon the rear rack. Unless it screws securely into the frame, the bike cannot be ridden. We had to find a welder.

Scattered directions and good fortune eventually brought us to an auto garage operated by an expert bicycle mechanic named Alex and his wife Victoria, who studied in the United States for a year. Alex worked on the bike while Victoria interpreted for us. Alex welded the eyelet onto the frame and sanded the new metal. The bike was good as new.

“What do I owe you?” Ellery asked.

“Nothing,” Alex replied. “Come back if anything else breaks.”

Setting up my tent later that day, I noticed a dark figure emerging from a small shack near the roadside cafe and beginning to walk toward us. With his back to the blinding sun, he appeared silhouette-like. As the phantom figure neared, the shadows obscuring his face dissolved in the sunlight. A skinny man with dark skin and thick eyebrows bristling from under a downturned, red baseball cap materialized before me.

I imagined he has come to kick us out. Instead, he invited me to dinner.

“My name is Igor,” he said in Russian.

Igor is one of many immigrants from the small country of Azerbaijan, which once was part of the Soviet Union, who have moved to Russia to earn a better living. In Siberia, he runs a small stand by the road selling Shashlik, a Russian meal of grilled meat, often cooked on a stick like shish kebabs. At his food stall, I watched as Igor grilled meat over a wood fire while his son served me tea from a samovar, a small Russian urn filled with water and heated by burning charcoal. We ate in a cramped shack with scarcely enough room to sit down.

“Yect, yect!” Igor demanded. “Eat, eat!”

With bare hands, we devoured large pieces of meat and raw onions together. Soon, Igor revealed a small bottle of vodka and several glasses so filthy they might double as ashtrays. He poured us each a drink.

“Do people from Azerbaijan live in the U.S. too?” he asked.

“People from everywhere in the world live in my country,” I replied.

A silence ensued while I formulated a question to revive the conversation.

“Did you come to Russia alone?” I asked.

“My brother and I brought our families here eight years ago,” he explained, then paused, pointing to one of the ubiquitous gravestones adorning the sides of Russian roads marking where people have died in automobile accidents.

“My brother died in a drunk driving accident there last year,” he said, index finger outstretched toward the roadway.

I stopped eating, both out of respect for his loss and to not appear gluttonous in front of the feast before us.

“Yect, yect!” he yelled again commandingly.

We ate until the food is gone.

The people of Siberia are known for their hospitality. The inhabitants of this harsh landscape must endure long and bitterly cold winters subsisting off few resources. Perhaps it is the difficulty of life here that inspires people to help passersby.

The following day, we cycled 60 miles and made camp in a field behind a truck stop with a small hotel.

That evening, I met a jolly man named Nikolai. His face projects a permanent beaming smile; he talks in Russian with lively and passionate inflections, as if he were a native speaker of Italian. He is very excited to meet an American.

“I want to show you where I work,” he said compulsively.

Nikolai kept a giant coal stove burning throughout the night that heats the nearby hotel’s water. He led me to a small shed adjacent to the cafe. The smell of smoke wafted outside as he opened the door. Inside, chunks of coal and old tools covered the shed floor. Atop a small table rested a hotplate and large broken shard of mirror leaning against the wall. Nikolai opened another door inside the shed, revealing a smoke-filled room where coal burned in a stove that he filled with a shovel. Coal abounded in the mountains of this part of Russia; below me, the fire glowed like a dragon’s nostrils.

“How do you make money to travel,” Nikolai asked.

“I worked very hard, for a long time,” I responded.

“I work hard too, but I have never left the mountains surrounding my village,” he remarked casually. “I only have extra money for these,” he admitted, pointing to a lonely pack of cigarettes on the table.

In Russia, even brand-name cigarettes like Camel and Marlboro rarely cost more than $1.

The next day, we learned that my bike has broken in the same place as Ellery’s. We wheeled it to a mechanic shop by the truck stop. A rough-looking man with serpentine figures tattooed on his arms clumsily attempted to re-weld the eyelet onto my bike frame. I tell him I could fix the bike in Chita, but a formidable combination of Siberian friendliness and mechanic’s pride overtook him, and he continued trying to fix the bike.

His work made me nervous. Having a broken bicycle on an eight-month bike trip feels like being entrusted with the care of a sick child: Nothing but the best medical care will suffice.

“It is hard to watch somebody you love go under the knife, isn’t it?” Ellery said jokingly.

The mechanic sloppily succeeded in welding the eyelet onto the frame and charged us nothing. We gratefully say our thanks and, so as not to offend him, rode just up the road, and then hitchhiked back to Chita to have Alex re-weld the bike properly.

When we returned, the young couple offers to fix my bike, take us to dinner, and drive us back to the truck stop. When the bike is fixed, we went out to eat at the best Shashlik place in town with their family. The table was heaped with steaming plates of meat, cucumbers, small flat tortillas, and cheese. Victoria’s brother-in-law made sure everyone’s beer glass remained full.

As we drove along the highway that evening, the details of the landscape I pedaled past a day ago, the cafe we camped near, Igor’s red baseball hat atop his head bending over the samovar, and his brother’s grave, meaninglessly zoomed past the car window. While driving, images of small villages looked like distant scenes captured in oil paintings. Traveling by car in a foreign land suddenly seemed like wandering through a museum full of famous art without understanding the artists’ intentions. The feeling and significance of what you are seeing was lost.

On the way back, Victoria told us about her experiences in the United States.

“I went abroad after the fall of the Soviet Union,” she said. “Back then, we had frequent power outages in Russia, so we kept candles throughout our house. When I arrived at my host family’s home in Texas, I noticed that they had candles, too, and I thought they had the same electricity problems in America. Later, I realized they were just decorations.

“You know, America is very comfortable.”

In many ways, her statement was true. As they dropped us off, I wondered if maybe it is the lack of comforts in Siberia that make people here reach out to one another. Here, smiles, compassion for strangers, and friendliness often make up for the lack of material comforts.

Two days later, the bolt connecting Ellery’s rear rack broke and we could not pry the broken end out to replace it. A mechanic in a small town hacked off the old eyelet and welded a nut onto the frame into which a bolt could be screwed. His work proved highly functional.

My previous experience with mechanics has conditioned me to think he would charge for the work, although I knew he would not.

Still, I wondered if he would ask.

The mechanic just smiled.

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