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We awoke in Siberia. Were the rest of Russia to disappear, it would still be, at thirteen-million kilometres squared, the largest country on earth. There was a text from Ravil: ‘ok’. Just okay? It was both a relief and a jolt—no catastrophe, but not exactly much love. All his communication had sounded alluringly bastard-like: our gun man was handsome, intelligent and dangerous. The tension mounted.
We hurtled over Stalin’s mass graves, the iron ore and the permafrost, and spent the day staring out at the monotony of miles and miles of nothing: barren, prehistoric steppe and great tracts of spruce and birch taiga, occasionally interrupted by hopeless, broken railside settlements and the odd, sky-choking industrial plant. I zoned out into the waiting abyss in preparation for the next onslaught. Because we’d be arriving at midnight, Ravil had promised (or threatened) ‘a bit sleepless night’.
Standing statuesquely outside our carriage on the stroke of midnight was Ravil, tall and lean in jeans and a beige puffa jacket. Black flashing eyes looked out from beneath a moose-grey beanie. He smiled briefly. I inexplicably squeezed his arm, while the boys shook hands. Ravil led us through Novosibirsk’s imposing Stalinist station and out into an empty car park encrusted with a sparkling frost. Russia’s answer to the Fiat Panda—an ocean-blue and very muddy Oka—awaited.
‘It’s the last Soviet car,’ explained Ravil in a soft, Americanised accent. ‘I bought it for $1,250—hardly any works and there’s probably twenty kilograms of dirt on it.’
‘Fuck.’ Ravil’s engine stalled in front of a police patrol car, right in the middle of a monster junction resembling the confluence of four motorways. After a brief Kubrick moment (specifically, Wendy trying to flee Overlook Hotel in The Shining), the car started…and stalled…and started, as it did for the rest of the journey. Similarly, with much prompting, Ravil gave us his potted history. I focused on him furtively in the rear-view mirror while he told us he was a Tatar, a Turkic people originally from the Gobi Desert. It sounded awfully romantic. He was born and raised in south Kazakhstan, and came to Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city, to study, ignoring his family’s wish for him to study in Kazakhstan. It was a child’s right to ignore his parents, he said powerfully. Besides, he was ‘very clever’ and won prizes for biology. His father had passed away a few years ago, and after his death, Ravil’s mother, a seamstress, joined him in Novosibirsk.
So could he explain the Kalashnikov?
‘It’s a filter,’ he said brusquely.
‘There are two types of couchsurfers. Those who judge on first impressions, and those who think about things. There are too many couchsurfers who say how crazy they are. Psychologists will tell you that they’re compensating for being pale.’
Right-o, we said, with pointed blandness. And, err, where was the gun now?
‘It’s from a little training I did in Russian army. I only had to do it for three weeks because I’m doctor. I don’t know how to use it—I’m pacifist.’
Somehow though, the presence of the gun never quite left him.
We arrived at his ‘open-air garage’ at the hospital where he worked. ‘I parked so right by the wall,’ he chuckled, ‘because my fuel lid is broke.’ Three belligerent guard dogs ran for us but Ravil said something to them and they loped off. Ollie asked if we could take a taxi to his, but Ravil said no, firmly: ‘By the time we find the taxi, we’ll be at home.’ He set off into the darkness, walking fast and with purpose, like a lone knight. Ollie was instantly left behind, but it was in my interests to make Ravil wait for Ollie—it was much easier to chat with back-up.
Walking down a dark, potholed dirt track, we passed rows of battered tin-can garages.
‘Any Homer Simpson activity down here?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ Ravil replied airily, like I shouldn’t need to ask. ‘It’s well-known fact that Russians drink in their garages to escape their wives.’
He then told us about his $500-a-month job (the best paid at his level, apparently) screening A&E patients: ‘I must decide what do the people need—maybe they’re too drunk, too drugged, maybe they just need go home.’
Novosibirsk’s health sounded pretty wretched, but, he reassured us, ‘because we have such large country, disease doesn’t spread like it does in Britain.’
Perhaps that went for social disease too.
I swooned when he told us he was building a house in a village seventy kilometres away. Was that usual? To build your own house in Siberia?
‘My father was engineer,’ Ravil said, proudly. ‘I built one house with my father in Kazakhstan. I don’t see any difference between making a computer, a car or a house.’
Ravil had borrowed his friend’s couchsurfers to dig there at the weekend: ‘There will always be space for surfers there.’ Factoring couchsurfing into his house’s blueprint—was it naivety or vision? Ravil was nothing if not resourceful.
‘Is that a door you’re sleeping on?’ I asked, when we arrived at his bedsit in an unloved Soviet tenement building on a seemingly infinite estate.
‘Two half-doors,’ he said, with relish. ‘It’s hard—I like it.’
The doors rested on two mismatched chairs at each end of his ‘bed’. In fact, all the furniture was similar to what you might find in a skip. Either Ollie or I would be sleeping on the floor, though these kinds of facts were made explicit on the couchsurfing site. I stuck my head round the oversized wardrobe in the middle of the room to find, hidden in the darkness, an old red sofa.
‘It’s Mama’s bunker,’ he smiled.
Even his mother slept on a sofa. Ravil’s entire apartment seemed to be a bunker.
Having totally overlooked buying anything in Yekaterinburg, Ollie and I had privately agreed to re-gift Polly’s spices—after all, we couldn’t travel round Asia with a spice set.
‘Thank you,’ Ravil said, scrutinising them before adding imperiously, ‘We have all these spices here.’
The spices languished by the front door for the duration of our stay.
‘You want Russian soup? It’s Mama’s gift.’
Ravil led us into his phonebox-sized kitchen, lined with smetana and yoghurt pots hatching herbs, lettuces and other edibles. With only room for two, Ollie wedged an armchair into the doorway. Ravil passed him a plank to use as a tray, and we broke plump, disc-shaped Uzbek bread together, dunking it in his mother’s wholesome chicken soup. I forgot to concentrate on taste, however, as my senses were distracted by the view: strong, hero’s cheekbones, fine olive skin, kitten-tail eyebrows. His hairline was maturely undulated for a 23-year-old, but it added extra gravitas to an already serious soul. The grey patches under his eyes reminded me of that sleepless night that might be waiting for us. I offered to make tea—this ritual at least was a small claiming of kitchen territory—and Ollie went for a smoke on the balcony.
‘Don’t hurt my bike!’ Ravil yelled, jokingly, but not.
I was caught up in my own jarring, one-way sexual tension. This one-room imprisonment, every nuance under scrutiny, didn’t help. But it was the diktat on Ravil’s profile that wouldn’t leave me: he only wanted travellers—not tourists (’even hardcore ones’). Could we stretch to being travellers? We’d needed a couch, so of course we’d say what he wanted to hear. But if comparing stories with travellers was Ravil’s motive for couchsurfing, we were going to disappoint. Couchsurfing was a host’s market—they could afford to stipulate conditions. Us guests had to be much more accepting.
It was time for the slideshow. Ravil opened up a photo on his computer of himself lying in the middle of an empty road—the classic hitchhiker pose—and began to conduct a sermon on Russian hitchhiking.
‘When you hitchhike, everyone is happy to see you,’ he said wistfully. ‘You don’t need money, you don’t need a bag. If you think you need something, it’s your problem.’
He took his Axe deodorant and sprayed a squirt on to a lit match, creating a jet of fire close to our ears. It would have been laughable were it not for Ravil’s silent command over us.
Russia had a hitchhiking guru, Ravil told us, Anton Krotov—a 32-year-old modern-day Kerouac (who looked like the last person you would give a ride to, owing to his abundant Jesus beard). Ravil had read many of his books and followed his website, The Russian Academy of Free Travel—hitchhiking, it seemed, was cool in Russia. It transpired that hitchhikers and couchsurfers existed happily in the same Venn diagram, for both financial and philosophical reasons: both ideologies enabled a life—for free—outside the material world.
At 3am, I decided to take cover in the bathroom, multi-tasking with time out, a shower and the chance to change my clothes with modesty. It was a man’s bathroom: contents included ten cheap soaps worn down to wafers, and tools for shaving, tooth-brushing and clothes-washing. Waiting minutes for the Siberian water to heat up, I went to brush my teeth—but there was no sink in the bathroom. The apartment’s only sink was in the kitchen with a violently wobbly tap. And Russians didn’t seem to believe in bathmats, or cleaning, so I was left not knowing where to put my clean feet.
At 4.20am came the surprise announcement, ‘Let’s sleep’. I silently rejoiced. I’d been dreading staying up all night on the back of ten days’ junk sleep, but Ollie and I had both settled into our submissive role in the couchsurfing dynamic. Lack of sleep was the worst thing about couchsurfing. I was supplied with a stained, tobacco-coloured, canvas camp bed (‘It’s called a raskladushka—‘little folding thing’’). Ollie took the sleeping mat for his leg, and Ravil—in the grey marl T-shirt he’d been wearing that day and a tiny pair of briefs—took to his two half-doors. Somehow, I hadn’t thought what sharing a one-bedroom apartment meant: enforced intimacy. Hiding my bare, white turkey drumsticks from view behind an armchair, I tried to persuade myself it was no different to being on the beach together. I then made a dive for my bed, which was so close to Ravil’s that we were practically spooning. Sleep would evade me that night.
A voice came from the darkness: ‘I have no problem being nude.’
‘Are you preparing us for breakfast in the buff?’ I joked.
‘I try to swim nude when I can. My girlfriend and I like to swim nude in the lake.’ His words hung in the air as we fell silent. Finally, the darkness afforded us some privacy. So he had a girlfriend—in this cloying proximity, that was a massive relief. Ravil sent late-night texts while I developed an intense hatred for my bed. The head was too high so I slipped down like water, forming a pool of patheticness in the middle, while the metal frame boxed me in like a caged animal. Growl.
Breakfast was sweet bread and soup supplied by Ravil, and black Earl Grey supplied by us, slurped unselfconsciously noisily by him. We booked in to go to the hospital that evening for Ollie’s leg. Ollie rolled up his jeans and we all inspected the lump. Ravil took his history, assumed a grave face and said something about infection. I wasn’t worried—I just assumed they’d give him some drugs and he would get better.
By day, Ravil’s block was the colour of a Chernobyl sunset. It was built in the 1940s, apparently, quite possibly the last decade it had looked clean. The foot-wide drainpipes that ran straight on to the pavements now spilled shards of ice. We wanted the cold; seeking extremes, this pleased us. We took a tram to check out the city, through those motorway-wide streets, past the city’s oppressive Stalinist architecture and numerous industrial cranes. Novosibirsk was a functional, industrial Soviet city, with a population of 1.4 million, a plutonium plant, a civil aviation factory and lots of mining. Novosibirsk—or Rio De Novo, as Ravil so ironically called it—was twinned with Doncaster, no less. But couchsurfing opened up a new prism on unattractive towns: it gave them soul.
On board the tram were passengers of Mongol extraction. We were edging nearer to Russia’s autonomous Buryat Republic and, of course, Mongolia. And, yes, both places had couches for us. The Buryatian capital, Ulan-Ude, was our next stop—some 2,300 kilometres east of Novosibirsk. We’d eventually managed to persuade a young Buryatian girl that it didn’t matter that her English was bad and that she lived in the suburbs—we had a couch at least.
Back in Novosibirsk, a pattern was establishing itself in our communications:
Me: ‘So is…Russia/Siberia/Novosibirsk/couchsurfing…?’
Ravil: [an appropriate answer].
Me: ‘So is…Russia/Siberia/Novosibirsk/couchsurfing…?’
Otherwise it was: ‘Let’s stop and wait for Ollie.’
I spent half my time looking backwards at Ollie, as he lagged behind, beaten by Ravil’s turbo pace. Sleep-deprived, I would have preferred not to make conversation, but that was a privilege reserved for better friends. Plus, efforts seemed so unequal—like Polly, Ravil showed little curiosity for us.
‘So is there a Siberian flavour to Novosibirsk?’
‘All of Russia is the same—no one cares about architecture or art. They just want somewhere to live.’
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