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‘So does Siberia want independence?’
‘Moscow won’t let it. There is a place in Siberia, Yakutia—it’s bigger than Kazakhstan—and it pays fifteen per cent ofMoscow’s taxes from gold, diamonds and brilliants.’
‘But does Siberia want independence?’
‘The people are too busy to think about it. If you have time, you think, ‘I want a car, I want a girl, I want financial independence.’’
‘So, umm, does everyone get the “clause” treatment?’ I said, referring to certain stipulations in his emails.
‘Of course,’ Ravil said, flatly.
He’d once had five Polish people staying, who’d come back with seven bottles of wine.
‘I said to them, did you not read that wine was forbidden?’ They had a pretty big dose. I don’t want unexpected troubles—it’s important to be safe in your house.’
I very quickly determined not to get on the wrong side of Ravil. The pressure to please this hard-to-please man who had such particular ideas was suffocating.
Ravil was no eager tour guide. We passed by an immense, icily sterile Lenin Square, home to Russia’s largest opera house (‘I hate opera’) and some dwarfingly large constructivist statues of Soviet workers, soldiers and, of course, Lenin. But it wasn’t until we returned home that I read in my book we’d crossed the very geographical centre of Russia, honoured by the golden domed Chapel of St Nicholas. Nor that the Arctic-bound Ob River, on the north bank of which we found a deserted skate park, was the world’s fourth longest. But I sensed that Ravil wasn’t a couchsurfer out of city pride, but for political reasons—he abhorred money. Perhaps he’d always choose to sleep on doors.
At the prescribed hour, 9pm, we went to A&E—not because Ravil assessed it as an emergency, but because this was the most efficient route. Ravil took Ollie behind closed doors, leaving me in a Soviet-era mint-green waiting room and a tableau vivant of rather un-vivant Russians. A jaundiced miner in leather boots and dungarees covered in a thin film of coal dust was holding a urine sample; another rocked drunkenly, hassling any medic that passed. An hour passed and the jaundiced miner was wheeled past in the recovery position. Ollie wasn’t waiting, he was being seen to, so what was taking so long? From beyond, I heard the sound of grown men screaming. What if one of the screams was Ollie?
Standing only in his pants, his hiking boots (covered with blue plastic bootees) and a seeping bandage where the lump had been, Ollie was back, his face waxy and drawn. Ravil was standing at his side, looking solemn. My heart started thudding.
‘We have to go home, Fleur. They found puss on my leg and it could spread to the bone. They collected thirteen millilitres of puss. That’s a lot.’
Suddenly it was an emergency. I bit back the tears. Ollie’s leg was in serious trouble, so was it wrong to feel sorry for myself? Instantly I was furious with Ollie’s London consultant; he should never have been declared fit. And ‘go home’? Did I really have to go home after eleven days? There was nothing wrong with me. Or was it because Ollie didn’t think it wise for me to travel solo through Russia and China? The marbles had been released on to my path, yet this was Ollie’s emergency—we had to sort him out. I was electrified with panic.
In fits and starts, we picked our way back to Ravil’s, whose pace, incredibly—or revealingly—still didn’t slow for Ollie. We stopped at an all-night pharmacy (it was now midnight) for antibiotics and water.
‘Why are you buying water?’ Ravil roared.
Ollie and I both cowered.
‘You can drink tap water. It’s just marketing myth that you can’t drink it.’
We found excuses to defend our purchases and hit a wall of silence for the rest of the walk home—no, Ollie couldn’t get a taxi. Ravil really had become Siberian, with his intolerance for spoilt, Western softness.
What to do? We were about to book flights home, so I had make a decision, fast. I hated travelling alone. I subscribed to the Noah’s Ark school of travel—it should be done in pairs. But I, supposedly, was the lucky one—quitting wasn’t permitted. I’d waited too long for this adventure. I rearranged my face into one of survival: ‘Ollie, I can’t come home with you.’
He understood: ‘I just thought you’d want to.’
In a way, I did.
At home, Ravil sat down at his computer, slipped on some enormous headphones, and said, ‘I’m off to crash cars.’
Ollie’s flight home was urgently arranged—there was one to Moscow at 7am. At 4.30am, Ollie and I left for Novosibirsk Airport: I was going to cling on to him for as long as I could. The boys exchanged a brotherly hug and I stuffed a packet of biscuits into my bag—Ollie and I were ravenous, and biscuits were easier than asking Ravil for food. But I still hadn’t adjusted to the news. I bolted from our farewell at the airport—an emotional downpour felt imminent.
In total silence, blinking like a pit pony, Ravil let me back in at 6.30am. Well now we were in a Pinter-esque tension, an unbearable ache of awkwardness in his too-close-for-comfort bedsit. The camp bed had been put away so, trying to be no trouble, I took to the floor—it couldn’t be any less comfortable.
I lay awake, rigid on my mat—even the most microscopic movement would create an abominable rustle. With the feeling that Ollie and I had taken way more than we could give, I resolved to get up early, whether I’d slept or not, and get out. I wanted out. My train to Ulan-Ude was the next night at 1am; I would deal with the day alone. I had to nurse my crumbling emotional landscape in private. Bereft, lonely, empty, I pined for The Emperor. Ollie’s friendship had so persuasively concealed the void within, but now they were both far away, I so craved what I couldn’t have. Wanting what was out of reach—it was so predictable.
A text from Ollie: ‘The air stewardess just had to rip a hidden can of beer out of the hands of the man on the plane seat in front of me because he’s drinking before take-off. He looks like Rumpelstiltskin and she looks like Sharon off Eastenders. Quite a tug of war. Niet. Da. Niet. Da…’
I sat up in bed, stiff like the floorboards responsible for my aches. Behind me, I could hear that Ravil was awake, scrolling through his mobile—it felt strange that he hadn’t acknowledged the new day and said good morning. I offered my salutations, and packed up in paranoid silence for a hasty exit. I now felt completely naked.
‘Are you hungry? I suppose you are,’ Ravil said kindly.
I supposed I was. Breakfast was Mama’s cold beef stew and boiled potato. Halfway through, Ravil put his in the microwave without inviting me to follow suit, so I went along with the cold version, as if it were just how I liked it. I found a hair in amongst the potatoes, covered it with another potato and announced myself full. Instead of eating, I mined him for travel tips on Kazakhstan.
‘Kazakhstan is extreme,’ he said, with finality.
I tried to look unfazed, like a real traveller.
‘It’s extremely hospitable but extremely poor. I only travel with what I need.’
I felt vulnerable.
My sister once locked our new puppy in a room with the old cat, so that they could get to know each other. Couchsurfing’s forced friendships reminded me of her experiment. Like cats and dogs, Ravil and I were similarly opposed. As he accompanied me to the station’s left luggage hall, he seemed happy in contemplation (or social retirement). I, however, needed to feign some kind of social order, so I babbled away about London life: politics, the underground, Russian oligarchs—wasn’t this couchsurfing’s cultural exchange? His standard response was an impregnable ‘mm-mm’. Sometimes I’d repeat myself, thinking he was saying ‘pardon’, only to get another ‘mm-mm’. But I blundered on, because wasn’t it worse to be both needy and mute?
Left luggage passed without incident, and he sent me off in the right direction for a day of organisation in Ravil’s preferred Wi-Fi zone, KFC.
‘I feel a bit stressed,’ I confessed, my voice cracking.
‘At least you are stressed,’ he replied, wisely.
I forcibly hugged him, squeezing out all of the human contact I could, and turned away quickly. It was time to leave, yet I wasn’t ready to be alone. While Ollie was returning to London to look after his limb, I felt like I’d lost one. Like an unfledged chick flung out of the nest, I suddenly felt all alone.
I had the number for Nick, another local couchsurfing host who was, according to his references, ‘the coolest dude in Novosibirsk’ (Ollie and I had requested his couch, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be in town for the ‘third decade of October’). I invited him to KFC for a junk-food hit. Meanwhile, I spent the day online, trying to feel connected. I broadcast the news of Ollie’s departure to all, and begged for reinstatement of communications with The Emperor. I felt too feeble to try and move on—I needed that lifeline. He wrote straight back, offering to come out, as a friend, as ‘whatever’. But couchsurfing wasn’t for everyone, and it wasn’t for him. He was way too uncompromising and dominant; he was, after all, The Emperor. Right in the middle of KFC, I wept great streams of longing. I wanted to go home, but defeat was inadmissible. It wasn’t as if I were the world’s first solo explorer. Perhaps couchsurfing would look after me, as I bounced across Asia on lily pads of hospitality, falling into the arms of kind hosts. At least that was the hypothesis.
Ollie, meanwhile, was sending live feeds from London. He’d gone directly to his consultant, who said things weren’t as bad as they’d seemed: the abscess would have eventually burst outwards, into the air, rather than inwards, poisoning his blood. Not so bad? That wouldn’t have been our response in the Mongolian wilderness. He’d have to have the titanium removed at a later stage, and, for the time being, have consultations every other day. His doctor had found seaweed stuffed into the holes the Russians had made in his leg, a pub gem best known after the event when all is well. Under strict instructions to rest up, Ollie was going to be surfing his own sofa for a while. We were both miserable.
Well, what do you know? Donagh, the Irish architect we’d met in Moscow, walked into KFC as the couchsurfing guest of Nick, a Shrinky-Dinked Russian graphic designer with long blond dreads, a goatee and earrings.
‘Ach, you’re no more vulnerable here than in real life,’ reassured Donagh, once I’d poured my story all over them in one breathless torrent.
I secretly leant on Donagh and Nick, vampirically milking their positivity and wisdom. Donagh had been surfing since Moscow: ‘So that people can take me to bars,’ he explained, cradling a pint of KFC beer. ‘I don’t want to stay in alone reading my book—Russia isn’t very friendly to outsiders but couchsurfers are leftist enough to open the door.’
Nick was one such specimen. ‘I’ve had thirty or forty people at my place since June,’ he said. ‘And I’d host someone for long time if they’re in a special situation, like trying to get a job.’
There were people who surfed for a whole year, they told me, and there was ‘over-couchsurfing’. Donagh recounted how one Russian girl in Moscow extended a two-week stay to a year because she didn’t want to pay the capital’s high rents. But her host—Russia’s legendary Country Ambassador—turned it to his advantage, essentially using her as his PA. This was the alternative economy.
For the first time I felt part of something bigger: the couchsurfing community. We were strangers, yet we had an instant bond: we all shared similar experiences and principles. What’s more, Donagh had met Yvonne in Yekaterinburg, and would be in Beijing at the same time as me. I was on a couchsurfing trail! That might devalue the concept for some, but for me, the discovery was a happy one—this was a mobile community. And I saw couchsurfing through other, more experienced, eyes: I realised that Ollie and I had been muddling along in the dark. Nick and Donagh gave me a frame of reference.
For two hours, my loneliness had been suspended. At 11.30pm, Nick and Donagh saw me off to the station. Blessed by serendipity and topped up with kindness, I felt emotionally nourished. My hypothesis was looking promising.
CHAPTER 5 ULAN-UDE: TO HEALTH! TO LOVE! TO VODKA! (#ulink_d391a126-f55b-5e8e-8728-42db8708f995)
A colossal, cabbagey babushka was cradling a potato sack like a baby. The potato sack shook to reveal the wiry, grey head of a small mutt. A defeated and dusty old man—in pitch-perfect Chekhovian tragedy—held his troubled brow in bloodied, swollen hands. A grubby street urchin shamelessly prodded the shoulders of every man, woman and child in his way, holding out his artful hands. I was at Novosibirsk station, waiting for my forty-hour train to Ulan-Ude. Without Ollie, I was en garde. Without Ollie, I realised, I was engaged—Russia had come alive. What I found reminded me to count my blessings.
In my cramped cabin, two Russian workers had already claimed the emotional space. Wrung out, I meekly clambered on to the top bunk and attempted to hibernate. My tears seemed to have given me a cold: I sneezed. ‘Bud zdorova [bless you],’ said one of the workers, gruffly. I looked down. He was wearing an unconvincing black nylon wig; the other had a heavy Scouser ’tache and kind eyes. ‘Chai?’ offered the ’tache. And so began a most unlikely friendship, conducted through my increasingly clammy dictionary and sign language. They were truck drivers from Dikson, deep within the Russian Arctic Circle. Was my mother not worried? Did I have a Kazakh dictionary? Have these wafers! No thanks. Have these wafers! Okay! Where was I staying? ‘I’m staying with a friend,’ I said. I repeated those words in my head: I had a friend—of sorts—waiting for me in a new city. That was a powerful feeling.
Clutching an in-case-of-emergency address in Dikson, I turned in at 3.30am, perplexed as to why my berth buddies were happy to share their night and supplies with me. We weren’t used to such hospitality in London’s individualistic, post-Thatcher society. As I looked at my rations-for-one, I wondered if it were me, unable to think beyond the self, that was uncivilised.
After a day of hyper-sleep, I was starting to come round from the shock. The Russians had left to drive trucks, and I was alone again. I thought of Ravil—he had given his time, his food, his place and his philosophy. Surely the insight into Russian life would long outlive memories of silly social anxiety.
I found it difficult to look out of the window; the Great Empty Steppe mirrored my sense of isolation. However, out there, edged by lonely firs covered in plump blankets of snow was the oceanic Lake Baikal, the ‘blue eye of Siberia’. As the deepest lake on earth, the largest freshwater lake by volume, and—thanks to its self-purifying properties—holder of one-fifth of the world’s drinking water, Lake Baikal was, to the Buryatian people, the Sacred Sea. The Buryatians—a traditionalist Mongol people numbering just a million, who practised both Buddhism and Shamanism (despite Soviet efforts)—respected nature like a religion.
I was very pleased with my couchsurfing find in Ulan-Ude, a 25-year-old eastern Buryatian girl called Zhenya. While western Buryats had been ‘Russified’, dumping nomadism for agriculture, eastern Buryats were more traditional and closer to the Mongols. But I didn’t know much about Zhenya—her profile was scant and new—except that her family had, at some stage, swapped nomadism for the suburbs. I was eager for an ersatz Ollie and some shanti love, that beneficent Buddhist practice of forbearance and forgiveness. But having forgotten to get a gift in the ‘excitement’, and about to arrive with a lot of needs (laundry, tickets to Mongolia and Vladivostok, internet access), it all felt a bit take, take, take. Again.
I was floundering on the platform, lost in a sea of strangers, when Zhenya pulled me to safety. I looked up at her. Tall and beautiful, with long, glossy sable hair, and narrow, Mongol eyes smouldering with kohl, she smiled graciously like a Buryatian goddess. She even had a retinue of three young European males.
‘Bernat, Albert, David,’ she introduced, in a honeyed Russian accent.
‘A-ha!’ I exclaimed. ‘You must be the Spanish firemen.’ News of their journey had preceded them—we were due to share the same Vladivostok host. I was right back on the trail.
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