Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

10 Sep 2013

A month in Siberia, Couchsurfing and the Russian banya party experience

Posted by Will

I entered Russia from the north-east of Kazakhstan, close to where the borders of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China look like they collide. I had no problem getting in at the border, in fact it all went surprisingly smoothly. That’s not to say I earned my passage to Russia easily: acquiring the visa took longer than a month with a lot of waiting around in embassies and government offices, not to mention the hefty fee that accompanied the whole affair. Not really knowing what to expect, I pedalled past the Welcome to Russia sign and the clock started ticking. 30 days and 3000km remaining.

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I whizzed through the first few days to get ahead of time and away from the mosquitoes. Siberia has a notorious reputation for mosquitoes in the summer and those early days showed why. Mosquitoes in the tent, mosquitoes in my food (the kamikaze ones dive-bomb boiling water), mosquitoes in my throat (while cycling) and slapped mosquitoes dangling off me at all angles. I reached my first Russian city, Barnaul, with my arms and legs a mess of biting and scratching, much to the amusement of my Couchsurfing hosts Igor and Max.

They are great guys, just like almost everyone I’ve met on Couchsurfing. Recently, I’ve used ‘CS’ to find places to stay in cities. For those who don’t know, let me explain.

Couchsurfing is a website connecting travellers with hosts in locations all over the world. I log into my account, where have written a summary of myself, my trip and uploaded a few photos, and search a city for people who have designated themselves willing to have someone to stay. I read a few profiles, pick out who I’d most like to stay with, and then write an email asking if they’d be willing to host me. More often than not the answer is yes. No money is ever exchanged on Couchsurfing: payment is made in travel stories, a fun time, help around the house and perhaps some kind of present to show appreciation. Nowadays, the community is enormous.

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Isn’t it all very unsafe though? How can you trust your host and likewise how can they trust you? After all, aside from the information you share on your profile you are perfect strangers – isn’t that dangerous?

Well, there is a reference and vouch system where hosts and travellers write reviews of each other but there’s no doubt a lot of trust and an open-mind are required. I’ve never had a bad experience and nor has anyone I’ve ever met. Hosts and guests may not be particularly compatible in which case politeness reigns and the stay is a brief one. But I don’t have any experience of that either. All my hosts, without exception are generous, kind, interesting people. They’re also very patient and understanding – it can’t be easy to watch your clean house being splashed with mud when a wet cyclist comes tramping through the door, nor when that same cyclist rearranges the dates at the last minute because he has a flat tyre. Most of the time, I’m given a spare key within 24 hours to come and go as I please. That’s an inspiring level of trust.

So, back to Igor and Max. Dead keen cyclists, they welcomed me to their central Soviet-style apartment with open-arms and a pleasing number of bottles of Barnaulskoe beer, the best pint (or half-litre) I’ve had since Europe. They had some other friends over to stay and we had a party on Friday night. Max fixed many of the numerous parts of my bicycle that were starting to get wobbly, Igor led us on a bike tour of the city (including Barnaul’s Hollywood sign) and we all went to eat in a Buddhist vegan restaurant (classic Couchsurfing!). They also taught me a lot of new expressions in Russian, some useful and appropriate, others less useful and never appropriate! I hope to see them again, especially Igor who’s planning a Europe trip in the near future.

The mosquitoes became much more bearable after Barnaul and I started to wonder, with a fresh layer of skin on my legs, why I’d ever complained. The rain kicked in Scotland-style and during the 8 days it took to make the 1000km to Krasnoyarsk it hardly stopped. On the third day, in the area of Kemerovo city, it rained harder than I have ever experienced while riding a bike. Huge flashes of lightning accompanied immediately by a roar of thunder made me feel rather small on my bicycle and also pretty vulnerable given that at times I seemed to be the closest object to the sky. I spent a lot of that day wondering whether the rubber on my tyres made me lightening-proof. Perhaps someone could answer that for me?

That day the double-lane highway became flooded with water, all the cars pulled over but I carried on through it all, sometimes cycling through water so deep that my front panniers started floating. Like in Kazakhstan, I no longer counted weather as an excuse to slow me down. I made 100 miles that day, wet through, all to the disbelief of the numerous (dry) people I asked directions from. My laptop somehow survived in my non-waterproof cycling bags but one of my notebooks was not so lucky. It is now an illegible mush of half-forgotten ideas: useless, but too precious to throw away.

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The rain and forests contributed to an often unbearable humidity which hung like a cloud of sleeping gas over the road. Siberia isn’t cold in the summer: in fact, temperatures were in the high twenties most days and sometimes hit the early thirties. At night, I needed my sleeping bag but usually unzipped so not too chilly. The locals relished telling me how cold it could get in winter. Some told me -50C, while the less excitable ones explained a modest -30C was the average most days. As the dutiful audience, I never failed to gasp in astonishment.

Close to Krasnoyarsk, with some cycling fatigue setting into my legs, I jumped at the chance to sample an authentic Russian sauna, locally called ‘banya’. I had pedalled into a little community off the main road to load up on supplies and was offered a place to stay by some friendly Siberians. I say ‘Siberians’ because these men and women looked tough. Their faces were smiling and friendly but their arms and shoulders revealed more than a fair share of hard manual labour and their bellies showed a session of heavy alcohol consumption was never far in the past.

I accepted the invitation and my first impression proved correct as eight large plastic bottles of beer were duly added to the family shopping basket. Back home, in their entirely wooden house (like almost all structures in Siberian villages, with window shutters, gates, fences and doors painted a bright blue or green), we set to work on the beer. They applauded me for my praise of Barnaulskoe beer and I applauded them for the -60C temperatures it apparently reached in their village last winter. They didn’t speak a word of English, but my Russian is marginally passable after travelling so long in Russian-speaking countries and Russian people, living closer culturally to Europe than other parts of Asia, have a knack for understanding what a fledgling Russian speaker is trying to say.

Perhaps you’ve guessed … next came the vodka. I joined in willingly, happy to throw caution to the wind in the false name of good ‘cultural experience’. In hindsight I should have known I would never be able to keep up with my enormous host and his friends but that didn’t seem important as we took a fourth toast washed down with the now rather too familiar taste of Barnaulskoe beer. Piles of little cuts of fatty meat sat on plates for snacks, along with cucumbers grown fresh in the garden and a few boiled eggs. I tucked in.

In the whirlwind of events at the table the lady of the house announced that my banya was ready. I had completely forgotten, but quite glad of an excuse to take a break from the men, I followed her down a path to the bottom of the garden where a dilapidated wooden shed housed this famous Siberian tradition. She gave me a towel, soap and a torch (by now the sun had set and there was no electricity inside) and into the banya I stepped.

A banya is basically a sauna. A big wood-burning boiler in the center of the room heats up water inside as well as the air in the room. To wash, fill a bowl with hot water from the boiler, mix with a bit of freezing water from a barrel in the corner and tip it all over yourself. Once washed, sit down on a bench around the side of the room and perspire until you can’t take it anymore. If the level of steam in the room isn’t uncomfortable enough already (which it almost certainly is) then throw freezing water on the boiler to make more. Wash again, perspire again, wash again, perspire again etc… until you’ve had enough.

My first thought was how slippery the floor felt. The whole structure is made of wood, except the boiler in the middle, so as a banya gets older the floor grows algae and other slippery stuff. The ceiling of this particular banya was very low so I had to spend most of my bath-time crouching. I’m not generally a big fan of saunas (there are much more imaginative and usually less expensive ways to get uncomfortably sweaty), but it was certainly worth it for the wonderful feeling afterwards of stepping outside into the cool Siberian darkness. It sobered me up at least partially.

That wasn’t to last as I was treated to yet more Siberian hospitality once I returned to the table. Some female friends had joined the men now and something like a party had developed. The hardy Siberians were drunk now and in this state they’re exceptionally gifted in the art of noise-making. Their words slurred, their powers of comprehension collapsed, and my brain went fuzzy, all meaning that any chance of communication evaporated. I slipped off to bed, unnoticed, or so I thought…

Because a few hours later I woke up to a female figure slipping into bed next to me. I felt rather incapacitated from the alcohol, couldn’t quite connect the dots and so just turned over, closed my eyes and tried to get back to sleep. The figure persisted though and began stroking my back and nuzzling against my neck. A little more in tune with what was going on, I started with the only avoidance tactic I could imagine at the time: wriggling away until she gave up.

At this point I should point out that although ‘female figure’ is rather a sexy phrase and implies an attractive blonde Russian bombshell, in fact the only women present at this party had broad shoulders and beer bellies. After an unknown amount of time, the avoidance tactic worked, female figure exited and left me alone in my drunken haze to recover.

Morning, a rather awkward affair where no one in the family seemed to go to work and father polished off the remaining litre of beer for breakfast. I departed swiftly, took a long time out in a bus stop to catch up on lost sleep, and only made about half my usual distance that day.

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Krasnoyarsk is a large city in Russia and one I am still not too familiar with because I had the pleasure of staying at Max and Ocsana’s home, via Couchsurfing, which gave me absolutely every incentive to stay indoors. I arrived looking like ‘a bit of a homeless bum’ (Max’s words) which may be a generous description of my appearance (and fragrance) given that I had spent 8 days without showering, cooked over fires every evening, been the victim of several downpours and had had a litre bag of milk burst on me the previous day. Couchsurfing really isn’t an accurate description of the way I lived at their house: I had a whole guest-house at the end of their garden, a bit like a cottage, to myself. Power-shower and sauna, comfy bed, kitchen, about 20 different kinds of tea and coffee and high-speed internet access were comfort defined after a length stay in the Siberian wilderness. In the evenings we ate fresh fruit and vegetables grown in their garden. I asked if I could do any chores to help out and the answer was that I should pick and eat some of the raspberries and strawberries at the end of the garden because there are far too many!

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Max produced a few items as presents to help me on my way round the world. A lightweight solar panel that can charge my mobile phone and iPod (he even managed to solder some cables together so I can attach extra devices), bike lights, mosquito repellent, a collection of short stories to read in the tent and a ton of food were all great but it was the final item that has since revolutionized my time on the road. Max bought me a stove!

Looking back I can’t imagine how I ever managed without this piece of kit that almost every cyclist, hiker or all-round-adventurer owns. In the past, I’ve eaten bread, cheese, tomatoes, nuts, raisins and meals which kind locals have offered in their homes. In Kazakhstan and Russia I’d started cooking over a fire which works but is time-consuming when preparing anything other than pasta. The little stove I now carry burns butane gas out of cylindrical canisters (which are available all over these countries), heats a cup of coffee in 3 minutes and a big bowl in 5-6. A big thank you to Max for his generosity and for recognising how much such a simple item could improve my trip.

Armed with my stove, I set off towards Irkutsk, another 1050km away, and looking forward to telling the locals how difficult it is to hold their territory in the game of RISK. A fairly uneventful stretch I have to say because I cycled almost from dawn to dusk. Aside from a few ugly towns along the way, including Tulun which must be the most horrible-looking settlement known to man (sorry any Tulunians reading!), places were few and far between and the forest ruled supreme. Siberia must be one of the lungs of the world for the number of trees here is astonishing. And I must say that in many places I’ve visited trees are rare. From Turkey through to Siberia, over 10000km, I didn’t cycle through a single proper forest. Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk felt refreshingly different.

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I had trouble with my front and back bike racks over this stretch as the road quality isn’t great and a few stretches of construction were particularly bumpy. Some kind mechanics in a garage helped me straighten out a collapsed front rack one morning. People here are often very nice and hospitable but those traits aren’t nearly as widespread as in the less developed, majority Muslim nations I’ve visited so far in Asia. A few times in Russia, people have sneered or laughed at me for my method of travel.

After thousands of kilometers of road-signs counting down to Irkutsk, I finally arrived in glorious sunshine, and aimed for the central square where another Couchsurfer waited for me. Katya, who lives with her mother, proved the perfect companion around Irkutsk. Incredibly intelligent, she held the history of Irkutsk and surrounding area on the tip of her tongue, could tell me all kinds of stories of her own travels and took me to an outdoor museum explaining the culture and lifestyle of the minority tribes living in Siberia. A very memorable hitch-hiking experience from the museum back to the city too – a hilarious young couple and their friend had a wicked sense of humour.

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I ate delicious honey harvested the previous week, fresh fruit from nearby orchards, Katya’s soon-to-be famous spicy chicken, as well as the standard, less sophisticated pasta mountains and scrambled egg oceans. My third, last and equally memorable Couchsurfing experience in Russia. For those who weren’t familiar with Couchsurfing before, I hope I’m giving a good impression.

Lake Baikal came last on my road through Russia, the largest fresh-water lake in the world (something like 25% of the world’s supply), the origin of many local myths and legends and a popular getaway for Russians in the holiday season. I camped two nights on the shore, drinking directly from the lake and using my new stove to the max. I should really have spent more time soaking up such a unique place but time on my visa ran short. I pressed on, cycled out the trees and exited Russia 3 days early. Onwards into Mongolia!

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9 Comments already on “A month in Siberia, Couchsurfing and the Russian banya party experience”
  1. 6:22 ampermalink
    10 Sep 2013

    Mumsy

    A great read. Love the shoe picture!! xx

  2. 9:11 ampermalink
    10 Sep 2013

    Andrew

    Hi Will
    Frickin’ amazing and so very jealous. Keep up the good work
    Ax

  3. 9:26 ampermalink
    10 Sep 2013

    Rob Gardiner

    Can’t believe you didn’t have a stove! How did you survive Central Asian food? By the way, I bumped into Kat and Steve (tandem cyclists) and apparently they know you. It’s a small world!

  4. 11:17 ampermalink
    10 Sep 2013

    Marion

    Hello Will
    Your exotic life continues to blaze through the boring emails. I hardly like to send you news from here, in that context, but, who knows? So: Molly and Tene and Clara here at the moment, all thriving. Clara 3 months and loving life in all its glory, especially, boobs and bathtimes and bopping! I am reminded of Malc with you on his hip dancing to Van. Perhaps he started you on the route to constant motion, come to think of it…..
    Much love and awaiting the next.
    Marion

  5. 12:44 pmpermalink
    10 Sep 2013

    Luke

    I can’t believe you finally got a stove – congratulations. Next you’ll be thinking of a jet boil…

  6. 1:17 pmpermalink
    10 Sep 2013

    Mark E. Martin

    When and if you make it to the US and if you are traveling the southern tier I certainly hope you’ll stop in Baton Rouge. It would be a pleasure to host you.

    It looks like you continue to enjoy yourself, perhaps a tad too much at times. ;-) But then, in Siberia, what else would one do?

  7. 4:03 pmpermalink
    10 Sep 2013

    k

    “I read a few profiles, pick out who I’d most like to stay with, and then write an email”

    But how on earth do you pick?!

  8. Will

    12:16 pmpermalink
    11 Sep 2013

    Will

    Thanks everyone, I’ll try to keep the blog posts coming. Your comments spur me on!

    @mark – I haven’t thought that far ahead! But you’re kind to offer and I’d love to visit the South.
    @kaleb – I pick whoever’s most open-minded, easy-going and likely to share their no-doubt hilarious travel stories. In other words, if I were applying for a couch in Bristol, you’re unlikely to make the cut ;)

  9. 4:37 pmpermalink
    11 Sep 2013

    Kirsi

    Hope you didn’t meet any scary (drunk) women with broad shoulders in Mongolia… ;)

    Take care,
    Kirsi, Antero, Maija and Salli