But the Bus started okay. Even if it did sound like Harley Davidson on a cold morning… We think we may have blown a hole in more than the oil filter. We think there also might be a hole in the manifold… making the muffler (or what is left of it after Uzbekistan) absolutely useless…
We went to the supermarket down the way to stock up for Mongolia but everything is VERY expensive. So we bought what we wanted and needed but it cost about double what it would in the US for cans of beans, bread, water, gum and a package of nuts… We also picked up what looked like two apple Danish or strudels at the bakery for breakfast. They turned out to be a curried chicken pastry… Again… this really wasn’t turning out to be a great morning.
We needed gas before setting off from the last big city on our adventure. We stopped at many gas stations which were either closed, frustrating, did/not accept credit cards, bankomats that said they were open but then they were closed… We were even stopped by the police for pulling a U-turn out of one of the closed gas station… We were let go with a warning and a stern look but still… not fun… When we finally did find an open ATM and an open gas station we find out that the gas station actually does take VISA… they just don’t advertize it anywhere. Again… as you can imagine this is really not turning out to be a good morning…
But finally we were out of Barnaul and off into the Altai Region of Russia. The mountains here are AMAZING. Big, pointy, rocky peaks with huge pine trees are cut down the middle by massive, cold, fast flowing rivers. The scenery was absolutely beautiful! This area is semi-autonomous meaning that they have more control over their region of Russia and other Russians from other regions even need special permission like an internal passport to travel in this area (even though it is all part of the same country). This area is obviously very special. So the afternoon was turning out better than the morning had…
As the afternoon started fading we stopped at a river that looked cold and awesome. We pulled off the road after a bridge into a semi-wooded kind-of grassy area that looked like we could camp there. Well actually when we had pulled in we noticed that someone else was camping by the river already. Here is where we ended up meeting Zafar.
Zafar is the care taker for a bridge building project on the bridge we crossed over right before we pulled over. He is like a night watchman for the project so materials don’t go astray and just in case anything happens in the night someone is there paying attention. We asked Zafar if we could camp in his area and he seemed to understand and said yes. He had a good little set up with a rough wood table and a fire pit with a rough wooden bench. We cooled off in the river and asked if we could make dinner for him since we were going to be making dinner anyway.
Zafar’s English was very limited, actually just as limited as our Russian is so the conversation was slow going even with the infamous Russian phrasebook at hand. He was very interested in the book though which was good and the silence was at least companionable. We made chili and rice with some bread. Zafar offered some cucumbers and tomatoes for the feast and set about cutting and peeling while Andrea cooked the chili on the little MSR stove we brought in our aluminum pans… we felt kind of silly using such totally American cooking tools with a guy who practically lives at this river with a fire and a knife most of the time.
We found out that Zafar was from Tajikistan but moved to Altai to find a job. We had just been in Tajikistan and if you read the earlier post you would know that we absolutely loved that country and the people. So this endeared us to Zafar that much more since now we knew that he was from our favorite country. When I asked Zafar to put his email or address in my little travel notebook of contacts, he found Sayid’s hand written card of information from Tajikistan (the border guard who gave us the room to stay in for the night). This made Zafar really happy and I think it made us more real to him too.
As dinner was just about done a car pulled up to Zafar’s camp. This is where we coined the collective term for a group of Russians. A group of Russians is now a “Lada” of Russians. A Lada is the brand name of the Russian communist car manufacturer. Almost all cars in Russia during the Soviet era were Ladas. Even today MANY Russian cars are Ladas. And they know how to pack these cars full to the bursting point (or to the point where the suspension litteraly gives way) with anything from bricks, to wool, to tomatoes, to watermelons, to large groups of Russian men. We have seen it all at this point. A Lada of Russians ranges usually from 5 to 10 grown men (avg. 8 per Lada) who literally pour out of a single vehicle at any given time. There are never less than 4 people in a Lada and we have yet to see a maximum.
This Lada contained 5 men of varying sizes, shapes, colors, number of gold teeth, and level of intoxication. One could only say “Very good” and kept shaking Bruce’s hand over and over and over again. Another was dead set on having Andrea understand every word he spoke in Russian about where he was from and his family name. Another was just happy to watch the whole thing unfold with his friends and laugh at them… and us… A couple of them just stayed in the background which made Bruce and I a little leery and uncomfortable. Then we noticed that Zafar had disappeared and his friends were still with us… and we hadn’t eaten dinner yet… grrr… After about an hour Zafar returned from his walk (we think we understood that he actually walked to the local shop to receive a telephone call because he has no phone of his own). His friends were crazy but over all very nice. Even Zafar made the universal sign for crazy (one finger spinning around at the side of the head) for his friends when they left. We ate dinner with Zafar, washed dishes in the icy cold river, and headed off to sleep in the bus.
Overall this was a very strange day. The morning was just frustrating and long. The afternoon was beautiful. And the evening was absolutely strange but entertaining. You really never know what a new day will bring or what experiences you might have just a few hours into the future when you are on the road. I really like that about this trip. Every moment things can (and do) change. People are really interested in us and interesting to us so our experiences with them keep being more and more varied and rich. I guess when you aren’t comfortable in your surrounding you are more open to new experiences because you really have no choice but take part in them. We could just bunk down in the bus and sleep but where is the fun in that? Most people are really good people. They just look, sound, and act differently than we are used to. If we were home and in our comfort zone then they would be the outsiders, but here we are the outsiders. It is all a matter of perspective and tonight I feel like we got some of that perspective.
Viva the road! Viva Mongolia! Tomorrow we push for the border!