Two Wheels Against Russia
(Wall Street Journal 2.11.91)
We were six days out of Moscow in a dirt-road town called Dmitrovsk-Orlovsky when the Militia finally caught up with us. Eleven at night, a loud tumble of boots in the hall of our hotel. An ominous silence before heavy fists come down on our door. We open up on a broad captain flanked by a couple of guards and a woman in plain-clothes--KGB. The Captain looks through our papers; we show him our route on a map. "There have never been Americans in this district before," the KGB-lady explains, "of course we have to investigate."
Tom and I had all the right documents. Business visas and invitations from the travel Coop sponsoring the Soviet leg of our bicycle trip from Moscow to Berlin via Kiev, Odessa, Moldavia and Poland. But this was the first test of our ability to explain, in the native tongue, what we were doing, unescorted, in backwoods Russia.
Lost: Tanya Kirova
"Why are you on such a small road so out of the way?" It is dangerous to ride on the main road, too many big trucks. "Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and
Lvov are on your visas--why not Dmitrovsk-Orlovsky?" On a bicycle it was impossible to know where we'd end our day, and with these visas we don't have to follow itineraries prescribed by Intourist.
They gave gruff orders, telling us which road to take out of town in the morning, though gradually their admonitions softened into advice. And they left a guard in the lobby to make sure we followed it.
In day-glo fabrics called Goretex and Polypropylene, riding high-tech bikes brought over from the States, we attracted a lot of attention. The village of Nenashevo was too small to have a hotel, so we rode to the main square and stood around near the Lenin statue and propaganda signs until our clown-suits drew a crowd.
"Where will you stay?" someone asked. A teacher ran off to find out if we could sleep in the school. The town's Communist boss showed up, a squat balding man in a suit, and began to argue with a bearded truckdriver, saying we should catch a train to the next city. But peasant women passing by took our side, shaking bunches of carrots at the People's Deputy: "What's the problem? Help these boys!" A man with thick mustaches listened in, then gestured for us to follow. In his two-room apartment, he made us rice soup and left to stay with friends so we'd have more space. In the morning he took us to breakfast at the Collective Farm where he worked as a vet and gave us a couple of his old Communist Party cards as souvenirs.
The hospitality of Atem Alistanov (that was his name) was overwhelming, yet typical: we found we could depend on being invited into somone's home whenever we needed it. Public accommodation was different.
Every hotel had a sign reading Myest Nyet--No Places. It was the same in restaurants, and the rule holds true in all public life: work (no matter how simple) is avoided; power (no matter how petty) is exercised. So: No Places is the point from which the discussion proceeds. We quickly picked up a very Russian resourcefulness. "But we are two Americans on bicycles," met with surprising success.
Our proudest achievement was at an Intourist hotel in Kishinev, Moldavia. They wanted dollars--80 of them, in fact--and we managed to convinced them (with our documents and a practiced stubbornness) that this was impossible. "Then you must pay a foreign surcharge," the administrator warned. "One night, 60 rubles." We'd been in the Soviet Union long enough to appreciate this small bureaucratic victory, so we agreed, though it would be the most we'd pay for a hotel in the USSR. Four dollars.
(Because of our business visas, we could also avoid the criminal exchange-rate the Intourist monopoly commands--.6 rubles to the dollar. All our cash was bought at 15-to-1 on the black market, at which rate the Soviet Union is essentially free.)
The terrain wasn't much different from the Midwest, the rolling, fertile farmland a palpable indictment of this land's food shortages. We always found food in the ubiquitous self-service workers' cafeterias. Our typical meal was fried pork patties with potatoes--often three times a day. We'd pile our trays with cabbage salad and tomatoes when we could find them, overeating to get the nutrition we needed to ride.
The day-to-day reality of cycle-touring is sitting, riding, getting tired and hungry. In the Soviet Union it also means staying in homes with outhouses and color TVs, and passing through town after town after town where the main street is Lenin Street and every store is called Store.
Our worst hassle was after a beautiful
day on the Romanian frontier in Moldavia. That evening we were taken
from the home of a drunken farmer and ordered into the back of an army
truck by two kids with machine-guns and dogs. They took us to a camp
somewhere and held us in the cold and dark until a KGB guy came to question
us. He accused us of taking pictures of the Romanian border, which,
to be fair, we were.
After six hours they dumped us at a hotel 25 kilometers away, and when the game continued the next morning what was left of my trepidation turned to anger. "Listen," I said in adrenaline-inspired Russian. "We are just guys. All we want is to eat, to ride, to sleep. When we leave here we will no how, no way, and never return to Moldavia!" They responded well to that. They even seemed upset, as though, like everyone else, they wanted only to make conversation with their first Americans and just happened to have guns to enforce our attention.
I didn't mean that about never returning. Moldavia was beautiful, and knowing someone was keeping an eye on us made us feel important. A few weeks later at the Polish border a guard glanced at our passports and said, "So--you're the guys coming from Moscow?"
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