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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Survival in the Wilds of Russia

Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2011
From: Sergei Roy <SergeiRoy@yandex.ru>
Subject: Survival

[Former editor, Moskovskiye Novosti]

File Photo of Glacier-Capped Mountain in Caucasus
file photo
We weren't even really climbing, for God's sake. Just quietly crunching across the glacier in the early, much too early morning, when ice-bridges across crevasses were supposed to freeze solid; less danger of them crumbling under your feet. No other dangers, practically, except perhaps for an avalanche or rockslide performing their usual tricks ­ coming suddenly from nowhere. But you can't do much about those. Best ignore the thought in a sort of Inshallah spirit. So there we were, shivering slightly, fresh from our warm sleeping-bags, just a touch hung-over from the supper in base camp the night before, waiting patiently for the sun to rise and warm us, also illumine some of the most beautiful scenery in the Caucasus, for we were close to Dombai-Ulghen, the Mountain of the Wild Goat That Died, as Shakman translated the name for me. Must have missed his footing, that silly old goat.

One more little snow bridge across a crevasse to walk over. I look at my friend Shakman. He is a Karachai with a degree in Philology and a native's uncanny way with mountains. Some forty pounds heftier than myself, but light on his feet as a chamois. He crosses the ice bridge nonchalantly. I, too, step on the ice, ever so gracefully. The next moment I must have smashed my face against the edge of the crevasse really hard, because later I could not for the life of me remember tumbling down along with chunks of ice to a deepish pool some ten meters below.

Generally, my memories are a bit disjointed and unreliable at this point. On coming to, my first impression must have been of the highly refreshing quality of the water in that pool. Partially melted ice or snow, in fact. For a while, I just lay there quietly, listening to the yells somewhere above and counting my blessings. Among other things, I had landed face up, rucksack down, so my head was above the water surface. But for that, I'd have taken in enough of that iced water to put me out of my misery for good.

I tried moving my hands and legs. The left side was no good for anything except to send pain shooting all the way to the top of my head. The right arm and leg were still serviceable, though. Next point: I could not see much for the blood covering my face, from which I deduced that I must have banged my head about quite a bit in freefall. But ideas kept filtering through that battered organ, and I decided that that was enough for the moment. The rest would have to wait.

In the end, they dragged me out of that cozy pool, smashed kneecap, dislocated shoulder and all. The episode put paid to my mountaineering. After an operation and a lot of murderous exercise to follow, my left shoulder was OK for everyday purposes but had a tendency to dislocate under strain, and you can't have that as you cling to a rock face like a spider. Main thing, you can let down your pals, who will have to carry you down and nurse you on the way. Not to be thought of.

Well, I'd had about ten years of fun with the mountains. I sometimes even think that my having to get out of the sport was for the best, especially when I visit the graves of my mountain-climbing friends. Those that do have graves, that is. For some you just drop a wreath from a chartered helicopter over some inaccessible abyss your pal had disappeared into.

It's been a long time since those rock-climbing days. Decades, in fact, and quite eventful decades. Worth talking about to anyone who'll listen.

When I built up my physique to a semblance of its former shape, I developed a passion for wandering over Russia's wilder, if flatter, parts, known among similarly inclined souls as nenaselenka, slang for "uninhabited areas." Being a bit of a loner, I sometimes roamed these areas with a friend or two, but mostly solo. More chance to pump plenty of adrenaline in your system when you know that there's no one to help, should something untoward happen.

And things did happen. Even adventure-wise, I've had a more diverse career than before. Knocking about the wilder parts of the country in a boat, raft, or sailing dinghy, on foot or on skis, I lost my way in the desert, fell ill in the Siberian taiga and nearly starved to death there, almost froze to death trekking across the Subpolar Urals, had some terrific fun bordering on suicide sliding down rapids in a kayak, had a bit of a shipwreck on the Caspian, and might, if pressed, recall plenty more.

God knows there is enough room for this sort of fun out here. Actually, you don't even have to go out all the way to Siberia to experience any of this. I vividly recall an episode on the Ugra, easily reached by an electrichka (suburban train) from Moscow.

...I heard their lusty yells long before I saw them. The river, swollen with the flood waters of spring, turned here rather sharply, the current was strong, you had to look out for a nasty island closer to the left bank, but there was plenty of room for maneuver. Strictly no sweat. Still, those three had managed to smash their baidarka against a birch-tree that grew on the submerged island and were now yelling their heads off, clinging to the thick branches for dear life.

I ferried them one by one, dripping wet, teeth chattering, in my rubber dinghy to the higher bank, righted their overturned baidarka, then towed it to shore. They squatted where I'd left them, hugging their knees and shaking. What's that Alaskan word for tenderfoot? Chechako. The young people were certainly chechakos of the first water, the three of them piling into that two-seater, and all three, especially the young lady, on the hefty side. Anyone could have told them the boat would capsize. If it hadn't been for that birch-tree, they'd have found another.

Well, they would live and learn. Hardly the right moment to start lecturing them. I made a fire for them, then spent an interesting half hour or so diving for their rucksacks which they hadn't had the sense to tie to the baidarka's frame. The water was more like freshly molten ice. By the time I lugged the last sodden piece of luggage to the fire, they were squabbling fiercely, hardly
paying any attention to me. So I quietly toweled myself by the fire, dressed and slipped away. Chechakos will be chechakos. I'd done all that the rafter's rigid code demanded, but I'd be damned if I let them spoil my annual trip to paradise.

For that is what Russia is to the white-water rafter, especially in spring, when most rivers, even quite close to Moscow, rush merrily between fragrant walls of shrubs and trees in full bloom. There's always the spice of danger ­ heavy current and shallows and snags and things you cannot foresee ­ but nothing that cannot be handled with good equipment, a level head and a bit of luck. Ordinary common sense is also desirable, as the above story should show. The best attraction is, of course, that you can feel like an explorer in the wilderness within a couple hours' train ride from any major city, which are few and far between.

After all, Russia is just the greater part of a couple of continents lumped together, and practically all of it falls into the category of the wilds, nine tenths of the population clinging to the western border and the rest smeared over vast spaces in uneven patches. A virtual El Dorado for the fisherman, the hunter, the adventurer, or plain hiker. Until recently, all of it was inaccessible to visitors from abroad, closed forever by a paranoid political system, long defunct now, thank God. It's all openness and light now, and everyone is welcome to the dangers and hardships and thrills of survival and the fun of fishing and hunting, mostly amidst scenery of breath-taking beauty.

It would take a hefty volume to describe even what little I alone have seen and been through, so what follows below offers just a few glimpses. I will try to follow some sort of plan, describing types of travel, types of terrain, etc., but these are merely a frame to hang an old trekker's tales on.

THE RIVERS. Paddling down rivers is probably the most popular kind of travel adventure. The rivers range from mammoths like the Ob, the Yenisei and the Lena ­ wider than the English Channel and flowing over thousands of miles ­ to nice, cozy streams all closed in by trees, more like tunnels in the woods.

For sporting purposes, rivers are divided into several categories, each subdivided into subcategories, A and B; say, 1A, 3B, etc. "Ones" are the easiest; people paddle down them with their kids, including tiny tots, and seem to like it. "Fives" are awful: endless chains of rapids and waterfalls. It takes World Class Masters of Sports to conquer the worst of them, and then only with special equipment. That's something for real rugged types.

So you can take your pick. Some like it in SOUTHERN RUSSIA or KAZAKHSTAN with their quiet clear streams flowing through the endless steppe. Being mostly well stocked with fish, they attract the dreamy fisherman and especially the keen spear-fisher, due to the warm climate (well, warmer than in most other parts of Russia, anyway).

I will never forget the Uil in Western Kazakhstan, probably thrown on the map especially with a view to pleasing the solitude-loving spear-fisher. Just empty steppe for miles and miles around, no people, no human habitation of any sort, translucent water, and plenty of fish: pike, sheatfish, crucian, sazan (a sort of wild carp), you name it. There, I shot at a pike that was about my size, or so it seemed (water magnifies things about 1.5 times). Unfortunately ­ or fortunately from the pike's point of view ­ my harpoon line got entangled in the reeds, and the pike escaped unharmed, pulling away slowly, even majestically. As I left that spot, I shook my fist at the enemy and swore to come back some day and get him. I never did, though ­ Kazakhstan is now a terribly independent country. A friendly one, no doubt, but somehow one has lost the élan that once drove one to such places.

Well, there are always dozens of quiet rivers, large and small, of central and southern Russia that may serve the same purpose. The Khoper is perhaps most typical, eminently suitable for unhurried paddling and fishing, preferred by family groups, often with kids. For the more rugged types there is, say, the lower Volga, especially the delta (I described a not so recent trip there elsewhere on JRL).

In the north of the European part of Russia there's KARELIA, the land of about a zillion picturesque lakes and countless rivers complete with even more numerous rapids. Quite a few people swear by it and would not dream of going anywhere else. The rapids, however, are not to be taken lightly ­ every now and then you see sad inscriptions, painted on rocks that fill half the landscape, to the effect that so and so died there tragically. So there's every opportunity for daredevils to play hide-and-seek with the Ugly One with the Scythe, but the other kind of hiker can always choose an easier route. One year somewhere off Eng Ozero I was amazed to see on the bank a couple of tents with a clothes line stretched between two trees and festooned with drying rompers, Later I talked to a young, pretty mom with a sleeping baby in her arms. That little chap was sure to grow up a real hardy character, as the North Pole is not too far off, and when the wind blows off the Arctic ­ as it mostly does ­ the temperatures are not exactly Californian.

A great many people are in love with THE URALS, the border between Europe and Asia and a continent unto itself: Southern, Central, Northern and Subpolar. You mention Ural rivers to an old hand and his eyes immediately take on a dreamy look as he breathes out the magic word, kharius. That's grayling, a poem of a fish from the salmon family. Mouth-watering, not to mention the joys of fly-fishing. The taimen, that huge, incredibly powerful fish is locally called krasulya, meaning the beautiful one. And he sure is. Trouble is, it is becoming ever rarer, and you have to go farther east if you wish to land a worthwhile trophy.

Beyond the Urals lies THE OB BASIN, with sluggish giant tributaries of the Ob and tributaries of tributaries, all of awesome width. Here you paddle past incredibly tall, glum, centuries-old fir trees, larches, pines and Siberian cedars week after week without seeing a soul, till you begin to wonder where the rest of the world has got to. All the time you keep praying that the fires do not start, for when they do, all the bears head for the river and you may run out of shells trying to scare them away.

When you think you can no longer stand the gloomy, humanless spaces, the river flows into a lake (called here tuman for no apparent reason, for tuman in Russian means "fog") the size of an average sea, so you spend more weeks looking for the outlet, as each and every bay (and they sometimes stretch for countless miles) may turn out to be the source of an outflowing river, and then again they may not.

I hear you mutter the word "maps," but it only shows what a lot you know about the Soviet way of life (I did most of my rafting in the bad old times under the Soviets). In those days, all maps on the 2 km/cm scale (that is, the only useful variety) were terribly secret, and possession could cost you two years in prison. A year per kilometer, I guess. The non-secret variety (say, on the 6km/cm scale) were made with gross, and deliberate, inaccuracies ­ to fool the potential imperialist enemy, I was told.

I did not believe it myself, until I began hearing, time and again, about adventurers who innocently thought that, if a waterfall was not marked on a map, it did not exist in harsh reality. We'll never know what they thought of those maps and their makers when they found it was too late and sort of useless to head for the shore. Survivors were rare. Offhand, I can only recall the story of a young lady who was thrown on the river bank below the rapids with a smashed hip bone and was later accidentally found by some hunters.

I remember reading in the 1970s in the Literary Gazette ­ in those days a sort of safety valve for the intelligentsia's discontent ­ that of the two million people who annually headed for the wilds of Russia (I wonder how they managed to count them; I for one hate being counted, and made sure nobody ever did), around a hundred died in accidents. A goodish number of them certainly died for want of maps, flares, portable radios, and other capitalist luxuries one sometimes incredulously heard of.

But all of this is too painful to dwell on, and quite outdated. Now all you have to do is get yourself a GPS gadget, and you'll always know, with unbelievable accuracy, where you are ­ provided you find a power outlet to recharge your batteries. When you are stuck a few hundred miles from the nearest settlement ­ which may or may not have electricity ­ this may be a bit of a problem.

East of the Ob lies THE YENISEI BASIN. It takes longer to get out there, but it's worth it. The rivers are faster and clearer, none of the endless marshes of Western Siberia here. The fish -- like the monstrous killer taimen I mentioned earlier ­ are more plentiful and exotic. The rapids are what old hands call "interesting," loosely translatable as "reminiscent of obituaries."

There are other "interesting" phenomena, like ulovo (very loosely translated as trap) ­ giant whirlpools where, if your craft is not mobile enough ­ say, if it is a log raft ­ you can go round and round endlessly. People have been known to starve to death in these traps almost within touching distance of the banks.

You may ask why not jump off the raft and swim ashore. To this let me tell you the story I heard from a taiga-born buddy of mine. Ulovo is bad, he said, but something known as prizhim (literally "push-in"; something that pushes you against an obstacle) is much deadlier. It's like this: the current hits a rocky bank with incredible force eroding the rock so that a cave is formed under water, and if something or somebody is driven there by the current, they stay there for good.

It so happened that this buddy of mine was paddling down a similar monster of a river with a group of other chaps, and one of them tumbled into the stream, no one could later say why or how. He was instantly driven underwater in the manner described ­ and never surfaced. Now it so happened that that guy worked at some secret defense establishment, so the news inevitably reached the KGB. There, the view was predictably taken that, since there was no body, the man could have slipped away abroad bearing with him those terrible state secrets. So the KGB told the guys to produce their colleague, dead or alive. They did not much care which, but the physical body must be made available. Needless to say the whole group was "detained," as a precaution.

An obvious impasse developed, until someone had the bright idea to reconstruct the situation ­ stage an experiment. Eighty tree trunks were thrown into water at the spot where the guy had disappeared. One (1) surfaced. The experiment was deemed convincing, and the whole thing was allowed to quietly die down.

So better think carefully before you decide to jump into the river near an ulovo or a push-in. We aren't cats, you know; one life is all we have, and at times it seems exquisitely worth living.

Another nasty feature of Siberian rivers is zalom, technically known as a jam: stretches where a river is literally crammed with logs or newly fallen trees, sometimes for miles and even dozens of miles. This is especially likely to happen in the pristine, untrodden taiga, where for hundreds of years the river has been washing away the bank, carrying the trees growing there to some obstacle where they pile up, the jam growing longer and longer with every year. At a spot like this, your tolerably peaceful kayaking is over, and you start scrambling through the mostly impassable taiga, with all your belongings toward a spot where the river flows again unobstructed ­ you hope. That's a really character-building exercise, heartily to be recommended to the weaker in spirit.

Trees on river banks can generally be relied on to introduce a note of excitement into the boring routine of survival in the taiga. From time to time they topple over into the river, their roots laid bare by the current or surf. They come down with a mighty crash either as you approach or have just passed them (if they drop on you, you are no longer around to cherish the memory of the excitement). The effect is particularly devastating when you paddle close to the shore of a lake on a quiet day in a profound reverie, only to be catapulted from your seat by what seems to be the crash of a howitzer behind your ear. Believe me, a little thing like that makes you a better and nobler human being, or at any rate more appreciative of even the shallowest existence.

Where the current is really strong, you may be granted yet another kind of ennobling experience. As you paddle serenely or stand pensively on a bank, the waters may part suddenly and the mutilated crown of a huge, water-logged tree may emerge from under the surface, rising higher and higher. The trunk will stand almost vertically for a few seconds before toppling over with an earth-shattering report. What happens here is this: a tree that has fallen into the river many miles upstream is dragged by the current submerged until its thicker and heavier end is jammed against some obstruction on the bottom. The current keeps piling up fiercely, lifting the other end ­ apparently to give you a lesson in humility and gratitude to the fates, if you have an imagination vivid enough to picture the scene if you had been paddling over the right spot at the right moment.

THE LENA and its tributaries are like the Yenisei, only more so, because they are farther to the east. They mostly flow through Yakutia, and the population is about fifty-fifty, the Yakut and the Russians, only that same population is spread so thinly that you barely notice it. Hamlets consisting of a few houses are sometimes three or four hundred kilometers apart.

For this reason you must take very special care of your craft. Any mishap to your vessel leaves you stranded in the middle of nowhere with very little hope of being rescued, unless a spaceship lands nearby. A proper repair kit is an absolute must.

Besides a repair kit, it is desirable to have a cool, far-sighted head on your shoulders. One of my more educational stories for the young is about my trip down the Amga, a tributary of the Aldan which is in turn a tributary of the Lena. One day, after about twelve hours plying my double-bladed oar I slept through the night like a log and only woke in the morning ­ to find my kayak gone. During the night the water level had risen ­ summer freshets are frequent on the Amga ­ and the current had carried away my craft God knew where. I'll never forget leaping like mad some five or six kilometers up and down the hills skirting the river until I found my lovely kayak impaled on a sharp bough of a tree lying across the river. Sadly, the rest was even more boring. Returning to my camp, I found it a total mess, most likely the result of a visit by a wolverine. It destroyed lots of my stuff, but luckily the repair kit was almost intact. After that episode I always drag my boat or raft as high on the bank as I can or tie the painter to something really sturdy with a double knot ­ even in places where freshets have never been heard of.

What you hardly expect in Yakutia is good weather: after all, Oymyakon, the planet's cold pole, is right there. Some years temperatures go up into the 30s (Celsius) in July, before the August rains start. Another real blessing: in some places there are fewer mosquitoes than in others.

That does not mean, of course, that you can go sunning yourself like in the Crimea. During a sailing trip down the Lena a friend of mine tried it, and it was a truly unforgettable sight: within seconds his whole suntanned body became grey, covered with a layer of very active mosquitoes. The lad was a good track and field athlete, so he streaked along the sandy bank as he had hardly ever run before, but you cannot run away from those bloodsuckers. He had to throw himself in the stinging cold water, wash off the mess and hurriedly pull on all his clothes. Till the end of the voyage, though, he kept scratching himself, all over.

Generally speaking, everywhere in Siberia you must be ready for a spirit-building encounter with this curse, and a cheap nakomarnik, a hat with a mosquito net protecting your head, is an indispensable part of your equipment. Some find it hard to breathe with the nakormarnik on, but it's certainly better than smearing the mosquito mess all over your face. Hunters have it toughest, as you cannot hunt with the net on, and you cannot get by without hunting, if you want to eat.

Repellents help, but not always. In some places mosquitoes and gnats eat that stuff with relish before starting on you. Whets their appetite, I guess... The tiniest bloodsuckers, gnats, the no-seeums, aptly known here as gnus, are the worst, an abomination worse than nuclear war. They penetrate everywhere ­ nostrils, ears, under the eyelids, boots, the most intimate places. One year, my wrist itched for about a month under the watch strap upon return from the tundra.

Huge elks have been sucked dry by the infernal creatures, hardly a drop of blood left in their bodies. Exhausted, they fall easy prey to poachers, wolves or bears. All reindeer head for the Arctic Ocean coast, where the fierce wind off the North Pole keeps the bloodsuckers at bay.

Having mentioned elks, I must also talk of elk lice, quite a minor irritant compared to mosquitoes and gnats ­ and I am not sure they are lice in the true zoological sense. These are widespread not only in the taiga but throughout the European part of Russia as well. They do not bite, but they crawl. God, how they crawl, getting under the clothes right down to your skin. They are hard to get rid of, as they stick to you like leeches. Best wear an anorak with a tight-fitting hood and wristbands as protection.

Insects can spoil the best-planned adventure in the taiga. That's why the bunch I used to hang out with at one time preferred Siberia in September, when the first real frosts strike and kill off the vermin. But paddling down a river in subzero temperature and fresh, very fresh winds ­ Oh, my aching broken bones...

EAST OF THE LENA lie the really fabulous places, like the Indigirka, the Kolyma, Chukotka, Kamchatka, Magadan, Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands.

You take the Kurils. There was a time when they were known as a fantastic tourist attraction, not a political issue in Russo-Japanese relations. Of course, that was for hikers of a definite sort, the most hairy ones. I just do not know whether anyone wanders over those islands these days, like we used to tramp there among tree-like ferns and similar exotic flora.

One must be practical, though: unless one is prepared to spend two months or more on a trip, it's no use talking of places like these. Too far out. Planes are the only practicable way to travel to and from those areas, only people have been known to spend weeks waiting for some rattling local conveyance ­ because of fog, smoke from taiga fires, or no fuel. Not to mention prohibitive prices, but that's mostly a problem for the cash-strapped Russian intelligentsia that makes up the greater part of the nature-loving adventurers. It's no problem for the New and Very New Russians, only their haunts are mostly the Canaries and the Maldives now, and who could blame them?

Sure, these days there are quite a few of the new breed of entrepreneur who will organize for you a trip anywhere in Russia, including the Far East. That will come at a price, though. I once read of a highly placed US citizen ­ a vice president, no less, if I remember rightly ­ who paid the unbelievable sum of $2000 per diem for fishing in Kamchatka. I merely chuckled, recalling the times when we were doing that absolutely free, and the fish used to snap at unbaited hooks even. Ah, those were the days, my friend...

I catch myself feeling a bit nostalgic at this point, and it's easy to see why. I can be as critical as the next man about life under the Soviets -- the years when the greater part of my trekking was done ­ but there were a couple of things that we certainly enjoyed then and miss now, under primeval capitalism. One was cheap travel, the other, friendship among peoples, to use a bit of political cant from those days.

Train tickets, plane tickets, any kind of travel was so cheap that anyone could go anywhere in this vast land ­ across ten time zones, if your heart so desired. Chukotka, Kamchatka, Sakhalin Island, the Kurils, they were all accessible whatever the state of one's purse. Border areas were the exception, of course. There, the difficulty was mostly insurmountable. People intent on entering these areas were automatically suspected of wishing to leave the country illegally, to defect, in fact. But everywhere else...

I distinctly remember that sailing aboard ship as a deck passenger half the mammoth length of the Volga, from Saratov to Astrakhan, cost five rubles ­ exactly the price of a bottle of Pliska, a cheap Bulgarian brandy. Crossing the Caspian from Bekdash on the eastern coast to Makhachkala on the western one, the same magic figure, five rubles. Sure, traveling as a deck passenger is not everyone's cup of vodka, but I loved it. In the daytime, you could watch the bow wave or borrow a book from the ship's library, and at night spread your inflatable mattress in some cozy nook on deck and watch the stars dancing around the mast half the night. Delightful.

Prices today are a rip-off, sheer banditry. Moscow to Vladivostok by plane, business class -- $5000. My pension for 18 months, to the kopek.

And as for friendship among peoples and how it all ended... Just one episode from my travels. In about 1987 I paddled along the western coast of the Caspian, my favorite sea, in a 7ft-long inflatable baidarka, the sort you put on rather than sit in. Luckily the sea was not too rough ­ a rarity in May ­ and I went all the way along the seacoast of Dagestan and a goodish part of Azerbaijan, reaching as far south as Sumgait, north of Baku. All the folks I met on the way ­ Dagestanis, Azeris ­ welcomed me as a gift from Allah, the way the Koran prescribes to treat a wayfarer. And mark you, they were practically without exception far from the most civilized or law-abiding citizens ­ poachers whose main business in life was catching the forbidden fish, the sturgeon.

Well, anyway, I reached Sumgait, like I said, cadged a lift to the railway station and returned to Moscow, thinking on the way about starting the following year from that spot and heading south, past Baku and ­ Allah willing ­ as far as the Iranian border. But! That same year saw the first of the massacres in the area, Azeris slaughtering Armenians in that same godforsaken, ugly industrial town of Sumgait that had seemed so peaceable, even torpid to me. One heard horror stories about pregnant women having their bellies ripped up and the like, too gruesome to recount here. That was the start of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, in which millions suffered unspeakably, glory be to Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and us damn fools who supported them.

Would I repeat that delightful trip today? Unthinkable. Back then, I slept on beaches in my tiny kayak, covering myself with a bit of oilcloth. These days I would be sure to wake up a hostage or a slave ­ or minus my silly old head. No, thanks all the same.

I seem to be digressing, however, carried away by memories. Let me tackle some of the subjects that have to do more directly, let's say substantively, with my main theme. Like craft that one sails or paddles in.

CRAFT. The most popular craft are baidarkas, a kind of collapsible kayak, only more open, with a crew of one to four, but mostly two. The sports goods industry in this country being what it is, it's really inspiring to see the endless variety of craft the do-it-yourself people (which means practically everybody) put together. Some find this half the fun. I've quoted Kenneth Grahame at them, and they heartily agreed with the Water Rat's sentiment that "there is nothing ­ absolutely nothing ­ half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats ­ or with boats."

A really popular river like the Msta or the Mologa, a mere couple of hundred of miles from Moscow, or the Belaya in the Urals, offer a fascinating spectacle of boats of all shapes and sizes and materials, kayaks, rafts (including round one-seaters made of a single inner tube), catamarans, dushegubkas (literally, "soul-killers," a particularly wiggly sort of dugout), and even American-looking canoes, but these are rarities.

I prefer a modernized version of dushegubka when traveling alone, and a rubber raft when I have company, for comfort and safety if not speed. I also possess a beautiful Polish sailing dinghy, and this leads me to the next section.

SAILING. Anyone who paddles down a small river eventually gets to a large one, or a lake, or a sea, and, quickly tiring of paddling without some aid from the current, makes some sort of sail out of a blanket, a sheet of sturdy plastic, anything. This takes them into a whole new world full of the thrill of sailing. Most folks simply add bigger and better-made sails to their baidarkas, which opens up a whole new dimension of excitement: sailing a baidarka without an outrigger or a leeboard is as good as playing cat-and-mouse with the wind, and you end up a very wet mouse, sooner or later.

The sailing dinghy I mentioned is ideal in this sense: she is collapsible, she can be packed in three bags weighing thirty to forty kilos each, so you can take her anywhere by car or railway, and on one occasion ­ that was on the Aral seacoast ­ I even loaded her on a tiny biplane when time came to return to civilization. She has a centerboard, two sails and a twelve-foot mast in four sections. I've had some terrific fun with her ­ on the Volga, the Ural reservoir, the Azov Sea, the Tvertsa, but mostly on the Aral Sea (when there was an Aral Sea; it is a disaster area now), the Caspian, and elsewhere.

The most memorable voyage was along the Caspian Sea's eastern coast, desert on the left, deep sea on the right, desert islands of bright white sand, seagulls overhead, curious seals, their funny faces popping up within touching distance, frightening me out of my wits as I dozed at the tiller. There was the unforgettable fun of skin diving and spearing gray mullet, catching shrimp with my T-shirt and crayfish with my hands. What I remember above all is the bliss of solitude and light wind and the glare of the sun on the swell, and the roll of the boat.

Of course I got caught in a couple of storms, but that was just to give me a sense of proportion. Towards the end, after I passed Kazakh Bay, the shore was nothing but a wall of rock stretching for dozens of miles. Actually you don't have to be smashed up by a passing storm on the rocks, even: just lose your canister of fresh water when the dinghy capsizes, and you'll realize how real and earnest life is. This was brought home to me most aptly on the night I first arrived at the Aral Sea (Aralskoe More) railway station, and the station-master grumbled indifferently, by way of welcome: "Ah, tourists. We have a whole graveyard full of fellows like you."

There are other vast lakes, seas, and water reservoirs all over Russia, like Lake Ladoga, Lake Onega, Lake Baikal and the White Sea, not to mention those giant rivers ­ the Ob, the Yenisei, the Lena. As I've said before, you'll have to forget all about sunbathing there, better pack a quilted suit or so, even at the height of summer.

The less rigorous spots, like Lake Seliger, Lake Zhizhitsa, Lake Valdai or the Volga itself with its huge reservoirs, are the last resort for me: too populous. But I understand there are sociable types who like this sort of thing ­ enjoying chance acquaintances' company, sitting by the fire all night, exchanging life stories, views and jokes, singing songs, sharing a bottle of vodka. All very nice in its own way.

Actually, I mustn't make out like a surly, solitary hombre: in the right company I can, shall we say, exaggerate with the best of them about past adventures, only most liars lie more convincingly than the man who has truly been there, as someone observed long before me. Speaking for oneself, it's more exciting when you travel for weeks and hardly see a soul, and when you do, they are piteously grateful for human contact of any kind, once you get past the usually rough exterior.

Another fine thing about real wilderness is that there is less danger of being rammed by drunken bargemen or reckless speedboats. All you have to do is take very good care of your equipment, and look out for sudden gusts of wind ­ these are much more frequent on wide rivers and, close to shore, on the greater lakes, than out at sea or on the smaller rivers; the wind force is terrific, snapping steel stays like matchsticks.

In general, when the going becomes real sticky, I tend to remind myself a precept taught me by my father more than half a century ago: never stick your head where your backside won't go, and you will live to see Christmas. Maybe.

TRAMPING ON FOOT. Long hikes are practically inevitable when you want to get right to the source of some river, especially in the Northern or Subpolar Urals, the Sayan Mountains, the Altai Mountains, the mountain country beyond Lake Baikal, in Chukotka or anywhere in the really interesting places. About the only alternative is a helicopter, and you can't rely on those, unless you have friends among the pilots or are prepared to part with exorbitant sums of money.

If you want to get to the tantalizing rivers of the Subpolar Urals and the Lower Ob, you tow your craft up the tamer streams of the western slopes, then pack up and carry everything up the hills and through passes to seek the sources of eastbound rivers. You may even hit the ones you originally planned to, but any will do if they're not too murderous. If they are, you pack up again and walk or climb round the treacherous parts, taking good care not to get lost in some handy marsh or caught by nightfall on bare rock.

Alternately, people go on foot all the way. They don't have to carry their kayaks, and that's the enjoyable part; but then they don't have the fun of shooting down rapids, either. It's a hard choice. On the whole, tramping is more exacting physically, as no right-thinking adventure-seeker ever hikes across pretty woods or fields. That's strictly for packs of voluble housewives and their husbands and children on organized mass tours.

Real adventurers head for the tundra, the taiga, the mountains or, failing all these, the deserts of Central Asia. So let me take these types of terrain one by one.

THE TUNDRA. Some say it's monotonous. There must be something wrong with my aesthetic sense, for the tundra looks heart-rendingly beautiful and infinitely variable to me. Half of it is an endless expanse of green windswept marshes, and the other half, clean water of all shapes and sizes ­ pools, lakes, streams, rivulets and rivers roaring through deep canyons, or running smooth and fast over shallows. If you look carefully, you will see the black backs of grayling lying quietly as boulders near the bottom then shooting like arrows at anything edible that the current carries ­ or at a fly made of your own hair tied with thread.

The sky in the tundra doesn't hold still for a moment, clouds endlessly shaping and reshaping and regularly hitting you with half-hour showers. Then you just sit quietly on your rucksack under a plastic sheet watching water cascade an inch or so from your nose. This gives you plenty of time to think of all sorts of really important things that you never get to think through back in the urban hustle and bustle. At times like these you realize ever so keenly the truth of what somebody put so aptly a long time ago: The Kingdom of God is within you....

True, the going in the tundra is as hard as high-altitude climbing because of the marsh and growths of polar willow, which is mostly shoulder-high scrub so thick that you sometimes hang there helplessly, unable to move right or left or forward or back or even down. And as often as not bypassing these thickets is impossible ­ you try to move around them, and you get sucked down by the mire.

The biggest fear here is of getting lost, as you constantly run into marshes and unfordable rivers (unmarked on your map, need I say, if you have one from the Soviet times), which force you to head in unwanted directions. If you wander long enough you find yourself facing the Arctic Ocean and little prospect of ever getting back home. If you walk a dozen miles a day, you are a big hero ­ it's a feat that is hard to repeat two days running.

It's next to impossible to carry enough provisions for a good long hike, so a shotgun and fishing tackle are musts, and you have to take very good care not to lose these in some marsh or river, because then you'd be in real trouble. Strapping, well-nourished muzhiki who lost their way in the tundra and were lucky to get out of it alive have been known to weigh around sixty pounds at the end of their adventure.

These rambles are usually very checkered affairs. Back in '72, my friend and I lost our way in the Ochenyrd Mountains, crossed over to the Asia side, hit Lake Shchuchye (Pike Lake), thus fixing our position on the map, turned west again and promptly lost our way again, by which time we had no provisions of any sort, and all game had disappeared as if by magic. There had been plenty of tundra grouse and all kinds of duck and even geese, but then, nothing. To add to the misery, the hills there, though not very high, are fairly obnoxious, being a combination of tundra and mountain, with high cliffs and mini-glaciers thrown in.

Then, one day, towards evening, I shot a hare. We cooked it in the darkness over a tiny fire and ate it, cinders and all. The following day I shot a reindeer, and a nerve-racking affair it was: the powder in my shells having absorbed some damp, the charge had little stopping power, so I had to finish the job with a dagger through the heart. Terrible. We spent several days in that spot, feasting on reindeer meat and getting our strength back. We buried the reindeer in a huge snowdrift left over from the previous winter and went visiting with him some three times a day, to hack off some more meat.

There was plenty to come, but it was sort of downhill after that couple of weeks. We cooked plenty of reindeer meat and fed on it until we reached a tiny settlement called Khalmer-yu. Actually, we were plain lucky ­ after a few days we hit a vorga, a sort of path or track left by the local Komi moving with their reindeer ­ apparently from one heap of empty vodka bottles to another..

THE TAIGA. This is usually translated as "Siberian forest," only the taiga is as different from any forest as frying is from baking. Put it this way: you can walk in the forest; in the taiga, you push or fight your way through, climbing under or over fallen or half-fallen trees, squelching through marshes and squeezing your way through the undergrowth. Some of it is completely impassable, and you're eternally grateful for any hint at animal tracks; elks are your best friends in this sense. If you're claustrophobic, better steer clear of the taiga.

One good thing about primeval, pristine taiga is that you don't have to worry about fish for your meals as long as you have a hook left plus a grasshopper or two, even if they are disfigured beyond recognition by repeated use. Also there are the curious hazel-grouse, curious to look at, like any wild birds, but also in the sense of inquisitive: they start up with a terrific whirr, then perch on trees nearby, gazing at you mildly while you pick them off one by one. Lyre-tailed black grouse and giant capercaillie also abound; in the really out-of-the-way places they have no fear of man, so you sometimes feel like a louse shooting them.

Unfortunately, there are also LYNXES AND BEARS, and anyone you meet there has his or her favorite lynx or bear story, to make you keep up your vigilance. Like that fellow I met on the Pelym. I could hardly look at his face, so disfigured it was after a misunderstanding with a bear he had shot at close quarters. It seems his homemade round bullet had rolled out of the barrel, and the wad merely parted the hair on the bear's forehead. That was the last thing the man remembered clearly. His laika dogs did not let the bear finish him off, so the brute merely scalped him and broke quite a lot in the way of limbs and ribs. How the poor chap ever got back to his distant village in that state, in temperatures way, way below zero, through deep snow and the kind of taiga terrain I have tried to describe here, is more than I can understand. It is inspiring to know, though, that such a thing is at all possible.

Incidentally, encounters with bears often end in these unseemly hand-to-paw brawls, since a bear takes some killing. Bullet after bullet will plonk in without visible effect. One reason for this is that in the past the good government only allowed us shotguns that fire round bullets, while the possession of rifles was punishable by law. Not now, thank God.

A trekker should always bear in mind that bears often attack from the rear. Some taiga men therefore wear face-like masks at the back of the head, which are said to be fairly effective. Anyway, whether the brute rushes you from the front or from behind, they are so fast they're upon you before you can cock your piece, let alone shoulder it. That's why many carry long knives, or knives with long handles, which the Yakut people call palmas.

The accepted knifing technique is to throw up your fur hat, the bear rises on his haunches to catch it, you stick the knife low in his belly and rip upwards with both hands, for the hide is tough and usually caked with dried mud. If you do it Yakut-style, you aim with your palma at the heart. Others prefer a rogatina, or forked bear spear, but it takes some skill to handle the instrument. The idea is to jam the butt end against the ground with your foot and let the bear skewer himself. Old hands say that a child can do it. I've never tried it, though. Never felt enough childlike faith in the technique, I guess.

Lynxes are worse than bears, or so most locals believe. They jump on you from trees, always from behind, and go straight for the jugular. According to a Siberian aboriginal I once met, the best defense against a lynx is to have a sharp-pointed iron rod sticking from your backpack: the lynx skewers itself on this as it drops on you. Even then, though, the beast can do you plenty of harm before being subdued, so you'd better keep in mind the well-known Russian adage: you want to live, learn to twist nimbly. In a very direct, physical sense.

Speaking of the taiga people ­ the Komi, the Nenets, the Even, the Evenk, the Orochi, and others ­ they are just wonderful to know. Unfortunately, ruined by alcohol to a man. Something to do with the chemistry of their metabolism. If you forget that, just talking to them you go through a school of survival in the taiga. If you find your nylon tent not the most comfortable quarters in the world, think of a typical local hunter's bivouac: some plastic sheeting tied to four knee-high pegs driven into the ground to keep out the rain. That's how they wander about the taiga, alone for months on end; a way of life I've envied only too often. . .

THE MOUNTAINS Like I said at the beginning, I'm no longer up to serious mountaineering ­ working rock faces, climbing peaks, all that sort of thing. But mountains are always a delight, even if you stick to the technically "uninteresting" valleys, ridges and passes. There's nothing like heady mountain air, the vistas that fill your soul with cosmic wonder and make you forget your pygmy worries left behind on the plain. There's also fishing for trout right next to glaciers, or bathing in icy water. Invigorating, that's the word.

As for the spice of danger, remember that you are mostly miles and miles away from the nearest habitation, and if you are rambling solo, even a slight mishap like a broken ankle may lead to serious unpleasantness.

A story that has grown stale from repetition tells of girls in mountain camps going to some stream to brush their teeth, slipping, hitting the back of their head on a rock and falling into the river, to be fished out a few miles downstream with their bodies pounded to a pulp against rocks by the mad current. Somehow it's mostly girls. Victims of personal cleanliness, I guess.

Then there was this stupid accident some twenty years ago in the Caucasus: a large group on a guided walking tour was caught in a freak snowstorm at the height of summer, and the guide idiotically decided to forge ahead. A couple dozen froze to death near the pass in their summer clothes, while a couple of experienced hikers told the guide to drop dead (which he eventually did) and headed back for the woods, where they spent a nice quiet night by the fire. Anyone who has knocked about the mountains long enough has even better and more educational stories to tell.

Since the early 1990s, the range of available mountain wildernesses in this country has dwindled, along with the diminishing size of the country itself. The Caucasus and the Pamir, the most exciting places of them all, are hopeless now, populated by bunches of damn fools who have reverted to their medieval pursuits or hostage-taking and other kinds of banditry, not to mention internecine strife of Rwandan brutality.

Fortunately, there are countless others left in Russia proper, like the Khibiny, the Urals, the Tien Shan, the Altai and the Sayany, to name but the greatest ones. You can spend a few lifetimes exploring each of these. All except the Southern and Central Urals are what you might call sparsely populated: you can wander there for weeks without seeing a soul. In one of these ranges they came a while ago on a family who had really got away from it all (actually from religious persecution) back in the '20s and had lived all those decades unmolested ­ except by bears. Unfortunately, they had lost their immunity to many diseases; only one old crone survived the reunion with the human race, and even she has died recently. There must be a moral in this, somewhere.

Mountain countries fall, on the whole, into two categories, old and young mountains. The younger ranges have peaks up to 21,000 feet high, glaciers, mile-high walls of sheer rock, the whole works. Compared to these, the older hills like the Khibiny or the Urals or some East Siberian ranges have a toylike quality; they are lower and smoother, snow-clad peaks are rare, the rivers not so savage.

However, that's no reason to treat them in a cavalier fashion. If you do, you may feel sorry, provided you are left feeling anything at all. After all, a cliff is a cliff, and whether you fall 1500 feet or just 150, the net result tends to be the same. Also, it is much, much easier to lose one's way in the old hills than almost anywhere else. In the Caucasus, the peaks are all distinctly individual, there is no mistaking, say, Peak Ineh (Needle, in Karachai) for Belyala-Kaya (The Girl With a Multi-Colored Belt). Old hills have mostly been worn to uniformity over millions of years.

Another curious feature of old mountains is false crests. You climb and climb and you think that you'll get to the top in an hour or so, but you get there only to observe the next slope rising not far away to a crest; you start climbing that and the whole thing repeats itself. It is a particularly effective character-building exercise in winter as you climb waist-deep in fluffy snow gloomily watching for certain unmistakable signs of a snowstorm coming on, night falling, and no level ground to pitch your tent on ­ if you have a tent.

You may think I am laying it on thick, whereas in fact I am merely describing an actual experience. When I moved to the Urals all those years ago, a student of mine somehow heard of my modest fame as a mountaineer who'd done some serious climbing in the Caucasus. So he invited me to come on a hike through nearby mountains. I promptly agreed, only to find out, after we had climbed the first few ridges, that he expected me to know the way in this region, which was completely new to me.

How he had worked that out is beside the point. The naked fact was that we inevitably got lost, and it was getting dark and the wind was rising and we were wet with sweat, climbing through all that snow up slippery slopes on all fours with heavy backpacks. Then the boy ­ a strong, rosy-cheeked, talkative chap ­ simply switched off, falling completely silent and staring straight ahead, only going as far as I could push him. Believe me, he gave me a real fright.

The nicest touch was that we did not have a tent, as he had talked of how easy it was to find, up there, a haystack locally called stozhary. They are built hollow for the hay to dry better; you make a tunnel through the hay to the hollow middle and are as snug as a bug. It was quite right what he told me there, I later spent many an unforgettable cozy night in these haystacks, especially when I lit a bit of a candle in a glass jar and had someone cuddly with me while a snowstorm might be raging outside or various heavy-footed animals came to feed at night. On that particular night, though, there were no haystacks, no valleys or plateaus where the haystacks might be, no bit of level ground even, just the nearly-vertical rock and snow and wind and darkness and fear.

In the end, I did find a few feet of nearly horizontal ground under a solitary fir tree, and even built a fire on the lee side, only in my hurry and in the darkness I almost hacked my knee-cap in two as I was cutting some branches for a fire, and that was by no means the end of the story. Might tell you some other time.

Some trips are like that. All you can hope for is to get back alive: try to be good, do not anger the gods, never say die, and maybe you'll wriggle out somehow. But there are also happy trips, in winter, too, when you reach a crest with a fantastic view or a nice cozy valley and the air is still, the sun bright, the frost not too murderous, the skis go swish-swish, and you get an occasional hare or grouse. Which means that I am way into my next subject.

SKIING HIKES. On the whole, skiing trips are for the really hardy, and it would be a mistake to begin your career in the wilds in winter. Frost or snowstorms can last for weeks, and incessant cold is probably the most effective frayer of tempers ever invented. True, it is also the best way to find out one's true worth. There is no cheating here; most people go snap, sooner or later, only some do it sooner and others later.

If you've had some experience in survival in the wilds and wish to try it in winter, do not begin in the mountains. Plains are much easier. The skiing itself is different both from whooping it up (or down) at a skiing resort, with all those lifts and things, and from flat racing where you glide gracefully along a well-trodden track in a psychedelic suit. Here, you have to make the track in knee-deep snow or worse, and do not giggle when you see steam rising in waves over your mate's head, for it also rises over yours.

The skis are different from those used in racing, they are heavier and broader and shorter and they do not have that springy quality of racing skis, but they do have metal rims for sliding down hills. Also special bindings. When you just walk on even ground, your heel is not fixed, but when you face a steep run, you fix it with a wire and try to do elegant cuts with a 60-pound backpack, hoping that when you eventually somersault it will be the wire or the ski that will go snap and not your shin.

There are other character-building aspects of skiing trips in the wilds, like making a fire in the snow. Did you ever realize that, when you build a fire in snow, the snow melts, and the fire goes out? Jack London's characters never seem to have trouble that way, but that's the privilege of fiction. In real life, you either look for a stump of a big enough tree or the fallen tree itself, or else dig a hole in the snow to the very ground, at the end of which process you may find yourself shoulder-deep, which rather complicates things. Some lug around primus stoves and similar machines, but I regard this sort of thing as cheating. Inevitable where there is no firewood of any kind, though.

Tents are also a delight, from the spirit-enhancing point of view. You pitch them and sleep in them and the moisture of your breathing settles on the walls and freezes solid, and your nice lightweight tent becomes hard and heavy as a board, only much more breakable. Also your skis may break, however careful you may be. Then there are the treacherous polynyas, unfrozen patches in the middle of otherwise solidly icebound rivers, covered by thin ice and powdered with snow ­ through which you sploosh, skis, backpack and all. It's a very good way to learn to love thy neighbors who will have to fish you out and nurse you back to life and even probably save you from amputated toes and fingers if not from frostbite.

SOME GENERAL REMARKS ON SURVIVAL. These days a whole industry has grown around the theme of survival, complete with TV programs, survival schools, books, videos, experts and instructors, the lot. One sees distinctly glum-looking folks on desert islands, mostly in fairly large groups, posing for the cameras as they try to make fire by rubbing twigs or the like. You know the sort of thing.

According to one school of thought, survival has something to do with eating worms, grubs, birch bark and such; building all your shelters from scratch; drinking distilled urine for lack of water; and a thousand other silly things.

To me, all this seems to be just a curious way to waste your time, effort and money, but everyone to their own taste. Personally, I take the more Russian, or simply sensible, view that survival is primarily a matter of character or spirit plus infinite-resource-and-sagacity. An absolute must in this business of survival is developing the subject's confidence that, whatever the jam you're in, you can get out of it relying only on yourself and your pals ­ or go down with all possible dignity.

To gain this confidence, you don't have to eat birch bark or vermin at all. As you roam the really wild places, there is enough danger and cold and heat and fatigue and animal hunger, pretty constant, to forge your spirit or smash it to bits, without going into the snake-eating routine. (Mind you, I've nothing against snakes, I regularly use them for bait, chopped up.)

Take Alain Bombard, for instance. He proved scientifically that shipwreck victims do not die of thirst or hunger. They die of fear long before they begin to really suffer from privation or exposure. And the truth of that is obvious to any trekker who's been in a really tight jam.

I had a friend, a big strapping chap, stronger and healthier than myself, a fine hunter and fisherman. It so happened that he lost his way shooting duck in the Volga delta; not a difficult trick as the reeds cover immense areas there, and hoping that someone will come to your aid is plain foolish. Grisha was in a boat, there was plenty of water and food, yet when they found him after three days, he was quite dead.

I couldn't understand it until years later, when I myself lost my way in the reeds on the southern shore of the Aral Sea, close to the Amu-Darya delta. The reeds there are fifteen feet tall and so thick that you can't push your gun between the stalks. They block out the sun, you don't know which way is north, which way south, and even if you did, it would do you no good at all because the reeds just don't let you go where you want. Your only chance is to crawl along tunnels beaten in the thickets and mud by wild boars. Trouble is, you are not a wild boar, so as you push your way through the tangle barely keeping your head above the liquid mud, enduring millions of mosquito bites, and thinking of poisonous snakes, you find it all a bit much, and eventually begin to wonder if it's worth it, after all. The hopelessness is enough to squeeze your heart to a stop.

Aha, I thought, so that was how Grishka had died. Dead easy. Don't ask me why, but that thought of my long-dead friend somehow gave me a shot in the arm, and ­ well, it's a long story, but in the end I pulled through, a much chastened man.

I hope you see my point. It's all very well to be able to eat snake, but I'd have long been eaten by snakes and other vermin if I had relied on that ability for my survival.

SOME PRACTICAL HINTS TO VISITORS. There are roughly two choices before anyone from abroad planning a trip to the wilder parts of Russia. You can deal with one of the countless post-Intourist travel agencies, or you can organize your trip on a people-to-people basis. The former option is for folks who don't mind being fleeced at every step in return for indifferent or inferior services. In my view, the second choice is infinitely more preferable. This way, you team up with a bunch of like-minded local adventurers who are going on a trip anyway. You just pay your way (train or plane tickets, foodstuffs, etc.) and try to be as nice and hardy a sort as you can, and you'll be all right. May even form a few life-long friendships.

A word of caution: human relationships are all-important here, and the further away from Moscow, the more so. An effort may have to be made to change ingrained habits and attitudes. On a trip, you share everything (pretty literally) with your team-mates. Say, keeping a bottle of whisky for your personal
use is sure to raise eyebrows. The usual procedure is to hand all your edibles and drinkables over to the stingiest and most implacable individual, called "boatswain" regardless of sex, who is then expected to take care of the usually ravenous appetites from first day to last, in places where shops and
other amenities are but pale memories.

Another prominent figure in any group, even if it's just the two or three of you, is the komandor or "Commodore": the guy in charge. The title is usually deserved through long years of leadership, and implies wisdom, experience and officer-like habit of thinking of his crew first, second and last. He is sort of morally responsible for his bunch, but if you have any American-type ideas about liability, about suing someone for a broken leg or running nose, best forget it. It's just not done, not here in Russia.

At times I think, though, that someone should be held responsible for the way people neglect to take the slightest precautions against, say, encephalitis. Some areas of the Siberian taiga are crawling with the ticks which spread the disease. Everybody says they ought to have anti-encephalitis shots, and no one ever does, preferring to wear close-fitting anoraks called entsefalitka to protect the back of the neck, where the ticks are said to love to bite. Which is a lot of hooey. They'll bite you anywhere, mostly in the legs. Another bit of nonsense is that the ticks are only dangerous in early spring; you are actually safe from them only in late autumn.

People with an academic background are best chosen as fellow-travelers because they usually have some English. These sportsmen are mostly loosely associated with what they call "tourist clubs" or turkluby. A city or town of any size invariably has them, and if you start early enough, you can find out who goes where and when in good time to join them.

Lastly, WHY? Why climb peaks? Why cross deserts? Why hike in the murderous taiga? Why shoot rapids? Why tempt fate? You hear these questions all the time. You sometimes even ask them yourself, when the going gets really tough.

Sir Edmund Hilary, when asked, Why climb Everest? ­ gave probably the cutest answer: Because it's there. I would add this: because you can tell folks you've been there. There are millions of chair-borne travelers who will avidly listen.

Well, I've been there. I've had all sorts of things happen to me, in about forty years of wandering ­ funny, tragic, mystic, boring, though these last are least remembered. And I've lived to set down some of these adventures in a few novels and many short stories and essays. My fondest hope is that they'll provide at least a glimmer of what Russia, complete with its hinterland, truly is. Believe me, it's very different from the Russia of Russophobic propaganda, ingrained prejudices, and pettifogging journalism.

And another thing. Having gone through some really sticky situations generously offered by the wilds of Russia, you are sure to learn something about yourself ­ something that will make you more tolerant toward human weaknesses and failures, your own included. In fact, you may gain an insight into what not the dimmest of writers meant when he said: "Ah, my friend, all human beings are human, and those who are not, let them be ashamed..."

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