27. Those crazy Russians
From: "Of Walls and Men", by Steve Savage. First published June 2005
People who have followed my adventures might think that the way I travel- leaving home with no money, hitchhiking, staying with complete strangers- is wild and crazy. But I gotta tell you, some of these Russians make my travels look like a week at Club Med. Coming from a wealthy western country like Australia, we take it for granted that overseas travel is always an option. But when you come from a poorer country, and your currency isn't worth jack outside your own borders… well, necessity is the mother of invention, so they say.
For my host Alexey, travel is a passion. He documents his travels, and explains the 'science' of free travel, on his website at www.muhranoff.travel.ru:
"Given the current economic situation in my country, it is natural that our concept of budget travelling would be different from what most Western people might expect; in a nutshell, travelling costs tend to be astoundingly close to zero…With all due respect to Lonely Planet, their books cost far more than they are worth to us… and even the 'low budget' section can sometimes shock with the scale of prices described as 'reasonable'. The means of getting to another place - and I mean THE means of getting to another place - is hitching. It must be noted that Russia has profound tradition of hitching clubs with a well-developed system of methods (conventionally called "science"). According to that science, if people live there, then they have to move around somehow, and if they do move, then you can use them and move, too."
I've always regarded hitchhiking as more of an art than a science, but Anton Krotov, a prolific travel writer, and the founder of The Academy of Free Travel, explains his theory thus:
"In our trips we found that the world is kind, that people are compassionate and hospitable everywhere, that our planet is open for everyone and belongs to us all. Life is wonderful; coming back from remote lands, we better understand people around us and try to be worthy of being a part of humanity."
If you've followed my travels through my website, that philosophy may sound familiar. Just a different way of looking at things. Alexey has hitchhiked 70 000 (yes, they keep a cumulative tally, it's like a sport!) kilometres through eleven different countries, reaching from Finland to China, and through the former Soviet block countries to Turkey and a few of the 'Stans'. He thinks nothing of approaching the driver of a freight train, and boldly asking to join him in the cabin. When crossing Mongolia, he casually asks nomad families if they will let him share their hut for the night. He even pleads with border officials to perhaps charge him a little less for a visa… and believe it or not this works!
At the time of my visit to Russia, Alexey was in the process of planning a hitchhiking trip to the Middle East. If he could save the US$150 for the numerous visas, he said, he would embark. With just the money for visas. And with no credit card!
While Maria and I were staying with Alexey, we met his friend Grigory, another passionate traveller, a young journalist and author of the project "Unknown World" (www.uw.travel.ru) I'd been looking forward to meeting him ever since Alexey told me that Grigory had once hitchhiked from Russia to Australia and back, which is of course impossible- there's an ocean to cross! Well, not as impossible as you'd think, as Grigory spelt out the techniques he used to hitch a ride on a UN plane from East Timor to Australia. (sometimes very sneaky, but as I said necessity is the mother of invention!)
Grigory had no shortage of wild travel tales, from picking fruit in my little hometown in Australia to being trampled by a wild elephant in Africa:
"He lifted his trunk and began to trumpet, and then in a flash he started to charge forward. Here I understood that the situation was extremely serious and I started to run away as fast as I could manage. Some snags, fine bushes and branches flashed under my legs. As I ran I had one thought in my head, "That's it, party over!" Unfortunately there was absolutely no place to hide... The elephant did not lag behind, and the distance between us was closing quickly. I noticed a solitary dry tree ahead. It seemed too weak to climb, but I instinctively ran to it. The elephant was already dangerously close behind. The sound of his breath and heavy footfalls was starting to unnerve me. I reached the tree and started running around it in hopes of confusing the furious heavyweight. The elephant was undeterred. He chased me around the skinny tree - once, twice … When will he get tired?! On the third time around the elephant caught up with me. I felt a strong impact in the back. In the next moment I was airborne. I landed in the middle of a patch of prickly bushes. My body ached, my head was in a daze, and blood flowed from temples into my face. I lay motionlessly clasping my head in my hands. My consciousness was tormented by one question - would he return to finish me or not?"
Fortunately, the elephant was satisfied with just knocking Grigory around a little, and the young Russian lived to face many more challenges. His craziest story was an account of hitchhiking through post-war Iraq. He tells of the friendly Kurds, who would stop him and his friend to give them gifts of food, and the local Iraqis who smiled and waved when they saw the two young Russians dressed in t-shirts and funny caps. The hitchhiking was remarkably easy, he says. In fact passing cars often stopped just out of curiosity, without being flagged down. They even travelled some distance in the cabin of a garbage truck!
Crowds of children gathered around the two Russians in every city, wanting to know their names. Grigory replied "My name is James! And my comrade is Bond!"
"Okay!" shouted one of the older boys, "And my name is Mohammed, and his is Mohammed, and his too! Everybody is Mohammeds here!"
They moved with relative ease around the war torn country, but it was while being escorted by an Iraqi policeman that things suddenly went awry for the two young adventurers. Their police car was intercepted by three American Army Hummers, and the boys were ordered into one, their backpacks placed in another. Under suspicion of being Russian spies, Grigory and his mate were taken to a US Marine Corp base in Hilla, where they were separated, searched, photographed, fingerprinted and interrogated. Grigory said he feared for his life, not so much that the Americans would deliberately kill him, but that the female soldier guarding him would shoot him by accident:
"The maiden in military form accompanied with us, and it did not add optimism to me because she did not remove front sight of the pistol from us. Perhaps she was scared of dangerous Russian spies and looked very close to start shooting. I worried to hear the fire on each hole in the ground where the truck jumped a little. I tried to smile peacefully to the girl but my bent smile just scared her more."
After a sleepless night in detention, two helicopters arrived to transport the duo- separately- to Abu Ghraib prison, now a US base. There, the boys were held for days in a big tent on the sand, without beds. Grigory says that they complained about their accommodations, but without result.
"On opposite site the tablet 'officers' has been attached. Our site was decorated with the tablet 'civilians.' I tried to joke with the soldiers - how do they know that we are not officers. Investigation didn't finish yet. We are not happy with conditions of our place and want to change our 'civilians' site to 'officers'. Soldiers didn't understand my humour and unsurely said that there is no point to change sites because they are absolutely identical."
They were brought two wooden boxes to sit on. From their barbed wire surrounded tent, they were again separated and driven in military convoy into Baghdad… to Saddam's palace no less, the centre for US operations in Iraq. It turned out that their detention had made quite a lot of noise. Americans from Abu Ghraib had called the Pentagon, and the dilemma was relayed from there to the State Department, from there to the embassy of Russia in Baghdad, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. The Pentagon's version of events (since they preferred to have a reason for detaining two civilians) was that 'Russian journalists photographing military objects have been detained.' The incident even gained the attention of the administration of the Russian President. Ambassadorial workers were recommended to assist their evacuation from Iraq."
The Americans finally released the two Russians, but not before Grigory was granted his request to sit on Saddam's throne… a photograph that he is understandably proud of. The staff at the Russian embassy held the boys until they could find a way to transport them safely out of Iraq. It was while they were there that a huge truck bomb destroyed the nearby Jordanian embassy, killing eleven people and wounding fifteen. Removing them from Iraq seemed to be a task that nobody wanted, but finally their salvation came by way of the Communist Party of Iraq, who happily offered to escort two of their 'comrades' to Iran. So their last day in Iraq passed without adventure, Grigory says, except that their car broke down half way to the border, and they continued the long trip by taxi!
Steve Savage was born in a small farming town in Queensland, Australia. He caught the travel bug from an early age, dropping out of university in 1992 to discover the world. Throughout the 1990's he dragged his backpack across five continents, working his way round the world three times on a shoestring budget. The stories collected here("Of Walls and Men") in his latest book come from the second leg of Savage's fourth round-the-world adventure, a loosely planned journey from Hadrian's Wall in England - via the Berlin Wall - to end at the only man made structure that can be seen from outer space - the Great Wall of China.