Marty Leipzig, 21/October/96

Around the World in 80 Proof





FOUR shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on another adventure of a lifetime.

Well, not this time...but as long as I have your attention.

Yes, it is I, your humble trekking scribe, back from yet one more trip to the great odorous East. As you might have noticed in my absence that I wasn't quite as absent as the times previous. Hell, amazing what modems, Earth-stations and satellite technology can do nowadays (although the funds for my HolySmoke phone bill could be used to outfit a largish number of rather well-equipped mercenaries in a small third- world nation).

This trip over has been a particular slice of Hell. Typically, in Siberia in the winter, if the timber wolves don't do you in, the bouquet of those who think that water is merely for fish to swim in, rather than for them to bathe in, will. Now that it's summer (and, Yes, Virginia, it gets fucking HOT in Siberia in the summer), if the deer- bot flies, gnats, no-see-ums, horse flies and mosquitoes don't do you in, the bouquet of those who think that water is merely for fish to swim in, rather than for them to bathe in, will.

Apart from the fact that it's hotter than the hinges of Hell, that there's a daily sandstorm the likes of which Alex the Great used to complain about after laying siege to an Iraqnoid type country and there's not a single fucking can, bottle or bag (yep, you heard right, bag) of beer in this entire misbegotten "city" of huge blocks of large clumsy huge blocks of large clumsy huge blocks of large clumsy apartments. As I mentioned before, the Russian "style" of architecture is composed solely of enormous, falling apart, far-too-much aggregate, not enough cement, sheets of pre-fabricated concrete. Need a road? You need 600 of the "Russian #1" concrete sheets. Need a fence? You need 600 of the "Russian #1" concrete sheets. Need a building? You need 600 of the "Russian #1" concrete sheets. I've seen buildings still being built that have their facades falling off. This does not engender a feeling of safety nor affection for what laughingly passes for architecture in this part of the world.

And, yes, you can see that your humble scribe is about half-nuts in this 24-hour a day, all you can stomach, buffet of loathsomeness called a nation. And to think that we were worried about the "Red Peril". Horse chowder. $50 to anyone who can come up with a Russian toaster that doesn't meltdown before the second slice. It must be the unfiltered 220 VAC that causes everything electrical (with the sole exception of the stove; that heats up like Chernobyl) to deliquesce into a little puddle by the second use. Well, perhaps that's not entirely fair. Russia is agonizingly beautiful in places (Jack London Lake in Yakutia, for one). But certainly not those places where the Russian oil and gas companies have been fucking-up everything in grand environmental 3-D style for the last 50 years. Yet, I still go there to make a buck.


I finished up my requisite 28 day rotation in just a little over 34 days (something about jet-lag, liquid lunches and time zone frippery...)and bid a hasty retreat to the fetid oilfields of Western Siberia. I got thoroughly mandatorily tanked at the Novyy Urengoy hospitality suite ("Look! TWO bottles!") in the airport, brassed my way onto a VIP flight to Krasnoyarsk (4 hours distant by "jet". Remember gang, this is Aeroflot we're talking about here.) and headed ever eastward. I was to meet my good friend and comrade-in-bars Arkady, and we were going to go rafting, drinking, fishing, drinking, hunting and drinking our way up the Yenesei River, an absolutely wonderful waterway that has yet to be upfucked by the local industrial populace.

I deplaned at the local aerodrome at 0900 and immediately kamikaze'd-in on the lounge. I wasn't even into my third vodka and vodka cocktail ("Well", I rationalized, "It's got to be noon somewhere...") when Arkady bursts into the room and grabs me in a rib-crushing bearhug.

"Hello, Arkady (watch the cigar...)".

"MAHTY! Good you back. I know where you be! Come. We go now!"

I could see Arkady's English lessons were beginning to pay off handsomely.

He trundled me off to his pride and joy, an absolutely decrepit-from- birth vehicular monstrosity called a Niva Lada (the Soviet's attempt to Xerox a Fiat). Arkady's not quite my size (at just a angstrom or two over five feet tall), and he fits the Niva rather well. I, at 20 stone and 4.8925E-15 light years height, did not. With a little liquid encouragement and Arkady's incessant chortling, I managed to shoehorn myself into the car; aside a 2 cases of vodka, a case of cognac, batches and batches of beer ("Strong. Russian import.") and the ever present Siberian brand of Doritos (red caviar flavor). My gear, tack and equipment for this fiasco in the making was securely roped to the roof of the car, with the most robust of Russian rope. If it's anything like the robustness of their edifices, the East Siberian countryside would soon be littered with North Face, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Coleman.

Not an auspicious beginning.

We left Krasnoyarsk, and pointed the Niva in a generally northward direction. As soon as we left Krasnoyarsk proper, the road did the same. What would pass for an intershire turnpath in the Middle Ages now turned into merely a pair of well- potholed ruts, filled with the most amazingly finely-grained manure-colored dust. It was truly an exciting experience to be hurtling along in a vehicle as soundly constructed as a Fisher-Price Battleship, to be snuck-up upon by 28-wheelers loaded with pulp wood and piloted by drivers getting paid by the load. What would be the cause of either a multiple fatality accident or impromptu gunfight in Houston, is merely the way these characters, to loosely use the word, drive. "Careen" is more appropriate. We spent more time traveling laterally than a sidewinder rattlesnake in a dust storm.

After 350 klicks or so of this nonsense, we slalomed into a wide spot in the road known as Yenesisk, Arkady's hometown. Only 5 more kilometers to Arkady's dacha and I could unfold out of the car and see if any part of my gear made it intact. Wonder of wonders, it was all there, but stained a most ghastly shade of yellow-gray; from the aforementioned dust.

    (Press "Enter" for the next thrill-packed installment...)
    (Next thrill-packed installment coming right up...)

"Great", I thought, "I've been inhaling this crap for the last 6 hours. I should be able to hork up an outcrop."

Arkady unties the ropes and begins tossing my gear dachaward.

"Easy, Arkady.", I implore, "I don't want you to break the gift I've brought you."

"Ah! You remember!"

"Indeed I did. You wanted me to bring you some of my 'dangerous brown liquor'. Right?"

Arkady, glancing skyward, "Some type of bird?"

"Yep. Both 'Famous Grouse' and 'Wild Turkey'."

I had an impromptu taste test designed. I wanted to show Dr. Glodbreg that scotch is awful stuff even thousands of miles east of Edinburgh.

After we unpacked and settled in for the 'night', (remember, it never gets dark here in the summer) and after a ration of ukha (the Soviet's attempt to Xerox gumbo), we broke out the glassware and fired up a brace of Turkmenistanian double maduros.

"First. An unprepossessing little number from the Isle of Scots; peat moss division. I think you'll be amused by it's presumptions."

Arkady did his best to keep an open mind, although the grimace on his face made evident what I had always maintained.

"Strange taste. Strange smell, like taiga in summer.", Arkady summarized.

I have always admired Arkady's analytical abilities.

"Now, try this, Arkady. A supernal little potable from the Land of bangtails and Bluegrass.", as I proffered him a flagon of Kentucky's finest.

Arkady did his best to keep an open mind, although the grimace on his face made evident what I could have never imagined.

"And...you...like...this?", Arkady inquired.

I was crestfallen.

"Well, yes.", I stammered, "In fact, I like it very much."

"Too American.", Arkady noted. "Too dark to be Russian. Too heavy. Too sweet."

"Arkady?", I inquired.


"Gimme back my cigar."

We both broke up over this as Arkady rummages though his dacha (Ed. note: Arkady is married, has 5 children and works as a geophysicist for the local Geofizika. He has a relatively modern home in the heart of downtown Eniseisk (pop.: 35,000), but a Russian "dacha" is the equivalent of the summer home in the Hamptons, a Wisconsin deer-camp, and Gulf Coast bait station all rolled into one. It is a place of almost austere inconvenience, typically without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing (perfect score for Arkady's place).

It's where Russians go to tend their garden, get away-from-it-all or bring slightly befuddled Ex-Pats who smoke huge cigars and drink vast quantities of booze without alienating the wife. Arkady begins rummaging around for something that we both enjoy. He finds a bottle of Moscovskaya and we proceed to send it to that place where happily drained bottles go when they're empty.

The next morning broke early; really early if you consider that here the sun hasn't enough sense to go down at night (I know, I know. The sun doesn't "go down at night", but, hey, I never claimed to be inerrant). The Yenesei River is one of the four grand rivers of Russia. It is an absolutely huge piece of slowly northward flowing water, roughly twice the width of the Mississippi in this location, pristine and absolutely teeming with fish. It is also only about 100 meters from Arkady's dacha.

Lucky for us.

We drag all our camping gear, potables, drinkables, fishing gear and a lonely bag of Siberian "damned-if-they're-not-Doritos" (what we will do with all this food still remains a mystery) into our expedition canoe and trailing "pack mule" inflatable raft. I gaze across the river, still clad in it's early-morning, now just lifting, fog. It's achingly beautiful. The glass-like surface is only broken by the occasional water-skimmer bird and the soft 'thud' of insects hitting the surface.

The insects.

Insects in Siberia during the summer are like none anywhere else on Earth. To compensate them for the short growing season, evolution has balanced the scales by making them A.) large, 2.) impervious to assault and iii.) voracious. The mosquitoes are brazen and will drain you dry if you are crazy enough to go out unprotected. The "soldiers" are Kaiser-roll sized horseflies with a taste for flesh. Like anything else relating to the military, they're somewhat slow. But mashing them on your arm is almost as gruesome as being chewed on by one of the little blighters. Finally, the best and most fun of Siberian nasties are the black gnats ("no-see-ums" to us in the know). Absolutely brazen, and brave by the billions, little fuckers that will drive you to distraction with their incessant penchant for buzzing and flying into every available orifice. Trust me, you learn to piss quickly out in the old Sever 40. The locals rely on liberal dermal applications of bear grease to check these pests. I opt for something a bit less 12'th century: 100% DEET. They seem to like that just swell. Next time, I'll know better and pack my trusty double-barreled 10 gauge.

After securing all our gear into the aft raft, we shove off in our rather outsized touring canoe. Summer's in full swing in Siberia by now and we are treated by sightings of moose, elk, caribou, bear and other potential lunchables as we float lazily downriver. Arkady rigs up a couple of fishing rods and tells me that we'd better stock up now, that later the river gets to be too fast for comfortable fishing.

    (Hit the "Enter" key to continue this tale of high adventure...)
    (Another beer or two, and it's more Russian high adventure...)

"You want to run that one by me again, Arkady?"

"Later. River goes through narrows. Right through Precambrian section, Riphean limes and Vendian sands. Such ripples! Very narrow, very fast."

"Um, Arkady.", suddenly becoming slightly uneasy, "You never mentioned anything about white-water on this trip..."

"White water to go with white nights!", bellowed Arkady, laughing hysterically.

I was less than amused. But, I rationalized, he's lived here all his life and knows the river. I shouldn't be worried... I shouldn't be worried...should I?

The days ticked by desultorily. We'd fish, have our sunrisers, paddle a bit, grab a cold beer, fall in the river, well-nigh freeze our collective nuts off, nearly drown, laugh hysterically. The usual. At night, we'd camp on either the shore of the river or on some islands that I'm sure have never seen a Westerner, and probably not a Russian, since before the days of the Peter the Great. All this was straight 220 unfiltered VAC for the psyche. It was like I'd been recharged. No phones, no faxes, no HolySmoke even. Although we did have many a good laugh at Jim Staal's and other fundy's expenses as I related tales of the 'Smoke around the campfire each evening.

"No shit, Arkady!", I told him, "There are people who can somehow operate a computer yet who still believe in the fairy tales of the Bible!"

"Not really?", asked Arkady. "Perhaps they make joke."

"Nope. They're serious."

"Serious? Perhaps. But so foolish...", offered Arkady. "How you say, 'Goat damned idiots'? Star Goat! Big joke!"

"The venue might change, but the story stays the same", I thought.

The third day out we grew increasingly concerned by the ominous sounds we heard that seemed to be creeping up on us.

"What the hell is that noise?", I asked Arkady.

"Not sure.", explained Arkady, "Probably just imagination."

"Both of us?", I thought.

After a few hours, our imagination produced the generator of our hallucination. It was a cruise ship, the type of which regularly ply their way up and down most of Russia's larger rivers. Not huge like a Carnival cruise ship, but no slouch in size, either. I wanted to give the thing a wide berth. Arkady, on the other hand, seemed intent on boarding, pillaging and taking no prisoners.

"We can trade them some fish. Maybe for vodka.", Arkady explained.

"Why? We've got near a case left...", realizing my mistake as I lifted the lid of the box.

"Goatdamn Russian bottles...", I complained. "Everyone of the damn things has a hole in it!"

Arkady snickered in agreement.

We paddled out to mid-river, and generally made enough noise and waved our oars that not only did the bridge crew see us, they probably thought we were trying to beat the river into submission.

They rang three bells and slowed from flank speed, allowing us to swing alongside and heave to. Considering the wake of the thing, heave three and four as well.

We tied up with a line tossed by one of the able-bodied rivermen. Arkady scampers up the ladder and begins a most animated, and gesticulatory, conversation with a group of the crew.

"Ah, Arkady. You think you could throw me the FUCKING ROPE?", I said as Arkady's knot tying ability, or, more specifically, the lack thereof, became evident.

Tying off, I clamber up the rickety ladder, so rickety in fact, that I nearly dropped my drink and cigar. Nearly. Arkady's obviously having a good time haggling with the crew, so I decide to take a wander around the ship and see who's home.

Wonder of wonders, I hear English being spoken, (after 5 weeks in country, English here sounds as foreign as Ferengi in a spaceport bar). Around whatever merchies call corners on their boats and up the ladder to the topdeck or whatever the merchies call the uppermost flat area of the boat, I see a group of what have to be Westerners (the garish Hawaiian shirts, sandals and black socks betrayed them immediately).

"So?", I inquired, "You all from the States?"

"Hey!", one of the crowd exclaimed, "You speak English. You American?"

Another bunch with a keen grasp of the obvious. I can only hope this isn't another church group.

"Yep.", I replied, "American as apple pie and napalm. Where are you guys from?", dangling participles all over the scenery.

"Us. Eh? We're not American, eh."

"Let me guess. Canadian, right?"

"Yeah, eh! How'd you know, eh?"

"Call it an inspired guess..."

Turns out that this was a group of Canadian film makers somehow tied up with the National Film Board of Canada, in country making a documentary about Russia's interior, it's rivers and people. It was supposed to be the flip-side of life in Moscow, all pastoral and rustic; but it seemed to me that they were more intent on sampling every brand of vodka Russia had to offer.

    (For a quick course in advanced expense account padding, hit the
     "Enter" key...)
    (Now, let's see: Dinner: $25.00, Lunch: $25.00, Drinks: [Shell to
    'HyperMath Module']...)

Soul mates.

They bade me to sit in with them and share a libation. I, being the ambassador of international amity and booze, could scarcely decline. They had a thousand-and-one questions. "How long have you been in Russia? How do you find the food? Where's a good whorehouse in Moscow?" The usual.

As an added bonus, they had an expense account the likes of which I thought only us oil-folks could dream up. Like Ford Prefect at the Elvis Lounge, these characters were intent on seeing how many zeros they could pile up to the left of the decimal place.

Amid toasts (I demonstrated to them the role of 'Tamandar' (Russian toastmaster)), we proceeded to toast nearly everything in sight and probably a few billion errant brain cells as well. We were just about to toast Thursday ("Hey. Only comes once a week...") when Arkady stumbles up.

"Mahty. Have made deal with crew. We can have case vodka, case beer and two hams."

"Hey, that's great Arkady. How many fish do we have to trade them?"

"Ah. Um. Well. No fish."

"No fish?"

"Ah. Um. Well. Yes. No fish."

"If no fish, how many rubles do I have to part with?"

"Um. No rubles..."


"Um. No dollars."

"Arkady. Listen carefully. What's this going to cost us?"

"Oh. Not much. Just one box cigars."

Oh, well, that's different...I didn't know you brought any cigars, the way you keep filching mine."

"Oh, you make big joke."

I wasn't laughing.

Seems my comrade has swapped one of my last 5 boxes of Turkmenistanian hand-rolleds for the potables and pig parts.

"Is good! They wanted two boxes!"

I managed to keep up the "Damn. You traded MY cigars for what?" act for only a couple of minutes. Arkady, seeing that I wasn't at all upset but was giving him grief, responded with the classic "Mahty...you son of bitch."

The Canadians were completely perplexed with all this. What they thought was going to be a bare knuckle boxing match ended up with even more toasts, this time in Russian.

It *was* good.

We stayed on the ship overnight, in fact, we didn't have much choice. Rather difficult to board a pitching canoe when the whole world itself is pitching. Trust me to mix vodka, kumiss and cognac again.

Sometime the next morning, we all sobered up enough to bid our friends a fond farewell and head off up river. The cruise ship was about to do an about-face and head back to Krasnoyarsk, and we still had a shitload of more klicks to cover.

With our new provisions (and minus one box of cigars), we headed ever northward. After a day of lazily floating up river, the ominous sound once again returned. No imagination this time, Arkady identified it as the sound of the Yenesei River as it goes over 'Blood Falls'. Lovely little moniker, there. Seems that a group of miners in the late 1800's tangled, somewhat unsuccessfully, with these falls. Hence the name.

"Um, Arkady, We're not going to duplicate the feat the earlier explorers attempted, are we?"

"Ha! No. Must walk around falls."



Yet another little detail Arkady forgot to mention.

After a half dozen quick 6 kilometer walks around the falls (which were agonizingly beautiful, but, oh so dangerous), we settled back into our northward drift.

The river changed demeanor at this point. What was a wide, calm, flat and portly body of water went to President's and First Lady's for a tone up. The river narrowed, got quicker, meaner, and much, much taller.

"Arkady?", I inquired, "You've traveled these rapids before?"

"Oh, yes.", he calmly replied, "But up river it gets really rough."

As he says that, we are caroming around boulders the size of minibuses, and the flat, fertile Siberian steppe riverside gave way to ever heightening sheer rock cliffs.

"Damn. There must be some great geology there.", I thought. But we were going by a far too rapid of rate to see anything smaller than a good- sized office building.

"Now! This is where fun begins!", hollers Arkady, the river fairly effectively drowning out his whoops.

Like a Ping-Pong ball in an automatic washer, we were being bounced hither and yon. Up the side of one boulder, down the backside of another.

Lucky for me I had foregone breakfast, for at this time I'm sure I'd be chumming for lenok.

    (It's getting *really* exciting now. Hit the "Enter" key, but only if
    you are brave and keen of spirit...)
    (Hang onto your hats, folks, It gets seriously bumpy ahead...)

Arkady had the helm and did an admirable job of keeping us from being killed. After 15 or so minutes of all this, I relaxed slightly, appreciative that I might just survive this.

I should have known better.

I realized something was askew when I noticed this rather outsized pinnacle of rock between Arkady and myself. What was even more curious was that what was once a straight canoe now defied all Euclidian space and was now something resembling a large Moebius strip.

In other words, we wrapped our canoe around a rock like a Tennessee drunk wraps a '65 Caddy around a telephone pole.

As providence would have it, our pack raft broke loose, but got wedged in some rocks only a few hundred meters or so upriver. Wedged, yes. Wedged and rapidly deflating. Luckily, the water here was only waist deep (although testicle-freezing and blisteringly swift), and we were able to, after a series of hilariously slippery pratfalls, to abandon our boomerang shaped canoe, gather what gear had not already slipped upriver and scrabble to a small, sandy shore.

"Well. That was fun. Now what?", I wondered aloud.

"Looks like we walk.", replies Arkady, ever the pragmatist.

What in the West would be grounds for a mammoth piece of litigation was over here a minor inconvenience.

"We had better see if we can retrieve the pack raft.", I observed.

"Difficult. Better leave it.", noted Arkady.

"But my cigars are in that raft, as well as the last of the vodka..."

We built a campfire to dry our clothes after Arkady had dove in and struggled to the raft. I had to follow to pull Arkady back to shore. The raft was a total loss (scoria is not terribly charitable to inflated rubber crafts), but we rescued my cigars, our fishing and camping gear, some food and the ever important vodka.

We took stock of our stock and I again wondered aloud "Now what?"

"We walk. Not far, only 100 kilometers."

"Dandy". I thought. Oh, well. It's not so bad. We have enough food, camping gear and sturdy boots. So I'll be a bit late getting back (we were to meet a Eniseigeophysicia Hind 20 in Kuretjka about exactly 100 klicks upriver). Precisely at the half-way point, we get marooned.

Resigned to our fate, we have a fine dinner of freshly caught lenok (local pike-type fish) and sit back with a fine cigar and a dram or two of vodka and marvel at the bluffs of the Yenesei.

The next morning (hard to tell when the sun hasn't the sense to set) found us backpacking out of the canyon (for the lack of a better term) and heading generally southward. It was a bit unnerving to be someplace without a single vestige of human habitation, let alone civilization. No telephone wires, power lines, transmission towers, roads, nothing. At this point I began to wish that I had not left my Kalishnikov 9.72mm pistol back at Arkady's dacha. There are nasties out here, other than the bugs; wolverines, bears and the occasional rogue reindeer. I hoped my cigar would keep them, as well as the fucking mosquitoes, at bay.

Day two of our forced march south found us still in good spirits (we had lugged along 8 liters of vodka each) and going slightly daffy from the lack of any sort of modern conveniences and an oversupply of insects.

That afternoon, after a hasty riverbank lunch of yaws and goiters, we came upon something about as expected as a laser-guided flying submarine.

A temple.

No shit! Out here in the middle of an absolutely forested beyond compare, of nowhere Siberia, stood a Buddhist temple

I shook my head and promised to go lighter on the hootch. Blinked once or twice, and asked Arkady if I was hallucinating or was that in fact a real temple.

Arkady didn't flinch. "Yes. Is Buddhist place. They all over Siberia, but most close down after Revolution."

"You mean the 1990 revolution, right?"

"Nyet. 1917."


It was then that we noticed the oddball in the flowing saffron-colored robes who was carrying a bunch of fish towards the temple.

"Hmph. Looks like this is one that's still in business. Let's go see."

We wandered over towards the priest, rabbi, guru, monk, or whateverthehell they call Buddhist partisans. Strange thing though, the faster we walked, the faster he walked the opposite way. By the time we reached the outline of the compound, we were in a flat run.

"Piss on this", I puffed. "We'll catch up with him later."

It was nearly noon, and we settled in to a quick lunch of blini and ukha (again...), poured a couple of double double rounds of Russkaya and fired up another one of my now famous stogies, and contemplated our next move.

"What the blinkered hell is a Buddhist temple doing out here?, I asked Arkady.

"Many years ago", Arkady explained, "Buddhist people were persecuted by local peoples to the south." Seems the locals, with their animistic religions, were as keen on Buddhists as HolySmoker WOA's are on fundies. "And they were forced out of China and Mongolia.", Arkady continued. "The traveled northward" (I'm transliterating this, Arkady's still on English lesson #3), "and settled in areas that they thought were unpopulated. They built their temples and such from the local forests and basically kept to themselves. Over time, they were accepted by the local tribals as relatively innocuous; and all live together in mutual, although distant, cooperation."

    (Buddhists in Siberia? This is too supernatural. Press "Enter" to see
    what happens next...)
    (Well, let's just see about these SiberiBuddhists...)

"Much land here.", Arkady continued. "Too much to worry about. Buddhists were good and quiet people. They adapted to the north and the north people accepted them."

If there's a moral here, I think that it'd be profoundly lost on Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart and their ilk.

"What language do they speak", I asked Arkady.

"Mostly some sort of Chinese, Russian and English.", Arkady reported.

"English?", I fairly goggled.

"Radio.", explained Arkady. "Radio? Explain."

"They, after many years, after Great Patriotic War, acquired generators. They provide generators to drive the prayer wheels and light shrines."

This is true, although I felt like I just slid into Asimov's "Nine Billion Names of God".

"And then, after electricity, came radios, mostly shortwave."

"Great", I thought, "They're all going to sound like Reverend Ike or some other form of electrofundy."

"Well, now what?", I asked Arkady, who was intent on killing another few billion more itinerant brain cells.

"Let's go and see. They good people. They like visitors."

"Yeah, right.", I mused, "I'll wager they get a bunch out here in an area that's hardly been satellite mapped, much less laid out in a AAA brochure."

We broke our impromptu camp ("Pack out your trash", old Russian saying), and sallied forth to infiltrate their domaine and see just what was happening in the Siberian Buddhist world.

Through the ornately carved lintels and jambs of the encampment we went. I felt like a stranger in a very strange land.

"Odd", I thought, "It seems that there's no one home."

We wandered around the camp like Neil and Buzz on their NASA provided field trip.

"Where is everyone?", I asked.

"Oh, they are here. They worry. Probably think we are RVS or KGB."

"Since when does the KGB go wandering around the countryside half-in- the-bag and smoking cigars?" I asked Arkady.

"True.", agreed Arkady, "They smoke Beleomorkanals. [Truly awful Russian cigarettes {Ed.}]".

Past wooden huts, wooden ashrams, and ornately carved also wooden icons we tramped.

Around a corner and smack into a group of 100 or so characters right out of the India scene of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".

"Hello! Zdrastvweetcha! How's it going?". I'm nothing if not a ambassadorial polyglot.

A truly ancient character ambled over to us (probably in fact all of 60 years old).

"Russian?", he asked.

"Half right.", I replied. "You speak English?"

"You are not Russian.", he observed, with a keen eye for the obvious. "Are you German?", directing a question at me.

"Well, my ancestors were.", I replied as Arkady snickered in the background.

He stiffened. I could tell he was positively frightened. "Of what?", I wondered.

We're just two totally unkempt, probably malodorous, bewhiskered characters toting a good portion of an Academy sporting goods store and a small Houston liquor store, smoking absolutely huge cigars.

"I am an American. My compatriot is Russian, but first a Siberian."

He relaxed a bit. But then froze stone rigid.

"American? With beard. Geologist?"

"Yes sir, you are correct."

"Oil company?"

"No. I'm not an oil company, but I work for one."

I found out later this is like admitting to being spotted-owl eating Oil Field Trash at an Earth First! Meeting.

"But I'm on vacation."

"You are not here on survey?"

"Nope. Like I said, we are on vacation."

"Vacation?", he replied, "In East Siberia?"

I have to admit, he *did* have a point (A logical one, unlike Jim Staal's cranial one.)

"We were rafting on the Yenesei and got marooned. We hiked out and saw your place. We come in peace..." (Only now realizing how ridiculous that sounded...)

    (For the continuing adventures of 'Heathens and Buddhists', hit
    your "Enter" key...)
    (The further adventures of 'Heathens and Buddhists', as per your

"Yep. Oil folks are a weird bunch."

I could see by his demeanor that he heartily agreed.

"Then you are welcome. Come, share your burden."

I already liked this guy.

We dropped our packs and extended the handshake of true friendship. I couldn't help but notice that we were under the cynosure of all eyes at this point.

"Meyna zavoot Dr. Marty Leipzig."

I was greeted by a curious look.

"I thought that you might speak Russian."

"Is that what that was?", the leader asked.

No respect.

"I'm Marty Leipzig, and this is my compatriot and drinking buddy Arkady. I work for LukOil and he works for Eniseigeofizika. We're friends out on a trek."

"I am Sakha. I am an elder of this group."

"And I am very pleased to meet you." I filled him in on our travails of the last week or so, although I must admit, he did appear rather skeptical.

"Only a fool or drunkard would attempt the river here."

"Hello?", I replied. "You called?"

"Somehow", Sakha replied, "That seemed appropriate."

About that time, some robe-clad character walked by with a meager bundle of fish.

"What's that?", I asked, "Lunch?"

"It is his time to provide for the clan", Sakha explained, "Troubling. That is a week's catch."

"That's it? Well, how does one fish around here?", I inquired.

"We set nets. But the water is so rough that when we get a number of fish, the nets tear. It is too far to walk to calm water. It is most unsettling." "Ever tried one of these?", I asked pulling out a balanced Shakespeare popping rod/bait casting combo.

"I have never seen such a device. How does it work?", blinked Sakha.

If ever there was an invitation to go fishing, this was the time.

Off we trundled, myself, Arkady, Sakha and a dozen or monks in tow to a likely looking spot in the river.

"See. It's not at all difficult.", I said, tying on a Mepps ShurFire spinner.

They fairly goggled at my casting and retrieves. They cast aspirant glances as I repeated the scenario. They chuckled as I continued to do so without so much as a rise to my offerings.

Then they gazed in open-mouthed admiration as I landed a 8 kilo lenok.

"But, you made no offering.", complained Sakha, "Why do fish eat metal and color?"

"What do you offer them by your nets, other than an invitation to the ukha pot?"

Puzzlement stirred the crowd, along with not a few nodding heads.

"It has to do with piscine territoriality, hunger and a severely bad case of attitude."

He accepted this, and the lenok, as we popped a cold one, lit huge cigars (at least, Arkady and I did) and settled in for a afternoon's fishing.

We fished the river for about 5 hours (and 3 cigars and two or six bottles of vodka) and presented our friends a batch of pike, perch and other Siberian finny unidentifiables. They were most appreciative and, I might add, rather impressed. We also presented them one each of my rapidly diminishing stores of cigars.

Seems like we wandered into a enclave of "Jack-Buddhists", as they also accepted, quite readily, thank you very much, our offer of a few hundred billion picoliters of potables.

"I thought you folk were denied the finer things in life?", I asked Sakha.

"Typically, yes.", he explained, "But is not everyday that guests arrive. It would be ungracious, and irreverent, for us to refuse your hospitality."

"Well", I thought, "A truly evolving religion. And rather convenient." I liked this place more by the hour.

We bundled up our gear and trundled ourselves up the well-worn path back to...I never did figure out what they called their place...Home? Camp? Base?

Whatever. On the way, Sakha informed me that there was to be a meal in our honor later that evening. We were shown to an abode (what else can you call a basic four-wall structure without running water, electricity or indoor plumbing? Somehow dacha didn't seem appropriate.) where we were told we could rest while evening prayers were said and the banquet prepared.

    (Betcha can't guess what happens next. Hit "Enter" to find out...)
    (Betcha never would have guessed that *this* happens...)

After a couple of trips to the river to wash up (that river is *cold* and there was at least a fire in our hovel) and a few toddies for internal antifreeze, we were almost feeling (but probably not looking) human again.

"Arkady?", I asked, "Have you ever been to one of these shindigs before? I mean, do you have any idea what to expect?"

"Nyet, Marty.", came the answer. "I have never been to one, but have heard that they last many hours."

Looks like another long night for the intrepid duo.

Sakha showed up at that point and escorted us to the largest building in the compound, a fairly cavernous dwelling bereft of any sort of furniture save and except for a low table which was surprisingly decorated with an ample assortment of eatables and drinkables.

"Come. Here. Sit.", beseeched Sakha.

"What next?", I wondered, "Roll over. Stay. Play dead?"

I had noticed during our stay the total lack of women in the camp. I asked Sakha if this was a men's-only club.

No answer, but I did get the most peculiar look from him; sort of cross between a leer, smirk and grin.

After a few perfunctory prayers, the lot of us were bade to dig in and chow down. Not wanting to appear disagreeable, I did. I am simply astonished by the variety of foods that can be had simply by walking outside in the forest. There was fish of several varieties, the ever present ukha, pickled mushrooms, squirrel, duck, unidentifiable types of fruit (I think), kvass (where they kept the horses is still a mystery), nuts (pine, acorns (I passed on this one), and some other types of which I have no idea of their pedigree), some type of smoked meat (tasty, but I didn't ask if it was previously named 'Rover'), breads of every description; a veritable cornucopia of Siberian goodies. There was even some sort of candyoid sweetmeat made from tree- sap (Maple? Damned if I know); chewy as hell but rather savory. They also had some low-octane homebrew made from bogberries (like cranberries, but smaller and tarter).

Then, after the first course...

Yep. This was a typical Russian meal ordeal. I realized that this was going to drag out for some hours.

Course two was separated from course one by stretching, a bit of walking about and some light idle chatter. Then course two was served.

Now I understood Sakha. The next succession of incredible edibles were served by some absolutely exquisite, though exclusively petite, women, all fitted out in their traditional garb (actually, rather Chinese- Mongolian-Tibet-Uzbek-Silk Route-Thai-Oriental-sort of skimpy (and sheer) silks and unequivocally handsome hand-sewn brocade).

"Ah.", sighed Sakha, "Next course and entertainment. It has arrived."

"Entertainment?", I wondered. After this little parade of toothsome femininity, my dirty-old-man impression would have done Don Martin proud.

Immediately after the food was placed before all the menfolk, there was the ringing of a large gong. All the women hastened to the center of the building. From a side entrance came a troupe of about 20 men and women bearing the most unusual and unrecognizable sorts of musical instruments (looking for all the world like pregnant handlooms and converted automatic cow-milkers). They all sat on the floor against the far wall, and proceeded to tune up. Another gong sounded, and silence enveloped the crowd. I cast a glance across the table and was greeted by the most toothy set of evil grins this side of Rick's Cabaret. I was beginning to wonder if these guys ever have membership drives...

The music was lyrical, beautiful and impressive. The dances done by the women of the group were exactly the same. For once, words almost fail me. It's difficult to describe music the likes of which I've certainly never heard before, being interpreted terpsichoreally by women the likes of which I thought didn't exist outside of Thailand, Tibet or Hong Kong; especially particularly not in Siberia.

Sakha did a running commentary for us about each stage of the dance. Seems I was witnessing not only their religious oral-tradition (they had no transcribed religious works; at least none that anyone would own up to), but the history of their world; from creation to today. Some of the highlights (Reader's Digest version, this whole thing lasted some 5 hours) included the formation of the earth from the "void" (Sakha's words), the beginning of life, the ascent of Buddha and his followers, the great travail (rather reminded me of the Cherokee 'Trail of Tears'), the "empty time" (a time of persecution, which they seemed to have a collective selective self-induced amnesia about), and the time of rebirth (their finding a homeland after their previous expulsion). All in all, it was perhaps one of the more moving of my experiences while tramping around this old, dusty globe.

I leaned over and made a special point to ask Sakha if there was any sort of flood that figured prominently in their history, particularly one of a global variety.

"No.", he remarked. "The rivers in our lands seldom flood, and when they do it's during spring thaw. Nothing mysterious about that. It is very natural."

He was perplexed by my knowing smirk.

At this point, I noticed some of the elders at our table had light up some sort of clay pipes and were deliriously puffing away; eyes seemingly glazed over in sheer bliss from their ringside seat of undulating feminine pulchritude and not just a bit of fermented bogberry juice. Come to find out, there was all that, and a bit more. That weren't tobacco those boys were puffing. It's not cannabis either, from what I could tell. It was some sort of Siberian ditch-weed or ditch-mushroom or ditch-peyote that's mildly hallucinatory. Truth be told, it smells somewhat like scotch (or old taiga, take your pick). I'll stick with my cigars, thanks just the same.

    (Good Goat! Sects! Drugs! What could possibly be next? Hit "Enter" to
    find out...)
    (Sects! Drugs! Rock-n-roll? Let's see...)

Courses came and courses went. Arkady liberated our last 3 bottles of vodka and donated them to the cause. I, grudgingly, broke out a box of smokes and offered them to all about. Strange, but I noticed that some of the band members were swapping out with some of my comrades seated around the table; as were some of the dancers swapping out with the servers.

"Gad.", I thought. "This could go on forever..."

Which, in retrospection, wouldn't have been such a bad verdict.

Finally, the dance ended as abruptly as it had begun. The table was cleared and the band disbanded. All that was left were 30 or so totally blissed Buddhists and two rather untight interlopers.

Sakha stands up (none too steadily) and runs through some sort of prayer, half-sung and half-invoked. Arkady and I exchanged shrugs, neither had any idea what was going on.

Two hand claps later, a woman comes in bearing, for the lack of a better term, two hand-brocaded vests made of the finest silk. With great fanfare, Sakha bade us forward and presented us with these garments (mine was a tad small, unfortunately, but I fairly gleamed when they bestowed it upon me); and invoked Buddha to guard over us and keep us in his enlightenment.

I slipped out, only to return some few minutes later with all our fishing gear. I figured we could make do on bracken and fungi on our return walk and simply had this compelling urge to reciprocate their hospitality. With equal fanfare, I presented Sakha the popping/bait casting equipment, two tackle boxes and oddball assortment of jigs, spoons and plugs; invoking the spirit of Darwin to watch and provide for these folks. He appreciated his gesture as much as we did ours.

We wearily plodded back to our dacha (whatever) and retired for the night. We were going to have to leave in the morning, remembering, somewhat painfully, that we had a slight trek of probably some 65 km left to go. At least our packs were going to be considerably lighter on the return trip.

We awoke early the next day, geared up and went searching for Sakha. He was nowhere to be found. We did determine that he was down at the river trying out his previous night's acquisitions.

"Sakha.", I explained, "We must be going. We have a long walk and we're already a day past due."

"Due where?", Sakha wondered.

"Up in Kuretjka.", replied Arkady.

"Kuretjka?", wondered Sakha, "But Kuretjka is far to the north. Why do you want to go north?"

"Well.", I continued, "That's where the Eniseigeophysica helicopter was supposed to pick us up. We wrecked, and decided to walk back to Yeneseisk rather than continue north."

"But surely", persisted Sakha, "They must have radios. Why don't you call them and tell them you are here?"

"That's a great idea, Sakha. But unfortunately, we don't have a radio with us."

"Well...", lingered Sakha, "You could use ours..."


"Why don't you use our radio? It's been many years since we used it to talk, but it must still work."

"Arkady...did he just say that they had a transmitting radio?"

"Da, Mahty."

"This *is* too weird.", I reflected.

"Well, hell. Why are we just standing here? Let's go!"

Sakha led us to an out-of-the-way shack, where you could hear the distinct putt-putt-putt of a small engine (Fueled by what? I have no idea...).

"Makes life here somewhat easier. And safer."

"How's that, Sakha?"

"When someone is hurt, we can call on the radio for help. It's been so many years since the last time we did, I had just forgotten about it until now..."

And there, in all it's resplendent glory, was an absolutely ancient WWII Russian military radio; complete with headset and microphone. Seems there was a "long-wire" strung out in some of the nearby trees, one that simply escaped notice even after a determined hunt.

"Arkady.", I bade, "Call your comrades."

As everything in Russia was, up until a very short time ago, related in some way to the military, and virtually everyone served in the military at one time or another in one capacity or another, this was no mean trick. Eniseigeofizika was responsible for 12 seismic crews (up to 100 people each) dozens and dozens of field geologists/geophysicists/ engineers/surveyors, along with the logistics of everything associated with these endeavors. How to communicate over 2,000,000 square kilometers? How else but radio?

Arkady, as incredulous as I, tuned the ancient radio to the Eniseigeofizika frequency and keyed the mike.

It must have worked, as a scant 2 hours later, a Hind 20A was chopping the air into submission as it landed on a large mid-river sandbar about three clicks downstream from the Buddhist camp.

There were bearhugs, handshakes and well wishes all around as we departed the camp and left Sakha and the others, probably forever.

    (Pathos. The incontrovertible mark of really good adventure writing.
    Once more, hit "Enter", with feeling...)
    (Will there be a happy ending? Let's find out...)

With heavy hearts, as we trudged off in the general direction of the idling helicopter, I could have sworn I heard Sakha say: "Good-bye Martin. Da svidonya, Arkady. Things will be considerably less weird without the two of you here."

I made the mistake of letting the chopper crew see me smoking a cigar as we wandered into the idling machine. Of course, the Soviet Hind 20A is a simply huge aircraft capable of transporting up to 32 fully- outfitted troops to the front lines. Unfortunately, the twin gonzo- monster turbofan engines to power this monstrosity into the air consumes a tremendous amount of JP4. To alleviate the need of landing every 200 km of travel to refuel, the seats on the entire left side of the aircraft were ripped out and replaced by a large, not terribly trustworthy looking, fuel tank.

Like I said, I should have never let the crew see me smoking that cigar, as they were now incessantly pestering me for one. Being the ambassador of goodwill, fine cigars and non-tundraiferous smelling booze, how could I possibly refuse? Although, I, in my halting Russian, made them resolutely and unconditionally promise to wait until we landed before they light up.

I can see that I really need to work on my Russian language skills; as I returned from the head to find the Copilot and Navigator engaged in a heated discussion, seated on the aforementioned fuel tank, happily puffing away...

*KONETS* (End)

    (Hey! Wait! There's more! Hit "Enter" one last time for a
    postscriptum message...)
    (Moreover, one final note...)

And that, my friends, will be the final installment of my Russian tales from "Around the World in 80 Proof". Yes, your globe-trekking, cigar-chomping, booze-guzzling, land-raping, small-furry-mammal tormenting, 28&28, humble scribe has traded his field boots, rock hammer and InstaPure SupraChlor Anti-Giardia tablets for a lab coat, spinner magnetometer and scanning electron microscope.

Yep. Yours truly has been named Chief Research Geologist for a rather large, well-known (at least in the oil patch) research and service company in good ol' Houston.

This position will require some international travel, but luckily (jet lag twice a month get old *real* fast), these will be short, real honest-to-goat business trips. I hope to be a more regular (no dysentery jokes, please) regular in HolySmoke (I can just hear the moans and groans from Grand Rapids and Oz...), and look forward to the unfailing flogging of fulminating fundies and ever more tales of the strange, the bizarre, the unexpected...

It has *been* an experience, to say the least, folks.




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