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Reading Roulette

Irina Bogatyreva

The latest salvo from our Reading Roulette series of contemporary Russian literature—stories you’ll rarely find elsewhere in translation, unfortunately. This month we bring you a contender for the Debut Prize, Russia’s preeminent award for young writers.

Credit: S. Korolev.

We’ve brought you weird, weirder, nostalgic, and Nabokovian in our ongoing series of contemporary Russian literature. Today, we welcome Irina Bogatyreva to Reading Roulette, armed with a fierce love of epic literature, hitchhiking across Siberia, and the wang-wang of the jaw-harp.

Bogatyreva came to literary recognition through the Debut Prize, awarded now for 12 years to young writers under the age of 35. This so-called Debut Generation represents the first wave of writers with no significant firsthand of the Soviet Union, a detachment that has made room for remarkably nuanced explorations of traditions, epics, truths, and peoples much deeper than Russia’s experimental 21st century.

“Stars Over Lake Teletskoye,” available online exclusively on TMN, may start as an homage to late-century hippiedom; read on to be transported to a darker, more enduring lifestyle.

 

Stars Over Lake Teletskoye

From Read Russia!: An Anthology of New Voices, published by Read Russia Inc. (New York: 2012). Used by permission. Translated by Arch Tait.

After wading across the river, spaced out as if we had just made love, we lay on the sun-warmed slope and talked quietly together. The conversation consisted of modulation of a single phrase. “If you like, we could hitch a lift,” I said, as if agreeing to something Slava had just suggested. “We could hitch a lift, if you like,” he responded.

The truth was that just at that moment there was nothing either of us wanted. We lay on the bank, with our heads to the roadway, drying our trousers, which were wet from the crossing. Now we could barely hear the Chulyshman, bearing its waters along slightly below the level of the bank and screened by willow scrub. Two handsome gray cranes circled clanging above us and settled on the bank slightly downstream, peering over to see what kind of guests these were who had come to visit their quiet, all but unpopulated, world.

For the previous three days we had been staying on the far bank with typical Russian gentle giants, hospitable forest rangers of the Altai nature reserve. They fed us canned borscht and a succession of tales of the taiga to encourage us to stay on and dilute their monotonous duties. Every day, for dessert, we were served identical accounts of their battles with the local poachers. Despite a balance of firepower clearly in favor of the well-armed rangers rather than the Altai hunters violating the conservation zone, the war was long, brutal and unfair. The rangers had no legal right to do more than detain the poachers and administer a fine, while by default the poachers were far less constrained. The three Russian giants complained that it was out of the question for them to show their faces in the villages bordering the reserve where drunken lawlessness was rife, and where the poachers, whom they knew by sight, lived. “Although it’s even dangerous for ordinary people to stop there,” they continued and, in a new burst of inspiration, told us about the stoning of tourists’ cars, muggings, and the abduction of a young student. “The militia spent three years looking for her, but what chance did they have? She was taken off to an encampment and they didn’t let her go before she had a baby by them. After that what was the point? They are brigands, brigands straight out of the middle ages.” Our giants squinted at the fire, clearly gratified by this thought. For as long as there were brigands there would be a continuing need for their modest outpost.

Now, having bade farewell to our amiable hosts, we lay by the roadside with three legendary villages ahead of us: Koo, Kok-Pash, and Balykchi, none less daunting than the others, none less infamous. We faced the prospect of passing through all three of them on foot, because we were far-out tourists who shunned cars, bicycles, and horses. “The best thing will be for you to get through Koo just as fast as you can in daylight. Under no circumstances must you be there in the dark. At nighttime it’s completely lawless and nobody is safe,” the rangers warned as they escorted us across the river.

We promised, although, in spite of all their stories, we had no real sense of danger. We promised, assuring them that under no circumstances would we talk to anyone, give anyone money for vodka, or buy anything even if we were offered cut-price gold and diamonds. “You’ll do best to have no contact at all with the locals,” the giants advised as we parted. “If you get in trouble, shout. We aren’t far away.” We pictured them spraying their enemies with bullets from the other bank of the Chulyshman, and found the fantasy hilarious. It instilled no sense of danger in us, just a happy, firm conviction that we were in paradise.

And who could deny it? The valley of the Chulyshman is a narrow canyon enclosing the river, heady with the warm, spicy winds of the steppe, suffused with reminiscences of the Scythians and pagan nostalgia. It is a sacred, secret place guarded since ancient times. There have always been battles for these bounteous lands, which saw the Christianization of the Siberian territories in the nineteenth century and civil war in the twentieth. On the cliff overhanging the road as it inches forward by the side of the river you can easily imagine Scythian archers in their high felt boots or Kaigorodov’s Altai partisans, equally ready to hurl rocks down on red or white troops, whoever was passing below. On the broad, bare earth of the steppe near the river are the remains of an early Iron Age irrigation system, and a little further, near the strait, the remains of an 18th-century Chinese military fortification. All their spirits, relics, and memories live on in the stillness of the unpeopled wilderness of the Altai’s most desolate valley. Three villages in a hundred kilometers of canyon. Three villages on a hundred kilometers of the steppe-side bank of a roaring, turbulent river carrying its waters to Lake Teletskoye.

This was not our first time in the Altai, but we seemed never to have felt so completely and absolutely happy as we did in this blessed land. After the city with its suffocating streets and flea markets, the metro and the exhaust fumes, we were certain that this was paradise and that those living in these three villages must be the happiest people in the world. We lay there, imagining our hike to Lake Teletskoye, the fabled beauty of Altyn-Kol, the Lake of Gold. When night fell the stars of the mountains would hang low over it and we would skinny-dip in its tingling cold water.

We did, however, know the Altai, and so could not entirely disbelieve our friendly giants, and pondered how to keep our promise not to come to the villages in the evening. If we went on now, we would make it to Koo just as night was falling. There were two solutions: we could stay here overnight and set off tomorrow morning, or hitch a lift and drive through the danger zone. Reckless tourists did, strangely enough, occasionally drive along the dusty clinker road which skirted the Chulyshman. Indeed, kind people had given us a lift to this spot where the Chulcha flowed into the Chulyshman. They had driven off and left us behind with our rangers. Now, deliriously happy with the sensation of at last being completely on our own in this corner of heaven, the last thing we wanted was to hear the noise of a car engine defiling the air. In the stillness, broken only by the distant roar of the river and the dry crepitation of the steppe’s grasshoppers, it was so great just to lie and reiterate in every way possible our ritual incantation, “If you like, we could hitch a lift,” “We could hitch a lift, if you like.”

The denizens of paradise appeared without warning, leaning over and coming between us and the sun. Slava was instantly alert and sat up, but it took me some time to register that these were not clouds but people. When I heard a strange phrase above me, “Buy bear,” I opened my eyes.

I sat up and looked quickly around, expecting to see a brown bear tethered in the bushes. Instead some distance away stood a woman with a sack by her feet. She gave me a shy smile. I presumed the bear must be in the sack.

Two young Altaians, blackened by prolonged alcohol abuse, were looking down at us the way extraterrestrials would probably look if they were ever to land on our sinful earth. Their faces registered puzzlement and tenderness. One, admittedly, also registered intense mistrust, but the other smiled broadly at Slava as if they were buddies.

“Buy bear! You want bear? I sell cheap, only 2,000.”

At this I sat up too and looked quickly around, expecting to see a brown bear tethered in the bushes. Instead some distance away stood a woman with a sack by her feet. She gave me a shy smile. I presumed the bear must be in the sack.

“What bear?” Slava asked meanwhile. “What for?”

“No, no, we don’t want it,” I gabbled, coming to my senses and remembering the counsel of the giants.

“We sell cheap,” the Altaian with the smile repeated, but without much enthusiasm. He sat down next to Slava, which was probably just as well because he could hardly stand. Ignoring me, he asked, “Where you come from, brother?”

“Barnaul,” Slava lied, subtracting 4,000 kilometers from the journey which had brought us here.

“Really?” The Altaian was rightly surprised. “I am Ermen. You have alcohol?”

“We don’t have anything,” I said, but the men did not look in my direction. It didn’t matter to them if somebody was cheeping in the bushes.

“Today birthday of my friend. Of course we drink but never mind. Perhaps you have alcohol?”

The second man moved to the left of Slava, produced cigarettes, squatted down and poked him on the shoulder, evidently wondering if he had a light. Even to the untrained eye my highly educated Slava is unmistakably a graduate student, a future Ph.D., accustomed to address people rather formally, and genuinely surprised to meet anyone who has not read Homer as a child, Tolstoy as a boy, and The Life of Klim Samgin as an undergraduate. He smiled shortsightedly and shrugged as if to say, “I’m afraid I don’t smoke.”

“I go to your Barnaul, I go,” Ermen continued. Without looking he took out a cigarette lighter and obliged his friend. “Like I drive taxi. Mostly to Gorno-Altaisk, but sometimes come your way, sometimes. Don’t mind how we are. Today is birthday, it is sin not to drink, we celebrate. Pay our own money. This man Alik. He come back from Chechnya. See what he look like. He took their President Dudayev himself. You really, Alik?”

“Listen, brother, you give me 100 rubles.” Alik turned unsteadily to Slava, whose eyes widened in surprise. “What for?” “What for!” For some reason this reply pleased Alik. “You hear, he say what for, eh?” He laughed to himself, slapped Ermen on the shoulder and himself almost fell over, then assumed a brutish expression and again looked at Slava. “Of course, you give us 100.”

All this time I had been simmering and now I burst out. “What are you doing here? Did we invite you? Go away, we don’t know you. And we have no intention of giving you anything!”

The Altaians jumped up as if they had been stung. Alik focused his eyes on me, but Ermen backed him off, prodding him in the chest, like a bullock.

“What are you thinking of, talking to them?” I hissed at Slava. “We were told not to have any contact with the local people!”

“They are cool, and peaceful. I have the situation under constant review. Anyway, didn’t you want to know yourself what kind of life people have here?”

Actually, no, not any more. I am not an ethnographer. All right, I am interested in the epic poetry of the Altai, its culture and history, but that does not mean I need to go on field trips or come into contact with the people of the region. I am not Maxim Gorky. Anyway, who says I don’t know Altai people? I know them very well. I know modest, gentle Ayara who was two years behind me at university; and bouncy Chechek with her pirate eyes who translated the epics for me; and pensive Mergen, and Airat, and Emil; and graduates, musicians, actors, and singers. We came here to enjoy paradise and there is absolutely no need to find out how other people live here. I was in no mood to compromise. I needed none of them.

Our new friends had other ideas, and Slava with his humane attitudes and love of his fellow man was already feeling bad about my outburst. When they sought to make amends, he strode to meet them like a missionary encountering his flock.

Our new friends had other ideas, and Slava with his humane attitudes and love of his fellow man was already feeling bad about my outburst.

“Do not mind, brother, we not mean anything,” Ermen began.

“Of course, I understand,” Slava nodded.

“We just want to be friend,” Ermen continued. “We are not thief.”

“Of course, no problem, forget it.”

Within five minutes they were all sitting chatting together.

“You really walk here from Ulagan?” Ermen’s eyes widened.

“Well, not all the way, somebody gave us a lift, for about 10 kilometers.”

“Walk all from Ulagan, how about that!” Ermen said to Alik and started speaking Altai. They discussed this rapidly and turned back to Slava.

“And then you go to Teletskoye, yes? Oh, very lovely there! Very…” he searched for a word which seemed to be on the tip of his tongue, failed to find it, spat, and said again, “...lovely there. And where you go after?”

“We haven’t thought yet.”

“Only you know, you . . .” Ermen was suddenly anxious. “You walk through Koo also?”

“Well, yes, what else?”

“No, do not go, you must not do!” Ermen’s eyes were like saucers and he looked childishly frightened. “Bad people live there! Even we not go there, and really not you.”

I whistled to myself. The situation had changed: the Altaians had suddenly shifted from their location in the enemy camp, which for three days in succession had figured in scary stories by the campfire, to being on our side. This was getting interesting. What kind of place must Koo be if even people who lived here were afraid of it? Our new friends were excitedly discussing something.

“I tell you, brother,” Ermen thumped Slava on the shoulder when they had finished, almost knocking him over. “I drive you. I have truck, I drive you there.” (Slava and I exchanged glances: “If you like, we could hitch a lift!” the sly gleam in his eye said.) “But not today,” Ermen said. “You see today how I am. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I drive you there. Now we go visit my sister. She stand over there. That my sister. We go. You stay tonight with her and tomorrow I take truck and drive you there. And even not ask you money. We go.”

He and Alik stood up and drew Slava after them. “If you like, we could hitch a lift…” I hadn’t been expecting things to take this turn.

“Hey, where are you going? Slava?” I shouted at their retreating backs.

“Oh, who is that? Wife, yes?” Ermen asked, suddenly discovering me. They stopped and tried to focus on me. Slava just stood there and continued to smile that shortsighted and entirely disarming smile. When he smiles like that, no matter what our predicament at the time, I calm down and am reassured that everything is going to be fine.

“We bring wife with us,” Alik pronounced.

“No questions,” Ermen agreed. I flung my arms up.

“Slava, where is it we’re going?”

At this point I noticed he was furiously winking to me. He had a plan.

“Fine, but what about the rucksacks?” I said.

“The rucksacks!” Our new friends exclaimed delightedly. “We bring the rucksacks with us too.”

They picked them up and slung them on their shoulders, then linked arms with Slava and off they went. I rushed after them.

“How you tourists walk with the rucksacks,” Ermen said with a laugh, “I not understand. We go into taiga as we are, but you take house.”

He swayed under the unfamiliar weight and looked like a snail with an oversized shell.

“Friend, wait!” The woman with the sack caught up with me, heaved it across her shoulder, took me by the elbow and introduced herself. “My name is Masha, what’s yours?”

I relaxed. I was beginning to enjoy myself. Our cockeyed company wandered down the Chulyshman away from the road, across the steppe and the round boulders which were the remains of Scythian tumuli. Within 10 minutes we were guffawing and enjoying ourselves as if we had known each other for a year, as if these were the very people we had come 4,000 kilometers by plane, bus, hitchhiking, and on foot to visit. These simple, drunk people. “Don’t mind us being drunk,” Masha said, theatrically narrowing the already narrow eyes in her big red face puffy with vodka. “We’re drinking on our own money, and anyway we’re celebrating. It would be a sin not to drink.”

What the people of the Altai consider a sin I did not know and right then preferred not to inquire. Despite my good general knowledge of their culture, I know little about their religion. They seem to be pagans who have been christened but are awaiting the coming of the White Burkhan, who have picked up a smattering of Mongolian lamaist Buddhism but thoroughly forgotten it all during the era of universal atheism. The devil only knows what Masha understood by sin. Anyway, why was she called Masha? Why not Ayana, or Karagys? It was a Soviet regulation that they had to have a Russian name in their passport, while their real name was used by their own people, like a return to the old times of paganism when people had secret names. Why did she still call herself Masha? Was it out of deference to the past, or to conceal her identity from us outsiders?

There was no time to think. We were already careering like rocks down a mountainside, or like startled highland goats down a slope, and where to we had no idea. Cheerful people, these dwellers in paradise, our new friends. They just laughed all the time. Ermen and Alik swapped our rucksacks between them as they went along. Ermen was the cheeriest of us all, laughing and making everybody else laugh.

I was even starting to like him. He had a pleasant open face, smiling and kind. Alik (if that was his name) looked worse, both less intelligent and more drunk. I heard Ermen call Alik his brother, but that could mean anything. Someone called a brother in Altai might be what we would call an uncle in Russian. I can never sort out their kinship terminology. The main thing this told me was that Alik was the younger.

Alik was taciturn, and only spoke up when Ermen started telling us about his time fighting in Chechnya.

“What, are you going back under contract?”

“Yep.”

“And will you fire an assault rifle?”

“Yep.”

“And a bazooka?”

“If they give, why not fire?”

“You know our infantry? They are the best. Can hit squirrel in eye at 100 paces.” (This remark was addressed to Slava.)

“What, with a bazooka?” Slava asked in amazement. The friends froze for a moment, but then fell over each other to explain to this moronic, bespectacled townie what a bazooka was.

“Alik is my husband,” Masha suddenly whispered in my ear. I looked closely at her face: she was 35 at least, and Alik looked to be barely over 20. “Yes,” she nodded, happily closing her eyes tight as if sharing an intimate secret with me. “I have balam,” she said, and mimicked rocking a baby. “Three,” she added. “Three children?” For some reason I was horrified. “Yes,” she narrowed her eyes again and smiled happily. We were falling behind. She kept tugging my elbow down and back so that it was impossible to keep up.

“Hey!” Ermen said turning toward us, but Masha waved her hand at him crossly. “What do you want? Go on! My friend and I are sharing secrets, can’t you see? Ermen is my brother. Younger,” Masha told me and carried on telling me her secrets, rolling her eyes and making vague intimate hints, all with that special strange accent, and half in Altai.

“What is your job?” she suddenly asked me and opened her hazel brown eyes. “Me, I work in Koo. At the school, I am a teacher. Of Russian.” I was dumbstruck, but she didn’t need me to say anything. “You really wanted to walk through Koo? You mustn’t, no. You absolutely mustn’t. Such people live there… Oh! Such people they are. We do not go there ourselves.”

“Well, where do you live? Not there?”

“No, of course not. It is thieves live there, not we. We have our house here, nearby. Not in Koo at all. Once a collective farm was there, my sister was chairwoman. But we are not there now. What are you thinking? Of course not.”

Oh, Altai, Altai! I had been hoping that just like this, arm in arm, we would dash through that village of ill omen and scamper all the way to Lake Teletskoye where the stars would be shining and the water would be chilly… but evening was already drawing in, the sun was falling behind the mountains, sizzling like a hot ember, into the distant Lake of Gold, and the waters of the Chulyshman were becoming dark and steely. The mountains surrounding us also seemed brooding and the air became heavy with the mixed aromas of cooling dust, wormwood, and thyme.

The steppe ended. We entered a wood and began moving in the opposite direction from the road. We walked in a trackless straight line through the trees. The dirty feet of the Altaians marched confidently over the Chinese shale, while we stomped along in our mountain boots. In the dark we didn’t notice wandering through a shallow stream. Lone cows plodded somnolently among the trees and Masha, pointing to each of them, said, “That one is ours, this one too, and that one.” I looked forward to fresh milk and sleeping peacefully in a house, not a tent, with the prospect tomorrow of a speedy, relaxing drive to Altyn-Kol. We were in paradise after all, and shouldn’t forget it.

An air of drunken poverty hung over the place and there was even a special smell, sour and dispiriting. There was almost no furniture or toys, or, come to that, locks on the door.

We emerged from the wood to find ourselves at the foot of a mountain. Right there was a yard, two houses behind a fence, one an ordinary Russian partitioned house and the other a traditional Altai conical ayil, a yurt made of logs, with six sides and a hole in the roof in place of a flue. I had slept once before in such a house and was pleased. It was so exotic with its unusual smells, the open fire, and the stars looking you in the face all night. It was a primeval delight. We really were in paradise.

We walked into the yard where a beat-up truck lurked behind the houses, only its nose poking out. The skeleton of a car was rusting by the fence. The door opened and two children appeared on the porch, a grubby boy and girl, naked and barefoot. Masha let go of my elbow and rushed at them like a she-wolf, hissing and shouting. She cuffed both of them and they disappeared howling into the house, from where a baby could be heard crying. Our new companions took the rucksacks off and also went inside. They seemed to have quite forgotten us as we stood there, rooted to the spot, but on the porch Ermen turned and said, “Come in.”

We climbed the stairs and went in reluctantly. An air of drunken poverty hung over the place and there was even a special smell, sour and dispiriting. There was almost no furniture or toys, or, come to that, locks on the door. I was taken aback by the broken glass in the windows, two of which were boarded up with plywood while two had polythene bags fixed over them. A warm draught made the bags fill out, rustling. I couldn’t help wondering how these people must live here in the winter when the temperature can fall below -40.

Masha was already sitting in front of the television breastfeeding the third infant and periodically quarreling with Alik. An Indian film was being shown, and this throwback to Soviet times astonished me. An inner door opened and Ermen came out, nodding to us to follow him outside. Photos of Indian film stars cut out of magazines were fixed to it with drawing pins. By now I didn’t know whether to be surprised.

We ran down from the porch and followed Ermen into the ayil. I was hoping that there at least we would find the ancient, authentic national spirit rather than this dehumanizing penury, but the ayil resembled a dirty summer kitchen. Ermen began laying a fire in the middle. There were old wooden cupboards round the walls and crockery lying about the place, an empty mesh bed and firewood. The dirt floor had been stamped down until it was as hard as asphalt. There really was a hole in the roof, and I looked up into it as if recognizing a dear friend, but my depressed, uneasy feeling did not pass.

Ermen hung a grimy pot over the fire and poured water in. Masha and Alik appeared and the little boy, now clothed, came in with them. His mother gave him a packet of instant Chinese noodles and a bowl and he began pulling them out. We eat them when we are hiking only in dire emergencies. He opened the packaging with his teeth and poured the contents into the bowl.

The girl arrived wearing knickers but still barefoot. She sat down beside her brother and joined in the game with the noodles. I inspected her with interest. She was swarthy. Her tangled hair, bleached by the sun, was practically white and cut in clumps. She looked like Mowgli. There was something pristine and savage about her. Her black eyes flashed in our direction. The Altaians talked among themselves, completely heedless of us.

The water boiled. Masha poured it into the piala bowls, let the teabags infuse, added milk and tolkhana, coarse barley flour, and served us the national Altai tea. We nodded gratefully. Then Masha noticed the girl was barefoot, fell upon her with a yell and gave her a smack. The little girl rushed to the door, tripped and hit her head on the threshold. There was much shouting and wailing, Masha picked her up and slapped and comforted her. The boy meanwhile was trying to lift the enormous bowl and shake the macaroni out into the pot. He dropped it and some was spilt. All three yelled at him.

Everybody calmed down eventually, and we sat there stunned and sipped the hot broth queasily. Alik and Ermen began talking Altay, and Ermen clearly did not like what Alik was suggesting. Masha was strongly opposed too, but Alik quickly shut her up. He moved away from them, sat down directly opposite us and was about to say something when Ermen pulled himself together and beat him to it. “Slava, brother, you buy bear!” he shouted and there was desperation in his eyes. We stirred but before we could say anything Ermen said no less desperately to Masha, “Show bear!”

She darted over to the corner, retrieved the sack which had accompanied us all evening, and shook out and spread on the floor in front of us the skin of a small bear, really only a cub. It smelt of something sour and I felt sick.

“Buy bear! We sell very cheap.”

“We don’t want your bear,” my Slava said, his voice unexpectedly stern. I even briefly turned to him. His expression was stony. He felt he was in the camp of the enemy and was prepared to fight. We will fight to the last, his suddenly implacable eyes said. I understood that and so did the Altaians.

They rolled the skin up without more ado and went back to talking among themselves. I could see that Ermen was trying desperately to save the situation. We were guests. We were sitting in their ayil, at their hearth, drinking their talkhanda chai, and they must not offend us. No matter how undermined these people’s traditions might be, the law of hospitality flowed in their veins. It was present in Ermen and Masha, who was reclining in her chair and looking like the suffering heroine of a Greek tragedy. It had been completely eradicated in Alik. Their wrangling did not last long. Alik gave us a wolfish look and roared like a terrified animal, “Brother, you give 100 rubles!”

At this I suddenly felt unbearably sorry for all of them. I saw my Slava lean forward ready for battle but held him back, saying, “Perhaps you’ve done enough?”

My voice was quiet but it was heard. It was heard in particular by Alik and he instinctively turned tome, as desperate as a drowning man, his voice shaking. He was not happy.

“Sister, give 100 rubles. For beer. We don’t need more. And tomorrow we drive you.”

Defeated, Ermen could only nod, “Yep, we will drive you. Yep.” What are you going to drive us in? I wondered, but said nothing.

“Only don’t drink vodka,” I said in a martyred voice and put 100 rubles in his hand. Alik was jubilant. He could not sit still and leapt to his feet.

“Nowhere get vodka in this time!”

He was suddenly strong and cheerful and he ran out of the ayil.

“We, you know… we really not… we not you know… we come back very soon, and—” Ermen mumbled in total confusion and ran out after him.

“Let’s go and sleep in the house,” Masha said dully. She was terribly embarrassed and it was easy for us to assure her that the ayil was everything we could possibly dream of, and that we would sleep here in our sleeping bags.

When she left, taking her modest supper, we closed the door and barred it with a log. It became dark. There was little light from the dying hearth. We could hear the men out at the truck, trying to get it going, swinging the starting handle. It finally started. Doors were slammed and it drove throbbing and rattling past the ayil. Someone opened the gate and did not bother to close it. The sound of the engine became more distant and then was completely lost in the woods and the darkness. Everything was dark and still.

Five minutes later, without a word, we quickly started gathering up our belongings. We helped each other on with the rucksacks and peeped out the door. The yard was empty, the darkness blinding. Steering clear of patches of light from the windows in the house, we crossed the yard and rushed from this place. Turning back in the woods to look at the house, I saw the flickering of the television inside the empty eye sockets of the windows and heard Indian music, merry and bright. We fled.

We ran easily in spite of the rucksacks, our legs carrying us of their own accord. We did not think about the direction, just wanting to get as far away as possible. Instinct drew us back the way we had come. Ahead was fearsome Koo, while back there were our amiable giants, if on the other bank of the Chulyshman, but with rifles with telescopic sights. We ran in confusion but were not ashamed. We did not fear these people, but we found it intolerable to inhabit their hapless, wrecked, poverty-stricken world, its penury all the more disfiguring in contrast with the beauty of the blessed and promised land of Altay.

We again crossed the stream, descended into the canyon, crossed the road and rushed on toward the riverbank. We crossed the steppe, jumping the ancient ditches of the irrigation system, the drumming of our boots sacrilegiously disturbing the repose of the Scythian warriors in their forgotten graves, and ran and ran back to our place where it had been so wonderful and peaceful to sunbathe and relax after wading the river.

From a distance we saw a campfire at our site and tents as dark as boulders. A Jeep crouched by the bushes. Slowing down, we crept stealthily toward the camp. “Hey!” someone shouted at us, rising from the campfire. “Who are you?” It was a relief to hear a sober voice. I felt like bursting into tears, like blurting out everything there and then, but instead I heard Slava’s voice, steady and even cold. “We are tourists. May we pitch our tent with yours for the night?”

We crept stealthily toward the camp. “Hey!” someone shouted at us, rising from the campfire. “Who are you?” It was a relief to hear a sober voice. I felt like bursting into tears.

“Go ahead,” the man said, instantly losing interest in us.

“Slava, what on earth are we going to do tomorrow?” I asked when we were already in the tent. We seemed to be surrounded. The world had collapsed and in the darkness of the night I could make no sense of its fragments.

“Sleep,” my courageous Slava replied severely.

We were awakened by a familiar phrase and a familiar voice, “Buy bear, brother.” Ermen was going round the tents. I was afraid to move and only blinked out of the sleeping bag. Slava signaled me to keep quiet. Our luckless salesman was soon sent on his way, the familiar truck started up and drove off. Only then did we stick our heads out of the tent.

“Perhaps we should hitch a lift?” I asked, looking wistfully at the off-roader. Slava was more decisive and initiated negotiations, but to no effect. They had no spare seats, they had too many people already, and they were going in the opposite direction. We were treated to tea with condensed milk. “Get ready,” Slava said then. “We have 50 kilometers to cover today.”

Half an hour later our tent was down, the rucksacks packed, and we were hiking along the road in the direction from which we had been running yesterday. The tourists looked at us as if we were a kopek short of a ruble. I felt I was going to war.

We walked obdurately and in silence, trying to keep a little way off the road. We listened out for the sound of a car engine and were ready to jump into the bushes. We were nervous and did not notice passing the house of our companions of yesterday.

We entered the village of Koo in full accordance with the precepts of our giants: in the morning and ready for battle. Nobody noticed us. Nobody appeared outside, unless you count the dogs and calves between the squalid, neglected houses. I was afraid of looking at their windows, fearing that none of them would have glass. I was afraid to look around feeling that the same sour, drink-sodden poverty was watching us from all sides.

Our first rest stop was a few kilometers beyond the village. We drank the water of the Chulyshman, scooping it from the waves with mugs, and our joyless break was like a wake for our personal prehistoric paradise.

A pair of handsome gray cranes accompanied us with their clanging, and landed well away from us when we stopped, slightly further downstream. They strutted and pecked at something in the mud by the bank. Raising their heads, they looked sideways at us with their kind, wise eyes, as if they understood everything.

“Will we reach Teletskoye by evening?”

“Probably, we’ll get there.”

That was the way we spoke now, and the prospect of two more villages of alcoholics threw a shadow over our route. We were not afraid, only everything seemed odd and unclear. I tried to cheer Slava up by picturing us running down to Lake Teletskoye in the night, with the stars twinkling above us, reflected in its dark enigmatic waters. We would throw off our clothes and bathe naked, scooping up the cold starry ripples. It was a lie, as both of us knew. Paradise was yesterday, and equanimity and blessed ignorance were yesterday. Today all we had to look forward to was the kilometers we had to cover.

“What do you think? Perhaps, if we see someone, we could hitch a lift?” I suggested as a last resort.

“Let’s go,” my strict Slava replied.

We pulled on the rucksacks and set off, not yet knowing what it feels like to cover 50 kilometers on foot in one day.

 

If you were going hitchhiking tomorrow, what would you take with you? Hard copy or e-reader?

For a long trip through Russia, I would take a hard copy. You don’t want to take expensive things while hitchhiking. But I prefer paper books anyway: they are more pleasurable. I read the newest literature on an e-reader— my friends’ works, anything I download from the internet, or, for example, I was recently a jurist for the Krapavin prize and most of that material was available only electronically.

What is the most important book you have ever taken on the road?

The Russian Road Atlas. Without it you won’t get anywhere!

What are you reading now?

White Guard by Bulgakov.

Are there specific places that you have found on your travels that you found you could not bring into words?

Every text demands its own time. If an event, a place, a person grabs me and wants to be written about, but for some reason still cannot be expressed, it just hasn’t found its time. It’s not yet ripe. Only gradually will it blossom, tucked away in my soul, and then it takes its form and words. And then I can write about it.

How does being at home compare with being on the road?

Home for me is a temporary state between travels, a place where I can rest after a trip and gather strength for the next. I can’t sit still. If two weeks pass and I don’t go anywhere, depression sets in. Change is absolutely necessary. I really hate stagnation.

And you have a business selling ethnic musical instruments?

It’s my husband’s business. An online store TA-Musica. I’m in charge of public relations, arranging master classes, musician gatherings, running the blog. I teach people how to play the vargan, also. [The vargan is what we call a Jew’s harp or jaw harp in English. It’s considered one of the oldest musical instruments known, originating among Turkic people of Asia, not the Jews. Click here to hear Ira’s vargan recordings.—ed.] For me it is all connected—ethnic music, hitchhiking, our business, informal music gatherings—it’s a subculture, a scene for creative, alternative people that inspires me.

Do you like to read aloud?

Yes. And to listen. Our family had a reading-night tradition. I adore audiobooks. I read excerpts of my work at literary events and I recently spent an hour at an orphanage reading Altai stories that I have adapted. [The Altai are a traditionally nomadic Turkic ethnic group that live in Siberia—ed.] They were so receptive—they didn’t want me to stop reading. There was a little snafu though—there was one tale about a fox who was adopted by an old couple who wound up robbing them and running away. Not the best story to read in an orphanage, but I only remembered the gist halfway through the story. So I had to suggest that the kids finish the story themselves. Naturally the new version ended happily.

Tell us about your surname, Bogatyreva, which derives from the word bogatyrthe legendary knights of Rus.

It’s not a very common name in Russia. As a child, I really did think that my family was directly descended from some sort of bogatyr. I adore epic poetry, and not just Russian. A few years ago I researched the Altai epic tradition, in which bogatyrs are always defeating the evil forces of the underworld. Interestingly, when Altai people hear my name, they react with great respect. For them, the epic still exists. It is a living culture in which they were raised and its heroes are still close. I can’t actually say that I write epic poetry since this is a folkloric genre in which the author is irrelevant. But I have written a novel in that style, Maidens of the Moonfaced Mother, which won the Mikhalkov prize for young adult literature. But this story was about Scythians. About girls who dream of being warriors.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem