Monday, 5 October 2015

Walking To Krasnoyarsk (1)

Imagine you wake up somewhere you’ve never seen before. It’s cold and damp. There’s a lot of rain outside the window. The light is unfamiliar. So are the smells. There are people talking downstairs, and you recognise it as Russian. What are you doing in Russia? And where, exactly in the vast area where they speak Russian, are you? The people downstairs aren’t surprised to see you, but they don’t seem to know who you are. They give you some tea and bread. Eventually you find out you’re in a village two hundred miles from the nearest large town, Krasnoyarsk. You know enough to know that you are in the back end of nowhere. You can’t speak the language, you have some money but not much, and you still have a credit card but you have a distinct feeling that’s no use to you here. You get bars on your smartphone but no 3G, so you don’t have GPS or maps. Mostly you have no idea how to get back home. The people in the house draw a simple map that points you towards the main road and the next village. There’s no public transport, no trains until Krasnoyarsk, and they have work to do today. Just before you leave, one of them gives you a piece of paper and you gather you should show this to other people.

Over the next couple of days your friends, acquaintances, Linked In network and Facebook buddies learn that you are trudging through the rain in Siberia. They don’t know how you got there. You can’t explain it, because nobody ever knows how they wind up heading for Krasnoyarsk through the rain. Some of them think it’s a crazy stunt, some of them can’t even understand it, and the few who have a sense of what may be happening are worried. They looked up Krasnoyarsk on a map, and when they did, their hearts sunk. They knew you were in the middle of a wasteland.

None of them have the resources to send a helicopter or a rescue party for you. Many are in debt, with children to feed and mortgages to pay. None of them know anyone in Russia they could call to help you. After a very short time, even the most well-meaning are reduced to platitudes about “hanging in there”, “reaching out to people”, “at least it’s not snowing”, and how they are praying for you. Some of them do a calculation like this: it’s two hundred miles, at 3 miles an hour for eight hours a day, he’ll be there in less than two weeks. Anyway, someone must be passing with a car or lorry who will give him a lift. That makes them feel a lot better. But it’s three hundred miles allowing for the curves in the road; and you can’t walk for four of the hours because when it gets hot, it gets too hot to keep up that pace, there’s nowhere to buy bottled water, and you’re not a Marine, but an office worker, and walking that far every day for a week turns out to be exhausting and painful. And outside the towns, Siberia has one person per three square kilometres. There are no cars on the country roads.

Your friends put the phone down, go back to watching television and eating lunch. You go back to a damp room to try to sleep. You sense they are embarrassed because they can’t help: your calls are making them feel bad because they are reminded of how powerless they are. You went to all the office leaving drinks parties, and talked to everyone, getting drunker as the evening went on. With your single friends you went on weekends to Amsterdam or Barcelona or Copenhagen, where you rented flats and went to bars and clubs. Home or away, you and your friends would sit around until two and three on Sunday morning talking nonsense about life, philosophy, football, women, music and anything else, then crawl into bed and wake up in time for a shower, a cup of coffee and a trip to the restaurant for lunch. Your mobile buzzed several times an hour with messages and texts. One day on the road you start to miss all this, suddenly, you feel an emotional pain. As much as you enjoyed it, now it hurts when it isn’t there. For one afternoon, you sat unmoving, and felt how much you would be missing if you never got back. You walked that evening and night to make up for it.

And you decided you could not afford to think of life back home. Of how you would be living if you weren’t here. If you were going to survive, if you were going to get back home, you were going to have to think only about walking, and finding shelter and food, and resting when you needed to. You looked at the stars and understood for the first time how men could find their way by starlight. You don’t know the names of the birds here, but you realise you can hear the different songs. You are going to need to get whatever interest and enjoyment you can from the walk. You send one text a day to confirm you’re still alive and on your way. You stop doing that after the second week.

It takes weeks to get there. You thought it would be days: one long-distance lorry, one farmer needing to go to the town, and you would be there. But no. A few cars go by, some with families, some with businessmen, a few with partying kids, but none stop. Some even shout things like “Best thing I ever happened to me” or “Just be yourself and don’t get depressed – you’ll find someone to take you there”. Each night you find someone who looks at the piece of paper, shrugs, or grunts, or shakes his head, or says something that probably isn’t complimentary, but who lets you sleep on the floor anyway. You would help them, but they can see you aren’t a farmer and can’t help them.

Since that awful afternoon, all you think of is taking the next part of the journey to Krasnoyarsk. You don’t think about what you’re going to do when you get there. You stop anticipating anything, you stop wondering why nobody stops to offer you a lift, you stop wondering how you got to Siberia, you just think about walking. You learn to recognise when you need to rest, when you are about to faint, when you need to get shelter from the heat. You got smart enough to shelter from the first drop of rain in the first week. You don’t wish for better boots or clothes: you have to do with what you have, and wishing would make it worse. If it was winter, you would be dead by now, but it’s late spring, it gets hot during the day. It rains a lot around Krasnoyarsk in the spring. So you walk through flies, midges and god knows what else with wings and teeth that nip and for all you know can leave all sorts of poisons behind. If you get to the next village or farm, and find somewhere to sleep, and someone who offers food and tea, that is a successful day.

Eventually you get to Krasnoyarsk. You find a big hotel where they can take your credit card. You’re too tired to feel anything, and when you can use the hotel internet, you look at your bank account and realise that you’re on your overdraft. Your employer has stopped paying in your salary, but your landlord and everyone else are still taking out their charges. You have just enough money to get home, if you do it cheap. The concierge tells you there are three Aeroflot flights a day to Heathrow via Moscow. The prices are low and you snap up a ticket for tomorrow. You don’t bother telling anyone back home you’re in Krasnoyarsk at last, because it’s only another staging post. Your journey isn’t over. It isn’t over when you board the plane, and it isn’t over when you pass through immigration, and it isn’t over when walk through your own front door. Because you have the fall-out to deal with.

Your employer accepts your story, doesn’t think you’re crazy, is happy to take you back, but hey, you missed work and they won’t pay what you’ve missed, so you’re months in debt. It takes almost a year to get your debts paid and your overdraft cleared. When you see your friends and colleagues, there’s a slight awkwardness. Your very presence reminds them they couldn’t help you, that they were powerless while you were heading for Krasnoyarsk through the rain. You in turn had to forget about them and their lives so you could make it through another day. If there ever was a connection between you, it’s broken. You never do feel a wave of relief at being back home. Because you will always have something else to deal with. It’s no longer a relief. Everything and everybody is now something to deal with.

It puzzles you that strangers helped you on the way to Krasnoyarsk. One day you show someone who speaks Russian the piece of paper they gave you at the start of your journey. He reads it and looks at you with a mixture of pity and surprise. What does it say? you ask. He tells you it says: “this man is lost and has no friends. He is going to Krasnoyarsk. For the mercy of God help him if you can.”

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