Russia: Extremes of more than temperature

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The tigers at the sanctuary were separated from visitors by nothing more than flimsy wire netting. Photo / Rob Gray
The tigers at the sanctuary were separated from visitors by nothing more than flimsy wire netting. Photo / Rob Gray

It started to rain as we dismantled our tents and loaded our bikes. Despite heading to bed early, I was worn out from a stomach that had been churning violently all night, necessitating several trips to the bushes around our campsite.

We had 100 kilometres to travel to our first stop, a tiger sanctuary near the border between Russia and China. As we rode, the rain began to claw its way through our gear, soaking our gloves, freezing our fingers, leaking in under our helmets and down our necks, pooling in our laps and trickling into our boots.

We passed through run down villages and abandoned towns, Soviet apartment blocks standing derelict and unused.

The tiger sanctuary was in a village on the far side of a town called Spask.

What should have been a simple passage through the centre of Spask turned into a navigational nightmare, our maps mushy with water and our spirits dampened by unexpected turns and dead-ends.

When we eventually reached our destination, we found a small village built on a swamp, in a bleak and hostile environment. Buying bread and cheese from the local store, we sheltered from the wind against the side of store, hands blue and bodies shaking from the cold.

Our cellphone was not working, so we could not call to confirm that we wished to visit the tigers.

When somebody pointed out that with the money we had invested in this trip, we could have bought a yacht and sailed around the Mediterranean for a summer, we began questioning why on earth we were here.

Why come to Russia, the Far East of Russia, where people were sent as a prison sentence until fairly recently?

For the first time, thoughts of my warm office flooded into my head.

The tiger sanctuary was a bizarre experience. They were Amur tigers, from the local area. While only about five hundred remain in the wild, these five hundred are roughly located along our route.

As I gazed in awe at the huge creatures pacing only a metre from me, I thought back to my excursions into the bushes at our campsite last night, and swallowed hard.

It was difficult to figure out the purpose of the sanctuary. The sign on the gate said "Zoological Institute" in Russian, but it was really just an old man's house, the standard wooden one bedroom affair, a few cows and chickens, a rusty car... and some tigers.

The tigers seemed to live in a forest behind the house, but were fed in glorified chicken coops near the house. We stood holding our breaths as two tigers entered the coop, separated from us only by the flimsiest of wire that could have been shredded in an instant.

I notice with discomfort that in several places, the coop had been repaired by tacking fresh sheets of netting on, held in place with small plastic cable ties and stray bits of wire wound around each other.

"Be careful" warned the owner, which did nothing to inspire my confidence in the safety arrangements.

My stomach was still unhappy, and grew steadily worse along with the rain. By the time we set off from the tiger sanctuary, my head was successively hot then cold then hot again, and my battle to keep down lunch had been lost.

As the rain picked up momentum, I rode hunched over, doubled-up to combat the pain in my middle. We had 170 kilometres to travel to our destination that night, and right then that distance seemed an impossible feat.

There wasn't much choice but to carry on - being on the main road, camping spots were limited, and we had the promise of free accommodation ahead.

Finally, somehow, we arrived. I had had several unscheduled bathroom stops along the way, snot was running from my nose into my neck warmer, and my leg was shaking uncontrollably, but we were there.

Vladimir, a friend of a friend from Vladivostok, welcomed us and escorted us to his house, hazard lights on as he drove us through town.

It was quickly apparent that usual rules did not apply to Vladimir. His line of business was vague, but he was incredibly wealthy and his house was the largest I had seen in Russia thus far.

Pulling into his driveway, we were shown into the garage by a couple of heavies, then taken downstairs to an elaborate, ornate underground level. We were then directed to remove all our clothing, and taken straight into his sauna, wearing only towels and the unusual peaked hats our host gave us.

The heat was welcome relief to the hypothermia that must not have been far away. Vladimir poured beer over the hot stones, and we breathed in the oaty aroma.

Next it was into the dining room for a feast, our host now clad in mini-overalls with patterned fabric.

The food was endless in both quantity and variety, with everything from caviar to cheeses and preserves to fresh salads laid before us. We were urged to eat our fill, and then eat some more.

No sooner was the eating over than we were taken into another room, this one darkened with strobe and disco lights dancing on the walls.

One of Vladimir's friends, Stepan, was to provide the evening's entertainment. With a sound system providing backing tracks, we were treated to Stepan playing saxophone, clarinet, accordion... and singing karaoke.

As we listened to the sounds and watched Stepan in the whirl of disco lights, I forgot about our grumblings.

Even though my stomach was still in distress, I would not have traded our location for a Mediterranean yacht any longer.

* To help Rob and his mates reach their fundraising target for the Living Hope charitable organisation in Vladivostok and for more information on their journey, click here.

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