We are settled in for an afternoon in our first Russian campsite, located on the banks of Chemal river about 20 kilometres from Chemal itself. The spot we’ve picked has an picnic bench under a plastic roof and books are out, weird bugs are examined and the sweat of cycling has been washed off by a brief dip in freezing cold water.
The road we’re following has been surprisingly touristic, with every access point to the river containing campsite facilities and activities, quite unlike the rest of our Russian cycling. We didn’t quite realise that we’d chosen a side road which was so popular for holidaying Russian’s and it leaves us with no option but to pay for a pitch. Despite grim toilet facilities which leave us longing for a quiet bit of woods to do our business in, I’m idly watching fellow campers and contemplating our good fortune to have picked this un-crowded site. Suddenly our late afternoon tranquillity is shattered by the loud blast of our neighbour’s stereo. Oh well, I think, at least they’re a family group.
Later we’re preparing dinner when storm clouds and accompanying strong winds force half cooked bulgur wheat and chopped vegetables into the tent. As the sky darkens we sit under our picnic table shelter wondering if we should follow suit. Its at this moment that one of our formerly loud neighbours walks over. In discovering that we don’t speak Russian he disappears only to return with his school-aged son. Soon a car pulls up containing an uncle, a bucket of barbequed meat and chicken, vodka and bags of fruit, vegetables and bread.
The storm rages around us, but while getting a drenching under our inadequate shelter we are introduced to a big family group, answering questions from the children while sharing in the vodka with the men who tell us that their wives are not impressed with their drinking. We suspect that is why they’ve decamped from their site to join us at ours. One of the children challenges me to chess, which luckily turns out to be checkers, which he beats me, then Justin at in turn.
As quickly as the storm starts, it peters out, and as suddenly as our quiet spot has been overrun with conversation, the children inform us that they’ are leaving and sure enough the wives herd everyone into cars and they drive out of the campsite. We swear that there had been a tent up and wonder if the rain had driven them away, or if they were just on a day out.
We’ve been left with a table groaning with food which we can’t possibly carry plus half cooked dinner in our tent and its just getting dark. Strangely, this is the moment that a team of campsite workers is dispatched to handout big black garbage bags. Someone comes over to make sure the bicycles are securely locked and I offer him the remaining bucket of chicken. He speaks a little English and turns out to be the campsite owner. He tells us he had met a couple of German cycle tourists in this area a few years ago and invites us to another site he is developing if we pass it after Chemal.
Overnight the campsite almost fills to capacity, and as we’re leaving we hear the familiar ring of ‘Vi atkuda’ (where are you from). We turn to see a group settled on chairs outside the opened trailer of a large truck. They haven’t even bothered with a tent. We yell ‘New Zealand’ at them and close our ears to the invitations to eat and drink with them as we’re determined to make it the final 20 kilometres into Chemal.
Nestled among hills on all sides, unassuming Chemal is brimming with holidaymakers. We wonder about our decision to leave our campsite and decide we’ll try just one pension before heading back down the valley. We knock on the door of Radna Pension and are immediately told its full, though the lady who speaks with us takes a second look at our bicycles and tries to explain some other options to us in Russian.
Soon we’re taken to see an impressive 4WD and Justin is lead inside to find an English speaking sister. I’m directed to take the bicycles inside their front gate and join everyone inside. As I pass through the gate I meet with a man who is loading wood onto the back of a truck. “We like bicycles,” he says.
Justin and I are both secretly glad to be out of the heat for a few hours, thinking we’ll head back down towards the campsites later in the afternoon. Tea and conversation take place over plates of homemade jams and homemade ‘ice-cream’, more a sweet cheese curd from their own cows. We meet the other sisters and learn that as well as the cows they keep bees and chickens. They also admit that we’re the first foreigners that have been to the Pension since the Recession in 2008.
Its not long before a spare room is found for us to stay in, and a tourist apartment is promised for the next day and as long as we want after that. We’re taken for a tour of the family’s farm land in the evening. Some of the people we had met at the house earlier are camping at the bottom of the valley next to a stream, and are busy preparing to build houses there. The guy who had commented on our bicycles earlier tells us that the house building will take about three months and draws a simple square in the air to illustrate the finished shape of it. We walk to the top of the property admiring thick meadows of wild flowers, springs full of fresh water and views over the surrounding valleys.
We walk through quiet Chemal the next morning with a hand-drawn map of attractions we should see while wondering where all the tourists are. Turning a corner from a quiet street towards a forest track along to the river we find the answer. A path leads along the cliffs above the river to an ‘Extreme Park’ filled with rope walks, flying foxes, Ferris wheels and souvenir stalls. To our eyes it seems like a music festival, complete with bare-chested men with funny hats on.
We sit by the edge of a hydro-dam watching the mayhem around, only to see an empty paddleboat crash over the side. Before we can absorb what has happened we notice a couple of bodies also tumbling through the rapids. Its horrible to watch, even more so when the staff don’t seem to have any resources to hand to help. Eventually the men are lifted out of the water but we wonder how often this sort of thing occurs.
After another peaceful night, we reluctantly pack our bags to head back to the M52 which we’ll stick to all the way to the Mongolian border. During our round of goodbyes we’re invited to return after we tour Mongolia and join the community building houses in the valley. As we freewheel down the valley I call ahead to Justin. ‘Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if my front wheel breaks. We could wait here for a replacement….’