2002-11-22 9:23 PM
Voyage of the Blue Turtle, Part I

I have always been crazy about motorcycles.

Having recently moved halfway around the world, from Los Angeles, California to the suburbs of Moscow, Russia, I was very curious to find out what the locals had to offer by way of an iron horse. For my first month in country, my curiosity went largely unsatisfied. The city is not exactly teeming with bikers, and for good reason: Moscow?s environment is highly inimical to the breed. The winters are very harsh, and in the warmer months, the road is a kingdom of pain and sudden death. Judging from the way Russians routinely risk their own and each other?s lives behind the wheel, it is not entirely unreasonable to conclude that each and every automobile in Moscow is being driven by a pent-up, adrenaline-pumped serial killer.

On a summertime trip to the countryside to visit relatives, however, I noticed a marked increase in the number of bikes on the road as we drew further and further away from the city. There seemed to be an inverse relationship between the population density and the popularity of two-wheeled vehicles, so by the time we reached our extremely rural destination, a small town called Nikolsk located in the Penzenskaya oblast, motorcycles accounted for perhaps half of the local traffic. Many were teen-toy two strokes, their passage marked by low-level contrails of blue smoke as they buzzed anarchistically along, but I also noticed a large proportion of big, heavy-duty bikes, usually equipped with sidecars, being used to haul everything from lumber to livestock.

By the time I returned to the city, I was determined to own one of those big, loud machines before the end of summer. As soon as I could manage it, I made arrangements to go back to the country and find myself a bike. My mother-in-law wanted to take my two-year-old daughter back to Nikolsk for a few weeks while the weather was still warm, so we bought three train tickets and tied up all our loose ends in the city.

The appointed day found us spectacularly unready for the trip. Traffic was worse than usual in the city that afternoon, and we were running late. The train would be leaving with or without us in another thirty minutes, and we were far from the station. Worst of all, I couldn?t find an ATM that would accept any of my cards, and although our tickets were bought and paid for, I didn?t have enough money on hand to buy a motorcycle once we got to Nikolsk. Our driver, a stalwart friend by the name of Valodye, had been battling the traffic valiantly, zipping us futilely from bank to bank in his new Skoda, and there was sweat on his forehead from the stress. Things didn?t look good to either of us.

The scenery around us suddenly became familiar to me, and I sat bolt upright in my seat. The Sheraton was only a couple of blocks away, and I knew for a fact that the ATM in the lobby would accept my bank card. Val, eliciting honks and curses from a score of other drivers, pulled us up in front of the lobby entrance. Before he came to a stop, I leapt from the car and hit the ground running.

I got lucky: nobody was using the ATM. I was back in the car and headed for the train station, cash in hand, as quick as boiled asparagus.

Personally, I like to travel light. My mother-in-law, however, is not so inclined, and given the frequency with which we?ve had to travel together in the last two months, I count it as one of her greatest faults. On this particular occasion, I found her penchant for large amounts of luggage especially irksome, doubly so because, as it turned out, we pulled up to the station on the wrong side. The train was already waiting on the track, which meant we had just scant minutes to board before it would be pulling out? and it was a good quarter-mile away. I was wearing two backpacks, had a large and heavy bag slung over each shoulder, and in each hand I gripped the handles and straps of God knows how many other ponderous pieces of motley and mismatched luggage. The spine-compressing load of it all was torture standing still. Since we were in danger of missing our train, I was moving at a dead run, desperately trying not to stumble or let any of my bags swing for fear of being bowled over by my own implacable inertia.

Somehow, I made it to the gray, 1930s-looking train without a cardiovascular accident or broken leg. I thought we were home free, but a quick inspection of the car numbers revealed that we were at the wrong end of a long train. Rather than risk being left behind, we boarded where we were, and made our way forward through the interior of the idle train. It was oppressively hot, and the corridors were too narrow for me to walk through freely with all the bags I was carrying. I ssssshhhed along, slogging forward against the friction of nylon and canvas on wood as alarmed Slavs jumped out of my way and peered at me from the safety of their open compartments. Ahead of me, my daughter peeked curiously into every nook and cranny, and hesitated warily before jumping across the vertebral metal plates that separated one car from the next. As the train pulled out of the station and picked up speed, she began refusing to cross between the cars without assistance, forcing me to further strain my overtaxed bones in order to keep her moving along ahead of me.

Eventually, we found our compartment, which was very near the front of the train. By the time we got there, I was praying for sweet, merciful death, but as we were sharing our cozy little car with a nice young Hungarian couple, I was obliged to live long enough to make small talk. Fortunately, there was cold beer involved, and my will to live was miraculously rekindled in short order.

The compartment wasn?t terribly comfortable, but it wasn?t uncomfortably terrible either. Four bunks, a table, a window. The paneling on the walls and the dull chrome trimmings were plain and somewhat disreputable with age, but everything was sturdy, there were no sharp corners to be found, and I managed to find a subtle proletarian elegance about the place. I stowed some of our gear underneath one of the lower bunks, and stashed the rest on one of the upper bunks. We?d have to sleep in shifts, but it would do.

I was still pretty hot and sweaty from the ordeal, so I stepped out of the compartment into the main corridor and enjoyed the breeze coming in through the open corridor window. I was just starting to cool off when a dour-looking old woman wearing a railway uniform popped through the door separating us from the next car back, noticed me enjoying myself, and started angrily berating me in Russian. She shooed me away from the window and closed it with a bang, then pulled the shade and brusquely whisked the heavy red curtains together. She ignored every other window on the car, though they were all wide open too. How very Soviet, I thought to myself? but the Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union. Besides, I?m an American, and I?m hot, so the hell with her. She stood there and watched, mouth agape and eyes bugging out apoplectically, as I swept the curtains aside, snapped the shade up, and opened the window.

The old Soviet throwback shouted at me in Russian, but I stood firm and stood fast between her and the window. Face flushed and looking surrealistically stern in her faded old uniform, she suddenly abandoned her human air raid siren impersonation, spun on her heel, and stalked off purposefully. Babushka, permanently scarred by a lifetime under the Soviet system, looked very nervous and tried desperately to convince me that arguing with quasihuman railway personnel would get me a one-way ticket to a Siberian gulag. I pushed back my nagging doubts as to the advisability of my actions, smiled at her, and told her not to worry. I figured if Stalinetta came back accompanied by a flying wedge of flatheaded bully boys to throw me bodily off the train, I?d just plead ignorance of the language. Frightened, Babushka retreated into the relative safety of our compartment and hid her face from the imminent shit storm.

I enjoyed the lovely breeze on my face and prepared my mind for whatever form the confrontation might take. I wasn?t in the mood to behave like a cowed slave and let some potato-nosed old sovok dominatrix force me to sit in the heat with the window shut for 900 kilometers just to satisfy her residual sense of reasonless Soviet propriety. Dialectical materialism be damned. Outside, the concrete and the factories were quickly giving way to forest, rippling plains of grass and grain, and little clusters of rustic suburban dachas. I remembered something I?d read years ago about Robert and Ginny Heinlein?s visit to the Soviet Union, something about how low-ranking Soviet officials understood only two fundamental mentalities: that of the slave, and that of the master.

It didn?t take long. Stalinetta came marching back into the car with a little man in tow a few minutes later. His uniform was even older and more threadbare than hers, and his face bore a petty, supercilious, I?m-in-command-here expression that must have sent chills down the peasant spines of rail-riding commie bottom dwellers back in the bad old days. I disliked him on sight. As they drew nearer, she stopped and pointed at me, and he advanced, curtly informing me in heavily accented English that the window must be shut, giving no reason whatsoever as to why this window was so special. We had an awkward moment as he attempted, unsuccessfully, to brush me aside and close the window. He was about half my size. I didn?t budge a millimeter, just looked him straight in the eye, the way a police interrogator looks at a suspect, and quietly but firmly informed him that the window would stay open, and that was that. He began to argue with me, so I quickly but calmly turned to face him, pulled a pen out of my shirt pocket, and demanded his name. I didn?t yell, I just drilled holes in him with my eyes and flatly interrupted his insignificant little tirade? and what do you know? He backed down. His manner changed in a twinkling from imperious to scrapingly servile. For a moment I thought he might actually tug his forelock. It was like watching mean old Mr. Hyde shrink into the meek contours of mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll.

Jekyll explained apologetically that the window was the designated emergency exit, and that regulations required it to be shut? but he quickly continued that there was nothing special about the window other than the arbitrary designation, so if I really wanted it open, that would be fine, and did I need anything else? I dismissed him.

The Hungarians sharing our compartment were very pleasant, once the ice was broken. They expressed a deep love of the natural beautiful of the lush Russian countryside, and a sophisticated appreciation of Russian high culture. They were either too young or too sensible to hold a grudge against the Butchers of Budapest, preferring instead to embrace their nation?s ancient enemy as the good tourist value it is. We drank beer, talked about the world, played cards, and pointed out particularly quaint features of the languidly passing scenery to each other. At whistle stops, where old women and little boys crowded the train to sell fruit and cold drinks, we gave our trade to the most desperate faces.

My two-year-old daughter Leah, normally endowed with a take-no-prisoners ebullience in any new or exciting situation, surprised me by zonking out almost immediately and staying that way for a good six hours. I almost suspected Babushka of drugging her up. She looked so cute, passed out on the leather-upholstered lower bunk with one leg on the floor, her face, excruciatingly angelic in sleep, turned toward us. The Hungarians beamed embarrassed goodwill every time their eyes lit on her.

Presently, her grandmother hit the hay as well, staking out the top bunk on our side of the compartment. The Hungarians passed out on their side, and I was left to stand watch. I passed a good deal of the time standing at ?my? window, breeze in my hair, watching Russia roll by in an endless stretch of forests, fields, dachas, river crossings where country folk swam and splashed each other merrily under the trestles, tiny villages where small clusters of grim blockhouse apartment buildings and ancient rotting tumbledown houses paid homage to crumbling churches, grassy leas where cows stood hypnotized by the lazy rhythm of their own chewing. Leah woke up and joined me, clambering up to stand on the sill of the window with my arms around her to keep her safe, waving and wildly screaming ?DOSVEDANYE!!!!!? at every cow and rock and blade of grass we passed until the sun went down and only the black night remained.

I woke the Hungarians shortly before their stop, and they packed their gear out, leaving me a place to sleep. Babushka woke up and took charge of Leah, and I crashed hard on a lower bunk. Something was bothering me behind my eyes, a nagging little knot of vertigo and pain, and I felt cold in spite of the summer swelter. I dreamed shivering dreams of a ponderous, inhuman game in which the players were faceless monoliths of stone and steel, their movements set to the clicking rhythm of the swaying train on its tracks. My sleep seemed to last for black, yawning centuries.

When I woke up, I was violently ill. I locked myself in the toilet and tried in vain to turn myself inside out at the mouth. I reached the end of my dry heaving right about the time that we reached the end of our line. It was the wee hours of the morning now, with sunrise just a promise on the clock, and I knew I?d have to pull myself together PDQ, or we?d be stuck on the train. I rinsed out my mouth and forced my tumbling guts into submission through sheer force of will.

Fortunately, I didn?t have to carry all that baggage very far. A line of bandit taxis waited at the station in a circle of unfocussed light carved out of the fog, and soon we were barreling down a country road toward Nikolsk. The dust billowed out behind us, red-lit by the running lights of the little car, and was lost forever in the fog and darkness.

Nikolsk slept. The traffic lights at the main intersection of town blinked idiot caution at us over empty streets? but in his high-ceilinged Stalin-era apartment, Uncle was awake and awaiting our arrival. He gave me a warm greeting, all grin and sparkling eyes, and sat me down in the kitchen while Babushka hastily put a sleepy Leah to bed before she could turn cranky on us. Knowing my tastes, Uncle offered me beer immediately, and began setting out his customary array of finger foods as soon as our luggage was squared away. I couldn?t stomach any of it, though, and settled myself with a nice glass of fresh milk instead.

I began to feel better when the Sun showed up. Unlike our place in the city, where the dawn works you over mercilessly through East-looking windows, Uncle?s apartment admits the daylight in a humbled, unobtrusive form, cast high and filtered through the greedy fingers of the trees. Babushka was already puttering about in the kitchen, making galubsye for our breakfast, and humming along with the weird mix of tunes emanating from the ancient radio squatting fatly on top of the enormous refrigerator. The range of musical selections being served up was way beyond eclectic. This was full-blown schizoid radio, mood swing music programmed by a split-personality with no hope of ever living a normal life: a Brubeck composition played on a distorted pipe organ back-to-back with Tchaikovsky, followed by disposable Russian bubblegum pop, followed by the national anthem, followed by a scratchy old Scott Joplin rag, capped by the news. Something for everyone, and Babushka seemed to enjoy every bit of it, bopping and grooving along with the music as she captained her spatula with nimble, expert fingers.

Good for you, Babushka. You go, girl.

I spent the day looking at motorcycles. Uncle had already done a bit of legwork on my behalf, and had some good prospects lined up. We jaunted around the tiny town, peering into perilously leaning sheds at machines in various stages of death and disrepair.

Everywhere we went, I caught people surreptitiously studying me. There was nothing sinister in it, just a great deal of veiled curiosity. Word seems to travel fast whenever I?m in Nikolsk, and as the first foreigner to visit in perhaps fifty years, I enjoy a status there that is someplace between albino Bengal tiger and rock star. People are not sure what to think of me, but they all want to get a good look. If I speak to them, they react with varying degrees of shy delight, reveling in the novelty of my presence. Old men shake my hand gravely, World War II in their eyes, and young girls in pairs and trios flirt shamelessly with me when they think nobody is looking.

We traversed much of the town that morning, ending up at the home of Uncle?s friend Sergei Sergeiovich. Sergei is a long drink of water, six foot three if he?s an inch, and well-muscled in spite of being skinny as a snake. His build is the only snakelike thing about him, though? wholesome, homespun-clad Sergei would look right at home in a Norman Rockwell painting. Well, almost right at home, anyway. He?s got that fresh-faced farmboy look about him like no one I?ve ever seen before, but the pointy, upturned toes of his weird shoes give him a fey, elflike quality that is both subtle and jarring.

Sergei had two motorcycles, a 1969 Ural, and a 1983 Ural, both of them Soviet-made copies of the same 1940 BMW. The ?69 sat on flat, ancient tires, bleeding oil from every part of its weary old engine and rusting delicately everywhere else. There was no way I was going to even think about trying to ride that dog all the way back to Moscow, but my heart warmed with disappointed love as I examined it.

The ?83 was in much better shape. It fired right up after a bit of priming, and smoked only a little. The oil was low, and the tire on the sidecar needed a little air before we could take her out for a spin, but there was a full set of tools in the trunk, complete with foot-pump. We topped up the oil and the tire and went riding, me in the bitch seat and Uncle in the sidecar.

I?ve never before ridden anything so ear-splittingly loud and so ponderously slow. This was a Soviet Harley, commie cousin to the Cro-Magnon hog my grandfather tooled around on in post-Depression California. I loved it.

Uncle felt differently. He does not have a deep and abiding love for motorcycles, and was only too happy to have us drop him off at home, obviously grateful that he hadn?t been injured or killed.

Sergei and I spent the rest of the day working on the bike and tooling around, making sure everything was working properly, and taking frequent beer breaks in between. When we both felt confident that the bike would continue to run once we left the relative safety of Nikolsk proper, we picked up Sergei?s dog and my wife?s cousin Andrei and headed out of town for some highway riding. Sergei still didn?t trust me with his life, as I had never ridden a bike with a sidecar before that day, so he drove while the dog and I shared the sidecar and Andrei clung nervously to the leather loop just in front of the bitch seat.

Open fields and long stands of forest rolled by deliciously, punctuated by occasional tiny clusters of geriatric tumbledown dwellings, bus stops with odd-looking assortments of people waiting for any vehicle with room, blue sky and sunshine and rippling grain and free, sweet wind. We rode the asphalt a long time before Sergei muscled us over onto a narrow dirt track, slowing down to a crawl so as to spare us the unkind irregularities of bumps and potholes, down through the tall grass to a lake of pure, clear water. With the engine shut down, it was quiet and still, and the water looked as smooth as a mirror.

With the wind of our passage gone, it was hot. We shed our clothes and stormed the lake, yelling and splashing and laughing like schoolboys playing hooky. The dog whined at us from the shore, afraid to enter the unknown depths of the water, but unwilling to be left behind. We pushed a big floating log over to shore and Sergei tricked the dog into walking out on it before gently shoving the impromptu raft toward the middle of the lake.

Later, as we basked dripping in the sunshine, we drank beer and talked business. A few questions, a handshake, and Sergei?s Ural was mine. I promptly and proudly dubbed her Tcheripashkoo Galuboy (the Blue Turtle).

We rode my Tcheripashkoo back to town, but this time I drove, in spite of Andrei?s fearful protests at the idea. The sidecar definitely took some getting used to, what with the sickening feeling of imminent bloody mangled death that accompanies every right turn, but I was feeling my oats and saw no reason to be an old lady about it. The dog and I enjoyed the ride thoroughly. Every now and then I snuck a peek in my rear view mirror at Andrei, whose ghost-white face was locked in a rictus grin of naked terror. Sergei, meanwhile, won my respect by keeping his face composed in an unshakeable mask of Buddha-like serenity.

That evening, we all gathered at Uncle?s dacha for drinks and shashlik. My Russian friends and family, proud of their old-timey ways, were all eager to serve me my first taste of this traditional local dish, and I didn?t have the heart to tell them that, back in the States, we call it barbecue. The marinade wasn?t quite the same, but close enough, and shashlik is cooked on skewers, like what we call shishkebab, but it was barbecue nonetheless. The fact that it was very good barbecue made it easy for me to display the childlike gustatory joy they were all looking for. The vodka didn?t hurt, either. Much.

Uncle?s dacha is a marvelous little hideaway. It?s a short distance from town, an easy walk from the last bus stop on the local route, but far enough away to be private and quiet and superlatively pastoral. The patch of land it sits on is huddled together with a few dozen others like it in a peaceful, private, happy little village-without-portfolio that exists and thrives in an innocent, archaic manner based on nothing more substantial than mutual consent. All the unpleasantness of cities and towns, all the danger and ugliness of civilization, all of that is left behind when one goes to dacha. There is no graffiti, no blasting music, no brawling, no maniacally piloted automobiles. The surrounding forest is broken only by the muddy road to town on one side, and a wide cattle track on the other, where twice daily the local ruminants are herded to and from pasturage by horseless cowboys and cowgirls wielding sinuous switches. The dacha itself is delineated by a high old fence, secured by barbed wire and various strategically-planted stinging or thorn-bearing plants, within whose confines a staggering panoply of fruits, vegetables, tubers, herbs, and flowers grow. Two paths, painstakingly lain by hand and made of castoff lumps of smooth colored glass from the local glassmaking factory, wind from the front gate through the garden, along the edge of the cozy little house, back to the far end of the property, where the outhouse and the rainwater bathtub rise organically from the rich soil. Just off the main path, a venerable and still-solid picnic table sits rotting jauntily in the welcome shade of a carefully pruned tree laden with countless sweet green apples, just a few feet from the brick kiln where Uncle cooks shashlik for his guests.

The evening of the day I bought Sergei?s Ural, we drank and ate well. Some of us, in fact most of us, drank a little too well, if you know what I mean. Beer and wine and vodka was flowing pretty freely, and soon the innate pessimism that all Russians seem to be cursed with began rearing its nay-saying head. Someone, perhaps Uncle?s dacha-neighbor Yuri, made some remark about the inadvisability of the trip I was planning, and it snowballed from there. Within minutes, they were all dead set against my going, and were advising, urging, practically begging me to let them put the bike on a truck and drive me back to Moscow. Try as I might, I couldn?t get through to them the fact that the whole point of this trip wasn?t just to buy a motorcycle; I wanted to ride my motorcycle across the Russian countryside. I?m an adventurer, I told them, and this is my adventure.

I learned later that, in Russian, the word adventurer carries some very serious negative connotations? but I have to admit that this fact only makes it more appropriately descriptive of me. Yes, I?m kind of a bad guy sometimes. So sue me.

One by one, in shifts, they tried to talk sense into me. Uncle demanded to know what I would do if the motorcycle broke down along the way. Andrei insisted that it would indeed break down, as sure as milk goes sour. Sergei, no optimist but with a good measure of faith in his own skill as a mechanic, assured me that the motorcycle would make it to Moscow, nyeh probleem? but predicted that the banditti would surely rob me and kill me long before I got home. Only Yuri, stubbornly loyal to his own cherished Ural, understood why I wanted to make such a trip, and even he expressed a dark foreboding when the subject of the banditti was raised. Uncle went so far as to say that, with me being an American and all, the police were at least as much of a danger to me as any gang of cutthroats.

I stuck to my guns, and they eventually gave up, but all the joy was gone from our gathering. These men honestly liked me, and they didn?t want me to die. They had managed to convince themselves and each other that my proposed trip was certain death, and so they were simultaneously mourning me in advance, and cursing me for being so stupid and stubborn as to ignore their advice. Uncle scowled and brooded, and it hurt me so to make him worry that I almost relented? but I couldn?t give in, not if I wanted to look myself in the mirror again. There are just some things that a man has to do, not because they need doing, but because they test him and strengthen him and keep him happy to be alive. You hone a knife on a stone, not on a loaf of bread.

The day of my departure dawned miserably. A long streak of beautiful, sunny weather had suddenly and inexplicably given way to iron-gray clouds full of rain and lightning, buffeting winds and the angry tympani rumble of a warning thunder. It was as though the gods themselves were confirming the forecast of doom that my friends and family had made the night before.

I didn?t hesitate much. When I lived in Oregon, I rode a motorcycle every day, rain or shine? and Oregon gets a lot more rain than shine. No way would I let a little moisture get between me and the open road. Uncle found a sheet of plastic and helped me cut it to a size suitable for use as a ground tarp, then cut me another to use as a poncho if necessary. I wrapped my gear in plastic and packed the sidecar. While Babushka cooked breakfast, I sat at the kitchen table and dipped matches in candle wax to make them waterproof.

Uncle was quieter now, still opposed to my going, but resigned to my stubbornness. He did the best he could for me, supplying me with what weapons he could spare, and brainstorming with me on sundry items that might prove invaluable along the way. Uncle has a near-pathological fascination with weaponry of any kind, and loves nothing more than a discussion of tactics. He brightened considerably when I showed him how to use a newspaper to kill or incapacitate an opponent.

The rain let up just long enough for me to get out of town. I gassed up at the LukOil station and hit the road, and was soaked stupid within five kilometers? but that?s the difference between me and Jack Kerouac: I kept going. I?ll never forget the feeling of utter disdain I had as a teenager when I snapped shut a copy of On the Road after reading how Kerouac wistfully turned tail for home and a slice of pie just because he got rained on ten miles from his house. Fuck Kerouac, I thought to myself as I twisted the throttle and squinted hard to keep the rain out of my eyes. He must have been made out of sugar.

Yes, I had to squint to keep the rain out of my eyes. One thing I couldn?t scare up in Nikolsk was a decent set of goggles, or even a good pair of wind-resistant sunglasses. I had a crappy old helmet that Sergei gave me, but my face was bare to the elements. The helmet was a complete piece of shit, and I was only wearing it to comply with the loosely enforced local law requiring the driver of a motorcycle (but not passengers, oddly enough) to wear one. The helmet had a chinguard, making it a type of helmet I hate even more than the minimalist snoopy lids I?ve grudgingly deigned to wear in the States. It was green, and green is traditionally a bad luck color for bikers. You?ll never see an old Hell?s Angel riding a green Harley.

Before California had a helmet law, I never wore one, and when I lived in Salisbury, Maryland, I used to ride my old Triumph Tiger across the State line, stop five feet past the WELCOME TO DELAWARE sign, and take my helmet off before continuing? but I always wore something to protect my eyes. In fact, I?m accustomed to keeping two pairs of eyewear in my bike bag at all times: tinted aviator goggles for daytime riding, clear aviator goggles for night. I can handle the occasional rock in the face, the sting of dirt and dust, the mercifully infrequent tiny bitch-slap of a flying insect striking my cheek or my forehead, or the surprisingly painful needlelike sensation of rain tattooing my bare face (the small drops hurt the most), but I?ve got to have my eyes covered. Call me a big sissy if you like, but I contend that not even the most hardened and grizzled of old sled apes, the guys in denim and leather that would disintegrate long before the stink was gone if they ever fell so low as to wash their clothes, could possibly face the prospect of a long, bare-eyeballed highway run without some serious trepidation. I was planning to stop in Penza and buy some eyewear, but meanwhile I had to slit my eyes and peer intently through wet lashes while the rain streamed down my face. It?s a wonder I didn?t run right off the road into a tree.

Half an hour out of Nikolsk, the rain let up. The sky was still a roiling hell of ominous grey cloud from horizon to horizon, but somewhere up above the roof of the world, the gods had chosen to smile faintly upon me. Or so I thought.

The rain had suppressed the ordinarily dusty quality of the road I was on, so now the only real threat to my abused eyes was the wind. The countryside was soggy, but beautiful. Huge hilly swaths of forest glittered wetly between long flat stretches where the potato harvest was beginning in now-muddy fields of rich black earth. I was wet and cold, but I?ve been wetter and colder, so I didn?t let it slow me down. In fact, I was just beginning to really enjoy myself when the engine died.

There are only three fundamental things that can go wrong with an internal combusion engine: no gas, no spark, no air. A running engine that stops running usually stops in a certain way depending on what the nature of the problem is. If it?s gas, it dies like a Shakespearean actor, with a bit of sputtering and drama before the final death rattle. If it?s air, the engine might backfire or bog down and lose power steadily before actually quitting. If the problem is spark, and you don?t have a heavy buildup of carbon on your piston heads glowing and making your engine ?diesel? after the spark plugs quit working, then it just plain dies without making a big production of it. I had a spark problem.

The manual for the bike was in the trunk of the sidecar, but it was in Russian. It wouldn?t have done me any good anyway, because the electrical system on my Ural was a long way from stock. It had been tampered with, rebuilt, and retampered with many times. There were wires going every which way, some of which were leftovers from the original system and no longer actually attached to anything. I?d call it ?jerry-rigged? but that wouldn?t even begin to describe the laughable messiness of the tangled spaghetti I was looking at. ?Ivan-rigged? is more like it, at least to those of us who are acquainted with the Russian way of putting things together (get drunk, do it wrong using inappropriate tools, get even drunker, fiddle with it until you accidentally fix it just well enough to work for a little while before breaking, then throw up on it and head to the bar for drinks). For the first time in my life, the old Lucas electrics on the Triumph I used to ride seemed like relatively good engineering. Working without benefit of a volt-ohm meter, it took me twenty minutes of expert cursing to locate the trouble. Fortunately, it was a pretty simple wiring problem. I used my knife to strip insulation and managed to get things in roughly working order, and I prayed it would stay that way long enough for me to get to Penza and buy some electrical tape.

Penza isn?t Moscow, but it?s no tiny village, either. Gigantic statues of the ubiquitous generic proletariat and generic soldier abound on the main thoroughfare, along with metal monuments commemorating real or trumped-up triumphs in war, science, industry, and space exploration. Abstract representations of Soviet pride in something or other make vast mute boasts in the parks, the crossroads, and the squares, flanked by row upon row of leninki, kruschevki, and brezhnevki apartment towers standing like dominos waiting to be toppled by the playful adolescent finger of emerging capitalism. Just like everywhere else, the little inconvenience stores called produkti dot the landscape in great abundance, and along the main road, several stretches of marketplace have sprung up, open air bazaars of carnival-like booths where bored girls and sharp-haggling babushki sell the spoils of what was once an empire. Fruit, vegetables, baked goods, clothing, household products, tools, car accessories, pirate videotapes, pirate cassette tapes, pirate CDs, and the cheap trinkets of the Far East lurk or are displayed in piles, stacks, racks, and bins. Things that are not on display can be bought here as well, if you know the ropes? but I wasn?t interested in heroin, hashish, or human flesh.

I didn?t feel very good about leaving my bike unattended, but I had to if I wanted to prowl the bazaar and find the sunglasses and electrical tape I needed. All my stuff was in the sidecar, protected by a leather cover that hooks into place around the edges of the sidecar cockpit. I took the essentials with me, passport and money and so on, and parked the bike with the sidecar towards the street so that anybody bold enough to rummage through my belongings in broad daylight would have to either do it leaning over the bike with his back to me, or be brave/stupid enough to stand a matador?s distance from the edge of the maniacal traffic pumping through town like blood through an Olympic sprinter?s aorta. As an afterthought, I retrieved the knife that Uncle had given me, and tucked it into an inner pocket of my jacket.

It?s impossible to hide your foreign origins in a place like Nikolsk, and not at all easy in a place like Penza. I wandered away from my bike before revealing myself as an outlander, because I didn?t want my ride associated with me when people figured out that I was an American. I picked a booth at random and asked the girl working there if she knew where I could buy some sunglasses. The tedium of her working day broken, she did just what I expected her to do: asked me where I was from, asked me all about America before giving me directions, and then opened her big mouth and loudly informed her friends in the booths nearby that, hey look, here?s an American, how about that? My cover blown, I followed her directions to a booth on the other side of the marketplace, found a pair of goggles that fit the bill nicely, bought a roll of electrical tape at a tool booth, and got ready to skedaddle.

But I was being followed.

At first I thought it might just be coincidence and paranoia, so I took some fairly quick and random turns through the maze of booths, rounded a corner, and stopped short. It wasn?t paranoia.

There were two of them. Both young, mid-twenties perhaps, but they didn?t look at all alike. One was short and built brutish, with sandy hair and a lumpy nose that seemed to have been broken at least once. He wore the kind of dirty, unstylish clothing that far too many Russian country folk wear ? duds that look as though they were snatched from a garbage fire. His shirt and his pants were stained with grease and had holes in them. He had the look of a discharged Russian soldier, maybe one of the crazy atrocity-committing ones who had seen action in Chechnya. His friend was tall and built lean, dressed in the expensive but gauche style affected by the lower classes of banditti youth. He had elaborately coiffed dark hair in a sort of a vaguely rockabilly style, a shiny black leather jacket, and a pair of severely pointy cockroach-killers on his feet that had been shined that day. His black pants were pegged to his long skinny legs, and a pair of howlingly stupid-looking Oakley clone razor shades hid his eyes.

I pretended not to see them while I browsed a table full of? well, junk. I had wandered into a section of the bazaar where people sell anything they can get their hands on. Layed out before me like the crown jewels was as random an assortment of unwantable second-hand crap as I have ever seen in my life. It was like a yard sale at a crack house in the industrial section of Compton.

I didn?t really have a plan, but I did have everything I came for, so I ambled back toward the area where I was parked. I didn?t want these guys to see my bike, so I stopped at a small building near the edge of the maze of booths. The building housed public toilets, a remarkable convenience for such a place. I rounded the corner and leaned against the side of the shithouse as casually as I could, slid the big knife out of my jacket pocket, and began cleaning my fingernails with it. Mutt and Jeff came along right on schedule, and this time I made sure they saw me looking at them.

They stood there, maybe five meters away, and regarded me. Bully-boy glared at me with the dull eyes of a low-IQ killer? but he was looking mostly at the knife. Skinny pointed his sunglasses at me, and an ironic little smile played at the corners of his mouth. I gave him a nod in greeting, and by way of reply, he shrugged slightly, as if to tell me that he knew that I knew, and that maybe we?d meet again sometime when I wasn?t expecting him.

Fat chance, asshole. The day I let an amateur like you take me out is the day I deserve it.

I rode through the rest of Penza without stopping. On the outskirts of town, I gassed up and took the opportunity to fix my electrical system up a bit. I was having some new problems now, but it was nothing insurmountable. The constant, ass-rattling vibration of my ride from Nikolsk had rotated my commutator just a hair, and as a result the spark timing was a tiny bit off. I tightened everything down, but couldn?t get the engine to fire up with the kickstart lever. After thoroughly annoying myself with trying, I pushed the bike to the top of a slight hill, gave it a good running push before jumping on, and popped the clutch in second gear. I had to start the bike that way for the rest of the trip.

Past Penza, the countryside is not so pastorally beautiful as it is on the road to Nikolsk. Here?s how Jake Rudnitzky of the local underground paper the eXile describes it:

?It's not so much the miles and miles of crooked, half-torn fences, the rotting houses and depressing khrushyevki apartment block slabs that sprout out of the trash-littered growth, the dead factories and abandoned slabs of concrete or rusted scraps you see over and over and over... it's the repetition of it, knowing that this goes on for eleven of Russia's famous time zones, that starts to really grate.?

I have to admit that, in a superficial sense, Jake Rudnitzky knows what rural Russia looks like. I suspect, however, that he filters what he sees through a cynical depression that is probably borne of prolonged Imovane abuse. Conversely, one might easily accuse me of perversely finding beauty in the landscapes of other people?s misery? but I never found anything charming about the ghettoes of Los Angeles, the miserable warrens in which the poorer residents of Mexico City gasp out their polluted lives, or the bleak, frostbitten fishing villages where native Alaskans stumble through their disenfranchised existence as fifth-generation victims of fetal alchohol syndrome. In other words, if the suffering and poverty of others are what enchant me so, then it?s only the suffering and poverty of Russians. That?s not likely to be the case, but if it is, who could blame me? Russians are like Americans: they tend to be either magnificently likeable or nerve-shatteringly annoying.

To be fair, Rudnitzky has been in country a lot longer than I have, but he seems to have lost the ability to look at the world around him with the eyes of a child. I am pleased to report that I, though older than Mr. Rudnitzky and having undoubtedly lived a shittier, grittier, and more painful life than he has led, have not lost that ability. I will always be able to look at the world with the eyes of a child? I keep them in a small jar of formaldehyde in my suitcase. Yes, it?s a rehash of an old joke (sorry, Robert Bloch), but the point remains: at thirty-eight, I?ve already abided more trouble and woe than most people see in their whole lives, but I have persistently refused to fall into the terminally negative patterns of thought that people like Jake Rudnitzky are hopelessly addicted to.

Enough digression. For good or ill, I rode many kilometers through a starkly simple landscape capable of inspiring a whole panoply of emotional responses, depending on the mood and inclination of the traveler. I enjoyed it.

Back in the late ?90s, I broke my back skiing. I don?t recommend it. I?ve been plagued with intermittent back trouble ever since. It?s almost always there, nagging at me just a little, but it?s become like an aggravating old friend, the kind you hang out with every day even though you?d kind of like to kick his ass. I don?t even notice the pain most of the time. The damp bumpiness of the road and the unnatural shoulders-forward posture that my low handlebars forced me to take had begun to take a toll, though. I?d come quite a long way from Nikolsk, and the pain was no longer ignoreable.

There was a bottle of Vicodin packed away in the sidecar, leftovers from a prescription I had been given before I left the States, and I was tempted to dope my back pain into oblivion and keep right on riding down the road. I didn?t really feel like getting high, though, and the prospect of driving a still slightly unfamiliar bike over long stretches of badly maintained road with a head full of Vicodin just seemed like a really bad idea. I had decided that sidecar driving is no joke. Lose your nerve or forget to pay attention just once on a right-hand curve, and you could end up with a mouthful of somebody else?s windshield.

Makshan was not far ahead, I knew, and I wanted to get a look at more of it than can be seen from the road. It?s an ancient little town with several towers and bits of barrier still standing from the time of the Tatar invasion. The towers, which were built without nails, allowed spotters to see and shoot arrows at the approaching enemy with a slight distance advantage. They?re beautiful in their way, as is the nicely restored old church that the townspeople still use for Orthodox worship. I gritted my teeth against the tortured ache in my spinal column and resolved not to stop until I got there. I figured it was about ten kilometers, but it turned out to be more like thirty, and every bump in the road was like a hobnailed boot in the coccyx. I found some relief by standing up on the footpegs and stretching while I rode, an innovation that seemed to cause universal alarm or delight in the drivers of oncoming vehicles.

When I reached the turnoff that led to the center of Makshan, it was still fairly early in the day. The rain was behind me, it was summer and long on sunshine, and I?d gotten a good early start from Uncle?s place in Nikolsk. The Makshan bazaar was no longer teeming with people, but nearly all of the little booths were still open, so I wandered around a while, stretching my legs and trying to get my poor aching back into some semblance of a proper S-shape.

Once again, it didn?t take long for me to be stripped of my anonymity, but I wasn?t too worried about it. Makshan is a village, not a big town like Penza. Where there?s nothing much to steal, there are very few banditti about. There?s also more social pressure to behave in a civilized fashion in a smaller town, so long as your definition of civilized behavior doesn?t include sobriety. There are drunken hooligans (and sober hooligans), and no shortage of them, but such people are, like most rural Russians, sufficiently dazzled by the glamour of an American?s origins to be dealt with fairly easily.

The proprietress of one of the booths in the marketplace chatted me up a bit, then stopped a passerby and introduced me to her. She was the local school?s English teacher, and therefore more than ordinarily interested in talking with me. She had a very easygoing outlook on life, and we had a most pleasant conversation. This woman, like all teachers in that part of the world, lives on a State salary that equates to about thirty-five dollars per month. She supplements her income with private tutoring, and enjoys a certain amount of prestige in the town that often translates into gifts from other people?s gardens. Without the free fruit and vegetables, she said, she?d probably starve.

The English teacher introduced me in turn to three friends of hers who happened to be passing by and stopped to say hello. They were the Russian equivalent of British pepperpots, aging housewives in dowdy dresses who congregate in flocks to cluck and gossip with one another like overstimulated chickens. The pepperpots asked me all the usual questions about America, my line of work, my impressions of Russia, etc. When I told them I was living in Moscow, they became very excited and asked me if I knew where a particular stadium was located. It seems they were planning on visiting the city within a couple of months for some kind of convention, and they wanted me to attend as well. They couched the whole thing in terms of an invitation, but on further inquiry I realized that what they were ?inviting? me to was some sort of giant pyramid scheme gathering.

Man, I hate pyramid schemes. I hate them like hippies hate soap. I hate them like Louis Farrakhan hates white folks. I hate them like J. Edgar Hoover hated boxer shorts.

With the English teacher?s assistance, I explained to these women what a pyramid scheme was, and why they are to be avoided. I told them about the pyramid scheme that swept Albania a decade or so ago, causing a total collapse of the Albanian economy. They didn?t quite grasp the concept of a geometrical progression, so I told them the following (apocryphal) story:

?Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the land of the Persians, a very clever man invented the game of chess. He took his invention to the Caliph, who spent the entire afternoon learning how to move the various pieces around the board, and playing game after game with the inventor. The Caliph was so delighted with his new pastime that he offered to grant the inventor his heart?s desire.

?Just tell me what you want, anything at all, and it shall be yours,? said the Caliph. ?Sire,? replied his clever vassal, ?my heart?s desire is very simple. Place one grain of wheat for me on the first square of my chessboard, two grains of wheat on the second square, four grains of wheat on the third, eight on the fourth, and so on, until you reach the final square.?

The Caliph was amazed at the modesty of the man?s request, and immediately ordered a servant to go and fetch a bushel basket of wheat. It soon became apparent, however, that a single bushel basket would not be sufficient to fulfill the clever inventor?s request. A bit of quick figuring, and the Caliph realized that, long before he reached the last square on the chessboard, he would have to give the man more wheat than had ever been cultivated in the entire span of human history. Since this was obviously beyond the power of the Caliph to do, he had the clever inventor beheaded instead...? At the end of my little fable, I tacked on a traditional Russian fairytale ending:

??and after the clever vassal was beheaded, they had a big feast to celebrate the invention of chess, and I was there. We all had a wonderful time, and there were many delicious things to eat and drink, and I got SO FULL.?

The pepperpots listened to my anti-pyramid diatribe and my illustrative fable very carefully, and then they amazed me.

See, in America, the enthusiasm that people work up over this sort of thing is practically inextinguishable no matter how much logic or common sense you employ. Americans believe with all their hearts in get-rich-quick schemes, because in America, some get-rich-quick schemes have actually been known to work. Years ago, in Alaska, an acquaintance tried to draw me into a classic Ponzi pyramid. I accompanied her to a meeting without knowing what it was about, and ended up trying to warn a whole roomful of people that they were headed straight for a big trap marked MATHEMATICALLY IGNORANT SUCKERS ONLY. First, they drew some diagrams on a piece of paper and tried to tell me that it wasn?t a pyramid at all, it was a ?solar system? structure that started with one person in the center, two people in an ?orbit? around the center, four people in the next orbit, and so on. Which, of course, is the same damn thing. When I pointed that out, I was shouted down and quickly invited to leave. Within three weeks, two of them were in jail, and the rest had been divested of a considerable sum of money.

But the pepperpots were not Americans. Their innate Russian pessimism kicked in and overrode their desperate dreams of easy money. I pissed all over their parade, and they actually saw the light, changed their minds about going to the convention, and thanked me profusely for warning them off. It was the most gratifying conversation I had had in years.

After the pepperpots had gone on their way, the English teacher introduced me to one of her students who happened along, a young man named Sasha. She had an appointment, she said, but Sasha would be happy to show me around the town and help me find anything I needed.

Sasha had a car, a fairly new Volkswagen, which made me wonder. It?s axiomatic that Russians who drive foreign cars (which are very expensive here) obtained them through some illegal and/or immoral means. He seemed like a nice enough fellow, though, and the English teacher had vouched for him in no uncertain terms. I followed him to the local stoyanka and made arrangements to park my motorcycle under guard for the night, and Sasha gave me a driving tour of Makshan. We ended up at his fiancee?s apartment, eating cheese, coldcuts, and pastry, and drinking not a little bit of beer.

Sasha seemed to see my presence as a welcome opportunity to ditch the old ball-and-chain for an evening and take in some local nightlife. There isn?t much to do in a place like Makshan, so young people spend the bulk of their recreation time drinking and fucking. Sasha?s eagerness brought us to the small strip of bars in what passed for a downtown a little early, however. There was nobody around, aside from a few very dedicated alcoholics, several of whom were thoroughly polluted, with mostly-empty vodka bottles sittingly wanly near their nerveless hands and heads. Two of the bars we popped into contained a single patron each, passed out cold at a wooden table.

There was a small hotel in the middle of the strip. I hadn?t yet made any arrangements for a place to stay, and I was half-afraid that Sasha would invite me to stay with him and his fiancee. Half-afraid because it meant we would be out all night, and then I would be trapped in a small enclosed space with two chain smokers. Fortunately, the hotel had a bar, and Sasha needed to use the restroom while we were there. I took the opportunity to get a room. It was only twelve bucks American, and worth every penny, if you know what I mean.

There were two beds, equally Procrustean in their lack of length, and both of them lumpy as hell to boot. A small side room that looked like it was once a kitchenette was home to a very sad-looking and nonfunctional minifridge, its door hanging precariously on broken hinges. The bathroom (I had to pay extra to get a room with a bathroom) had a gigantic bathtub, but the hot water heater was situated directly above it in such a way as to prevent the bather from sitting in it comfortably. As it turned out, the water heater didn?t work anyway, so it was a moot point. The water was colder than US-Soviet relations in the Kruschev administration.

I kicked around town with Sasha for another hour or two, until he said that he had some work to do and would have to hook up with me later. I told him where to find me, and went back to my room. I?m not fond of bathing in ice water, but I had road all over me, and I wanted to clean up.

There wasn?t any soap in the room, and none available at the desk. The clerk pointed me toward a store just on the other side of one of the wooden archer towers I mentioned earlier. I hiked on over, and was surprised at how large the store looked from the outside. Nearly all the stores in Russia are tiny little produkti, most of which are only slightly bigger than phone booths. Some stores are a bit larger, and seem to have several departments, but each department has a separate cashier, and very often a separate proprietor altogether. In Moscow, there is a scattering of Western-style supermarkets, but they?re very modest compared to a full-sized American mondogigantomart. You could fit a good dozen Moscow supermarkets into the space occupied by the Ralph?s where I used to shop in Long Beach, California.

The supermarket in Makshan was nearly the size of a Moscow supermarket, a big surprise in such a small town. Once I got inside, though, everything became clear. They had a lot of space, but there were far more empty shelves and aisles than there were full ones. A couple of cashiers oozed boredom at the front of the store, and a man who looked like he might be the owner or the manager was having a drink with the security guard. I cruised what there was of the aisles, grabbed a bar of soap and a packet of razors, and ponied up.

On my way out the door, I noticed a set of stairs going up to the second floor of the building. There was a sign with a large arrow pointing up, and the single word DZHINZI printed in huge Cyrillic capitals.

The space upstairs was every bit as big as the very unsuper supermarket downstairs, but almost entirely empty. In the corner farthest from the stairs was a meager display of jeans, jackets, and denim vests presided over by a young woman who seemed to be contemplating suicide, but looked far too apathetic to actually do anything about it. The rest of the huge room was blank and unfinished, full of dusty brick and exposed pipes, jagged holes and exposed electrical wiring that dated back to sometime in the Bronze Age. Having taken the trouble to come all the way up the stairs, I went ahead and took a polite look at the paltry collection of wares on display, but there was nothing in my size that was above my threshold of tastelessness.

As I left the building, I noticed that the owner/manager/whatever and the security guard had chosen to take their drinking outdoors. They were standing just outside the entrance, talking with a woman who turned out to be the English teacher I had met earlier. She was delighted to see me again, and introductions were quickly made. She had finished up with her appointment, so we stood around for a while with the two men, and talked philosophically about life in general. The men were both built like fireplugs, but they seemed jovial enough. The security guard was more or less a nonentity, but he smiled and laughed easily, and his boss had a pretty quick wit about him. Like all Russians do, they eventually got around to asking me how I liked Russia, and for the first time, I had a coherent answer.

?America,? I told them, ?is like candy. It?s sweet, but too much of it will make you sick. Russia is like a loaf of bread. It isn?t all that tasty, but it?s very nourishing.?

They seemed to approve of this assessment. Mikhail, the market owner, fetched me a paper cup and poured me a drink.

It took us about twenty leisurely minutes to empty the bottle. The three of them told me that the streets and bars of the neighborhood would be full of people partying in just a couple of hours, and if I wanted a woman to take back to the hotel with me, I should just go ahead and bluntly ask anybody who appealed to me.

?You?re American,? said the English teacher. ?You can have anyone you want here.?

If I wasn?t such a jaded old evil-minded reprobate, I would have blushed.

?Oh yes,? she added, ?and if anyone gives you any trouble while you?re here, tell them you?re a friend of mine, and a friend of Mikhail?s. Nobody messes with us in this town.?

I headed back for the hotel and had a cold, cold bath and a bad shave. I started to put on some clean clothes, but then I realized how tired I was. I knew that if Sasha came back, I?d be up pretty late, and I didn?t want to waste too much of the next day?s light, so I dropped into one of the unnaturally short beds and had myself a mansized nap.

I dreamed a muddle of archers in a wooden tower, shooting at invaders riding motorcycles.

A pounding at the door woke me up. It was dark out, and I had to fumble along the wall to find the lightswitch and my pants. The sounds of revelers and the distorted bass thudding of an abused car stereo floated up from the street through the open window. Sasha had come back, but he wasn?t alone. He had a very unsavory-looking character with him, a leathery, taciturn skinhead with a double armful of crappy, blurry military tattoos done in cheap blue ink. Behind them lurked an obviously drunk girl wearing too much makeup and too little clothing. I hesitated to let them in, but the English teacher had assured me twice that I was absolutely safe with Sasha.

?We brought you a girl,? announced Sasha proudly.

I tried to introduce myself to his skinhead friend, but he didn?t seem to want to know me. The guy had a little black cloud hanging over his head, and he looked like he was reluctantly holding himself in check for Sasha?s sake. I got the distinct impression that, if not for my local associates, he would just as soon kill me for the contents of my pockets and be done with it. His name was Vanya.

?1500 rubles,? barked the recalcitrant skinhead as he brusquely shoved the girl forward.

?I?m married.?

?OK, 1200 rubles,? Vanya shouted back. The merchandise teetered on cheap badgirl shoes and giggled.

?Uh? I?ll think about it, OK??

Vanya cursed at the air and hustled the girl out. He didn?t even kiss me goodbye. The last I saw of the girl was a delicate little Cheshire cat of a hand, waving a drunken, girly little bye-bye as the rest of her disappeared behind the door. Her nails were painted sparkly metallic blue, and chipped all to hell.

Sasha just shrugged and smiled.

The next few hours were a blur of unlit streets full of young people dressed in their best finery, bars full of the same, and handshakes and drinks all around. Sasha was playing the big man, showing all the small fry that he, by god, had friends in America. I would have been less than comfortable with the situation, but what the English teacher had said seemed to be true: everybody knew Sasha, and if I was his friend, then I wasn?t to be messed with. The only thing close to an exception to this rule was a very drunk young fellow who started loudly denouncing me as a fraud.

?He?s not an American! He can?t be! Americans don?t come to Makshan!?

He seemed pretty upset about it. Sasha told me to ignore him, but he didn?t look too happy either. Some other drunk was arguing with my accuser, telling him he was a fool and that he should just shut up, and I was startled to see that the second drunk was the first one?s twin brother. It felt like a bad scene shaping up. If nothing else, it was embarrassing the hell out of poor Sasha, so I let the sozzled little bastard go ahead and rant awhile, then took him aside and showed him my passport. He gazed at me in pickled, head-bobbing wonder for a long moment, then apologized and stumbled back to his seat. Ten minutes later he had forgotten it all, and was stridently denouncing me again. We left.

Outside, the party was in full swing. The street was almost as crowded as the good bars, and I flashed briefly on Hieronymous Bosch as I took in the spectacle. The whole scene had a dangerous, unreal quality to it that was greatly enhanced by the absolute lack of streetlights. There is very little light pollution in Makshan, and overhead the stars were all present and accounted for. Wending through and between them, the Milky Way cut a creamy swath across the speckled face of the sky. Alone now, the girl that Vanya had tried to pimp out to me staggered up blearily out of the darkness on her awkward heels and informed me very carefully that I could fuck her for 200 rubles.

In the morning it was all gone, evaporated like so much ether. The street was innocent of the night?s noise and mayhem, and looked as though it had been freshly swept. My windows were open wide, and a tiny sparrow sat on the concrete ledge just outside and looked me right in the eye from a meter away, cocking his head this way and that, waiting to see if I would feed him or try to eat him.

I caught a bandit taxi outside the hotel and asked the driver to take me to the stoyanka where the Blue Turtle was parked. The driver had never met an American, and we went through the litany of the Usual Questions as he drove. He pulled up right next to my bike and refused to take my money.

It wasn?t until I had my gear stowed and was ready to fire up my engine that I remembered the little problem I had with the kickstart. I was on flat, level ground, with not a ramp or a slope in sight. I sighed and took my helmet off.

The owner of the stoyanka saw me trying to push start the bike on level ground, which is no easy thing with a sidecar attached. I had to get the big bastard up to speed, then fling myself over the seat without smacking my leg on either the sidecar or the bars that held it fast to the bike itself. It was awkward, and I almost broke my leg the first time I tried it. When I saw the owner ambling over, my first thought was that he might be afraid I was trying to leave without paying, but he just wanted to help. He told me to go ahead and hop on while he pushed.

It?s a lot easier when you can push from behind, instead of from the side while you hang on to the handlebars. Once the engine was running, I thanked him and asked him how much I owed for the night. He told me it was on the house, and then he asked me about America.