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"Fourteen hours," said Yanzhima. "The Orlik hospital Russian Jeep will leave at 1700 (5:00 PM). It is -5 (centigrade). Dress warmly."
"Will it really leave today?" I said. "It was going to leave on Monday. Then Tuesday. Then the regular van was leaving Wednesday and now it's Thursday. I happily would have gone on the regular van." I was getting a bit exasperated as I had to be in Orlik to help plan and organize the decoration of the children's hospital. I had an appointment back in Ulan Ude in ten days with my department chair at the East Siberian Academy of Culture where I was to begin teaching September 1, housing and class schedule yet to be determined. Thus every day lost was critical, and three had already disappeared.
"No, no. You have purchased paint. The hospital will not let you go on the regular van. The paint is too important. You, the paint and your luggage will not fit on the regular van in any case. The van called. They are here. We leave at 1700. Yes?"
5:00 P.M. came and went, as did 6:00 PM, 7:00 PM, and 8:00 P.M. At 8:45 P.M. Yanzhima said, "Let's go. Jeep called. Downstairs. Hurry, Hurry."
So downstairs we went, I (and her son Bier and his friend Sasha) with my American Tourister carryon stuffed with turtlenecks, insulated underwear, long paints, gloves, hats, paint brushes, measuring tape, drawing triangles, gifts from Dan, painting shorts and shirt, extra toilet paper, a towel, socks and such; my yellow shoulder bag with my laptop, books, power cords and colored pencils; my small green duffel with my power point projector, speakers, power cords, adapters, Russian phrase books, vest and poncho; a box containing 25 liters of paint (made in Finland); and, over my shoulder, my parka and fleece sweater.
Yanzhima brought a plastic shopping bag filled with her necessities.
Slava, the driver of the army green Russian made Yuz - 452 4X4 four cylinder hospital emergency van, and Alexander, his assistant, were not thrilled to see my luggage as the van was fairly packed and there was another passenger already inside. But with a bit of rearranging we got in and took off about 9:30 P.M. To Orlik? Not so fast. First we had to go shopping and looping around the back alleys of Ulan Ude - lanes that seemed like practice for the rugged roads leading to that ever-distant community. Our shopping took us to not a single store, but to a series of apartments where we picked up two English insulated pots for boiling and storing the heated water (for tea); a 150 lb bag of sugar (we named Mary) that was draped over the passenger seat to maintain balance (exited by our other traveler who, it turned out, was only traveling across town); a huge rolled up mattress, and four enormous bags of flour (easily 100 lb each). All this brought us back to within a block of Yanzhima's apartment building. Then we headed out on the highway east only to immediately make three more stops; one for bottles of tea and Coke; one for gas where we angered others seeking fuel as we pulled in perpendicular to the pumps so Slava could fill 50-liter tanks of gas located on either side of the van (and in so doing blocking three others from reaching pumps - gas for 14 rubles a liter by the way); and the third for cigarettes.
"Fourteen hours?" I said to Yanzhima. "I don't think we'll make it to Orlik by 11:00 A.M. We've already spent over an our driving about Ulan Ude."
About two hours down the potholed highway, we turned off, entered and passed through a small village turning into a far lane. Slava and Alexander went into a yard and, while we waited, Yanzhima gave me a lesson in Russian describing words for van, road, stars, full moon, barking dogs, tree, bushes, grass and other objects we could pick out until our drivers returned with two massive bags of potatoes and one medium sized bag. Once all this was loaded it was apparent to our drivers a little extra air in the rear tires was called for. A hand pump was pulled from behind the shotgun seat. Hooking it up promptly deflated the first tire. But with some very determined and regular pumping by Alexander, and after about 20 minutes, the air was back into the tire to a level deemed appropriate. In the small world category, Yanzhima and I learned that the woman selling the potatoes was our good friend Sveta's aunt (translator on my first trip over). We had a nice time exchanging news while the tires were being pumped and agreed that we looked forward to seeing each other at Sveta's upcoming marriage in October.
Once we reached the highway it was clear that the van had a certain list. It was like riding in a parallelogram with the right rear being the lowest point and the driver being at the high end. Mary (the sugar) had to give up her seat. After a bit of grunting and shifting, which ended with laying out the mattress on top of the accumulated mass, a riding bonus for Yanzhima and me we once again sailed down the highway. It had been quite hot in the van - tee shirt weather - but I woke up freezing and to the sounds of us pulling over. A while back the back door had popped open and one of the English thermos had been lost. This valued bit of cargo was not to be abandoned without a search. We turned around and headed towards Ulan Ude pulling over four times to successfully flag down 50 percent of cars coming at us but gaining no confirmed sightings. Long past the time I would have given up, the major piece was lying slightly dented in the highway and another ten minutes of searching found the other key pieces, although never the box it came in.
"Maybe we arrive 12:30 tomorrow," said Yanzhima.
"You mean 12:30 today, " I said. "It's already tomorrow."
Additional stops included breakfast at an all-night diner, this as dawn was breaking and us still along the shores of southern Lake Baikal; a stop in a village in the Tunkinsky Valley - this to give the mattress to a small hospital; four stops for cows blocking the highway; one near miss with a horse - the van slewing all over the highway when the brakes were jammed on (good news, if an accident we were in a hospital emergency truck, bad news, whatever hospital gear we had was buried under pounds of sugar, potatoes, luggage, mattresses and dented English tea pots); five stops for sacred sites; a stop at a temporary hut in a field to give the Coke and tea to Slava's son for his wife who was out harvesting; and a stop in a nearby village to give a bag of potatoes to Slava's father-in-law. The last two hundred kilometers of the "Orlik Highway" were along steep winding guardrail-less gravel roads with sheer edges plunging over 100 feet to the bottom of the adjacent river gorge. At one point we passed about a dozen buff people jogging along the road in sports bras, nylon shorts, Ray-Bans, baseball caps and carrying water packs. "Tourists," said Alexander as we left them engulfed in our trailing cloud of dust.
During our journey we listened to two pop Buryat tapes played continuously and at near full volume. Slava would play one for about two hours and, when he got tired of that, would switch to the other. It would go on repeating itself until replaced by the first tape. The music from these two tapes is now permanently affixed in Yanzhima and my memories.
At three o'clock, after three more stops in Orlik, we arrived at the hospital.
"Seventeen hours," said Yanzhima.
"That had to be a record," I said.
"For me yes, for you maybe you break this record on your way back," said Yanzhima. "Dr. Ardan is busy now. We drink vodka and go to banya. Yes?"
Seemed like a plan, so we did.
The weather has turned warm (high 70s), I've yet to have a need for a turtleneck, I'm short on short shirts, and the local kids are swimming in the river (water temps brisk at best).
On Monday Yanzhima said, "Naj, I leave tomorrow. It is just you and Dr. Ardan. You leave August 25th. Slava will be the driver. Maybe you set a new record, yes."
On Tuesday Yanshima said, "Naj. Khambo Lama wants you to photograph the construction and work on stupa honoring the 12th Khambo Lama. We leave together for Ulan Ude tomorrow morning."
"But that's gives me a total of only four days to work on the hospital," I said. Later in the day I asked Ardan what time in the morning Slava would be leaving.
"The power is out in the village," said Ardan. Slava cannot leave until there is power so the hospital can take money from the bank to cover his expenses. Last time the power was out for three days. This is Orlik. If the power comes back on, maybe at eleven."
Well that explains the three- day delay in Slava arriving to pick me up in Ulan Ude, I thought.
Early that evening after returning from a banya, and finding the power back on, Yanzhima said to Slava, then picking us up to go to Dr. Peter's birthday party, "Power on, we leave late morning, yes?"
"No," said Dr. Samaeva, director of the hospital. "A big rock has fallen on the highway blocking travel in both directions. They have to blast and remove the rock first."
"It took us seventeen hours to get here," I said.
"Seventeen is not so bad," said Dr. Samaeva. "The roads are best in winter."
"Ah, smoother," I said.
"Yes, much better then. The trip can be made in thirteen and sometimes twelve hours. The worst travel is when it rains. Then it can take twenty hours or more and the roads can be very dangerous - very slippery and rock slides. But tonight the sky is clear, the roads will be dry and if they can remove the rock quickly you will leave in the afternoon I think."
The next morning when I woke it was raining heavily. "It's raining," I said to Yanzhima.
"I think we should try to find more tapes for Slava," said Yanzhima.
At 9:05 AM I said, "Yanzhima, the electricity is off."
"Maybe we leave this afternoon," said Yanzhima.
(We ended up leaving at 6:00 PM and arriving in Ulan Ude fifteen hours later)
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475