Bike Ben's Blog

Local (lack of) knowledge

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In the middle of an empty wilderness, I hang my head and ponder, should I continue?
An old yellow bus passes me then stops 100m up the road, crunches into reverse and finally comes to rest right in front of me. The driver jumps out and begins to speak to me in Russian, I understand very little but I get the gist of it. It’s not what I wanted to hear.
Just 30 minutes before, in the nearby village I was asked if I had a gun. A gun? I responded with a little dismay. What for? After quite some gesticulation, one simple sound from the man’s mouth said it all, “hoooohoooohooohoooooowwwww”. Wolves! With some relief, I indicated to them that this was not a problem, after all it wasn’t the first time on this trip I’d been warned about them. They seemed satisfied, as long as I didn’t sleep “up there” as indicated by an indicative gesture of his right hand. But that wasn’t all, a rapid up down, up down of both arms indicated a rather uncoordinated skiing technique, snow! This was reminding me of some hut games played in the mountains during bad weather.
With a toot of the horn and a wave, I headed into the “danger” of the unknown.
Again, I’m being told that I should take the 200km alternative route around this area, this 46km road is totally impassible because of snow and wolves, but the driver is more than willing to give me a ride back to tow where I was just 15km earlier. I ponder the 30km ahead, this type of warning I’ve heard so many times before. Part of me says that I must listen to the locals, they know best, another part builds on years of experience that tells me that what locals don’t know, they are afraid of. I’m again faced with the dilemma, which part to trust? After a long while, another vehicle passes and I stop him and ask in Russian, or rather in sign language. He points straight ahead “Priama, priama”, “Straight ahead, straight ahead”. Finally, I feel a little better about continuing though in my mind I see the bus driver with has arms cross in front of him, “Zakrit, zakrit”, “Closed, closed”. I take not of camp sites, firewood and water. I decide on a turn around time so I can return to these camps if need be. At  6pm, I will decide whether to continue or turn around, my watch shows 3.30pm. Fire keeps the wolves away, or so I’m told. I continue tentatively into the unknown…
The road winds narrows and becomes very rough as it winds its way up and up over rolling grassy hills. Dense clouds pass overhead, casting long, dark shadows over the lush pastures below. Thunder rumbles softly in the distance. I dread the thought of riding this road twice, I don’t want to have to turn back. Within an hour of riding, the slope decreases and the landscape opens out to fairly flat highland pasture, sheep graze in the distance and very small snow patches straddle the vibrant slopes. I begin to breath more easily as it becomes clear that this is yet another case of a local lack of knowledge. Just as I expected, the road was clear, fairly easy and, surprisingly, I didn’t see a single wolf!
A group of shepherds invite me into their caravan to eat freshly boiled lamb, well salted. As the vodka comes out, I thank them and bid them farewell and continue the last 15km back to the main road, back to the real risks, cars!! There is a lot to be said for local knowledge, however, more often than not, it is not very accurate.

(This incident actually happened in Armenia, so it goes with the photos from the previous post)

Testing fate

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His right hand motions the form of a cross over his chest, his left hand tightly grips the wheel as he flies around the corner on the wrong side of the road in a beaten up grey van. Our eyes meat as he careens towards me. At this point, I wonder, is he doing that for me or him? He glides past, just centimetres from me.
For me, this incident is very symbolic of how people think and live in this part of the world. People are not at all averse to risk, seatbelts are something you drape over yourself to please the watchful police officer. Brakes are only required as an absolute last resort if the horn hasn’t worked to remove the offending object. And exposed electrical wiring is only dangerous if you touch it, so don’t!
These nuances of a culture are in your face, all the time. You live and breath them and each one gives you a different perspective about yourself and how we think as a society, why we do things the way we do, why not just leave it all up to fate? Something to ponder on the long road ahead…