Written by Callie
I had been anticipating the paddling section of our “triathlon” since the windy, frigid March days, and we finally put on the Ural River on a sunny day in mid-June, about four and a half months into our trek. The river started as a narrow, vegetation-choked waterway, and we repeatedly rammed into overhanging branches, shrubs and fallen trees as we learned how to steer our new craft. Our kayak, a rudderless, inflatable tandem number, is not the most responsive of boats. Neither of us had ever paddled a tandem kayak, and it took awhile to learn how to share responsibilities of steering. I had worked as a river guide, and was used to yelling commands- “back left!”, etc., which seemed like overkill, but if we didn’t communicate we ended up paddling against each other. Finally, it was decided that Charlie, relegated to the back seat by his long legs, which couldn’t fit up front with all our gear stuffed into the bow, would steer.
The first day was full of spiders. We kept running into overhanging trees, kidnapping their arachnid residents as we swept past, unable to dodge every obstacle on the narrow, winding river. The corners were too tight, and our kayak too long, to be able to avoid running into the sides. We were sliding through tree after tree, covered in mud, leaves, and countless spiders. Really – countless spiders. Much to Charlie’s irritation, I kept putting down my paddle to shriek and pluck two or three spiders off my legs which, of course, led to us running into the next set of bushes and collecting more eight-legged friends. It’s no exaggeration to say that on the first day, we had at least thirty spiders in our kayak at a time. It was rather unpleasant.
It seems surreal that these few yards of water are the supposed divide between the continents of Europe and Asia. In places it could have been cleared by a mediocre longjumper. We lunched or camped on whichever side offered the best landing spot at the appropriate hour, sometimes in Europe and sometimes in Asia. Most of each day was spent cruising no man’s land in between and passing under the odd bridge with signs marking the continental divide. Russian’s seem to view the construct as a novel curiosity but the implications of perceived otherness across the border likely swell in significance the further one strays from it.
The scenery changed quickly. The river widened, we got better at paddling, and developed a routine. The forested taiga changed into dry grasslands and Kazakh-like steppe. We paddled past tiny, lonely villages, with dirt lanes and copious flocks of geese. It is dreamlike and summery; we can pull up to the shore of a village, and walk barefoot up the straw-like pathway to a small store to buy an ice cream to eat in the shade. We feel very safe in Russia, very often leaving our kayak unattended on the bank while walking to the shop.
When approaching a village from afar, we tried to guess whether it was Russian or Bashkir, a Muslim ethnic group that have lived in the region since before the Mongol invasion. Bashkortostan is recognized as an independent republic within Russia, and Bashkir villages seem a lot tidier than their Russian equivalents. The main tell between a Russian and Bashkir village is the emblem atop their religious buildings. Orthodox Christian churches, in Russian villages, have crosses on their domes, while Muslim mosques have the crescent moon. Other than this small symbol, Orthodox and Muslim churches appear almost identical with their minarets and domes.
Russians are avid fishers, and we constantly pass men and women fishing from the shore, groups of campers, partying teenagers, and young men washing their cars. It’s nice to see the local people out enjoying nature and summer. We have, however, been surprised at the lack of development along the riverfront in the bigger towns. Early on, we talked about stopping at riverside cafes for cold beer in the afternoons, but this idyllic goal still has not been met.
The main challenges of the river so far have been the three dams that we had to circumnavigate, as well as paddling across their respective man-made lakes. The first lake took us a full day to paddle across, with small whitecaps and furious rain blowing into our faces. We camped at a disused resort-like beachfront, and cooked dinner from a sunset-lit table on a terrace. Only a week or so into the paddle, it already felt luxurious to have a table and landscaped, pebble beach. The next morning, we decided to paddle up to the dam to check it out. We scrambled up the concrete barrier and were investigating the best route to walk round, when two security guards, guns slung over their shoulders, came over to question us. They didn’t speak English, but repeated that it was forbidden to be there, motioning to their guns. They did not seem at all interested in how we would get our kayak around the dam.
We paddled over to the shore as close to the security fence as possible, and started unloading our gear. A wiry old man came up to us, excitedly rambling about tourism and offering to drive us around the dam. First, he gave us an extensive tour of the property that he appeared to be building on. It was all in Russian, but we gathered something about music, concerts, and Elvis Presley. He was very friendly, and within an hour we were back on the river, south of the dam.
A few days later, we approached another dam. This time it was only a few kilometers to walk around, so we unloaded the kayak, slung it up above our heads, and walked it through a small village and beyond the dam. We then went back for our bags, and half a day’s work had us back on the water.
The final dam boasted the largest lake and the longest trip around. It took over two days to paddle across the lake, which seemed to have the magical ability to grace us with a headwind no matter which direction we faced. However slow the lake paddling was, it was also fun. The wind-fuelled waves made us feel as if we were kayaking on a sea, and staring across at a far shore gave me the feeling of being on vacation.
We celebrated summer solstice on a pebble beach just downriver from a group of festive teenagers, blasting the ubiquitous Russian techno club music. We had our first riverside bonfire, cooking vegetables over the coals, and sitting outside until midnight, sipping on honey brandy, wine and beer. By the time we stumbled up the bluff to our tent, I was convinced that the tent zipper was broken, and it took me quite a few minutes to realize I was pulling the zipper in the wrong direction.
Overall, paddling down the Ural is blissful. Days do get tedious, but the novelty hasn’t worn off. Wearing a swim suit all day every day, jumping in the water to refresh, and wading in to wash off in the evenings just feels divine. I daydreamed about these exact moments while my head was tucked under the hood of my -30˚C sleeping bag all spring. The riverscape scenery was beautiful yet punctuated by hulking, rusting semi-ruined industrial cities with no-nonsense names like Magnitogorsk and Energetik.
Everything was going according to plan as we descended a stretch where the river forms the border between Russia and Kazakhstan. Then we got arrested. We were taking a break to stretch our legs, sitting on a log after deciding not to swim at the mud wasp-infested bank, when a speedboat drove up carrying three men in fatigues and their guns. Charlie had wondered whether we would be allowed to paddle along the border, but we had seen so many people fishing and camping on the shores that we decided to go for it. However, we were tersely informed that this area was forbidden to non-locals, and the soldiers put us in a Jeep, and loaded our kayak onto their speedboat.
We were driven the short ride into town and taken to the local FSB station (formerly KGB) to undergo a thorough and ridiculously slow process of being booked for the “administrative offense” of being within 5 kilometers of the border without a permit. Everyone was very friendly, but asked us the same questions over and over, “Did you know you were in a border zone?” “Yes, but we thought if we stayed on the right side, the Russian side, that we would be ok”. “But it is forbidden”. “Yes, now we know”. It was a Saturday afternoon, and it seemed that at least ten people were called in to deal with us and our transgression. We felt bad for ruining their evening. Our translator, a young English teacher, was so nervous to talk to us that she didn’t even say hello, and was literally trembling as she said, “I have some questions for you”. She eventually warmed to our smiles. The man who seemed to be in charge looked like he had been dragged straight in from fishing, wearing a t-shirt and flip flops. He had some impressive tan lines surrounded by sunburn; we joked that he had probably been one of the fishermen waving and shouting hello to us from the riverbank.
After five hours, we were let go with a $7 fine, and joked that they had probably fed us about $3 worth of food anyway. We have now been found guilty of two separate administrative offenses in Russia, which shouldn’t be surprising in a country of such exemplary bureaucracy.