The Siberian Basketball Diaries, Part Five

[ed note: the following is an excerpt from the travel journal of my old high school friend Andrej Mucic. In 2005, Andrej bicycled over 7,000 miles through Siberia to raise money for the American Anti-Slavery Group. Previous installments start here.

In the previous installment, Andrej hitched a ride with a collection of guys driving dynamite trucks through the Central Siberian Plateau.]


Subject: The Gunmen of the Kolyma, Part Two: The Friend In the Bucket

Not long after I joined the Mountainbusters, the ZIL shit the bed. We pulled over and made camp. I was passed out while the boys were building a fire and getting dinner ready. From the window of the ZIL cabin, I could see that they are busy preparing for the night to come. I wanted to contribute something, so I dig into my backpack and pull out a two foot long, whole, smoked Chinook salmon. The boys hadn’t hooked up the ladder one usually needs to exit the ZIL, so I had to climb down with the beaked head of the Chinook in my teeth. The boys were very amused and they cursed a lot.

That night we stood around the little fire and ate salmon, white bacon, little cucumbers, salted bread and apples, and drank Speznaz (Special Forces) brand vodka out of tin cups. The mosquitos were everywhere. As we chat, we are constantly slapping each other in the face, to kill the little lords of the taiga.

In the morning, I find Kol-Ya using a pair of scissors to cut a make-shift head gasket for Pet-Ya’s ZIL. This did not work. We spent the entire day there, as the intrepid, pious, and foul-mouthed Pet-Ya toiled in the six-foot high engine of the ZIL, completely covered in mosquitos. I declared to all there that Pet-Ya was my hero, for working so long and so hard, all day. They told me there is no alternative. There is no such thing as a tow service out here. Either we fix it or we walk with the mosquitos.

During this down time, I explored the surrounding area. Below us, about one hundred feet down, runs the little Cascade river. It’s about six feet wide and three feet deep and it cut through a very steep and narrow canyon. On the walls of this canyon are ice formations, like shelf fungus, twelve feet long and ten feet thick, just hanging out over the little river, extending from both sides, alternating. The ice is white with blue stripes and it drips sweet cold water. Me and the Na-Chelnik, Roos-Lan Nickoliaevich, went down to gather water for the camp. He took some pretty sweet pictures of yours truly, but the next time he’ll have accesss to a PC will be in September. He took an especially nifty picture of me with WolfSnoutChopper that I hope to have published in Blade magazine.

The Na-Chelnik, Roos-Lan Nickolievich, asked if he could take my bike, the Riddle of Steel for a little ride. We pulled it off of the TNT  truck and away he went, awkwardly: I think the seat was a little too high for him. I told him he looked like Butch Cassidy with the Sundance Kid’s moustache.

After a lot of vodka and a lot of cursing, somehow, with the grace of God, after 12 hours, we were under way.

OK. I’m about to relate to you, dear readers, the hardest part of my journey, so far. At one point, the Na-Chelnik, Roos-Lan Nickoliaevich, asks me if I want to sit up front with him and Pet-Ya. I couldn’t refuse. Besides, they had a better view. I’m sitting between PET-Ya and the Na-Chelnik, and PET-YA is as mad as a wet bobcat because his machine is all fucked up. And he is cursing up a storm. Here’s a little sample:

“Bled (whore), when I get my bled (whore) hands on that bled (whore) mechanic in Magadan bled (whore), I’m gonna smash his bled (whore) teeth on the bled (whore) intake manifold bled (whore). Are you listening to me Roos-Lan Nicoliaevich, bled (whore)? I told that bled (whore) to check the compression ratio bled (whore)…(brief pause)… sukka (bitch)!”

And your humble narrator had to sit through about 30 minutes of this without laughing. It seemed inappropriate to laugh in this situation. I almost wet my biking britches, no lie! Thank god the ZIL broke down again, and I could crawl back to the rear, with the hyper explosive gear and laugh with impunity.

After many mechanical trials and tribulations, we get to a little pas-EE-o-lock (wee village) where my hero PET-Ya has a crash pad. There we ate mashed potatos and hot dogs and salted bread. The vodka, this time, was drunk out of china tea cups. Quickly, the Na-Chelnik, Roos-Lan Nicoliaevich, got sloppy and spilled his cup so it was time to put him to bed. PET-Ya quickly followed. That left me and the seven foot tall OO-Ra at the table with half a bottle of vodka, and plenty of hot dogs.

OO-Ra told me about his experiences in the Chechen War. He described how Russian tanks, under fire, sometimes drive over thier own dead, to prevent the Chechens from mutilating their bodies, in the most unspeakable ways. He told about how he pulled a friend of his from a burning armored personnel carrier, only to have that same friend get cut to pieces by machine gun fire, just two days later. He described collecting the remains of his friend and putting him in a bucket. I asked him his friend’s name. He looked at me and his eyes squinted, his face contorted, and in a high pitched voice, he said Nikolai, and began to weep. He then told about standing over a hole in the ground, Nikolai’s grave, as the bucket was being lowered into the cold cold ground, across from OO-Ra was standing Nikolai’s mother, staring at OO-Ra. OO-Ra, then and there, prayed that I would never have to live through having to look into the eyes of my best friend’s grieving mother. Her eyes were saying “Why didn’t you save my son, it should be you in that hole.” I shed a manly tear, or two for Niky, and we drained a couple of more cups in his honor.

Then, somehow, after the tears, the topic of conversation turned to single combat. OO-Ra could see that I was built like a brick shithouse, and so he asks me, “you think you can take me?” I tell him that I could brake him like a twig, and I made the international twig-breaking gesture. He immediately challenges me to a brawl, either here in the little apartment, or outside on the sooty grass. I declined, telling him that I knew that it would get ugly. I can’t imagine either one of us surrendering until a major bone was broken or severe lacerations require a trip to the doctor, if there was one out here. But OO-Ra was persistent. He nagged me for what seemed like an eternity. Finally I agreed. How can your hunble narrator refuse a little of his favorite passtime, what I like to call La Violencia.

So we both began to remove our gear, so as not to cut each other. Then I go to remove the little silver icon of St.Seraphim, that my good buddy Boris gave me in Moscow, from my neck, and it suddenly dawned on me what the fuck I was about to engage in: a drunken vodka induced brawl with a great friend…that is seven feet tall, and an experienced killer. Thank you St. Seraphim for saving one of us from some possibly serious harm.

Parting with the Gunmen of the Kolyma was very very hard. We exchanged bear hugs and I had to quickly turn and walk away, to hide my sorrow. They haven’t heard the last of me….


Next: In the Den of the Chechens, Part One

[Photo: Andrej left, Petja right]


After I blogged about Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur a few months ago, a reader named Katie suggested I read his first book of essays and sweetened the deal by mentioning that it includes an essay on the Sims, the virtual reality game that seemingly enslaved the entire female Midwest a few years back. So, during my SF trip, I read a friend’s copy of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and was riveted by the whole thing, especially the Sims essay, Billy Sim:

I am not a benevolent god.

I am watching myself write in a puddle of my own urine, and I offer no response. I have not slept or eaten for days. My cries go unrecognized and my loneliness is ignored. I am watching myself endure a torture worse than death, yet I decline every opportunity to end this self-imposed nightmare. Darkness… imprisoning me… all that I see, absolute horror. I cannot live, I cannot die, trapped in myself; my body is my holding cell.

I am the master and I am the puppet. And I am not the type of person who still plays video games.

So go the opening paragraphs of the essay, foreshadowing Klosterman’s eventual boredom with the game and subsequent decision to neglect his SimSelf while the latter writhes in his own pee.

The first thing I can immediately tell from this passage is that Klosterman and I are about the same age (he was born a year before me, in 1972). The tell is the phrase ‘video games’, which only men currently between the ages of about 33 and 39 use. Younger people call them ‘computer games’ or just ‘games’. Older people can’t refer to them coherently at all. The women I know don’t mention them unless its in the context of the final flaw that persuaded them not to date some guy they were perviously thinking about dabbling in (e.g. On top of it all, he sits at home and plays video games). We late-Gen-X males are the only people who became fully accustomed to the idea of manipulating a character on a screen before the advent of the personal computer age.

Next, I also immediately identify with the co-mingled curiosity and contempt that Klosterman expresses towards gaming (‘It’s fun, but– somehow– vaguely pathetic’). For my part, the contempt partly serves to mask a fearful respect that I have for the gaming industry and its potential to enslave me. I have only played one game in my adult life (Civilization), but that’s less out of lack of interest and more out of a wary realization that I love games in general and can easily picture myself getting sucked in if I strayed past a certain threshold. This dread manifested itself in a particular anti-social habit that I developed towards a guy I used to share an apartment with, who worked at Electronic Arts as a producer for the Sims. The roommate had an Xbox lying around that he would bring out (albeit only quite rarely) to show his friends what he was doing at work. After they would invariably disappear and leave the console lying on the floor in front of the TV, I would always respectfully pick it up and place it on top of the tallest bookshelf in the living room– the most inaccessible shared spot in the house. Such was my determination not to become an addict.

Klosterman writes at great– and persuasive– length about the bizarre and abstracted aspects of the game, but one personal experience I had involving the above-mentioned Sims-producer roommate really drove home for me how weird the whole thing is. One Saturday, my roommate spent the whole day at his office furiously working to correct a mistake one of his programmers had made. The programmer was supposed to have designd a disco ball for a dance club environment. Instead of creating the disco ball from scratch, the programmer had taken a lawn sprinkler and decided to modify it (this apparently being a common approach, according to my roommate). But, the programmer had done a really lazy job of it, so the ‘disco ball’ was still acting more like a lawn sprinkler and spraying dancers with water. My roommate stomped home at about 7pm having lost an entire sunny Saturday to getting the disco ball to act like a disco ball. He was so deeply immersed in the problem and so enraged about it that he managed to relate the entire scenario back to me without expressing the slightest awareness of what an absurdly meta way this was to spend one’s Saturday. If I wasn’t thoroughly creeped out frightened by virtual-reality game play until now, this lawn-sprinkler/disco-ball anecdote totally scared me straight as shit.

Authorial self-doubt and torment note: I previously promised myself that I would boycott the ‘#FAIL’ construction in this blog, as I think it’s the lamest, most overused, mind-rotting meme currently in circulation. But, I couldn’t think of a single other title for this post that works nearly as well. So, there you have it.

The Siberian Basketball Diaries, Part Four

[ed note: the following is an excerpt from the travel journal of my old high school friend Andrej Mucic. In 2005, Andrej bicycled over 7,000 miles through Siberia to raise money for the American Anti-Slavery Group. Previous installments start here.

We pick up the action a week after the last installment: Andrej is biking through the Xanadu mountain range in the Central Siberian Plateau, gets cold and decides to hitch a ride.]


Subject: The Gunmen of the Kolyma, Part One

The nights on the south slopes of this mountain range are as cold as a witch’s teat. And so it came to pass that your humble narrator hitched a ride on a dynamite grooz-avik (truck). Yes, you heard right. It was a two grooz-avik convoy. The first grooz-avik was the mighty URAL and the second was the only slightly smaller ZIL. You can tell them apart because the URAL has a big polar bear hood ornament. They are both six wheel drive and the CV joint on these son’s of bitches is bigger than my head.

Allow me to introduce the cast of characters:
  • PET-Ya: driver of the ZIL. PET-Ya is a Virgo, and his hobbies include Jesus, dirty magazines and cursing.
  • OO-Ra: demolitions expert and general all-around outdoor’s man. OO-Ra was the MC. He loves to play the guitar and drink and smile. He is seven feet tall and dressed in full camo with a green handkerchief on his head. His weapon is the knife. OO-Ra rides in the back cabin with me.
  • Roos-Lan: this was our Na-chelnik (boss) and geologist. Roos-Lan is a Gemini and his hobbies include hunting, photography, doting on his lovely daughter, and blowing the shit out of mountains. Roos-Lan sits up front in the drivers cabin, with the foul-mouthed PET-Ya, and he carries a double-barreled shot-gun. Roos-Lan is a Ukrainian Cossack and he really looks like one. He has a shaved head, sunglasses and a blond Turkish handle-bar moustache. He is wearing grean camo and, like a real Cossack, rubber slippers.
  • Slava: is the guman for the ZIL. He carries an AK-74 and a TOKAREV pistol in a shoulder holster and is wearing urban, black and white, camo. He also rides with OO-Ra and myself in the back of the ZIL.
In the other grooz-avik (truck), the URAL:
  • Is Kol-Ya: Kol-Ya is a Gemini, and enjoys laughing and visiting the dentist. And with him is…
  • Andrei: Andrei is armed with an AK Combat Shotgun loaded with 24 gauge manstoppers. Andrei was very quiet during our trip. He seemed to have a lot on his mind.
The moment I jumped into the cabin with OO-Ra and Slava, OO-Ra busts out two small cucumbers, an apple and a plastic bottle of samagon (moonshine). Now I’d been warned, by many, many, people, about drinking samagon with the yahoos  of the Far East. But, I figured, I’m already drinking beer, vodka, not to mention smoking and playing with live ammo, in a dynamite truck, how much more danger could I possible bring upon myself by drinking a little samogon.

The Russians always ask me how old I am, when I tell them I’m 33, they all say the same thing: “you are like the Christ.” Apparently all Russians, including the Muslims, are acutely aware of the age of Jesus when he was Transfigured*. 33 is considered to be a man’s prime, and a lucky age.

Well I survived the jolly dynamite truck. At one point we were passing through an extremely fucked up little village. Between shots of vodka, Slava points out of the window and tells me that a few years ago a truck, just like this one,  accidentally detonated and annihilated this town. I looked out the window and, indeed, the town looked like Hiroshima. I began to laugh maniacally and I could not stop for a very long time. Why I laughed so hard I do not know. Maybe it was because I was happy to be alive, even though I knew that I was on the razor’s edge.


Next: The Gunmen of the Kolyma, Part Two

[*ed note: Czechs always make this comment about ‘Jesus age’ too, and they’re all atheists. Must be a pan-Slavic thing.]

The Siberian Basketball Diaries, Part Three

[ed note: the following is an excerpt from the travel journal of my old high school friend Andrej Mucic. In 2005, Andrej bicycled over 7,000 miles through Siberia to raise money for the American Anti-Slavery Group. Previous installments start here.]


Subject: The Cravchenskaya Mafia

My friend, the misbegotten, and beautiful, Cravchenka, has all the sweet hook ups in Magadan City night life. Cravchenka is a local cub reporter. She interviewed me when I arrived and we are now thick as thieves. She looks like the stereotypical Scottish lass. She also has a hollow leg. Last night I hit the sauce with her and her friends. To them I preached abolition. They had a hard time believing me. They think I’m a fugitive from American justice.

When I tell them about the enslaved Russian girls I saw in Cyprus, their attitude is fuck em, they knew what they were getting into. Why should they give a fuck about strippers and whores that go overseas to make some cash and then end up as chattel. I tell them that there is nothing wrong with being a stripper or a whore, hell some of my best friends are strippers and whores. The problem is that these girls, country bumpkins really, are tricked by the pimps into leaving Russia with promises of real work and once they are in the clutches of the pimp, they are separated from their passports and beaten constantly for a month until their spirit is broken, and at that point rebellion against the filthy pimp is unthinkable. I try to use the analogy of the volunteers that came here during the time of the DALSTROY gulag combine. They came here to work in the gulag mines as free citizens of the USSR. But quickly the distinction between convicts, political prisoners and freemen was lost, and they were all fucked. They think I’m crazy, but at least now they might think about it a little more. I told them to ask their elected officials about this problem and what they are doing about it.

After my fifth Baltica tallboy, it was time to chill and enjoy the company.

Some dude shows up, dressed in a track suit, tall and well formed. He sits to my left. As time goes on I notice that he’s talkin a lot of trash about the USA, as he’s listening to Aerosmith. I didn’t give a fuck because all I was concerned with was staring at the beautiful shorthaired blond, named Lena, sitting directly across from me. After my eighth Baltica tallboy he challenges me to an arm-wrestling contest. I smiled. Little did this silly malchek know that I am an arm-wrestling wunderkind. With my right arm I finished him without any opposition. With my left in 4 seconds. Then he kissed me three times and we celebrated with congac shots and more Baltica lager.


Next: The Gunmen of Kolyma

[Photo: Andrej in the Taiga, Dukcha River, Magadan]


[ed note: this week, I’m back visiting my old haunts in San Francisco]

Whenever I’m back visiting, it strikes me that one way to think about the Mission is: if there’s a platonic ideal of the Person Who Lives In the Mission, that person is 28. Most everyone I see who’s younger than 28 has adopted an air of being a bit older, while my friends (all of whom are now older than 28) go to great measures– sometimes desperate– to manifest a sense of youthfulness. 28 seems to be the spiritual age that everyone’s trying to converge on.

I always remember, too, that the years when I was about 27-29 were the years when I was least conscious of being any particular age, which generally signals that you’re in a good place vis-a-vis your surroundings.