2wheels, the return: Edward Genochio's bike expedition across Asia to England

2wheels: The Return

Edward Genochio's bicycle expedition from China to England

September 2005 - November 2006

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Mongolian Horseman Stole My Bicycle!

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Krasnoyarskiy Kray, Siberia, Russia

Siberia

Tuva, Siberia, Russia

Horses, Mongolia

Baikal, Siberia, Russia

Hop off

Priyanik, half-eaten (by me), Kyakhta, Russian-Mongolian border. Shortly after this photograph was taken, the other half was eaten. Also by me.

Buryatia, Russia

Roadsign in Tuva, Russia

Tuva, Russia

The sky, I think

Tuva

The Colonel's Trousers

This article first appeared in The Adventure Cycling Handbook, available in bookshops or at www.trailblazer-guides.com, and is reproduced here in edited form by kind permission of the book's editor.

It's the best feeling you get on a bike. The wind is on your back and you're flying down a hard-packed dirt road. You haven't seen a car all day. Your wheels are spitting kilometres out the back, and the world feels good.

Out of nowhere, a car horn blasts me. Russian drivers are generally pretty friendly and like to offer a bit of encouragement to stray cyclists. I glance over my shoulder and see a battered maroon Lada kicking up dust behind me; I think the driver is waving. I wave back, smile, and, since the blood is pumping this morning, kick the pedals a little harder. It is that kind of day - I feel good enough to give a Lada a good run for its money.

I hit thirty, maybe thirty-five kilometres per hour. It feels fast, exhilarating, on my heavily-laden tourer. The steppe blurs on either side as I burn down the middle of the track. The Lada revs harder to keep up, and the driver raps out a rhythm on his horn. I wave over my shoulder and give him the thumbs-up, not looking back.

The engine sound gets closer and soon the car pulls alongside, two wheels up on the grass. The driver hoots and his passenger waves. I smile and wave back, easing over to the right to give him space to get four wheels on the track.

The waving doesn't look quite right. The window comes down and it's definitely more a flagging than a waving; in any case, he's starting to squeeze me up against the right bank. "Tormoziy", the passenger orders me. "Stop."

Something is wrong. We're not racing any more, I don't think. I realise these guys are going to bike-jack me. Better to stop than risk being run off the road at speed: I hit the brakes.

I've got my feet on the ground, straddling my bike, waiting for what's coming and running through in my mind how I'm going to get out of here once I've been relieved of my money, passport, and bike. The passenger gets out of the car, followed by another, taller man, dark and moustachioed, who has been in the back behind tinted windows. The tall man shuffles towards me. His boots seem ill-fitting.

"Federalnaya pogranichnaya sluzhba," he announces, while placing on his head a high-peaked cap, the sort that goose-stepping guards used to wear as they drilled in Red Square - only his is battered and tatty to match his Lada. He raises his right hand to his forehead and offers me a shaky salute. "Vashy dokumenty, pozhaluysto." Your documents, please.

His cap bears the badge of the FSB, the new name for the KGB - same guys, same caps, different badges. So if this is a robbery, it is an elaborate one. I hand over my passport; he examines it, upside-down, for a while, and looks puzzled.

"Is there some problem?" I ask.

"What is your nationality?"
"British."

"How do you mean, British?"

I begin a lengthy explanation of how I, despite having an Italian surname and being born in Belgium, came to have British citizenship.

The Man in the Cap frowns. "Your restricted area pass?"

I do not have one. I have never heard of a restricted area pass. I don't even know that I am in a restricted area. "I have a visa in my passport."

The driver gets out of the car to join his friends in poring over my Russian visa. The visa is printed in Cyrillic, so at least now they can decipher my name.

"Genry," announces the driver.

I nod. This has happened to me in Russia before. Henry is my middle name; it is rendered Genry in Russian, which always surprises me a little since the Russian language has a perfectly serviceable, if slightly guttural, h sound in its armoury. The Russian authorities always seem to pick on my middle name. Perhaps it is easier to pronounce than Genochio.

"Genry," takes up the tall man, who seems to be in charge. "Genry, we will report to our base that you are British. Please wait a moment." He reaches into the car and gets on the radio.

"We have intercepted the man on the bicycle. He claims to be British."

After a pause, a response crackles over the speaker. "Please repeat. He claims to be what?"

"British."

Another pause. "Nonsense. Any documents?"

"Yes, a passport. British."

"This is ridiculous. A British man on a bicycle. Does he think we are stupid? Bring him in."

The tall man turns to me. "Genry. You must follow us. Your documents will be checked at the base."

The passport goes into his pocket, and the three get back into the maroon Lada. I clip into my pedals and follow as they u-turn and drive back. Their dust trail gets in my face, so I let them get ahead a little. We're going into the wind now; I curse them loudly for spoiling a perfect day's ride.

Twenty minutes later we turn off the road into a tiny settlement: a handful of wooden cottages and a disproportionate number of telegraph poles. The car pulls up outside a compound - it is surrounded by serious-looking barbed-wire topped fencing- a world apart from the rickety efforts that mark off the vegetable plots around the cottages. The driver leans out of the window and yells. "Open the gates, for heaven's sake. It's us. We've got the British cyclist." The gates are opened by a soldier with a Kalashnikov round his neck. The car drives in and they beckon me to follow.

Half an hour later, I am sitting in the lieutenant's office. He explains the situation. I have entered a restricted border area without a permit and with dubious documentation, and am being held by the Border Troop division of the FSB ("formerly the KGB", he emphasises) on suspicion of illegal entry and possible involvement with contraband, narcotics, espionage or terrorism, until my situation can be clarified. He is courteous and offers me a cup of tea and a biscuit.

"What is the name of the Queen of England?" he asks.

"Elizabeth," I answer, doubting whether that will be enough to secure my immediate release. I think of the inside page of my passport, which is sitting on the lieutenant's desk. Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance…

I ponder the wisdom of drawing this to the attention of my hosts, and decide against.

Two people are brought into the room. "Do you know these people?" asks the lieutenant. There is a man in a dirty tracksuit, mid-thirties probably, smoking nervously, and a girl, pretty in a Russian peasant kind of way, no older than twenty.

"No. I have never met them."

"Good. They will be our witnesses." The lieutenant passes a piece of paper under their noses, and tells them to sign it.

"Now, let me explain your rights," says the lieutenant, turning to me. "Under the constitution of the Russian Federation, you have the right to remain silent. You have the right not to incriminate yourself or your relatives. You have the right to speak in your own language. An interpreter will be provided by the state if you request one."

"Good," I say, speaking for the first time in English. "Then I will speak in English. Do you understand English?"

"No," says the lieutenant, in Russian.

"Then I wish to exercise my right to an interpreter," I say, in Russian.

"There is a problem. Nobody in this village speaks English." This does not surprise me. "In fact, the nearest English speaker may be several hundred kilometres away. It could take several days to arrange."

"And in the meantime?"

"In the meantime you will remain here. It might be more convenient to proceed in Russian." A white cat slinks into the office. "Cat," says the lieutenant, in English, and smiles. "Do you insist on your right to an interpreter?"

"Let's start in Russian and see how we get on."

"Good. First we must examine your personal belongings. Then our interrogator will question you in detail."

The examination of personal belongings began. It was about four in the afternoon. It was still underway at three the next morning, when the witnesses, who had been hauled in off the street to see fair play, were finally allowed to go home. We began with pockets, then moved on to my handlebar bag. Panniers came last.

The money part was embarrassing. I was a couple of months into a 10-month ride, and was carrying a lot of cash. I had to count it all out in front of the witnesses, who had probably never seen a dollar bill, let alone a wad of 1,237 US dollars. I expect it was worth more than they earned in a year in a depressed-looking hamlet like this. The lieutenant wrote 1,237 US dollars down on his form.

Cycling through Europe on the way to Russia, I had accumulated a wallet-full of odds-and-ends from a dozen currencies. 840 Serbian dinars, I counted out, hoping that the witnesses would realise that this really was small change, not another foreign-currency fortune. 24 Hungarian forints. 10 Moldovan bani. A quantity of Ukrainian currency whose name I had forgotten. Each passing currency seemed to deepen their suspicions about me.

Credit cards were next. A couple of bank cards were easy enough to explain, and I think a long-since-expired "Young Person's Railcard" didn't raise too many eyebrows, but I came unstuck on a Youth Hostel Association membership card. I think it was the "Association" part he didn't like. It sounded faintly secretive, conspiratorial, underground.

When all my valuables were accounted for and neatly listed on the lieutenant's form, I was asked to sign my name at the bottom, confirming that this was a true and complete statement of all the money I had in my possession. I signed, sat down again, and noticed I still had something in a back pocket. It turned out to be a one-forint coin, a souvenir from Hungary.

"What is that?" asked the lieutenant.

"It is a one-forint coin. A souvenir from Hungary."

"Why did you not declare it earlier?"

"I'm sorry, I forgot about it. It was in my back pocket."

"You declared 24 forints. In fact you had 25. We must start again."

"Can't you just change the 24 to a 25 on your list?"

"Impossible. Crossings-out are not allowed. People will suspect something improper. We must re-write the whole list from scratch."

"But that's ridiculous, it's only a forint, it's scarcely worth a kopek. It's only a souvenir. Here, look, I'll give it to you as a present, keep it, it will save you having to re-write the list."

The lieutenant looked gravely at the witnesses, and then at me. "Genry, I should remind you that bribery is considered a very serious matter in Russia. We will begin the list from scratch."

So he wrote out the list again, this time with 1,237 dollars, 840 dinars, 10 bani, and 25 Hungarian forints to my name.

"We will now go outside, and examine your other belongings."

The kit-check was, shall we say, thorough. It threw up a few surprises for me: I found things buried at the bottom of my panniers that I had quite forgotten about, untouched in two months on the road - an indication, if nothing else, that I had not yet perfected the art of travelling light. Watched by the witnesses, the lieutenant, the interrogator (who was warming up for the grilling I was due once the inventory-taking was over), and the bored soldier with the Kalashnikov, I went through my belongings, pannier by pannier, and item by item. The blond interrogator wrote them all down on his list.

I found a pack of envelopes in my stationery bag. "Envelopes," I declared.

"How many?" snarled the interrogator. The lieutenant had courtesy and had betrayed an occasional hint that he realised the absurdity of the whole process. The interrogator had neither of these charms.

I counted my envelopes. There were 22. "Twenty-two," I said.

"Are you sure? Count them again," said the blond man.

I counted again. 23 this time. "Oh, I'm sorry, twenty-three."

"Twenty-two or twenty-three? We must be precise. Count them again!"

It came to 23 again, so I settled on that. The interrogator read out as he wrote down: "White paper envelopes, 23, in cellophane wrapper."

Next up was an orange plastic groundsheet. The interrogator wanted to know its dimensions, and what kind of plastic it was made of. I said I didn't know, and made him unfold it for himself if he really wanted to know. He was officious, petty, and a creep, and would have made the perfect gulag sadist in darker days.

It was now dark, a clear starry night that was becoming cold. The male witness chain smoked. The girl started to shiver in her little summer dress. The lieutenant ordered the soldier to fetch her a coat from inside the guard-house.

I had a stack of business cards from various contacts. The interrogator wrote down: "Business cards, various. To be examined in detail later".

Next out of the pannier (it was like playing lucky dip) was a fork. "A fork," I said, placing it on the growing pile of stuff on the table, confident that this would be a non-controversial item.

The soldier came out of the guard-house just in time. Draping an oversized military great-coat over the girl's shoulders with exaggerated gentility, he looked at my fork and sneered, in perfect imitation of the interrogator, "How many prongs?"

The witnesses laughed. I laughed. The lieutenant allowed himself a smile. The interrogator sat stony-faced and tried to salvage his dignity by pretending it hadn't been a joke at his expense. "Well, answer him! How many prongs?"

"Four," I told him, straight-faced, so he wrote down "Fork, metal-type, with prongs, four."

After several hours' hard work, the interrogator had perhaps the most complete listing of a cyclist's baggage ever produced. I asked him for a copy, thinking it might make a useful planning check-list for other cyclists. He told me that this investigation was not being conducted for my benefit, and that the personal interrogation would now begin.

I was taken into the guard-house and shown into his office. He had things set up properly. A bare light-bulb hung from the ceiling. He sat behind a bare desk on a big chair. I was sat in front on a little stool.

He wanted to know where I was born, what school I had attended, what subjects I had studied, what grades I had obtained, where I had worked, and the names of my employers. He wanted a list of every country I had ever visited, with dates. Everything went into his little black notebook. He wanted to know where my father was born, in what year, on what date, and where he had been to school, and what jobs he had done. He wanted to know why I was riding my bicycle along the Russian-Kazakh border - ah, a sensible question at last - and who was paying for my trip and where had I obtained my visa and whether I had been to Russia before and if so where and when and whom I had met. He wanted a country-by-country account of my bike ride so far. The lieutenant came in to observe. I told the interrogator that I had come through Moldova.

"Where is Moldova?" he asked, about a country that had, a dozen years before, been part of the Soviet Union. I told him that it was between Ukraine and Romania.

"So it is part of Russia, then," he said.

The lieutenant intervened. "Moldova is an independent republic. You should know that. I have been on the radio with the colonel. He has instructed that we allow Mr Genry a few hours' sleep. The colonel will come down from headquarters to continue the interrogation in person in the morning."

This came as a relief; it was already 3 a.m. I was particularly pleased when the lieutenant assigned the comfortable sofa at the back of the interrogator's office to me, to the obvious annoyance of the interrogator. A soldier brought me a set of clean, freshly-starched military bedding.

The colonel arrived in the morning, demanding breakfast. He had been driven several hundred kilometres through the night on rough roads to get there, accompanied by his driver and an oleaginous side-kick whose job was to laugh at his jokes and to play the straight-man while the colonel did the funny lines in set-piece routines.

An ethnic Tajik but a Russian nationalist, the colonel was, above all, hungry. He preferred gestures and sound-effects over conventional language, and used them to reel off a string of anecdotes at which everybody present, all subordinate to him, felt obliged to laugh - led, of course, by the greasy side-kick.

The colonel invited me to join him for breakfast. The lieutenant chivvied various orderlies to knock together a platter of cheese, salami, cakes and bread, but only the colonel seemed interested in eating. I didn't feel too guilty about tucking in either. It wasn't as though I had invited myself in.

The colonel sized up the situation pretty quickly. "So, you are an English gentleman. Riding your bicycle across Russia. This is interesting, really very interesting. Tell me, Genry, do you know the films of James Bond, the famous British secret agent?"

I nodded.

"Well," the colonel went on in Russian, uncharacteristically free of wild gesturing and guttural sound-effects. "My friend and I" - he indicated his side-kick - "were giving the matter some thought during our long journey to investigate your case here. And we have reached the conclusion" - he paused for dramatic effect - "we have reached the conclusion that in none of the James Bond films does the hero use a bicycle as his preferred means of getting about. We therefore think it unlikely that you are a British spy. Besides, I received my counter-terrorism training from a British officer on secondment to Moscow, and he did not ride a bicycle either."

The side-kick smiled. The colonel turned to the lieutenant. "Lieutenant, your interrogator tells me that he is not convinced by Mr Genry's story. What is your opinion? Have you seen the James Bond films?"

"Yes," said the lieutenant, adding, "Ya Bond - Djeymz Bond", quoting the secret agent's Russianised catchphrase to back up his claim.

"And do you believe that our foreign guest here is also a secret agent? Perhaps his real name is also Bond - Genry Bond?" The colonel was smiling.

"No, I think perhaps not."

"I am inclined to agree with you. However, we must ensure that both the sheep and the wolves are satisfied." He turned back to me. "Genry, in Tajikistan, we like to keep both the sheep and the wolves satisfied. In this case, you are the sheep and we are the wolves. For our part" - his face became serious - "we should reprimand you. You were apprehended while riding your bicycle in a restricted zone near the very sensitive border between Russia and Kazakhstan. Entering this zone without a permit is an offence under the criminal code of the Russian Federation, and is punishable by a fine of not more than 5,000 roubles or imprisonment for two weeks. Do you understand the gravity of your offence?"

"I am sorry if I unwittingly broke the law," I replied.

"Good. Now, I am reprimanding you for what you have done. That is to satisfy the wolves. However, I believe that in your case your crime does not warrant further punishment. You will not be required to pay the fine or go to prison. That is to satisfy the sheep - in other words, you. Shall we have some more breakfast?"

The blond interrogator, who had been sulking at the back of the room, sensed he was about to lose his quarry. "Colonel, I have not yet had the opportunity to examine in detail the collection of business cards which were found among the suspect's possessions," he whined.

"I think that can wait until after breakfast," replied the colonel, who proceeded to polish off the last of the biscuits as he launched into a story about the time he was serving in Kamchatka. It was a clearly a familiar story to the side-kick, who knew in advance when the laugh-points were coming. The colonel was giving an explicit account of his sexual performances with the local maidens, using graphic gestures rather than words, banging his fist into his palm with mounting enthusiasm. His tea-mug was half-way to his lips when he reached a crucial climax in the story. The fist came down, the mug came down, and, as hot tea sloshed over him and his audience, his mug flew across the table, cracking a plate and sending a shower of salami onto the floor.

The side-kick, the lieutenant, the interrogator scurried to mop up and restore order to the breakfast table, but the colonel didn't seem at all put out, continuing his story unperturbed as hot tea dripped into his crotch. He paused to examine a slice of salami which had landed near his shoe, and decided it was too dirty for human consumption.

"Zdes yest sobaka?" he asked, waving the salami vaguely: Do you keep a dog here?

Then, suddenly, a long-forgotten English lesson must have leapt from his memory. "Dog!" he exclaimed, in English, beaming at me.

"Nyet," replied the lieutenant. "Yest koshka. Cat."

The lieutenant smiled nervously, perhaps aware that his insertion of the English word "cat" looked like an attempt to up-stage the colonel's "dog" - perilously close to insubordination.

"Fifteen all," I said. A Siberian girl had just won Wimbledon - I hoped a spot of tennis would diffuse the tension.

The colonel didn't seem to mind. He gestured to the interrogator to go and feed the salami to the cat, and resumed his breakfast.

"Do you want to know how I knew you were not a spy?" the colonel asked, munching on slab of bread and cheese. "I will tell you. It wasn't just the bicycle. MI-5" - he pronounced it mee-5 - "give their agents decent trousers." He pointed to where my trousers ought to have been. I had forgotten that the morning before my arrest I had split my trousers while bending down to pack up my tent. The split must have widened as I pedalled my bike, because now, I discovered, they were completely open from crotch to knee. I had been interrogated by the KGB with my underpants blowing in the wind.

"I will make a deal with you. Unfortunately I cannot permit you to continue riding on this road. But your trouser situation is very bad. Ride back the way you came, and turn right when you reach the main road. In two or three days you will reach our headquarters. You can't miss it. It's behind a kebab shop. Call in there and ask for me personally."

The colonel finished his breakfast; the lieutenant gave me more forms to sign, confirming that everything had been done by the book, that I confessed my crime and accepted my reprimand; the interrogator brooded in his office, sharpening pencils with a pocket-knife. Twenty-four hours after I had been picked up, I was free to go. In the dusty compound courtyard was a concrete pillar inscribed with an outline map of the country and the Border Guards' motto: The Borders of Russia are Sacred and Inviolable. They let me pose for a photo in front of this totem, but, on grounds of national security, wouldn't pose themselves. Everybody (apart from the interrogator) wished me schastlivovo puti - bon voyage. The soldier with the Kalashnikov told me to take good care of my four-pronged fork.

A couple of days later, around noon, I found the colonel's kebab shop and, round the back, the FSB headquarters. The sentry told me the colonel had just gone out for lunch. I sensed I was in for a long wait. At half-past four the colonel's jeep returned. The burly Tajik strode out, holding his belly, followed by his side-kick. "Ah yes, Genry. We were expecting you," he said, passing me a neatly-folded FSB Border Guards uniform. "Here, try these on."

I lugged on the jacket. It had a sleeve badge bearing the Border Guards' insignia. It was a perfect fit, but the beltless trousers were a little slack around my waist. The colonel thought for a moment, then pulled the belt from his own trousers and handed it to me. "Don't worry, my trousers will stay up," he said, patting his belly. "I've had a good lunch. Oh, and just keep that uniform on at all times, and you shouldn't have any more hassle from the authorities in Russia."

I pedalled off towards the Urals, with the wind on my back.


Copyright © Edward Genochio 2005.


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