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Ever opened a washing machine during spin cycle?
Now, picture yourself inside that spin cycle.
Welcome to the sport of whitewater rafting,
where you get drenched and dizzy,
smacked against boulders,
jerked nearly out of your boots -
and you love it!
KICKED BY THE KATUN
Hundreds of gallons of glacial melt water drowned us, seizing our breaths. We hardly noticed. Sergei yelled, “Right!” and paddlers changed direction instantly.
When friends and family heard I was planning to raft in Siberia, they’d objected.
“You’ll freeze. It’s all snow and ice. Only political exiles live there. You’ll
hate it.” Wrong.
Yes, Siberia is the classic “middle of nowhere.” But summer in Siberia is glorious - hundreds of square miles of golden ripening grain fields, immense green mountains, winding rivers filled with opaque blue water melted from far away glaciers, brightly colored songbirds swooping over carpets of equally colorful wildflowers.
And Siberians love Americans. Whenever we stopped at roadside stands, locals greeted us with outstretched arms and welcoming words - and not because we were spending money. In fact, one little “babushka” (grandmother) refused my rubles for her fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes! (I gave her a granola bar in return.)
Rafting and camping for a week somewhere north of Mongolia brings new experiences every day - and night. Follow me. . . . .
STEAMING SAUNAS AND COLD VODKA—THIS IS ROUGHING IT?
One day we camped at a “banya,” the Russian version of a sauna. First, we girls
entered the small log hut and steamed - sans swimsuits - above hot coals. We struck
each other lightly with birch branches, then doused each other with cool water,
squealed, then repeated the steam-strike-douse process three more times before
drying off and surrendering the banya to the boys.
Then, as the sun dipped behind the peaks of the Altai Mountains, we gathered in the dinner tent for the nightly vodka ritual. First, the ceremonial pouring of the clear, cold liquor. Next, the salute. Then, gulp the vodka all at once! A bite of marinated herring, mushroom or sausage prepares the palate for the next round of vodka toasts. Usually three or four vodka toasts began dinner. But the night of Shabash, I lost count. No wonder dinner tasted so good. . . .
Initially, the seven American rafters, three Russian rafters and seven Russian staff members behaved politely but distantly to each other.
But Shabash changed that. Now, every night around the campfire, we chatted away in broken English and bad Russian, played guessing games, sang folk songs. Girls braided each other’s hair, and the guys punched each other’s shoulders to punctuate details of their day’s heroisms.
Gone were the stereotypes of the cold mistrustful Russian and the self-absorbed, greedy American. We’re rafters — and friends.