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City Beat April 6, 2003
Death March II: the Nature Walk
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
When the bookseller's spiel was over the Russian said calmly, "1937 was not so bad, because the Bolsheviks started to kill each other...."

A new voice now, an American hiker telling the Bjork-woman, "I don't BLAME my mother, OR my father!"

And instantly another peddler, a middle-aged man of great dignity who obviously hated his embarrassing job, forcing himself through a set speech on the virtues of "leg cream," then vanishing, relieved no one wanted any.

All the shouting peddlers had loosened the hikers' tongues. They all blathered at once like a Modernist play:

Brit: "I went to see Slade and Sweet..."

Russian: "In 1948 my father was imprisoned..."

American: "My brother has two children..."

Brit: "Bangkok was so hot, I could've walked about naked at midnight..."

American: "We're still a very CLOSE family..."

By this time, we were indeed. Then Mr Lee stood up sternly; we were at Yakhroma, and he marched us out of town to a huge snowy hill and charged up it without a pause. As we went higher, the snow got deeper. I was dying, trying to gasp quietly. Napoleon's troops did this for 2,000 miles? Those French were insane. And tough.

Then relief: a snowmobile track. Before the hike, I hated snowmobiles; now I'm kind of soft on them. They make a nice firm trail. If it hadn't been for those snowmobile tracks, Katherine would have had to drag my poorly-maintained carcasse up that hill by the hood of my polarfleece.

Behind that hill was another, higher and snowier hill. There was a snowmobile track leading up it, but Mr. Lee's coddling phase was over; he marched us straight up through the snow, double time. I was starting to wonder which Korea he was from. There was something of the Korean People's Army in his hiking style.

Then we hit the ridgeline, and oxygen debts paid off sufficiently that I could look around for Nature. Hello? Animals? Birds?

There was nothing. The trees were a curtain of identical birches. No birds but crows. Kitai-Gorod has more wildlife.

The rest of the group had no interest in "Nature." Some kind of hiking cult, with Mr. Lee as their Rev. Moon...We moved at top speed through a nest of gigantic, fortified dachas-and it was only there that we found any mammals, a few dogs. But these were not the proud strays of Moscow. They were the saddest dogs I've seen: wretched, lonely creatures chained to their doghouses, sentenced to life in solitary, the worst fate in the world for a dog.

Though we twisted around the hills for five hours at full speed, I never lost the feeling that we were trespassing in people's backyards, never coming close to anything that could be called "Nature." And we never slowed down.

After a few hours of travelling with strangers, you can work up a good vicious hatred. In fact, this is called the Paul Theroux Method of Literary Composition. In five-odd hours of following Mr. Lee, I worked up a case against everyone trudging ahead of me....gung-ho bastards, showing off....When you think that this sort of march is what Army guys do, and the fact that they do it with automatic rifles, it's surprising there aren't more service massacres.

The last hour, the fifth, was the worst, crashing across a huge snowy prairie. The skinny disciples up front ran over the snow like Legolas; I crashed through every time.

At last the snow sloped downhill and the walking was easier, through a huge, muddy graveyard. It was a very comfortable place, the graveyard. As we went downhill, the snow vanished and there was good muddy ground, soft yet firm The gravestones all had pictures of the dead, a startling effect. Every grave had a railing with a sign of some sort. The new graves, high up the hill, had Orthodox crosses, but many of the older ones, further down the slope, had red stars. Last we came to the Muslim sector where railings were marked with red crescents. Tired as we were, we stopped at one grave, one of the freshest-looking ones. It was for a sailor who "died in the Barents Sea in August 2001." That seemed familiar. We all got it at once: that was when the Kursk sank.

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