Borderzone Country

You, rain, you soak fields and pastures,
But I can well ignore you, I guess.
I don't have to put on my hat and cloak,
I will get wet and I don't even care.
Yes, I have shed expensive city clothes,
And I don't have to be afraid of rain!
Chon Chkhol. Lonesome Crane

It had been raining all over Ussuriland for ten weeks. Many bridges were washed away, village streets turned into swamps. The forest was wet as a sponge, and animals in it were cold and miserable. Everybody was suffering from the rain. Deer couldn't hear an approaching leopard because of dripping noise. Fish got poisoned by pesticide runoff from rice fields. Snakes couldn't sunbathe. Tiny bugs got stuck in water droplets and drowned in them. Butterflies couldn't fly. Birds couldn't hunt butterflies. I was also suffering. I'd just spent three days hiking through the forest, and was very wet and cold. There were so many interesting things around that I had no time to camp, and spent nights in search of nocturnal fauna. At first, the forest seemed almost lifeless, but I soon discovered that it was packed with wildlife as an old-style zoo.

I finally made it through fern thickets onto a muddy logging road, and started walking towards the village, sliding on sticky red clay. The mud was stamped with large rounded footprints of a male tiger. His paws slid on the mud as much as my rubber boots, but for some reason he kept following the road. Once in a while he would make a long jump and catch something, most likely a frog. At one point he apparently lost balance and fell down, but still refused to leave the road. Its tracks disappeared only just before the village.

It was dark when I got to a rotten cabin at the outskirts of Kamenushka ("harlequin duck") village. My friend who owned the cabin had left for the city. Carefully avoiding water-filled holes in the cabin floor, I found my bed and instantly fell asleep. Even in my dreams, I was still following tiger tracks.

Next morning was clear and sunny! Broken filaments of fog were still rising from wet hills, and water droplets were still falling from trees, but everybody was already celebrating. Shiny young pit vipers were catching rays at my doorstep, huge dark-green swallowtails flapped their wings over puddles, and azure-winged magpies argued about future plans in a poplar tree overhead.

Michael, who lived in the next cabin, was trying to fix a broken door. Two days earlier, a female tiger who owned this territory attempted to steal Michael's husky. The dog broke from its rope, managed to open the cabin door for the first time in its life, and ran inside. Michael tried to block the door with a shovel, and when the tigress tore it away, the shovel accidentally hit her on the nose. Poor kitty retreated to the forest and cried there for half an hour, waking up every living soul in Kamenushka and the next village down the road (it was 3 am).

Michael told me village news. Weather forecast was good (local residents have a saying about their climate: "Crimean latitude, Kolyma longitude"). Nature Reserve technician got fired for drinking alcohol from glass jars with snake specimens. Trying to imagine what it tasted like, I got back to my place, and noticed a tiny piece of paper stapled to the door. It was a message from Eugene, chief of "plague control" expedition that was studying rodents in Blue Mountains near Lake Khanka. Eugene informed me that he was waiting for me at the reserve office until the end of the day. The message was two days old, and I realized that I'll have to make it to Khanka Lake by myself. But there was a problem. I had to go into the so-called border zone.

Since the early days of Russian history, the outlying parts of the country have served as the refuge for freedom. People of Novgorod Republic in the North enjoyed it until Ivan the Terrible conquered them. Then Cossacks of Ciscaucasia and Siberia carried the flag of freedom to Kamchatka and Alaska, always closely followed by bureaucrats from the central area. Many freedom lovers were even sent to these places against their will.

When Stalin came to power, he decided to isolate the peripheral lands from the rest of the country. They were named pogranzona (border zone), and closed for everybody except people with special passes. Initially they were supposed to protect the borders from illegal crossings, but soon the border zone included places like Norilsk, more than 2,500 km from any foreign country. The most interesting parts of the Soviet Union were all in the border zone. The only way to see them was to find a way to get those passes. I had no pass. I managed to get into Ussuriland by claiming to be going to Ussuriisk, the only "open" city in the area. But now I wanted to see other parts of the province, so I had to go illegally.

Later I figured it all out. I found a place to get the passes, and even used the borderzone regime occasionally when I wanted to get out of some remote area. I would find a border guard and turn myself in, claiming to have lost my pass. The guard called a truck or a helicopter, I was transported to the next city, got a free dinner, then "found" my pass, and was released from jail. The guard got a ten-day trip home for catching a violator, so everybody was happy.

But in 1986 I had no pass yet, so I was very nervous and felt like a spy behind the enemy lines. I had to ask strangers to buy me bus tickets (you had to show your pass at the ticket office), and I knew they would get 30 rubles' award for turning me in. I also had to avoid frequent passport checks at bus and train stations, and couldn't use hotels and hospitals.

I managed to get all the way to Khanka Lake successfully, but then I had to jump off a moving bus when I saw a checkpoint ahead. I walked around it, and hiked the last twenty kilometers to the expedition base camp located in a small village.

The village was already asleep when I finally got there. I had to cross it twice along the only street, until I found a bich (Siberian for "bum", originally derived from English "beach mariner"), and he showed me the way to the base camp, a large tent in the middle of an iris-covered meadow.

The next day was a holiday: the expedition stuff was celebrating the recent departure of Eugene's wife. We bathed in a lake among lotus flowers and softshell turtles, and enjoyed smoked cherry salmon. As soon as yet another unbelievable Ussuriland sunset was over, and tank engines at a nearby military base went quiet, Eugene suggested to go shoot a hare for dinner.

We spent an hour driving a truck along a winding dirt road, then he said: "I have a friend here. He recently came back from prison, and works at an apiary. Let's visit him."

"Would be nice to have some honey", I thought. It was one of my first trips far from home, and I was very naive.

I don't remember Eugene's friend at all. There was no honey at the apiary, just huge steel jars of medovuha, a sweet alcoholic drink made of honey. There were at least ten kinds of it, made of clover honey, linden honey, iris honey, Aralia (devil's walkingstick) honey, and so on. Naturally, we couldn't leave until we tasted them all.

At dawn we crawled back into the truck and drove home. I tried to prevent Eugene from driving too fast and falling asleep at the same time, but he said he'd already been in accidents twice that year, so his chances of getting into another one were close to zero. I dozed off at some point, and woke up to find the truck flying off the road. Eugene wasn't there. I opened the cabin door, jumped out, and after a second in the air landed in blackberry bushes. The truck hit the ground, rolled over a few times, and crashed into a hill slope.

When I opened my eyes, the sun was up. The truck was surrounded by burned clothes, broken guns, and empty medovuha jars. Eugene was lying on his back close by, snoring happily. His face, shirt, and all the grass around him were covered with blood. I dragged him to the road. He sat up and looked around, horrified. We were in trouble. He destroyed a state-owned truck he wasn't supposed to be driving at all (the expedition had a driver). His speech was difficult to understand, but I could hear the word "jail" every few seconds.

Suddenly, two logging trucks appeared on the road. We had only a few seconds to find a way out of this situation. And I got an idea.

"Listen carefully", I said, as the trucks were slowing down, "we were driving at night, saw a tiger on the road, and turned away to avoid hitting an endangered animal!"

We both looked like we'd been actually attacked by a tiger. Eugene had four broken ribs and a deep cut in his forehead. I got a hole in my foot, and a crack in one of my neck vertebrae (I didn't know it was a crack until a few years later).

We cold tell our tiger story to everybody, but we couldn't risk talking to the police, not only because of my illegal status, but also because a blood test would be a disaster. When a doctor came, I had to hide, and Eugene told him he'd fallen off a bridge when riding a bicycle.

"I don't believe you," the doctor said. "I know you were in a fight. If I find out who you were fighting with, I'll turn you both in."

So, Eugene was taken to a hospital, and I had to take care of myself. But I wasn't alone. The villagers had to choose between two versions of what happened: the one about the tiger, and the one where I broke Eugene four ribs. Eugene had a black belt, and his shoulders were three times as broad as mine, so I became very popular with local girls. And Siberian girls are worth getting in an accident.

In two days I was able to explore the taiga around the village (people in Ussuriland call any large forest "taiga", although it is mostly hardwood or mixed, not coniferous, except at high altitudes). Once I met a young Himalayan bear. It couldn't see me, because it was constantly digging into leaf litter with its muzzle. So it kept moving towards me, and I kept stepping back, until it got to the place I'd been standing a few seconds earlier. At that moment it caught my scent, panicked, and ran away. It never saw me, but I barely avoided being knocked off my feet. Trying to step aside, I made a wrong move, and almost collapsed from sharp pain in my semi-broken neck.

After a few days of replacing Eugene in the expedition and exploring the lake shores (a great place for cranes, parrotbills, Amur cats, and other rare wildlife), I tried to take a bus back to Kamenushka. But a man I asked to buy me a ticket tried to call the police, so I had to run away, and hitchhiked all the way. After that, I always traveled around by hitchhiking. A few weeks later, I was back in Moscow.

Meanwhile, Eugene got out of hospital. At first, his boss didn't buy the tiger story, and Eugene was about to confess. But just at that moment I sent him a slide of a tiger, taken in June not far from Kamenushka. Armed with the slide, he easily defeated all skeptics.

A year passed by, I was back under the warm rain of Ussuriland, and a new generation of pit vipers met me at the doorstep of the old cabin. I spent my first night patrolling the village, watching owls, hedgehogs, and nightjars picking up giant moths from huge clouds of insects around street lights. In the morning I decided to say hi to Michael. As we talked, I saw all the Reserve personnel coming to his cabin one by one. In half an hour most of the villagers were gathered around his dinner table. All were silent, and looked at me with great respect. Then old Erofeich, the chief warden, asked:

"Vladimir, may we ask you to tell us this famous story, about you and Eugene risking your lives to save a tiger?"
I made sure all Kamenushka girls were present, and started telling the story.

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