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Why Russia?

Top 5 Reasons // Exactly What I Did and Didn’t Expect
by Nicole Mansfield

Initially, my goal was to inspire kayakers that were fantasizing and creating summer paddling plans to consider embarking on a paddling trip to Russia by sharing my top 5 reasons for going, many of which are based off of my somewhat ridiculous previous misconceptions.  Meanwhile, a global pandemic has consumed us all in one manner or another.  Amongst this overwhelming worldwide uncertainty and mayhem, the creation of traveling plans seems wholly unrealistic and unreasonable for the summer of 2020.  But, that doesn’t mean we can’t spend some time optimistically daydreaming about the future. 

Last summer a group of friends and myself signed up with Two Blades Adventures for two of their guided trips- Altai Class IV-V and Sayan Multi-day.   I arrived with many preconceptions, both exciting and fearful, of which were both confirmed and entirely refuted.  Russia is a huge country and I only spent one month in a relatively small region of it.  But, despite my limited experience, it was rich.  I feel merited illuminating why Russia will entirely blow your mind and is undoubtedly one of the most worthy whitewater destinations out there.  Following are my Top 5: Highly recommended, strong roll required. 

#1- Food – If you’ve ever read Eugene Buchanan’s book Brothers on the Bashkaus, you can appreciate my concern.  The book details a true Russian adventure in which the team builds their own whitewater craft and spends 26-days descending the Bashkaus River subsisting off a meager diet of tea, vodka and fat cubes. Additional calories were consumed, but it’s the passages describing said fat cubes that left an indelible imprint in my memory.

So, I went to Russia expecting hunger that would only be slightly quelled by aforementioned fat cubes, tea, and vodka.  Why I was drawn to this preconceived notion of being frightened, miserably cold, and malnourished, I have no idea.  Entirely unanticipated were the wondrous meals that would come out of the Russian signature one-pot system.  Although unique, it’s not cutting edge technology.  The Russian fireside-pot-hanging technique may seem effortless, but I discovered that it’s not as easy to effectively replicate as it looks.  With labels featuring silhouettes of horses and Klashnikovs, the canned meat was flavorful, despite being indiscernible and better left uninspected before being intermixed with the pot’s other ingredients.  Off the river, we ate at an Uzbekistanian restaurant, several Russian cafeteria-style eateries, and Mongolian influenced roadside teahouses. And, yes, we hand Borsch, several times.  By far the best of which was prepared by Andre, our chain-smoking, sly-grinned, trusty shuttle driver as pulled off our Chulisman multiday.  As expected, the food wasn’t what I would consider typical affair, but eating a meat and cabbage doughnut is all part of the experience’s appeal.

#2 – Guides – To many seasoned kayakers, the idea of a guided whitewater trip is entirely scoff-worthy.  I agree.  Part of the attraction of international whitewater trips, is problem solving: the whitewater, the travel, and the communication.  The more immersed in the local landscape, the richer the experience can feel.  I can’t argue with this and Russia is certainly attainable without a guide, but definitely more difficult than most other whitewater destinations.  Indisputably, our guide through Two Blades, Egor Voskoboynikov, only enriched our overall experience. 

Yes, he made life significantly easier.  Before arriving Egor carefully guided us as we floundered through the visa application process.  In fact the Russian visa system is extraordinarily tough to navigate and you do need to be “invited” by someone. So if it is not Two Blades, you will paying someone to help you get that visa invitation.

While in Russia, put-ins, take-outs, and shuttle vehicles were arranged.  Food was purchased, campsites found, rapids described, and itineraries carefully orchestrated.  But remember, this is Russia. Just because having a guide made it “easier”, does not mean it was a catered tour. He knew where the portage trail started, however it could still be 3km long, include an exposed tyrolian, or deliver sections of knee-deep moss.  

Overwhelmingly, the guide knew best and offered incredible stories and insight into Russian culture and history.  Without Egor I can only imagine how lost we would have been as we zig-zagged across the landscape, wondering about river levels and cursing the absurdity of GoogleTranslate. (The language barrier being very real at times) And, while finding your way down the river is rewarding, following Egor, the Russian river encyclopedia, is pretty darn awesome as well.  Even momentary eddy catches with concise explanations;  ‘this is how the river will be, some rapids easier, some harder’ inspired confidence and settled nerves.  He was never wrong. 

#3 – Vehicles – Who hasn’t dreamed of mobbing around in a Soviet-era vehicle?  Whitewater kayaker meet G.I. Joe, I deemed it the ‘Russian Land Cruise.’  And, while bumping around the backcountry in the rear of a 6-wheeled, camo-painted Zil ingesting diesel fumes and warm, flat malt beverages isn’t particularly cruise-like, the landscape did fulfill cruise criteria and was absolutely stunning as it slowly passed by.  The trip also proved educational.  Most notably, while jolting down a narrow creek bed, I learned that in Russia, ‘sometimes the river is the road.’ If the engine becomes engulfed in flames, smother it with dirt.  And, if your axle breaks days deep in the Russian bush, you dismantle and fix it.  Simple.  If the Zil is the Siberian cruise ship, the Uaz is the Siberian yacht and was an equally enlightening and pleasurable experience. 

#4 – Whitewater – Yes, obviously, why any kayaker goes through all the expense and hassle of dragging their kayak around the world is to find worthy rivers.  For those wanting the whitewater to be as rowdy as it is in the videos, Russia can definitely provide this.  But, if the thought of running non-stop big volume whitewater instills terror instead of straight enthusiasm, fear not, Russia isn’t just big volume class V.  That being said, Russians don’t dulcify the whitewater rating system.  I’ve been accustomed to a described class IV multi-day signifying a class III river with an optional, but easily walkable IV.  (It’s labeled IV so people hopefully aren’t swimming all over the place while deep in the wilderness.)  The Russian appreciation of the rating system is different.  Class IV means class IV and there might be the opportunity to portage or paddle even more difficult sections.  My favorite was the term “Russian flatwater.”  Russian flatwater is a myth.  Unless Egor deems it flat flatwater, it’s not to be dreaded as it’s actually big, enjoyable Class III. When Egor takes off his skirt to remove the grandiose Russian pot from between his legs, relax and enjoy the fun whitewater ahead.

Similarly, in Russia the “rest day” is also a myth.  ‘Rest days’ simply implies less activity filled days, which really just means that most of us are softer than the average Russian. On a “rest day” you might wake up to find yourself paddling 120 kilometers to the takeout. 

#5 – Culture – Russia is very… well…Russian.  We drank vodka, but were criticized for purchasing the ‘soft’, berry-flavored variety.  The Russian spirit is very unique and inspiring, and as stereotyped, they are indeed a tough and adventurous breed.  Families are camping and trekking everywhere.  And, when asked about potential first descents in the area, Egor quickly replied that there were none because rafters, aka dinosaurs, had already done them all.  Given this home in the wild spirit, there are many developed, but rustic camp spots where Russians have built wooden amenities and practice Russian recycling techniques.  LNT-ers will be quick to criticize, but while being thankful for Leave No Trace ethics in many situations, I found the Russian technique of burning aluminum cans and discarding them in a carefully, camouflaged grey pile to be totally acceptable and did not mare the outdoor experience. 

Some additional noteworthy Russianisms: if the road is too bumpy, it’s acceptable to just start a new one off to the side.  If you encounter a beached fan boat, as Egor’s co-guide on the Sayan, Vladimir Kazanskiy, did, attach it to your tow-tether and pull it to the next established camp.  Beer cans labels don’t attract consumers with their unique and colorful artwork, but the depictions of tough military men.  And, despite all of their zero-rips given toughness, the burger came accompanied with black latex gloves to prevent dirty hands. 

I’d love to go back to Russia, help build a bubelik and survive off fat cubes, but, was satisfied and inspired by our experience.  Regardless, if you are lucky to find yourself on a Two Blades adventure, be prepared to trust your guide and keep paddling downstream, because hiking out would be a tremendous feat ‘with many bear, many wolf.’

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