The following is my piece for a local travel journalism rag. Please excuse the lack of actual travel journalism.
On February 2nd 1959 nine experienced mountain hikers set up camp in the Ural mountain range in central USSR. When they made no contact with their base camp at the expected time 10 days later, a rescue mission was launched. Eventually their camp was found, but the rescuers had inadvertently walked into a situation reminiscent of a horror movie.
Something had forced these experienced campers slash open their tents from the inside in temperatures of -30 Celsius at approximately 3am, and run into the night absolutely hysterical. Following the tracks brought the rescuers to the bodies of all nine hikers. Six had died of hypothermia, the other three of injuries from impacts so powerful that reporters at the time compared it to a 'car crash'. One of the hikers was missing a tongue. Two of the hikers had attempted at some point to return to the camp, but their staggered inaccurate paths suggested both had been blinded. The only tracks in the area were those of the dead. An investigation into the deaths, today known as the 'Dyatlov Pass Incident' drew a blank.
Flash-forward and I am stumbling alone through a Russian forest – although thankfully not the same as the doomed hikers half a century before- with only an empty water bottle for company. Although the early afternoon, the thin trees thickly populated block out any daylight. Into my brain starts to leak the Western perception of Russia, a vast land where nothing is really as it seems and nothing has the lasting consequences of our own lives. Dyatlov Pass Incidents happen daily, radiation causes small insects in rural Russia to mutate and swell, abandoned children being raised by animals in forests just like the one surrounding me are common. My car, parked with my two road-tripping friends sitting inside listening to Russian radio, getting further out of my mind with every step.
Russia is filled with these foreboding woodlands, the majority of which are untouched. Admittedly every five minutes of walking, some sign of human life would appear- although rarely would it be any more than a broken bottle, or a long dead fire. Nothing else- no plastic bags, footprints, let alone paths.
After my car had juddered to a halt in front of several inquisitive and opportunist berry-sellers around forty-five minutes from St Petersberg, with the engine coolant light flickering. A Russian with a good grasp of English is impossible to find in Russia- so different to the countries we passed through in Scandinavia, and also to the Baltic States which we would later travel through. Eventually Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award knowledge took over, and after a brief game of ‘fives’ to decide who would go in search of the necessary water for the engine, I stepped into the tree-line which bordered the road on both sides, and had done since we had passed over the chaotic border some half-hour before.
Desolation among these trees and stomping over thick brambles is very different to desolation in a wide open space. I used the word ‘surrounding’ before as to how my relationship with the trees was, but after losing sight and sound of the road the word ‘suffocated’ would be more truthful, having no human contact amidst wilderness which has sat untouched for decades, even centuries. The Russian lifestyle for centuries has been seen to be one of a powerful sense of individualism, a perception strongly at odds with the communist ideology associated with the state for the majority of its modern history. When we would finally get into the remarkable city of St Petersburg, things taken for granted in England (where we see ourselves as very reserved) such as walking hand in hand, friendly chatter, and even smiling were not to be found. That is not to say that Russians are unfriendly, but they seem to pride themselves on being self-sufficient. In their history they have always been separatist, they have always tried to handle things alone. It is hard to think of a more resilient people.
Indeed, hermits and reclusive people have been idolised in the Russian system. Rumours to this day persist that a Tsar of the country had escaped his position to become a lonely hermit, Theophan the Recluse was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church after a life spent alone from distraction, not to mention the wealth of Russian academics who distance themselves from popularity- ranging from scientists to grandmasters.
As I finally tripped my way to the small stream gestured to me by a particularly short berry-picker, I heard clear footsteps perhaps some twenty yards behind me. I froze. When I was 10 my parents started working more shifts, leaving me alone in my house. Every single creak I heard, because I was alone, must have been a burglar or ghost, I logically deduced at the time. 11 years later, having never seen a single spook, let alone a trespassing drug addict eyes boggling at my favourite toys, this situation reminded me of that. I turned swiftly to find…nothing at all. I was still alone in this wood. The creaking ‘footsteps’ I can only assume was wind, or maybe even an animal. I realised that my main feeling was not of relief, but more disappointment that nobody, be they friend, foe, or creature of Russian urban legend, had bothered giving me the time to follow me into this dark, claustrophobic loneliness.
My relief arrived when I stepped back out into the July sunshine to see my car, complete with other people sitting awaiting my return. Due to myths and false perceptions, going to Russia is seen as going through Alice’s Looking-glass where the lonely are the happy and the absurd is the norm. Russians are different, that much is true, but if my voyage into the forest taught me anything, it is that loneliness and separation from others is a universal and instinctive thing- not one that follows ideological barriers.