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ExWeb interview with Dimitri Kieffer (part 2/4): I needed three things to succeed in the Far Eastern Russia: patience, patience, patience

Posted: Jun 28, 2011 06:22 pm EDT

(Correne Coetzer) During his trekking in Far Eastern Russia, Dimitri met many people along the way and learned a lot from them. In the communal bathhouses, for example, he learned that once exposed naked, everybody become equal no more generals, mafia bosses, priests, workers. From the same people he learned that the 2nd generation envies the life their parents had under the heavily subsidized Soviet regime.

On the trek Dimitri learned to set smaller goals and not to give up; despite bleeding blisters, storms, a difficult trekking partner and still many miles to cover.

ExplorersWeb: What did you learn from the locals and during your trek from Vayegi (Chukotka) to Paren (Kamchatka)?


From Native and White Russians:

I was once told that in Chukotka, I needed three things to succeed in the region:
Patience, Patience and Patience!

I believe that this not only applies to Chukotka but very much to the whole Far Eastern Russian region where you really need to learn to be able to wait patiently. Whether it is to wait for a purga/storm to pass, to get motorized transport in/out of a starting or ending village or even to simply get an answer to a question.

Over the years, I have also learned to respect the elements, able to wait for better weather to depart. In the earlier days of Nexus Expedition, I would tend to apply the skills that I have acquired over my years of ultra running and adventure racing. If you wanted to get ahead, you simply needed to push through no matter what weather you came across.

Well, this may have been bearable in a somewhat controlled racing environment, where one was never too far from civilization and the next safe checkpoint, but this was no longer the case once I started progressing through the Bering Strait and Far Eastern Russia.

In the case of an emergency, the chances of a rescue are there very limited and therefore I have learned to become somewhat riskadverse, especially while traveling alone. For example, when threatening purga clouds approach, I have learned to stop promptly and safely set up camp for the night while I still could.

Of course, I have had several occasions where I had to push through nights and storms to make it to the next village but those were in times where I felt I was obliged to do so. After having lost over the last few years a tent to a stove fire and two(!) to a purge/ violent wind storm, I have also learned to be very careful and methodical with my gear while trekking as well as setting up camp.

I have also learned to be more grateful for the somewhat easier comfortable life most of us can attain in the western world. It now often amuses me to hear Europeans and/or Americans whining about a few hours plane delays when I have seen Russian villagers waiting up to a month to catch a flight back home! Or when I am being told that a 280 km truck transport can take anywhere from 2 to 30 days!

I have also and continue to learn from the locals whether they were Athabasca American Indians, Inupiyaks, Inuits, Chukchis, Koryaks, Evens, White American and Russians, about their way of life, cooking, beliefs, hopes, fears, regrets

I have also learned to listen very carefully to the locals for any indication on what better route/march to follow taking into consideration the relief, vegetation and climate coming ahead.

Locals have also taught me how to recognize animal prints in the snow, deter and scare threatening bears away, how to smoke and preserve fishes, how to pluck and prepare a freshly killed goose or duck, how to make local Russian dishes and bread, etc, etc

White Russian, Koryaks and Chukchis also taught me the art of how to welcome impromptu guests at all times of the day or night! Offering a cup of tea, biscuits, cheese, bread and kielbasa to new guests and saving 2 days old delicious borsch for closer friends.

I have also learned to communicate in a new and refreshing way, besides of course having to learn some Russian which I am constantly trying to improve

Often, when I come across people who have heard quite a lot about me through common friends and/or media; they often do not divulge this at first, and rather prefer to let me try to explain what Nexus Expedition is all about, while struggling in my poor Russian It almost feels as if I was passing a test, where they want to see how I am going to sell myself to them.

Needless to say that Far Eastern Russians very much respect self-made MODEST men/women and quite dislike anything that could resemble bragging.

So, contacts are often quite lukewarm at first and rapidly become much deeper, kinder and more meaningful once I pass the test. Older Far Eastern locals also, quite well used to an isolationist Soviet regime, often quite dislike being photographed and even more video filmed, let alone by an unknown foreigner!

Along the same line, as I am progressively improving in my broken Russian, I am able to converse about more and more contentious topics such as international and national politics where I have recently learned that I need to tread very carefully, as anywhere else in the world, making sure that I do not brush wrongly the ego of patriot Russian friends

I have learned that sometimes, it takes an incredible amount of time to scratch the surface, gain peoples trust and being able to better understand a multicultural small town

There are definitely no guide book out here and I simply learn to entrust the people that surround me, being willing to experience almost everything once, letting them guide me from one door to the next, whether it is while eating some raw reindeer bone marrow or including me in a religious sect speaking tongues that I could have never found out on my own

I have also learned to better respect the people I come across and learn to better listen to their stories, whether it was the hard time they spent in Russian jails, their contraband of Russian ikra (salmon roe) or Russian bathtub whiskey

Similar to a chameleon, if I want to learn more, I need to be accepted by all, or at least by as many as I can Once in Anadyr, a Russian friend told me: If Russians dont like you, they wont help you, no matter what you are willing to pay them! and this is definitely true!

In Western Russia, money might be more a driving factor but in the Far Eastern region, it is a different ball game, where respect and friendship matter even greater!

On a sadder note, I have continued to learn the ravages that alcoholism has done in this northern part of the world (Alaska and Far Eastern Russia) amongst natives as well as Russian and American expats. It amazes me to see how many people have either lost their lives, hands or fingers. Some even cut their own hand during a violent act of drunken debauchery (yes, that is sadly true!) while others have had to be amputated as a result of having passed out drunk, laying in a 40°C blizzard gloveless or else

And of course, I have learned to be cautious when being near some drunks who sometimes can either become quickly violent and/or potential thieves, eager to grab whatever they could in order to secure the purchase of their next drink. This is not always such an easy matter to gauge when one does not master the local language, and try to trust as many persons as he/she can

From the Natives:

While luckily being able to spend twice three days with Chukchi and a Koryak reindeer brigade herders, I have very much learned to appreciate their simpler and modest way of life; learned to appreciate the traditional arduous way of life some of them are fighting to save.

I have learned the complexities involved for a Koryak when looking for a soul mate in a remote village, when everyone around is or might be a distant relative! This is part may explain why one sees so many metisses” in the region, trying to regenerate the gene pool with either some White Russian, Even, Ukrainian, Tatar or even Turkish blood!

From the White Russians:

I have also learned more about what defines the Russian soul as well as what it means to be a Russian expat living far away from the Mainland), what is means to be nostalgic of a Soviet pass when one may have been better off as well as younger/prettier

I have learned as well how frustrated is some of the 2nd generation White Russians who envy the life their parents had under heavily subsidized Soviet regime. Often unable to now find good work in the region, they cannot afford to move to the Мainland, when the sale of their Far Eastern apartments can only fetch $3,000 max, making a new start in another part of Russia very challenging...

White Russians also taught me the weekly ritual of banya (communal or private bathhouse), a place for physical and moral purification enjoyed by lots of vodka-blooded Russians, meeting with friends How to use vyenik properly and help/ take care of each other, thrashing each other with homemade bunch of birch, oak or evergreen twigs which detoxifies the body while delightful forest aromas.

Learned how: In the Banya, we are all equal!

They are indeed NO generals in Russian banya, where all men (priests, journalists, policemen, border guard captains, construction workers, mafia bosses), once exposed naked, become equal for at least a few hours of socializing, dry heat, beer and smoked fish

I was told as well that in large cities, mafia bosses often meet in banya where it is not easy to conceal weapons

The sex is segregated in village banyas, by coming on alternate days. And, as I depart the Banya to not forget to wish my peers a traditional Go with light steam

White Russians are also teaching me countless Russian amusing sayings, proverbs, beliefs A random example being:Beer without vodka is money in the wind! And, how to NEVER let anyone sneezes without promptly respond: Bless you!

White Russians have also taught me the art of drinking; beer before vodka but not vice-versa and the importance of Zakoutskachasing a shot of vodka with a snack, such as a pickle, and/or a piece of bread, fish, lard, onion, etc


I have also learned to greatly appreciate the generous and supportive help of my Russian-Tatar girlfriend Gulnara Miftakhova who helped me via satellite phone (while being either in Moscow or Kazan) to interpret from time to time some of the more complex discussions I have had to follow. For example, her help was critical when I had to understand Vova, a local expert and Ural Truck driver in Manily, trying to tell me what was the best route to follow in the rapidly melting Kamenskoye river.

I have also continued to learn the notion of not giving up When, after having trekked just a few days out of Vayegi, my ankles burning with large bleeding blisters, facing a purga, a difficult trekking partner and alarmed by the amount of mileage I still need to cover that season I learned once again to set small and intermediate goals that I could more reasonably achieve.

I have learned once again to always keep my tent completely secure and locked on to my anchoring sled, until it was completely dismantled, therefore avoiding any potential chances to have it blown away

I have learned NOT to feed dogs along the way, no matter how enticing this might sound The next thing you know, they start to follow you for hundreds of kilometers making their forced repatriation somewhat of a complicated matter.

I have learned to never refuse a cup of tea, a dish, a meal offered along the way, which often is potentially the invitation to start of an enriching friendship. On the same note, I have also learned to never turn down an invitation to a local municipal or private homemade banya!

I have also learned to never refuse intriguing gifts (whether it was a long view, seal fur hat, shoe polish or even a tie!) and food items I have received along the way: (whether it was Koryak dried salmon skin, caribou meat, dried delicious fishes, or dried berries). They all have a purpose in the end

I have learned to believe in Russian Destiny! Whether something is meant to be or not, whether meeting someone is meant to be or not.

I have also learned the importance of gaining contacts in Far Eastern Russia. When a friend tells you to contact X or Y when landing in the following village, definitely follow suit! It could probably mean a welcoming home, a warm bed and even potentially a great meal!

On the same note, I have also learned NOT to embark on a multiple months expedition with an unknown partner, no matter what his/her experience may have been. In the end, I found out that it was often safer to trek alone than with a risk-taking partner.

Learned from my Far Eastern Russian friends how to makeshift with what you got For example, while in Slautnoye, adapted a new summer replacement low-budget tent for incoming snowy days on the trail, while sewing synthetic patches on top of the mosquito screens

I have learned to travel lighter, relying in some case on potential traveling wezdehod, urals, reindeer sleds to transport ahead some of my extra gear, food and fuel. Travelling with fewer supplies allows me to travel more efficiently and faster although always carrying with me a sufficient amount of required gear, food and fuel, critical to assure my self-reliance.

I have learned in the last few years from the locals how a few foreigners (Russians and Czechs) came to trek in Far Eastern Russia, completely unprepared, hoping to catch their food along the way (counting on fishing and hunting) .

I have also learned a few practical skills from my partner Nyurgun such as how to build an ice cave, when the time comes and how to efficiently use a machete to prepare firewood promptly.

Finally, I have also learned from my ex-trekking partner Karl Bushby, how, unless you have specific contacts established ahead of time NOT to arrive in a village at night, when everyone, border guards, militia, citizens and even dogs become much more alarmed and nervous Much better to camp on the outskirts of the village and safely arrive in the middle of the daylight!

While trekking with Karl Bushby, I was also able to learn what gear has worked for him over the years and how to modify it permanently when the occasion arises (i.e. transforming drysuits into backpacks, permanently screwing and gluing skins to the bottom of backcountry skis, etc)

[Click here to read what Dimitri says about magic moments, high points, low points, how the experience changed him, and The Missing Link.]

Dimitri Kieffer was born in France and moved to the USA when he was 17. He runs ultra-marathons and participates in adventure races. Since 2005, Dimitri has continued to evolve, transferring from adventure racing to full blown expeditions, like this Circumnavigation around the Globe with only using human power.

The circumnavigation started on February 26, 2005 at Knik Lake, near Anchorage, Alaska. Dimitri plans to complete the entire Nexus Expedition by 2016.

Stages already completed:

First Section: Knik Lake (near Anchorage, Alaska) - Nome (Alaska)
Feb April 2005, 37 days, 1100 miles 1770 kilometers
Completed by foot (trekking & snowshoeing) the Iditarod Trail Invitational race

Second Section: Nome (Alaska) Wales (Alaska)
Feb 2006, 9 days, 115 miles 185 kilometers
Completed by foot (Trekking & Back Country Skiing)
(with Goliath Expedition - Karl Bushby)

Third Section: Nome (Alaska) Uelen (Russia) Bering Strait Crossing
March 17-31 2006, 14 days, 5 days where swimming was required
200 miles 322 kilometers
Completed by foot (trekking & back country skiing) & swimming
(with Goliath Expedition - Karl Bushby)

Fourth section: Uelen to Egvekinot (Chukotka, Russia)
April 12- May 16 2007, 34 days, 425 miles 684 kilometers
Completed by foot (Back Country Skiing and only trekking after Vastoshisno)
Uelen - Anguema (with Goliath Expedition - Karl Bushby)
Anguema - Uelen (solo)

Fifth section:
Egvekinot to Vayegi (Chukotka, Russia)
April 15 - June 7, 2008
exact amount of trekking days still being tabulated
Approximately 600 miles / 965 km
exact number of miles still being tabulated.

Completed on foot (back country skiing, trekking with a backpack and pulling the sled simultaneously, swimming and using the sled as kayak while going down rivers).

Sixth section:
Vayegi (Chukotka, Russia) - Paren (Kamchatka, Russia)
March 11 - May 13 2010
707 km completed, 63 days.

Location May 17, 2010:
N 62° 25.040'; E 163° 05.160'
Paren, Northwestern Kamchatka
Total kilometers covered Spring 2010: 707.2 km
Manily to Paren 199.4 km

In March 2010, Dimitri return to the village of Vayegi and continued by foot and skis while pulling a sled moving Southwest towards Kamchatka. He completed the first month in company of Yakut trekker Nyurgun Efremov who stopped in the village of Slautnoye, Kamchatka.

From there on, Dimitri completed the next 200 km in company of three beautiful erring dogs and reached Kamenskoye. After having left the 3 canines in good company, he continued solo, mostly following the coastline where he could still find barely enough ice to slide his sled on, swimming and backpacking along the way and was finally able to reach the remote Koryak fishing village of Paren.

Dimitri was also enthused to be able to meet and stay for a few days along the way with two different "brigades" of reindeer herders, a Chukchi one and a Koryak one, where he was able to learn and appreciate their nomadic culture.

Seventh section:
Paren (Kamchatka, Russia) - Omsukchan in Magadanskaya Oblast.
Dimitri is returning in Kamchatka in February 2011 to continue trekking and skiing 423 miles (680 km) from Paren in Kamchtaka Koryak Okrug to Omsukchan in Magadanskaya Oblast. He plans to cover this section by skis and snowshoes, while pulling a sled on tundra, considering the absence of roads in this remote part of the world. His route should take him from Paren to Omsukchan via Verniy Paren, Chaibura, Ghiziga, Evensk, Tavatum and Merenga.

Position: April 25, 2011:
N62° 30.987, E155° 46.342 Omsukchan
595 km travelled

Dimitri plans to have completed the entire expedition by 2016, upon reaching Knik Lake, after having circumnavigated the globe via human power.

Dimitri Kieffers expedition videos.

Dimitri Kieffer is blogging over CONTACT 5

British Karl Bushby, an ex-paratrooper, born in 1969, has already walked through South, Central and North America, Alaska, across the Bearing Strait (with Kieffer) and through a part of North-eastern Russia where he stopped on May 18, 2008 at Bilibino, Chukotka, and continued in 2011.

#Polar #Trek #interview

Dimitri Kieffer: "In the case of an emergency, the chances of a rescue are very limited and therefore I have learned to become somewhat riskadverse, especially while traveling alone."
courtesy Dimitri Kieffer (live over Contact5), SOURCE
"In Western Russia, money might be more a driving factor but in the Far Eastern region, it is a different ball game, where respect and friendship matter even greater!"
courtesy Dimitri Kieffer (live over Contact5), SOURCE
"Needless to say that Far Eastern Russians very much respect self-made MODEST men/women and quite dislike anything that could resemble bragging."
courtesy Dimitri Kieffer (live over Contact5), SOURCE
"Locals have also taught me how to recognize animal prints in the snow, deter and scare threatening bears away, how to smoke and preserve fishes, how to pluck and prepare a freshly killed goose or duck, how to make local Russian dishes and bread, etc, etc"
courtesy Dimitri Kieffer (sent over Contact5), SOURCE