Friday, April 13, 2012

Barbed Wire and Babushkas

This isn’t about sea kayaking on the sea but it is about using sea kayaks for a substantial journey down one of the world’s longest rivers, the Amur.  It is likely that you will never have heard of this river but then again neither had the author prior to his quest to discover a river which would offer adventure as he paddled from its source to the sea.
4,400 kilometres long it rises in the remote highlands of Mongolia and enters the Pacific Ocean just to the south of Vladivostik and along the way flows through some of the most politically sensitive areas in the world.  Clearly paddling in such an area poses significant logistically nightmares, including having to navigate through huge quantities of red tape.
Just getting to the source of the river was an epic in itself but that was just the start of an entertaining adventure.  Although they passed through huge tracts of wilderness it was their visits to towns and the individuals that they met which provide the substance of the book.  This isn’t about hair-raising descents of monstrous rapids but often about being able to survive drinking prodigious quantities of vodka with a variety of Russians who had clearly had more practice than them.
It is also a description of a country, which is experiencing huge economic upheaval and perhaps, according to a number of its inhabitants not always for the better.  There was clearly a division between the Chinese to the south and the Russians to the north.  The former it appears were far eager to exploit the economic opportunities.    It is interesting to see though that even the poorest were often willing to share their food with out two intrepid paddlers, at times to their embarrassment.  It was as if refusal was likely to offend. 
They did paddle 4,400 kilometres in 107 days, which is a significant achievement but that is not the whole story. Grogan is an entertaining writer who has woven a tale of kayaking with encounters with gun slinging army officers, a New Zealand forestry worker, young Russian girls eager to practice their English and a Mongolian cobbler, to mention a few of the characters, into an enjoyable read.
They did receive financial support from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, which assisted them greatly so if this book triggers something then take a look at their web site, applications for 2013 open in May 2012.
So if you are heading away on holiday this year and require some in-flight reading or just staying at home and haven’t a book to read this one comes highly recommended.  I managed to read my copy in the time that it took to travel from Jersey to Malta.  I must admit that I was slightly disappointed when I finished, as it was one of the more enjoyable paddling books that I have read for some time.
(It is presently available on Amazon for the bargain price of £0.01 plus postage , or £0.99 on eBay so it is currently excellent value)

Barbed Wire and Babushkas by Paul Grogan
Published 2005 by Virgin Books
ISBN 0-7535-0938-5
Price £7.99

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