I woke up in a field in northern Kazakhstan. A London Taxi, an ex-NHS ambulance and three school friends, Charles, Nick and Matt greeted me through the morning mist. We were attempting to drive from London’s suburbia to the unknown of Mongolia in vehicles which we had been assured would not make it past Brussels.
That morning the ambulance refused to start. Nick and I, who were driving the taxi took a back seat and watched as our fellow drivers wrestled with the fuel pump and spanners.
“Err, Tom, Nick” said Charles, after 15 minutes of pretending he knew what happens underneath a bonnet, “Could you go and find us a mechanic?”
Nick and I drove 70 km along a two year old road, which was already in ruin, thanks to Kazakh winters and engineering. We found our way into a small town, where we were duly stopped by the police, who tend to supplement their income here through “presents”.
“Mechanic, we need a mechanikaaarrr”. I cried.
Spotting his fellow man in distress the policeman pointed us towards a nearby dusty street. We hopped out, and in broken Russian, and fixed German, explained to our mechanic that our friends were stuck in a Fiat Ducato ambulance 45 miles away.
He phoned up a man of action, Alexander, who sped round in a Mitsubishi van accompanied by his friend, who had a mouth full of golden teeth, constantly bared to the world in a fixed grin. Alexander, Goldie, Nick and I shot back along the road to aid our ambulance. Unfortunately the Mitsubishi was not designed for Alexander’s high speeds and soon overheated. “Problem?” I asked.
“Nein Problem”, he replied, as he ran out and took the cap off his radiator squirting scorching water across the road.
Fortunately the Mitsubishi proved more apt at towing and soon had the ambulance back in the garage. We waited around as our mechanic, Slav, inspected the engine. One by one local men approached us with grins and cameras. One of these, Francois, seemed to be the man about town, driving his attractive wife and their kids in a shiny Toyota 4×4. He instructed mechanic Slav to take us back to his house for lunch.
Slav’s house was a sizable wooden lodge, situated on the edge of a lake. He had phoned ahead and his wife had laid out a large spread of Russian salads, eggs, and the mandatory vodka. It quickly became apparent that Slav had no intention of allowing us to drive anywhere that day. Four quick vodka shots at lunchtime and Slav drove back to work, leaving us on his veranda with his wife, and her brother.
The brother had high cheek bones, covered by thick facial hair, above which his tiny eyes stared out at his new friends. The conversation was limited. Wolf man, as Slav’s brother in law came to be known, chatted away in Russian about hunting, wolves and the railway. We sat smiling, picking up snippets. ‘Russki bana’ he shouted after a few minutes. We all laughed nervously.
Throughout the afternoon, Slav’s adolescent son had been carrying piles of logs into a wooden shack behind his garage. When Slav returned home, it became evident that this wooden shack was indeed a ‘Russki bana’ (Russian Sauna), which he was heating up for his guests.
We stripped down to our bare bones, Matt leading the way. I heard cries of delight. Wolf man was sitting inside, naked with two bundles of dried stinking nettles in his hands and a Trilby hat on his head. Realising this was our first ‘Russki bana’ he applied modest amounts of water to the fire to create the necessary steam. This was our warm up. Another character soon appeared, Vlad. Vlad claimed to be ex-Russian Spetsnaz (Special Forces). He appeared in his Speedos with piercing blue eyes and strong arms; a Zeus in northern Kazakhstan to drive Russian masculinity into our soft bodies.
Cup after cup of water was thrown onto the fire as the heat overwhelmed our lungs. Unable to take normal sized breaths we panted away and obeyed Vlad’s every command. We found ourselves lying in a corner on our chests; four powerless youths as our Kazakh master whipped our bare behinds with the bundles of stinging nettles.
“Out, out, swim”.
Out we ran following his order to dive into the cool lake. Vlad followed with a bottle of vodka and a cucumber.
“Good, good” he muttered as we took a rest-bite, downing the vodka and munching on the cucumber. We looked up to the shore. A small crowd was gathering at Slav’s house. Goldie and Alexander had returned along with a group of Slav’s friends and the local priest. They sat around drinking, laughing and watching us as the women prepared the dinner.
This ritual of diving into the lake and returning to the sauna was repeated three times. I looked around at Charles, Nick and Matt. Our genitalia had suffered from the temperature changes, and now bared the appearance of an over-boiled mussel. Even Nick, who was renowned for his acceptably sized genitalia at school, was in trouble, but any attempt to hide this affliction with a hand was met by a sharp whip from Vlad’s stinking nettle bundle.
With the sauna ritual complete, it was time for the evening’s entertainment. This involved trying on Slav’s wolf skins, and drinking with Vlad. As we sat beaming and contented Wolf man looked on nervously at our plight. He handed us plate upon plate of salty food to ensure we could maintain our hosts’ current level of alcohol consumption. Vlad was soon tottering. He related tales of swimming in lakes with the army, looked at our soft bodies and told us we were men. He pointed to his strong arms,
“Man no here”, he said.
He gestured to his head and his heart, “Man here and here”.
We nodded and relaxed, relived our sauna ordeal was over and happy to have passed the first stages of our Russian masculinity training.
“Who your leader?” asked Vlad.
We pointed at Charles, the strongest and most Chingis Khan looking of us all. Vlad leaned over to him, “Boxing, now, we fight”.
Nervous laughs reverberated around the table. Vlad was stony-faced, his blue eyes cut through Charles. “Tomorrow?”
“Now”, he replied.
Matt broke the stand-off by reached over with his left hand to gather some food from the table; his hand was met with a powerful slap from Vlad. Up jumped Goldie, Alexander and Slav. Our friendship with Vlad had come to an end. He was dragged out of the dinner party, dispatched by our hosts and a bottle of vodka.
In other circumstances this might have caused a degree of awkwardness at the dinner table. In Kazakhstan it was met by further toasts, vodka and smiles by the local priest.
Morning came. We awoke in Slav’s front room, surrounded by wolf heads and skins. We had only come to get the car fixed. I found Slav, “Fiat ok, no problem”. We jumped in our vehicles said our Thank yous and waved goodbye. As we were pulling off Slav grabbed my hand out of the taxi window. “You tell friends, next time holiday, no Spain, no Italy, come Kazakhstan”.