frozen mountain regions of eastern Siberia, middle-aged men
are supposed to be at rest in rocking chairs. After all, the average
life expectancy of a Russian man is only 57 years. |
So when 59-year-old Jim Johnson '61 and his high school friend Mike Blackwell spent two weeks biking and camping in the harsh Siberian climate in July, the people they met there were surprised.
In turn, Johnson, who owns a car dealership in Fairbanks, Alaska, was surprised by the local people. Siberia is a Russian province primarily populated by small villages scattered across 5 million square miles. In the past, when Russians came to do business in Alaska, Johnson had a fairly negative attitude toward them. He was bothered by how they didn't express thanks very often and believed they just took whatever they could.
But the people Johnson met as he biked through the Magadan area of Siberia made positive impressions on him. He found that although the people are very poor, living in "the worst of the worst of the worst of conditions," they are generous, as well as optimistic and self-sufficient.
With the downfall of communism, the churches are full and there is a belief that even with all of the nation's problems, things are going to get better, Johnson said.
Magadan is a small seaport city on the Sea of Okhotsk, located a peninsula away from the Bering Sea and Alaska, and north across the water from Japan. Johnson and Blackwell began their trip there, then rode 50 kilometers out of town and around a 1,100-kilometer gravel loop through mining country. They crossed 12 mountain passes, had snow on the fourth of July, and frozen-solid ground on the fifth.
The pair likes to bike in cold locales. In the past 10 years they have biked to Inuvik at the mouth of the MacKenzie River in Canada where it pours into the Arctic Ocean. They biked the perimeter of Iceland when a sandstorm prevented them from crossing over the top of the island. They rode from Helsinki to Nordkapp (the northern tip of Norway) and from Yellowknife in the center of the Northern Territories to Skagway, Alaska, near Juneau.
On their trip to Russia, Johnson and Blackwell were hosted by the chief Siberian geologist for the Russian government, Boris Mickalov. His relationship with them stemmed from Johnson's interest in gold mining. While about 2,000 people mine for gold in Alaska, there are 50,000 hopeful gold miners in Siberia.
In addition to the generosity of the Russians, Johnson found that they serve good food. Even though he and Blackwell brought their own food with them, they enjoyed the bakeries that thrived even in the smallest towns, as well as fresh cucumbers and tomatoes grown in hot houses.
Although neither of the cyclists spoke Russian before the trip, they had no problems communicating. They found it was easy to hold basic conversations with 12-year-olds, who rushed to them, eager to try out the few English words they knew. In addition, Blackwell is good at learning languages quickly, and was able to get by in Russian before the end of their 16-day trip.
Johnson and Blackwell also experienced few technical problems on their Siberia trip. On an earlier trip to Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, Johnson changed 16 flat tires and ended up with a bike so damaged that he almost had to carry it the last few miles. The trip to Russia required fixing just three flat tires and some broken spokes.
Johnson and Blackwell plan to return to Russia next July, biking around the world's deepest lake, Lake Bakal. They will be joined by Mickalov's son, who will return to the United States with Johnson to spend a year at the University of Alaska and work on his English.
Johnson said he is a changed man from his trip to Russia, and not just because of the 20 pounds he lost from all the exercise. "It changed my perception of a lot of things about Siberia."
Until his next trip, Johnson will keep in shape with triath-alons and stay busy with work at Johnson Nissan/Jeep/Eagle in Anchorage, a car dealership he started 12 years ago that has grown to be one of the largest dealerships in Alaska. He also spends time with his wife Jane (Brevik '61) and their daughters, Darcy Steger '84 and Valerie Yawit '89.
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