Russia's Strongest Man
Date- September 7, 2018
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
My bike was packed and ready to go. My cardboard box weighed in under the 23 kilogram weight limit for Aeroflot Airlines. Packing my bike for a plane ride is always an essential part of a cycle tour and I considered myself a veteran tour cyclist. I was confident everything would go smoothly and nothing would ever get in my way. Much to my surprise, Mother Nature and the Russian airport were about to throw a wrench into my plans.
My first stop in Russia would be Khabarovsk, a few hundred kilometers north of Vladivostok on the Trans Siberian railway. From there I would transfer to another plane and land in Irkutsk, a Siberian town near the famed Lake Baikal. I expected the whole process to be extremely simple and uneventful. However, my adventure was about to start much earlier than I ever expected.
Upon landing in Khabarovsk, I was surprised to see a climate very similar to South Korea. It was so humid I could feel the water enter my lungs with each breath. Green, luscious landscapes surrounded the airport and it had quite a tropical feel to it. I was light years away from the bitter cold Russia that we often imagine in our minds. No one was waiting for me with large Soviet hats and furry winter coats like I always see in the media. A much different Russia was waiting for me and I was ready to experience the world’s largest country with open arms.
The plane dropped us off at the international terminal and my big, awkward, 23 kilogram box was waiting for me right by the baggage claim. All I needed to do now was haul the box to the domestic terminal for my flight to Irkutsk. I assumed this would be a fairly simple job. I was dead wrong.
There had to be a cart around somewhere I could use. I scoured every nook and cranny of the international airport terminal for a cart like a starving mouse on a mission to find the world’s last piece of cheese. There was nothing to be found. I motioned to an airport worker using body language that I needed to move the gigantic cardboard box that protected my bike. “Irkutsk,” I stated over and over. She just pointed outside and let me know the terminal was one kilometer away. Suddenly she began to march in place like a cadet in a Soviet military parade. “What? Walking is the only option? How am I supposed to move this big awkward thing?” my internal dialogue went on a rampage. There were no buses or trains connecting the two terminals located one kilometer apart from each other. I was expected to haul the big, heavy piece of dead weight like superman over my head. I had a good workout coming up and accepted the reality that I would have to lug the thing around and sweat it out before getting on my next plane.
The pattering noise became louder and louder. Now it was pounding. Huge raindrops smacked against the international terminal rooftop one by one. Within seconds the pattering noise transformed into a deafening booming sound that pierced through my eardrums like a needle. Now I would have to carry the huge cardboard box outside in the rain. Getting myself wet was no issue. However, cardboard weakens when it comes into contact with water. What if the cardboard box breaks on the walk to the domestic terminal and all of my bicycle parts become scattered on the streets of Khabarovsk? This had the potential to be a huge disaster.
I had no other choice but to hit the street in the rain with my big cardboard box. Before stepping outside ,I stopped for one minute and looked up at the vast Russian sky. “Dear Mother Nature, please do not ruin my Russian trip. I promise I will do my best to treat you better,” I silently prayed to the dark grey sky. I used my winter coat to cover the upper exposed area of cardboard as much as possible. Sweat poured down my face as the rain instantly cooled my body from the intense heat. This was just like one of my Crossfit workouts I had done for several months leading up to the trip and I was thankful that I trained so hard. Now I felt like I was competing in a Russia’s strongest man contest and all of my prior workouts were merely practice for the today’s big event. The rain came down harder and harder and my box was soaked instantly. My forearms felt like they were on fire from carrying the box several hundred meters. Then all of a sudden, an unexpected surprise came and took hold of me. Out of nowhere a man appeared and grabbed my box. I had been warned about violent crime in Russia by several friends, however this man had no intention of mugging me for my box. He was already soaked to the bone and did not mind getting a little bit more wet to help a guy like me who was struggling to maneuver through the streets of Khabarovsk. Using my index finger and extremely limited Russian language skills, I told him exactly where I was headed. Together we hauled the box in the rain to the terminal and now it seemed light as a twig. The man led me all the way to the front door in the rain as sweat and rain drenched us to the core.
Humanity showed itself to me in the form of a man that helped me exactly when I needed it most. Perhaps Mother Nature heard me begging for mercy. If not for the man, I could have missed my connecting flight to Irkutsk or my bicycle box could have caved in leaving all of my bicycle parts scattered in the street. Luckily, I avoided an absolute disaster. By helping a fellow global citizen like me, the man gave me an extremely positive first impression of Russia. I am often inspired by small acts of kindness such as this man’s helping hand. This was only day one of a six week journey. Would the Russians keep up their hospitality? Stay tuned to find out more.