While the snow was still lying on the ground back in March, I noticed a small piece in the Moscow Times about a hiking club that meets every Sunday to hike in the Moscow region. I bookmarked the website address, www.hike.narod.ru, making a mental note to check it out when spring had finally sprung.
Every week the details of the following Sunday’s hike are posted on the website – the leader’s name and contact details, at which metro station to meet, at what time and how far the hike is (usually between 15-28kms). It is completely free and the participants are both Russians and expats. All that is required is a little money for the electrichkaya, a bottle of water, a pack lunch and a modicum of fitness.
Founded in 1995, Hike ‘is a living organism’, according to Andrei Klimov, one of its leaders. The current leaders inherited the club from their predecessors, and none are exactly sure who actually founded it. What is for sure is that come rain or shine, snow and freezing temperatures (during the winter they ski as well as hike), every Sunday a group of hikers will meet somewhere on a metro station platform in Moscow and head out into the countryside.
I leave my apartment at 8.20am. Above me is a clear blue sky and the streets are quiet and still. The only sounds are those of the birds tweeting in the trees, and the only people I pass on the way to the metro are two street sweepers. The morning sun catches the top half of the buildings, leaving the bottom half in shadow. My bag feels rather heavy, and I wonder whether I may have gone overboard on the pack lunch I bought at the supermarket last night. I feel excited though at the prospect of being outdoors in the countryside all day, doing something I have never done in my time in Moscow.
I arrive at Savyolovskaya Metro Station five minutes early, but there are already about 15 people gathered in the centre of the platform. As each train stops, the numbers of the group increase. Some newcomers greet friends, while others just stand and wait. My friend arrives and shortly afterwards the group of around 40 hikers follows Andrei Klimov, today’s leader, up the escalators and into the train station. About 60% of the group are Russian, the rest expats. The ages range from a 10 year-old boy to an eighty year old man.
We have plenty of time to buy our tickets to Yakhroma and board the train before its 9.17am departure. My friend chats with one of the group, a French girl who she has met before. This is only the second time I have been on an electrichky, and the first time on a weekend. It is pretty full, and each new station seems to bring a new person selling various items: beer and soft drinks, a selection of gardening and washing-up gloves, large paintbrushes, kitchen sieves, pens with UV lights and ice creams. Each new vendor stands at the front of the carriage and recites their sales pitch before making their way down the carriage, stopping for those that wish to buy or inspect the goods.
I realise that living and working in the centre of Moscow has desensitised me to the reality of most of Russia, as row upon row of tired old Soviet blocks and dilapidated and rotting old factories slip past the train’s window. For all its recent wealth and power, I am reminded of how much of Moscow has been left behind.
We pass a giant market in a car park that overflows into and amongst the trees of a wood, goods spilling out of the boots of cars. The urban decay gives way to glinting rivers and lakes. Dachas of all shapes and sizes looking like toy houses litter the landscape. People attending their allotments stand or till amid neat little lines of greenery.
After an hour and twenty minutes we arrive at Yakhroma station, cross the railway tracks and enter a small beech tree wood dappled in sunlight, before climbing the steps of an embankment and crossing a bridge over a large canal. On the outskirts of town, a dog show is in full swing as twenty-odd Alsatians trot around in a large circle, their owners in tow. The small stand for spectators is virtually empty.
On the other side of the small town we arrive at an old redbrick church clad in scaffolding. The inside is midway through a remont, and someone somewhere is hoovering up the dust from the week’s work. The church is still functioning, albeit with a temporary altar close to the entrance. A priest in an ornately embroidered red and gold gown recites verses with his back to his congregation — a small semi-circle of eight old women in headscarves holding candles.
The road becomes a track as we climb a hill, on top of which there are new dachas being built, the geometric patterns and angles of their wooden frames starkly set against the open expanse of rolling fields behind them. The smell of freshly cut pine infuses the air as we near them.
We leave all signs of human habitation behind as we cross open fields before entering into woodland. A brook meanders by the side of the trail, buttercups lie all around and birds sing in the trees. The pace of the hike is not too fast, though it is no stroll either, but it seems everyone is comfortable with it.
We enter a pine forest, cones lying around on the ground, bathed in sunlight. Fallen trees lie all around, some across the path. We have to cross several streams aided by logs that have been laid across them. A helicopter passes overhead, its mechanical noise intruding on the tranquillity of an otherwise silent expanse. The forest gets denser as we walk further into it and the group spreads out. We stop for a ten-minute rest. I get talking to a guy with a woolly hat, which he explains is a Native American hat, although the design is Scottish, courtesy of the first pioneers to meet these particular Indian. He carries a bottle of frozen water, which he offers to several of the girls in the group while I wonder whether bears live in the forest.
The hike speeds up somewhat after two girls that my friend and I nickname ‘The Baikal Girls’ hit the front (I overheard one of them telling an American that is where she is from). Both apparently were out dancing all night the night before, which may explain their choice of footwear, and that they carry handbags rather than rucksacks. For two people who have not slept, they are brimming with energy, enthusiasm and laughter.
The trail disappears and we have to go cross-country, weaving around small trees in little copses. I notice our leader Andrei has a GPS, allaying any fears about getting lost. From woodland we enter a forest of tall trees, perhaps 10 metres high, their bare brown trunks rising up to the greenery at the top. They are symmetrically placed and interspersed with the hacked off stumps of their predecessors. It is dark and cool. Spots of sunlight lie randomly on the forest’s floor. A gust of wind makes the tops of the trees sway while making a gentle whooshing sound. I realise that we have seen no other people or any sign of human habitation for three hours.
We enter into open fields, walking along the tractor tracks to the side of them. In the distance I can see a cluster of farm buildings, their tin roofs glinting in the sunlight. We stop for lunch and Andrei informs us in English that this will be the first of two lunch stops, the next one being in two hours. Everyone finds a spot and brings out their lunch. A couple of Russian guys open tins and eat directly from them; two girls eat salads they have prepared earlier; the Native American hatman offers around his Tupperware box of mini tomatoes, and a Korean gentleman produces a hamburger, still in its original wrapping, from inside his jacket.
Half an hour later and the pace of the hike drastically reduces as we pick our way over small trees and branches which have been cut down but not yet cleared. Several of us try walking along the edge of the path in the forest that flanks it. At first this seems like a good idea until we come to a small canyon that we have to clamber down, across and back up again to get back onto the trail, where we decide to stay. It is tiring work, and those with shorts on receive a few scratches for their efforts.
After twenty or so minutes we come out into open fields again and I realise I am starting to get tired. My legs are beginning to hurt a little, as are the soles of my feet. The trail takes us over rolling hills and I am impressed by the different varieties of the shades of green of the trees, all mingled together like some French impressionists canvas.
The trail hugs a river and I spot several frogs, both big and small. We climb a steep hill and I am suddenly looking down at the river through the tops of the trees below, sparkling in the afternoon sunshine. A group of four young campers silently watch us as we pass them by.
Our second lunch break is taken in a field by the river. A couple of horse riders gallop past, one with a cigarette in his mouth. We have a splash in the river while two elderly gents strip off and take a quick swim, before eating the remains of our pack lunch. I lie back in the grass, realising how far away Moscow life seems as I doze off in the warmth of the sunshine.
After our second break we follow the course of the river, which brings us back to humanity. We pass some people with cows and goats before reaching a ramshackle collection of dachas. The first thing I notice is the garbage lying around, as old women in headscarves tend their patches.
We catch the 5.48 Moscow train from the aptly named Tourist station and join the collection of old women clutching bunches of flowers from their gardens. We are happily surprised to find free seats and quickly doze off to the lull of the train’s motion. I feel a little different as I arrive back in the metropolis. I look at the city with slightly different eyes, maybe because I have completely removed myself from it, if only for a day.
I feel invigorated by both the exercise and by simply doing something new and enjoyable, while meeting some new people at the same time. But most of all I am grateful. Grateful to have been able to experience and enjoy an aspect of Moscow that I could not have done without the knowledge and experience of others. I am heartened by the fact that there are still people in this world who freely offer their knowledge and experience to others, so they too can enjoy what they love — hiking with Hike.