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21 November 2018

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Brothers on the Bashkaus

by Eugene Buchanan

It has been a long dry spell for armchair travel books on Russia. Certainly many such works have been published over the past decade. The problem is that most have been eminently missable.

This book breaks that drought.

You do not have to have an interest in kayaking, rafting or Class V rivers to enjoy Buchanan’s account of four Americans’ and ten Latvians’ trip down one of Siberia’s wildest rivers. You simply have to love a good travel story: plans gone awry, hilarious characters met on the road, the clash of cultures, nail-biting adventure and the thrill of new experiences.

When the Americans are told to leave behind their custom-crafted raft (instead, they will build rafts from scratch at their drop-in point, with pontoons made from repurposed germ warfare suits – reuse is the Latvian team’s specialty)... when they compare their smoothly stylish life jackets with the grotesque but eminently more effective homemade ones of their Latvian hosts (including one made with soccer balls)... when the hapless Americans bristle under the authoritarian food rationing of the mighty Olga... you almost wish you were along for the ride. Almost. For this crew of 14 will descend from high in the Altai mountains through some of the world’s most treacherous rapids, on rafts made from trees they cut themselves, living off the land for over a month, paddling with homemade oars and eating all too much salo (pig fat).

This journey is assuredly more enjoyable from an armchair and surely one of the best travel stories out of Russia in many many years.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sept/Oct 2007