How and when PA get started - Part 2
Announcement: Pyramyd Air has lowered the price of the Walther Lever Action rifle with scope...from $499 to $375. The combo is being discontinued by the manufacturer, so they're trying to quickly move the remaining stock. The rifle without scope will continue to be available.
Josh is concerned that he may be boring some readers with all the details he's putting into his Russian trip to find marble and wood for his Japanese friend. This trip was where he got the idea to export American-made shotguns to Russia, and that was the business that ultimately started Pyramyd Air, so there's a tie-in. Please tell him with your comments whether he is being too detailed about the trip.
How and when PA get started - Part 2
by Joshua Ungier
I had the pleasure to travel to Russia thirteen times in a span of one year. This trip by far was the most memorable. I spent a month traveling through Siberia's forests, marble quarries in Uzbekistan and the Ukraine for its granite. The people were the most unforgettable part of the trip, but I also got really homesick.
The flying dumptruck
After arriving at the headquarters of LesProm, the company in charge of the territory where we wanted to do business, we were flown to the forests and marble quarry by helicopter. The MI-17 is a medium-size Russian helicopter. It's widely used in Soviet Bloc countries for transporting goods over harsh terrain. It's a tireless workhorse, was not designed with any comfort in mind and is definitely not for tourists. It's for transporting bulk goods or, if necessary, cattle.
This MI-17 is outfitted for passengers. No doubt it has seats, a heater and sound-deadening material. I wasn't as lucky with mine!
The one we chartered was bare bones. It was obviously used for cargo, not people. It should have said on the door "bring your own chair." The pilot and co-pilot had the only two seats. The four of us in back were trying to sit anywhere we could. I sat on a fuel tank by a window and took hundreds of photographs.
Apart from the deafening engine noise, the unheated "passenger" compartment, terrible vibration, and the growing need for a bathroom they didn't have, the morning was uneventful. We were flying at a good clip for several hours when the pilot announced that he was in a landing pattern and we would be touching down very soon. Below us was a village of about two dozen log homes. On the outskirts of the village was a large prefabricated building. Apparently, it was a sawmill. Scattered for acres in every direction were mountains of timber. Each pile was at least big enough to fill a railroad car. Some piles were large enough to load a train of a hundred cars.
A warm reception
We were greeted by a village elder, who ushered us into a small hall. It was WARM! A wood-burning stove the size of a VW was blazing hot. All four of us smiled at that. The walls were plastered with propaganda posters. Some very old WWII posters hung among flags and photos of the Stalin and Lenin eras. Slogans defending the communist ideology were tucked into a corner behind a coat rack.
A breakfast consisting of a large loaf of bread, a dish of salt and, of course, a bottle of vodka (coffee was to hard to find) graced the breakfast table. When I timidly protested the early hour to start imbibing what amounts to government-sponsored moonshine with a label "Sibirskaya Vodka," the village elder replied: "It's okay. Siberia is timeless. She will not be angry. She is your mistress, not your wife." He was right. It was already 7:30 a.m. and no one was angry.
You'll freeze your *&%#@ off!
Preliminary talks were concluded inside a few hours, and by noon we were in a Toyota SUV driving toward an old forest. We drove across a large lake. A clearly marked ice road emptied into a deep valley. We were surrounded by pines four and five feet in diameter. Enormous birch trees straddled steep ridges. The car stopped. "If you want to relieve yourself, this would be a good place. No wind."
The driver said, "What does he mean by that?" So, I asked the elder. "No windchill factor injuries, you know." He grinned. I shuddered. It was warmer in the forest. A balmy -29C (-20.2 degrees F).
According to Jethro, my forest expert from Virginia, the wood was at its peak for selective harvesting. Russians, at least those days, did not practice selective harvesting. Clear cutting was more profitable. We spent several hours in the forest looking at the grove and went back to the village. It was getting late. We had one more stop to make that day. We gathered inside the hut and signed paperwork. Brief goodbyes were accentuated by shots of vodka with words, "Eto wam na pasashok." It translates, crudely, "To healthy passages you face ahead." Great people!
The MI-17 turbines whined to life. The helicopter was warming up. Rotors were engaged. Our suitcases were packed and delivered to the chopper. We were on the way to another wood-processing facility only 10 air miles away. We were to observe their process and possibly purchase their product for export to Japan. Basically, they shredded whole trees to make plywood using the bark and all. The tree goes in at one end, and plywood comes out the other end.
By this time, it was late in the evening, so we made plans to meet with the owners the next morning to talk business. The one and only "hotel" in the village was an 11-room refurbished army barracks. One shower, one bathroom, one stove. Army cots substituted for beds. Nevertheless, I was out before my head hit the pillow. We were up the next morning at 5 a.m. Outside, it was -36C (-32.8 degrees, F). Hot tea and perozki were enough to wake me up. On top of it, some joker put salt in my tea. That definitely woke me up.
But now the owners were nowhere to be found. They had left in the middle of the night and were not coming back for a while. Strange! No contract was signed there. We were done. Time to move on to the marble quarry.
The duty-free store
We were then airborne and on our way. A couple of hours by helicopter and a few hundred miles later, we landed in the middle of nowhere--right on a frozen river. The powerful prop wash revealed solid grayish-blue ice three to four feet thick beneath us. "What are we doing here?" I asked.
"We are going fishing," the pilot replied. "It is perfect weather," he continued. "There is no wind." He proceeded to extract an auger from the helicopter and, about a hundred feet from the chopper, he drilled a two-foot hole.
"You can snag a ten-kilo pike here," the co-pilot said. And he was right. No sooner was the line in the water (he used chunks of bear meat on a hook) than we had a fish. Fish after fish was hauled out and lay frozen on the ice. At -30C, fish freezes instantly. After an hour or so, we took off again, laden with a dozen trophy-sized pikes in an ice chest. "It is not good to arrive empty-handed where we are going," he said. "Food warms up negotiations."
The river was several hundred feet wide where we landed to fish. It was cradled on both sides by tall mountains. The pilot handed me a pair of binoculars and said to look around. "There is a lot of bad history here," he said. "A lot of people died here."
A very bad place
Partially denuded of trees, the steep banks were dotted by caves. Some caves were very large with gaping entrances facing directly onto the river. High above the caves there were remnants of a castle-like building. "During the reign of Jozef Stalin, people were sent into that building for interrogation," he pointed. "Thousands of prisoners went in and were never seen alive again." He continued, "There was a trap door in the floor right behind a chair. When the interrogation was over, the prisoners were shot with a .22 behind the ear and then dumped through the trap door, which lead down to the caves below. Dry conditions mummified tens of thousands of bodies in the caves.
"A huge flood a while back washed away half of the mountain and the bodies were floating down the river by the thousands. Locals and soldiers stationed near the town were called to dig mass-burials graves, but they couldn't keep up. When that did not work, the government sent a train loaded with bricks and a thousand miles of strong twine. Twine was attached to the bricks and then to each corpse. The remains then sank to the bottom of the river. Bad, bad history," he said.
We landed at the airport of a small settlement. I don't recall its name. There were several old biplanes with their motors running 24/7 down the tarmac aways. An attendant, a young girl, asked for our passports, and, after completing her duty, ushered us to the office of the chief. That guy could have wrestled a T-Rex! "Welcome, welcome!" he shouted. "Americans! I saw you only on TV. What a great treat. Sit!" And out came ever-present local moonshine he called vodka. Who needs an embalmer? It was just past 10 a.m.