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A Zimbabwe road leads to Chechnya, Tajikistan, Siberia

For one reporter, a trip to the city of Gweru brings back memories of her travels. The stalled engines, the rattling rides and the dark highways through the years make up one grand journey.

March 22, 2009|Robyn Dixon

GWERU, ZIMBABWE — Sometimes it's not the destination. It's the journey.

The road to Gweru beckons, like a painting: a ribbon of pocked gray tar, flanked by jagged red gravel lines and wide green stripes of bush daubed on thick and wild. Nimble gray monkeys leap from red to green as you pass.

You could drive the road forever. Sometimes it's a gray thread unspooling through soft velvety white, winter on a road in Siberia. Or a dirt track through pale red desert blobbed with low thorny bushes in Chad.

Or a winding mountain road in Georgia, piglets running amok, holding up matchbox Soviet cars.

I've traveled under low sullen clouds in the Polyarnyy Krug, the Arctic region of Russia, across a graveyard of the oil industry -- tires, boxes, pumps, skeletal buildings, broken pipes, all delicately frosted in snow.

I've been screamed at by furious Afghans for going the wrong way down the Salang Tunnel in the Hindu Kush mountains.

I've sat six hours in a traffic jam in Lagos, Nigeria.

But this time it's in Zimbabwe, with my car weaving behind a decrepit SUV at 50 mph.

A sudden pothole, way past axle-deep.

Bang! . . . Brakes! . . . And another! . . . Bang!

A hubcap rattles along behind the car like an abandoned dog determined not to be left behind.

I stop to rescue it and to examine the damage.

The wheel rim has two deep dents. The plastic lining that protects the bottom of the engine has been ripped away. The car, a small Japanese rental, is making an odd rattling noise. But the tire's intact. It's drivable. (A few weeks later, on a road just like this one, the wife of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai would be killed when a truck swerved, allegedly to avoid a pothole, and sideswiped the Tsvangirais' vehicle.)

I clamber back in. I'm in a hurry, on my way from Harare, the capital, to Gweru for a business luncheon and a political rally.

In my head, all the roads are spliced together into one grand journey. As I start the engine and ease cautiously back onto the highway, that Zimbabwe pothole reminds me of another bad road.

It's Chechnya, 1996. The road is cratered from shelling after nearly two years of war. The inky night is curtained in rain as our red Lada Niva swerves along, its headlights timidly probing the darkness.

The war is over, for now. Behind the wheel, Aslan Betiyev, a slight 27-year-old fighter with a pale beard and soft eyes, is happy. He has a trunk full of ammunition, a plastic golden prayer swinging from his rearview mirror and a Chechen flag streaming from his hood.

I think he's veering to avoid the craters, but when I peer ahead into the darkness I see something on the road, like pebbles, shiny silver in the headlights.

He's trying to avoid hitting the frogs.

Thoughts of dark roads and old Soviet cars blink me into another place, like a flickering silent movie.

In the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, I quickly learn not to admire anyone's shirt or brightly embroidered hat, in case he takes it off and gives it to me. The region is so poor when I visit, in 1995, that almost no one drives and those with cars cannot afford repairs.

It's the middle of the night, on a steep village track. Our car, an ancient Volga, won't start.

But the driver's not worried. We're on a hill.

We get in, and the driver releases the brake. We hurtle sickeningly downhill through the blackness.

Eventually, the engine heaves to life. But not for long. At the bottom of the hill it dies, and we get out and push.

The next afternoon, we're chugging slowly toward a rocky landing strip speckled with garnets where a giant Mi-26 helicopter, nicknamed the Korova -- Cow -- is about to take off.

If I miss my flight, I could be stranded for days, weeks even. But the Volga can't go any faster.

Then its engine dies again. And again.

I sit in the road, watching the Korova take off and disappear.

I could dedicate an album to breakdowns, strandings and not ending up where I was supposed to.

I've been stranded in the desert of Iraq not once but twice. The first time, broken down on the road from Baghdad to Jordan, I flagged down an American convoy under a three-star general smoking a fat cigar. He was going the opposite direction, but he turned the convoy around, and peered vaguely at our cooked engine. He offered to help, but a less interesting ride stopped, a local truck offering to tow me to the border. Regretfully I waved goodbye to the general.

Sometimes getting stranded is as good as adventure travel. Take Siberia. It's early winter, before the ponds freeze solid. In a sturdy Russian jeep, on a snowy track, there's a muffled crack as our back wheel breaks the ice as we try to ford a shallow, half-frozen river.

We're a little too early in the season: You can drive these roads only in winter when the ice is thick. In summer it's all bog; in spring, the ice isn't set.

The back wheel spins on the cracked ice. We just make it to the other side, and do our day's work.

But now to get back across the river -- the only way back to the highway. We stare at the water, 10 yards wide, a gray brew with plates of floating, broken ice.

The driver backs up and revs his motor.

"Can this work?" I wonder, as he races flat out for the river, aiming to sail through the air and land neatly on the other side. After a moment of dread, I'm convinced by the audacity of it.

Airborne for an instant, I feel like one of those gravity-defying cartoon characters. Then we hit water and chunks of ice and we sink in a couple of feet of freezing water.

I clamber out across floating ice chunks, which undulate dangerously under my feet.

In Zimbabwe, the fog of past journeys clears as I rattle into Gweru just in time for the business luncheon and the rally.

It turns out the lunch and the rally aren't on. My three-hour trip is wasted.

But the road is always waiting.

I turn my car and rattle back to Harare.

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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