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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hikers Enjoy Respite From City Ills

Members of the Walkers, Hikers and Nature Lovers Club say their weekly treks into the Moscow countryside are not so much a question of choice, but necessity.

"According to Chinese astrology, I'm a bull," said Valery Yakushev, a mild-mannered man of medium height and build. "And one of the characteristics of this sign is that I cannot live without nature."

An office-bound lawyer during the week, Yakushev metamorphoses into a nature lover on Sundays. He joins the group of expatriates and Russians who take an elektrichka out of Moscow -- year-round, come rain or shine -- for what typically amounts to a 15-kilometer, cross-country hike.

Founded by American outdoorsman John Petroff, who first placed an advertisement in The Moscow Times seeking "Walkers, Hikers and Nature Lovers" in 1994, the group has seen changes in the number of members -- particularly as expats come and go. Petroff has since moved on to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he created another hiking club.

But he left behind a healthy legacy; on sunny days, the number of hikers can reach 40 people.

Katie Coughlin, an avid mountain biker, skier and hiker in her native California, came to last Sunday's hike -- a trek in Khotkovo, north of Moscow. The 32-year-old business consultant with TeleRos telecommunications said the club has been a godsend for her and her 6-year-old American Spaniel, Cassie.

"The group's been the highlight for me being here, just getting to know people who have a love of nature in common, and to get out of Moscow, and the traffic and noise and crowds and frustration," she said. "If I don't do this, I notice it the rest of the week."

Coughlin said the hikes she has participated in since last October have run the gamut from the euphoric to the downright creepy. She said she brought a friend on a trip to a lake in July, and although they got soaked to the skin in the morning rain, things soon took a turn for the better.

"By midmorning the skies opened up, blue skies, and we came to the lake and there was a little castle and a couple was there who had just gotten married," she said. "So it was a real moment, and we took part in toasting them, too."

But another lakeside trek proved a little disconcerting: "I swear we saw a body getting dumped," she said.

Coughlin said that, while the group was walking through a forested area, a man in a business suit appeared out of nowhere and joined the hikers as they approached a clearing. There they encountered a second man, who had clearly been beaten up, standing beside a rusting ambulance.

"And then two guys came up from this lake, which is about 300 yards away, carrying a stretcher, an empty stretcher!" she said. "I'm sure that we witnessed something illegal."

But that was the only such encounter, Coughlin said, as she stopped to give Cassie a cup of water.

Last Sunday's excursion was blessedly peaceful. The group wound its way along a country road and eventually through a stretch of woods devoid of people, but brimming with flowers and mushrooms. The day's goal was Abramtsevo, the famous artists' colony on the same railway back to Moscow.

Lunch in an open field under a bright sun provided the group with a chance to grab some rest, and for hike leader Sergei Nedbailo to check his map. Nedbailo said the planned hikes are announced both through the newspaper and by e-mail. And although the summer is drawing to a close, autumn and winter are equally attractive seasons for hiking.

"When I joined the group last summer, I enjoyed the scenery and the sunshine," he said. "But then winter arrived and I realized it was an even better time to hike because there's a really big contrast between Moscow and the countryside in winter, and it allows me to relax even more."

Dutchman Hendrik von Prooije, 42, said he was a regular walker, hiker and nature lover when he lived in Moscow a couple of years ago and still drops by when business takes him to Russia. Though he said he's not a health fanatic, he admitted he did go out of his way to experience nature on a recent business trip to Petropavlovsk. Met by his clients at the airport with beer and vodka, Hendrik said the Russian hosts were more concerned with drinking than showing their guests what nature had to offer.

"But on the third day when everyone was either drunk or sleeping, I did get a chance to get away for a few hours to see the Kamchatka countryside," Hendrik said.

The participants in Sunday's hike ranged from neophytes like visiting Canadian high school student Tarmar Kantor to veterans like Edvard Goldstein, who at age 60 has more than four decades of hiking experience.

Though he said the routes and distances chosen by the Walkers, Hikers and Nature Lovers group are easier to manage than those of his regular group, the Moscow Touring Club, Goldstein clearly enjoyed Sunday's international flavor and quickly assumed the role of trailblazer through a patch of particularly thick underbrush.

Carol Chung, of the British Emergency Aid to Russia and the Republics agency, said she had sought to make a convert of her son, Julian, when he visited Moscow this spring.

"I don't think he's much of a walker; he prefers driving his car," said Chung, who added, however, that he did appreciate the unusual glimpse of Russian life suburban Moscow offers.

"It's not the sort of thing that typical tourists would see."

Another thing that typical city-bound tourists aren't likely to encounter is dung, and, according to lawyer Yakushev, that's a regrettable fact.

"Compare it to the smell of automobiles and traffic," Yakushev said as he walked across a field that was generously laden with the bovine offerings.

"I think I know which one smells better."