Thursday, August 31, 2006

upper Lena: Peleduy

Soviet champagne

Alright, so it's two days we've been back. Put the delay in posting down to weariness that's had us doing nothing for 48 hours but sleeping, showering and drinking Soviet champagne (amazingly not a description but brand name). Put the weariness down to two-and-a-half months on the road and to the seven kinds of paranoia that had me convinced the hiding place for our computer, slipped under the base of our thin ply wardrobe in our student hostel room, wasn't nearly cunning enough, and it was sure to have been nicked by the underpaid and corrupt security guards who work downstairs. While as it turned out, they'd only taken our TV. Which in fairness wasn't ours.

The nutshell version: K and I sailed down the Lena, carried on up the Lena (the hi-jinks! The naughty misunderstandings!) then took the long road home. There was foggy taiga, soggy tundra, priests, hunters, miners, drunkards and - I wish I were making this up - a camping weekend with the lost citizens of Atlantis. It's not like I have the energy or you the patience to recap, so I think it's best I offer excerpts together with some happy snaps over the next couple of weeks. Except for this first bit, they'll mostly be in order.

Last Monday

We were travelling platskartny on the long train back from Tynda. Platskartny is third class, where everybody gets a bunk but the carriage is open. Beds line the corridor and by the end of your trip you know everyone, particularly the young, the drunk and the frequent smokers.
Passing the birch forests some distance after Chita, we met a Buryat lady who fell into the first and third of these categories. Her Azerbaijani husband left her with a two-year-old girl, Sasha, with enormous black eyes. We chatted for perhaps a minute. Sasha pulled at the tablecloth and mashed our playing cards with her fists.
"Do you like my daughter?" said Sasha's mother.
"She seems lovely," said K.
"Good, I'm off for a smoke," she said. "Sasha - be good and play cards with Aunty Katya."
A little horrified, Aunty Katya and I did all we could to stop Sasha from crushing herself under the card table, pouring hot tea into her eyes and so forth. We managed, although there was a near thing with the nine of spades. Only when she returned, I think, did Sasha's mother realise we weren't Russian. This was the cue for a conversation in thickly-accented middle-school English.
"How are you?"
"Well, thank you."
"Pleased to meet you."
"Pleased to meet you too."
"No, it's Matthew, or in Russian, Mettvay."
Sensing an impasse, I switched to Russian.
"Edward is a boy's name."
"Right, of course it is. Where are you from? I mean, where were you born?"
"I grew up in England."
"And where's Canada?"
"Canada? Canada is next to America."
"Is it far from England?"
"Quite far, yes. I mean, there's an ocean."
"Have you been to Canada?"
"Do you know Edward?"
"Who is Edward?"
"My sister married Edward. He's from Canada."
"Oh, Edward," I thought but did not say. "You should have said."