Thursday, September 28, 2006


Zhigansk, Arctic Circle

Here are some of the highlights of Turkmenistani TV, which is all they get by satellite in Zhigansk, the Arctic moppets, along with the usual Russian channels (The Nanny: remade, Who's the Boss: remade, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, What Not to Wear, Dancing with the Stars, Dancing with the Stars on Ice, remade) and the news from Krasnodar.

All the latest happenings on the Turkmen State Commodity and Raw Materials Exchange. Did you know you can order knitwork from Turkmenistan according to specification, unit, quantity and price? Me neither! There's cotton overalls, women's capri pants, men's high boots (how high, is my question). You can get hold of yarn waste, if it floats your boat, so long as you're willing to pay in advance and in Turkmeni lira. I knew nothing of this and now suspect I have been paying over the odds for my yarn waste from Tajikistan. But in the Arctic Circle they've been onto it for ages.

News 1 & 2
Two apparently indistingushable channels. English words roll across the screen on the half hour, pretty words like 'independent' and 'news'. It's all a bit Powerpoint presentation in the titles stage but they get points from me for background, which is a fetching royal blue. There is no anchor so we are straight into the news stories. Here is Turkmenbashi speaking. Here is Turkmenbashi reading. Here is Turkmenbashi enjoying a concert on a stage hung with a giant portrait of Turkmenbashi. The 'other footage' part is when things get a little experimental. Instead of talking heads or, shall we say, footage, there are cuts of shiny buildings, empty city streets, resplendent Ashgabat flower beds, and well-kept Ashgabat highways, artfully filmed from behind resplendent Ashgabat flower beds. To judge from this footage there are no people and hundreds of fountains in Ashgabat. I would be surprised if you could move in Ashgabat for fountains. The only piece in the half hour not centering on Turkmenbashi is about an oil company holding its board meeting in an Ashgabat hotel. This is supplemented with commentary by Turkmenbashi. We close with Turkmenbashi finishing a speech and receiving applause.

Culture channel
I am lucky enough to catch a short silent film. It is no The Wedding Planner in terms of its simple message of humanity, but I think if you stay with me you will get the gist. A small girl dreams of performing in a Turkmen concert. Many other girls perform in these concerts, which are all crowds, balloons, national costumes and, you'll never guess, Turkmenbashi. But she is not among them. This makes her sad. She sits, sad, on an Ashgabat kerb. Suddenly she notices mounted on the wall above her an enormous portrait of Turkmenbashi, holding a pen and smiling. This makes her happy. At home she practices dancing in front of the mirror. She is determined. She drags her mother to a flashy department store and begs for something in puffy tulle. She skips in her tulle through various flashy sections of the flashy department store. Evidently you can pick up dustbusters for a song in Turkmenistan. Soon there is a concert. Girls are performing. There is puff and - yes - tulle. Wait, there is a close up. It is the girl! She is performing in a Turkmen concert. She is very happy. The sky behind her is blue. In the closing wide concert shots featuring Turkmenbashi the sky is grey, but then even in Matthew McConaughey's films I hear there are flaws.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

draka (n. fight)

The race issue has been simmering away in Yakutsk ever since, in the late 1980s, Sakha students ran about the main square overturning cars and setting things on fire, apparently in protest at being pushed out of jobs and to the back of queues by ethnic Russians. In the years after perestroika there was talk of sovereignty for the region, which in constrast to most other autonomous ethnic regions in Russia has a majority non-Russian population and a truckload of diamonds. This idea seems to have been buried, possibly because Yakutia is the size of India but has fewer people than Adelaide and its football team would have been rubbish. Usually when the topic came up we would hear the line from Sakha people, 'Russia can't live without Yakutia, Yakutia can't live without Russia. It's a big brother-little brother relationship'. This reminded me of the other lines we heard quite often, which were 'Russians need a strong leader', which means say what you will about Stalin, he won the war, and 'God likes things in threes', which means there'll be two more bottles of vodka on the way.
Then in a bar called Da Vinci, presumably named because of the artist's close personal ties with Yakutia, we met Andrei. He liked Gorrilaz, Black Eyed Peas and $6 bottles of Asahi. Did he remember the riots? He did, although he was kind of surprised we had heard of them. He was 11 and when his Mum heard about the bottles being thrown and the rubbish bins on fire she locked him in his bedroom. Did he know how the riots started?
"It was over a girl. A Russian guy at the university tried to pinch a Sakha guy's girlfriend. A few students got angry and went out onto the streets. Then it was on."
I said might there have been more to it than that?
"There's quite a bit of history, you understand. In the 50s and 60s most of the good jobs were held by Russian people. My mum remembers walking into shops and having Russian shop assistants sneer at her. They'd refuse to serve her until the last Russian customer had been served and then take their time, pretend they had other things to do before pretending to notice her. You would get picked on if you spoke poor Russian, left out of things at school. Then when the Soviet Union collapsed a lot of the Russians here left for the continent, as we call it, western Russia. Suddenly it seemed like there were a lot more Sakha people around."
"Are there tensions today between Yakut people and Russian people?"
"It depends what you call tensions."
"Let's say, if one group of people get drunk here in Yakutsk, will they beat up another person in the street just because he is Russian, or Sakha, or whatever?"
"Oh that. Of course. It's happened to all of us. You can get beaten up for a lot of things here. Being gay, being dressed differently, being alone. But yeah, being Sakha is one of those things."
A few minutes into our second $6 Asahi a hormonal roar went up on Lenin St outside.
"Draka!" said Andrei's friend Masha, running for the doorway.
"That's our city," said Andrei.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

up you automobilists

I used to think my favourite comedy football team was the Chilean club O'Higgins. Then I discovered the Yakutsk mini-football league. If you hurry before the winter sets in you might still be able to catch:

Cementnik v Automobilist
Almaz (Diamond) v the Municipal Employees

If I ever form a Soviet tribute band my backing group shall be the Municipal Employees. I like to think Cementnik's mascot is a wheelbarrow.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


pokrovsk: middle Lena


Thursday, September 14, 2006

is not telling the same as not lying?

If you go to Yakutsk, pay special attention when you visit the Northern Lights Tour Agency. You should look out for what they do not tell you and you should ask the right questions. They will promise you a quiet weekend on a river bank. They will speak of a small ceremony 'without traditional clothes'. They will look into your eyes and swear there shall be the chance to gather wild strawberries. The most important question you should ask is: 'Will you try to indoctrinate us into
your sun-worshipping cult?'
Six hours into the bus ride to Amga we were already getting slightly sick of the woman sitting next to us. Varvara was a Yakut biologist trained in Tomsk (Womble!) but now retired. She was of the school that thinks that when you speak of your plans, what you really want is for someone to tell you why they are rubbish and force new plans upon you.
"There's no reason to go to Tiksi," said Varvara. "Nothing there at all. In any case it's so far away. You're much better off going to Verkhoyansk."
Verkhoyansk is in far north-eastern Siberia, near nothing at all except the big bare mountains of the same name. It gets cold in winter, apparently colder than all other inhabited spots on earth, but this isn't why Varvara would have liked us to go there. In Verkhoyansk, she said, the rocks look like things. Luckily we didn't have to imagine this bevause she had brought about 150 photos, most of them washed out or sun-splashed.
"This one is a man and a woman embracing. This one is a pregnant girl. This is a warrior seated beside his horse."
We would need less than a week to take in all of Verkhoyansk's sites, Varvara said, beaming through her glasses, and then we could fly direct to Yakutsk. Then we would have a lot more time to relax in the city, which we'd need, because scrambling up and down the rocks in Verkhoyansk can be tiring.
"Wait a second and I'll dig out my bag. There's an album of the very first time I went to Verkhoyansk," she said.
Before this could happen our bus arrived at the river bank. The road to Amga runs south-east from Yakutsk, so the drive there involves crossing the Lena, which at this point was several kilometres wide. You cross on iron barges, everybody queuing in their cars, buses and waziks (a kind of Russian combi van, but used less by people with surfboards and more by people with guns) or more properly, pretending to queue. There were three or four lines, according to where previous barges had loaded. The barge captains cared nothing for history. They arrived at half hour intervals, docking at more or less random points along the sandbank. When this happened, all lines would break and there was a mad mechanical scramble, sedans and four-wheel-drives and waziks crashing over the black earth. Sedans got bogged, buses jammed, and enterprising families piled dirt so they could drive up the side rather than the face of the ramp. We had a good view of several spectacular bingles as we waited more than two hours.
It was another eight hours before Amga. We camped in a row on the riverbank to the song of the morning mosquitos, which here were greenish and huge, like evil Tinkerbells. For lunch the Northern Lights people set up a picnic on the pebbles.
We ate watermelon and tough kebabs and listened to sandflies thwacking into the shade tent.
Alexei Ivanovich began to speak. Until a few years ago he had been a computer programmer. Now he had retired to become a full-time white shaman, a kind of messenger boy between people and good spirits. Somewhere along the way he acquired a miner's jacket from the diamond company Alrosa.
"People think languages are all so different, but they're wrong," he said. "Take English. What is the English word for palatka?"
"Tent," I said, once I had realised that nobody else spoke English.
"In Yakut we have 'tenet', which means 'big house'." A murmur of approval went round the plastic picnic rug, decorated with strawberries.
"The Maya Indian word for sun is 'kohn'. And what is the Yakut word?"
"Kohn," said everybody else.
"Identical," said Alexandra, a woman with too-high eyebrows and hair piled up on top of her head.
"Exactly the same. You see? There are a thousand examples of this. The Russian word 'gora' (mountain) is exactly the same in our Yakut. The English words catastrophe, terrorist and apocalypse are all originally Yakut words."
I took an enormous bite of kebab, so I could not answer when Alexei Ivanovich asked me if I thought Yakuts were an Asian people.
"A few years ago one of our Sakha (Yakut) women was travelling in Japan," he said. "In Tokyo she became very sick, some kind of blood disease. She went to a hospital but when they tested her they said, 'We cannot treat you here. You have European blood and European genes. You must go to Germany for treatment.' In fact Yakuts are genetically only 30 per cent Asian. Do you know why this is?"
Half of my kebab had turned out to be hard white fat. It felt like I was like eating a flip-flop.
"One million years ago, before they became corrupt and declined, humans lived in harmony as one race. They built pyramids and understood how to control the energy of the sun. They spoke one language, called Sanskrit, and their civilisation was called Atlantis."
I glanced up to find Alexei Ivanovich looking at me. He seemed to be after a response. I tucked a piece of fat behind a molar.
"There's an Indian language called Sanskrit," I said. "Is that the same one?"
"Oh, no. The Indian version is only 20,000 years old. It's very young. The original Sanskrit is Yakut, the same language we Sakha people speak today. This is why so many Yakut words have equivalents in other languages. Yakuts themselves are the sole genetic heirs of Atlantis. Genetically, it has been proven that 92 per cent of our people are directly descended from Noah."
We fended off tiredness after lunch with a paddle in the Amga. It was a beautiful spot with a bend in the river and a sandy cliff on the opposite bank. While I swam Alexandra and Varvara popped into our tent to show Kathy pictures of sun flashes and tell them the story of Varvara's recently-deceased son who, as it turned out, had recently bested Jesus in a cosmic battle.
In the afternoon the bus driver, the white shaman and I rowed the heirs of Atlantis across the river in little rubber dinghies.
Once we had straggled up the hill top, two of the workers from the Northern Lights Tour Agency cleared a grassy circle. Alexei Ivanovich began talking about energy and the sun. There are places called chakras where the sun's power is highly concentrated. Amga is one of those places as, unsurprisingly, is Verkhoyansk, but the strongest chakra is in the Ural Mountains. When he looks into the sky above chakras, Alexei Ivanovich sees three cylinders, lit or blackened according to the make-up of energy in the place. The Amga chakra is 108 square km in area, 108 being of course the number of the future. Its cylinders are lit.
"Last year in this place we asked the spirits for snow," said Alexei Ivanovich, dropping batter cakes in a circle around the grass. The women around him muttered approval. They remembered the snow story.
"It snowed non-stop for three days."
He looked long at me again.
"Why did you ask the spirits for snow?" I said.
"We sensed that the environment was lacking snow."
A circle formed and Alexei Ivanovich walked around inside it, sowing handfuls of dry tea from a bag. He led a chant in Yakut language that went on for perhaps 15 minutes. Afterwards people milled around, raising their hands to the sun, staring wistfully into its rays or photographing it. The first time this happened I suggested Alexandra swing around so her photo wouldn't be all washed out. She looked at me as you look at somebody who is allergic to chocolate cake.
Alexei Ivanovich joined me on the walk down. It turned out he was the reincarnated Aristotle. He had also for one stint, long before his computer programming years, been an Indian Brahmin. I asked if he had enjoyed this. He said he was fonder of his time as Aristotle.
Rowing back, I ended up alone in my dinghy with a Sakha woman who, she said proudly, weighed more than 120kg. It was hot and she was sweating.
"Are you tired at all?" I asked, leaning to keep my end of the dinghy from popping cartoon-like out of the water. Her face lit up and I knew at once what was coming.
"Not at all. Not for a second," she said. "The sun here, you see. It's so strong, its energy is so powerful. I feel wonderful, young!"
Repressing all kinds of urges, I rowed on. There were no strawberries.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


war stories

There were two misconceptions we failed to shake in our three days in Dapparai, a village of 200 or so hunters and dairy farmers on a grassy cliff above the Lena, midway between Daban and Olyogminsk. The first was that we had a video camera, or sometimes a film crew. "And where is the cameraman?" people would ask, on one of the two muddy streets.
The second was that we were German. You might not think this would be a hard thing to clear up, but it was. On the second evening, for example, I was stripping birch logs with the man we were staying with, an asthmatic pensioner named Anatoly Petrovich. I would work, partly out of English guilt because neither Anatoly Petrovich nor his wife, Klara Ivanovna, would accept payment while we were staying with them, and partly because the size and pace of Dapparai was such that there wasn't much to tire you out, and Anatoly Petrovich would sit on a log, wheeze, heckle the kids who spent their evenings galloping round on horses ("Red Indians!") and chat to an endless parade of neighbours. Usually we were discussed, which I could tell because although Dapparai is a Yakut village and Anatoly and Klara spoke Yakut among themselves and with their neighbours, the words 'kangaroo', 'Australia' and 'Kostya Tszyu' tend to be the same across all languages. Generally speaking, the looks we got in town were cold, but when we were with Klara or Anatoly it was a different story.
"If you were staying, you could have come on a rybalka [fishing trip] with me next week," said Arkady, who kept cows and worked a potato patch one plot over. "You could have told me how you hunt kangaroos in your country. I could have shown you how we drink here in Yakutia." There is a film - actually a series of films - in Russia which inadequately translate but are called special national hunt, special national fishing trip, etc. They are a bit like National Lampoon if you imagine Chevy Chase Russian and extremely drunk. At first I enjoyed these while K found them ridiculous, but we have both come to realise that they are, very nearly, true to life. Hunting trips are an excuse here for men to disappear with their guns and drink; fishing trips more so because there is less activity. In Olyogminsk an Evenki couple entertained me for hours with tales of fishing trip misadventures, including a man who three hours into his trip set his boat on fire, set himself on fire and staggered charred and naked back to his village, where his mother refused to recognise him because she claimed her son was on a fishing trip.
"We have the most enormous river fish," said Arkady. "Ah, it's great you've come. Wait a second. I'm going to tell my wife that some Germans are here."
Winter in Dapparai can be hostile. From December to February the temperature sits around -40 degrees Celsius, and the coldest days in January can drop to -55. The breeze which in summer keeps away the mosquitoes carries a bitter fog upriver. Anatoly and Klara live on bread, cottage cheese, jam, milk and keffir (a kind of sour yoghurt), all homemade. In winter they watch a lot more telly. Anatoly is saving for a satellite dish so he doesn't just have to watch Brazilian soap operas, which Klara likes, especially 'Talisman' and 'The Rich Also Weep', which this year is sadly not showing in Yakutia. A cart of cut firewood costs 3500 roubles, the same as a month's pension.
The main reason we have come to Dapparai is because in a book on the Russian Civil War (it was a long winter even in Irkutsk) it was mentioned as the site of a major battle. For war stories Anatoly recommended his elder sister, who lives with Anatoly and Klara in winter but in summer stays in her own place, a grand two-storey wooden house almost on the cliff top. A tiny set of reindeer antlers was mounted above the front door.
Yevdokia Petrovna served us lepyoshka, a Yakut batter cake, and tea as it's usually made in Siberia, poured from a strong pot, topped up with water and sipped with jam on a teaspoon. The radio on her kitchen table had the frequencies marked by city: Riga, Moscow, Tallin, Prague, Poznan, Bratislava. I wondered if they got Shakira in Poznan.
"The last time some Germans were here, they thought I was the president," Yevdokia Petrovna said. She was 73: 10 years too young to have seen the civil war - a messy kind of mopping up after the Communists had seized power in St Petersburg which in the far east dragged on more than a decade until the late 1920s. What she knew of the battle in Dapparai came from her parents. They must have talked about it a lot.
"Ah, it was terrible," she said. "It was spring 1922. Our revolutionaries were brave but very young, and in the village at that time there were very few of them. The whites were cruel, Tsarist officers mostly, but also some Tungus, Evenki. They were more than a hundred, but half of them didn't even know what they were fighting for. The whites arrived in secret in the middle of the night and set up in the taiga. The next day our boys rode out as usual, across an open field about three miles from here. The bandits didn't even confront them, just shot at them from where they were in the forest. Two of ours were killed, both komsomoltsy (young Communists) The one who was a Yakut was just a boy."
There were medals and certificates mounted on Yevdokia Petrovna's wall. She'd been a deputy of the local Soviet, a homefront veteran of the Great Patriotic War and helped commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lenin's birth.
"There were no telephones in those days, so a man rode into the village yelling 'they're coming!'," she said, "and galloped off to raise the alarm. After that the Red Army came riding on the ice from Olyogminsk. They chased the bandits across the river, and a few miles from here on the other bank our side won a great victory."
She poured more tea. "That was the worst that happened anywhere in our Russia until you lot came, the Germans."

Saturday, September 02, 2006

middle Lena: Dapparai

Friday, September 01, 2006


middle Lena: Daban

We came to Daban in a roundabout way. Our passenger boat from Lensk never arrived so we took a taxi, a roofed motor boat, with room enough for six, baggage and all the mosquitoes we could slay. On the motor boat we met Irina, a mining engineer living in Mirny, where there is a diamond mine bigger than Bendigo. Irina did not brighten when asked for tips on Olegminsk, where we were heading, the next town downriver. "It's a dirka," she said - a hole. She recommended Daban, where she was born, an hour or two before the dirka.
Daban was a village of a couple of hundred wooden houses, shifted up a grassy embankment in the 1960s after a flood that wiped out most of the lower town. In its grocery shop bread was sold by weight, prices added up by abacus. The kids' summer camp at the back of town had been set up in the ruins of a collective farm. There was no fruit and veg in town because the latest 'big water', a week earlier, wiped out the lower-lying vegetable patches. Across the river and on all sides around the village was thickest taiga, pine and fir.
One of the first people we met in Daban was Yuri Petrovich. He worked on a hydroelectric plant in Olegminsk but came back from time to time to Daban to hunt and fish. Two of his five kids had already left for the city, Yakutsk.
"The bears here are the biggest you'll find in Siberia," Yuri Petrovich said, pulling an enormous pair of binoculars over his fishing hat. "Enormous, black and legs as thick as pine trunks. There are often fires this time of year, so you're a good chance of seeing them when they come running out to the shore."
There are two kinds of days in Daban: drinking days and not drinking days. Thursday, when we arrived, was a drinking day. Friday was not a drinking day. Saturday was Ysakh - the biggest Yakut festival, officially to farewell winter (it was July 1) and cajole the elements into the usual favours for the summer harvest. Like most festivals it is an excuse to run around, eat too much and fall asleep in the afternoon. Saturday was a drinking day in Daban.
Ysakh began late because in the house where we were staying, with the lovely, pensioned Avgustina and Pavel, there was faffing. We ambled down to the riverbank, Avgustina and Pavel in their Sunday best, we in our cleanest trampwear. The driftwood from last week's big water lay 20m in from shore.
Tents had been rigged up over fir poles. An area around each tent was cordoned off with flag bunting, one area for each group of village families.
The ceremonial part of proceedings was over fairly quickly. There were some dances in various robes, my favourite 'the dance of the birch leaves', which fulfilled the two things I value most in dance, being both interpretative and swishy. A pile of pine kindling was doused with kumyss (fermented mares' milk) and torched. There was a demonstration of the khomus, a kind of jew's harp, which on this occasion was lost to the wind but which in the weeks to come I would grow to hate.
A hunter named Vasya latched on to me during the pole wrestling, in which you sit opposite your opponent on the ground, your feet on a plank between you, and attempt to pull him over by the wrists. Vasya wasn't about to pole wrestle anybody. He was drunk. It was not yet 11am and he was lucky to be able to speak. Like most people in Daban, Vasya was neither Yakut nor Russian. He had wide, deeply jaundiced eyes, a flat nose and brandy brown skin, about which the others liked to tease him. "He's a Chechen! He's a Georgian!"
"Don't listen to them, Paska. It's just because I'm drunk," said Vasya. For some reason he had taken to calling me 'Paska'. Each time I corrected him, "Mattvey," which is my name in Siberia, for when people can't say 'th'. A minute later he would tug on my elbow. "Paska, Paska". "No, Mattvey." It became our little game.
Vasya had just returned from a hunt. He would tell me all about it, in his way, he said, if his friend Artur didn't keep interrupting. Artur was somehow even more drunk than Vasya. He squinted at me, slurred and for long periods closed his eyes as though his brain was showing commercials. We established that he loved football. He watched last night's Germany-Argentina quarter-final, but the score was 1-1 when the power went out, which it does every night at 1am, not coming on again until 6. He was very taken with the German team, especially Jens Lehman who, he said, kept goal like a wolf.
Vasya said he had been hunting wild deer. He had his eye on an elk but lost the trail.
"You have to stalk an elk," he said. "Sometimes for days. They move quickly, but if you're fit you can follow them. One night I drank vodka. Only a bottle. But when I woke up I lost the trail."
We ate pancakes and river fish, including the delicacy 'osyotr', which has catfish whiskers and is pungent and fine. We drank kumyss. We participated in a circle dance, in which dancers in turn take up a song and which, when the circle is large and there are good singers, can go for hours.
"There are bears in this forest you know," said Vasya. "We get probably five or six of them between us in the village each year. I saw one on my hunt but it got away from me. Our bears here are enormous, the biggest in Russia. Huge black claws."
"Legs as thick as tree trunks?" I said.
"Oh, you know our bears?" said Vasya.
Artur leaned onto me, breathing vodka in my ear. "Miroslav Klose," he said, "is the greatest player of our generation. He runs like a female deer." I laughed at first, but then thought and found this true.
In the afternoon after the vodka there was volleyball. I went to find K who, while I was audience to the songs of the drunk, had been adopted by a pair of Yakut girls. Masha, who was 10, wanted to know what movie stars we had in Australia. Her friend Lena was a big fan of the pop star Shakira.
"What do her songs mean?" she said, looking at K with eyes that said she meant to memorise every word that was to come. We looked at her with sadness. "Not a single English-speaking person knows," we said.