Tuesday, October 24, 2006

it's true

pics are overdue. Coming soon...


Our last full day aboard the Mikhail Svetlov would have kicked off with morning exercises on the sun deck if we'd been up in time. Instead at 10.30 we joined the Turks in the music salon for an English language showing of Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom. When you are sailing into the Arctic there is nothing that sets the mood, I find, like Harrison Ford apparently coated in sunflower oil.
The Turkish watched Indiana Jones exactly like K and I currently watch Russian films, which is to say we laugh at all of the slapstick jokes and none of the others. Several of the Turks including, pleasingly, Captain Candiru, were also of the kind that like to offer advice at dramatic intervals when watching a film. "Watch out for the arrows!" one woman said. "Ah, geez, he's going to get crushed," said Captain Candiru.
Around midday came the news that a two-day storm was raging around Tiksi. We gathered in the ship's cinema (did I mention, cruise ship?) for an explanation by the ship's captain, Georgy, of what this meant and how bad, if the weather kept up, things could get. He ended his talk by explaining that the wind currently whipping up whitecaps on a fairly open stretch of the Lena was blowing 18 miles per second, while the ship could withstand 30 to 35 miles per second. Some of his reassuring tone was, I think, lost in translation, and by the time a waitress named Olga demonstrated how to wear the life jackets there were hands in the air all over the shop. What experience did the crew have of storms in this part of the world? Was there a chance of icebergs? A German woman, at whose weight I will leave you to guess, wanted to know if the life jackets could support a very, very large person. Olga claimed each life jacket could take up to 600kg, which suggests to me a bit of quick-thinking falsification on Olga's part, but it seemed to do the trick.
Not long after Kyusur the last spurs of the Verkhoyansk mountains had risen on the right. Basically bare stone with silly toy pines clinging to grass between rock and scree, it's the Verkhoyansk range that turns the Lena almost due north for its long final stretch. Eastwards the mountains cover an area the size of France but with far fewer louvres and Fabien Barthezes.The river narrowed here, and deepened. The wind threw up spits of icy water in an air temperature that had dropped to zero. The shoreline was lined with washed up trunks of bleached pine. Once or twice a motor boat was pulled up beneath the cliffs, but we saw not a single living soul all day.
Over dinner we heard Orhan's tales of travels in Central Asia. One of his stories involved leaving Uzbekistan for Afghanistan at a border point which, it turned out, was unofficial and manned by rebels under the control of a local warlord. Orhan had been refused entry, in response to which he had argued, shouted and snapped a photograph of the heavily-armed man interviewing him. Arrested and sent back to Uzbekistan, Orhan had dealt with the situation by asking as many questions as he could of his guard "to confuse the man", and then running away from him. I made a mental note not to apply any of Orhan's travel advice in real life.
By evening the wind and died and we were in the Arctic. On the right side (yes, yes, starboard) were the last gorgeous grey points with their scree and dribbles of green. On the other side the shore looked like a links golf course. The only colours were white and grey and a deep otherworldly green. Here and there was a lick of white that turned out, when we drifted close enough, to be a glacier, or the cold side of a rise in whose shadow the snow never melted. There was no longer a tree to be seen.
Just before midnight the sky lit up with streaks of red and purple. At this time of year it never gets dark enough here to need a reading light. In winter the sun comes up around February 15. Set your watches. At 1am we passed Stolb (pillar) Island, a single large rock that, if it didn't mark the beginning of the Lena Delta, would never have so many people hauling themselves out of bed to stand in the cold and photograph it. A fishing trawler had anchored in its lee. Black-tipped gulls shrieked overhead. In the tundra on the left there was a tiny settlement, six or seven sheds and boxes of what might have been a research station. Immediately afterwards the shore dropped away on both sides. The wind had dropped to a breeze. We were in the Lena delta, and some time in the night we sailed in and out of the Laptev Sea.

Friday, October 20, 2006


Kyusur is on the right bank of the Lena, a day's boat journey beyond Zhigansk - further north than all of mainland Europe. The shore is a scree slope with nothing to anchor your triple-decked cruise ship except huge pieces of driftwood, and from the bank above you can look both ways down the river, across to beautiful red cliffs and think 'bite me, Finland'.
The few hundred wooden cottages that make up the village itself are raised on stilts on land normally frozen, and when not frozen, swampy. If I was a real estate agent I think I would call Kyusur land 'moisturised'. Wooden boardwalks have been laid from house to house, although most are now rotting or loose (real estate agent: 'traditional'). There's a strange Land of the Giants effect, which I realised after a while had to do with the forest growing up to the back steps of the last houses in the village. This far north so much of the land is frozen year-round that the forest is dwarf taiga, stunted pines and firs of 1.5 to 2m, which is no taller than, say, Condoleezza Rice. Near the path above the river bank someone had put up a teepee.
When the Svetlov laid anchor some fishermen drove down the pebble slope in a ute. This was the only proper vehicle we saw in Kyusur, except for a sort of bulldozer/tractor hybrid that I didn't understand but badly wanted to drive. The roads into the taiga don't lead far and the nearest village of any size up or down river is Tiksi, 500km away. The only other form of motorised transport in the village were heavy black motorbikes with sidecars. I kept wishing Steve McQueen would ride up and tell me which way to run from the Jerries. The ute was loaded with half a dozen canvas sacks. Inside each sack, as it turned out when the ship's chef went to investigate, there were three or four river fish, each the size of a thin, flippered child. Money changed hands, and bags of flour, then, as a latecomer fisherman bolted down the river bank with a mounted set of reindeer antlers, Galina threw from the deck six litre-bottles of vodka. Most people in Kyusur are Evenki, but that doesn't stop them wearing as much army camouflage as the Russians or, evidently, drinking like them. My favourite was a man who had opted for a thin handlebar moustache with crew cut and Fidel Castro military cap, and looked like a Bond villain in waders.
Keeping as much of the village as possible between us and Captain Candiru ("What is this place? Why are we here? Where's a man supposed to get coffee?") we came across a strange memorial, spray painted gaudy silver and showing three poles, one of them bent and broken. Later I learned what had happened, and it doesn't make a pleasant story.
When Hitler turned on the USSR during WWII the Soviet leader, Stalin, became convinced that various non-Russian populations were certain to defect to the Germans. He decided the easiest solution would be to ship these people en masse to Siberia. Ordinary folk mainly from the Baltics were put onto trains, then in Siberia forced onto iron barges and sent off down the Yenisey or the Lena. One group arrived in Zhigansk, another in Tiksi, and in 1941 a group of 2000 was sent to Kyusur. The journey was bad enough. The barges were open, with little in the way of food, shelter or medicine. People became sick and dozens died of illness or exposure. It was already autumn when the survivors reached Kyusur. Nothing had been nothing prepared for them. The village was even smaller than it is today - a few dozen wooden cottages hugging the riverbank. There was no shelter, no food stores and the locals had no way to clothe more than a handful of extra people for the northern winter. Most of the exiles arrived with only the clothes on their backs - thin jackets and caps for the east European autumn. The locals, reportedly, did what they could, hunting, fishing, making tents and digging shelters in the earth. But it wasn't enough. By the war's end all but a handful of the exiles had died. Most didn't even survive the first winter.

Monday, October 09, 2006

lower Lena: Arctic Circle

Unless I am overlooking one of our family holidays in Llandudno, before leaving Zhigansk I had never before been on a cruise ship. They built the Mikhail Svetlov in Austria, raising the interesting question of how it was brought to Yakutsk, 2000km inland from anywhere. The captain, Georgy, didn't know but he thought they may actually have sailed it around in summer, across the top of Scandinavia by sea. It used to have a hammer and sickle stamped on its two funnels but now has the symbol of Alrosa, the Yakutsk diamond company. Except for plane, it was the only way this summer of getting as far as Tiksi, the Lena port on the Arctic Ocean.
The passengers on the Mikhail Svetlov were mostly retirees and mostly of the opinion that whenever you leave your country, you need ideally to look as much like a carnival float as your budget will allow. Not all, but I would say the majority of passengers looked as though they'd broken into a puppet theatre and said, 'Look, there's a possibility that on this trip I'm doing, I'm going to have to look inconspicuous in a group of clowns and war reporters. Do you think you could fit me out?" There were 65 Germans, three or four families of Moscow Russians and a dozen Turks, and if I were to start listing the gratuitous zips, the pockets and patches, the ponchos and brightly coloured raincoats, the Peruvian pom pom hats, the mu-mus and the side-shield sunglasses which, frankly, make you look like a retired German sniper, we would be here all night. K and I survived as best we could, subsisting three times a day on a buffet of fish, schnitzel, salad and cheesecake, supplemented only by salmon, olives and plates of cold cuts, and all of this only occasionally including horse meat. We befriended the Turks, including the actress, all shawls, eyeliner and billowing, currently playing the mum in the Turkish TV remake of 'Bewitched'. Apparently her wealth and fame allows her to spend most of the year travelling, because when this cruise had finished she was off to Patagonia and then with the Turkish Travellers' Club to North Korea and the South Pole.
"My dear, you have to see everything," she said, when I asked.
We sat in the restaurant with Orhan Kural, author, mining engineer, president of the Turkish Traveller's Club and, as it turned out, Turkish Consul to Benin and Ghana. Orhan would regale us with his travels, his strong views against bloodsport and his outrage that the cruise organisers would make announcements only in German and worse, continually forget he was vegetarian. We would refill from the salmon plate and gently foster rebellion. Thus did the meal times pass.
In the afternoons there were films and lectures. K and I had 48 hours on board so there was no sense in not improving ourselves. The lectures tended to focus on the local peoples of the lands we were passing through. This afternoon's was on the Yukagir, perhaps the oldest surviving inhabitors of Yakutia, having been slaughtered and pushed north with their reindeer in turn by the Evenki, Yakuts and the Russians. Yukagir today are the least numerous of the northern peoples in Yakutia. Traditionally, they lived by hunting wild reindeer. At the word 'hunt' I saw Orhan look up. Masha, the shy Yakut girl reading the lecture, explained that the Yukagir made most of their kills during the reindeers' annual migration. As the reindeer swept north, stick-waving Yukagir would drive them into a narrow valley, where in a killing frenzy 10 hunters could slaughter as many as 1000 reindeer in an hour.
"Why did they need to kill so many?" Orhan said.
"They lived off the reindeer," said Masha.
"It's a lot to eat," said Orhan, fairly, I feel.
"You're sure they didn't trade any, just kill them for the skin or the horns?"
"I'm pretty sure the meat would have been stored and fed a lot of people for a long time."
"I think they traded them. There's no need to kill so many reindeer. It's a crazy number," said Orhan. He was beginning to get worked up. I wondered what action he planned to take against the ancient Yukagir. Buy Evenki? Sadly he was interrupted by a Turkish-Jewish-American man whose mean, foul temperament I would bottle, if I were a scientifically inclined maniac, to unleash on the cheerful. For the time being I will call him Captain Candiru.
"Is there a history of soap?" said Captain Candiru.
"Is there a history of what?" said Masha.
"Soap. Did the Yukagir use soap. I mean, what did they clean themselves with?"
Masha conferred for a while with her translator. The Yukagir may not have had soap, she said, but they washed regularly, in winter scrubbing themselves in the snow. Nobody was impressed with this, especially Captain Candiru.
"Dirty," he said. "Yukagir. Shmutsik."

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

summer days, drifting away

In the local weekly newspaper (birthdays on the back) there was a vox pop: How do you see Zhigansk in 20 years time? I think the answers give you some idea of what Zhigansk is like today. "I think in the future there will be buses and beautiful buildings," said Zoya, a languages student at Yakutsk State University. There'll be "asphalt in our region and new stone houses", according to Pensioner Svetlana Romanova, who in fairness has probably already seen peace in our time and slaves and slave owners sitting together at the table of brotherhood.
We were in Zhigansk in the last days of its two-week summer, camping near a kiddies' holiday camp by a lake in the taiga. Everyone kept telling us the weather was going to break and when it did, which would be soon, the winter would hit quickly. October in Zhigansk is -10C and January, on average, -40C. Ludmilla Igorevna in the museum remembered a day when she was a girl when it hit -57C. Breath freezes only at -70C, but at -57C you can spit and watch it ping off the footpath, if that's how you like to start your mornings. -57 degrees is cold enough to make it difficult to breathe. To be out you have to cover everything but your eyes. Even in a regular winter you can get sick pretty quickly in Zhigansk from the freezing fog that pours in off the Lena. People get around in clothes made from reindeer hide, which although waterproof and one of the warmest natural materials, gets itchy close to the skin and is impossible to get clean. Visiting the outdoor toilet is a problem, so much so that despite not having plumbing many people rig up something indoors or poo in a bucket.
In our camp by the lake it was reindeer meat for luch and dinner. What famous singers do we have in Australia, the kiddies wanted to know. If you're interested in adapting this conversation for your own dinner parties, it is called 'List the things you do and don't have in your country.' No, we don't have reindeer. Yes, we have cows, but they brought those in, from England probably. No, we don't have bears. No, we don't really have hurricanes, except sometimes where it's tropical and then we do have hurricanes. Yes, we've had the Olympics. In Sydney, yes, but also in our town. No, they were summer games. No, there wasn't ice hockey. Mm, I don't know, because I don't really know what fox berries are. Yes, we have computers. No, I don't know what drivers they have. Yes, probably pentium. I promise you, this can go on for hours.
The lake couldn't have been more than 10km from Zhigansk but it took us an hour to get here, standing on the back of an open truck and crashing along not so much a road as a strip in the taiga where there weren't trees. In Soviet times, local dignitaries came out here for schmoozing and retreats. Assuming your Clintons and Bushes also get by with pit toilets and occasional bear attacks, I think it's fair to call it the Martha's Vineyard of the Siberian Arctic. The day was wet and overcast, because only having a two-week summer is no guarantee it's going to be nice, and everywhere around, clinging to berry bushes and lurking in the moss, were things waiting to bite us. Aisha Igorevna and Ivan Nikolayevich, who we were staying with in Zhigansk, had warned us about this, furnishing us before we left with two beekeeper hats with camouflage green netting to cover face and neck. We put these on when Misha offered to take us into the forest to pick wild raspberries. Misha was seventeen, Yakut and way out on his own in the kiddies' camp in respect of being willing to speak Russian (rather than Yakut) without giggling.
K stepped first into the forest and was besieged by an evil grey cloud. I don't know how long it had been since the mosquitoes near Zhigansk had a crack at something warm blooded, but I suspect in mosquito time it had been something about which their fathers' fathers had only heard tell. You could see them homing in, their tiny brains giddy with the thought that their season of dedicated breeding hadn't been in vain. In all the whining I swear I could hear the words 'drain the Europeans'. Immediately we regretted our choice of almost all of our clothing. Did we think we were gardening that we had worn only cotton gloves? Why long-sleeved T-shirts when we had in our pack perfectly reasonable though unsummery thick coats? We'd tucked our trousers into socks, long sleeves into gloves but this was as Lear to the ocean. The mosquitoes laughed tiny mocking laughs. I rubbed my arm and my sleeve smeared black. The mosquitoes made for my neck. At this point let me tell you something about beekeeper hats. They might be all right for bees. They're probably fine for mosquitoes, perhaps when there's a few, or a few dozen. But when you go raspberry picking in the taiga in summer you want to make sure of two things. One, make sure the neck of your beekeeper hat somehow seals, so nothing can fly or squirm under it. Two, make sure the man who lent you your beekeeper hat isn't a chainsmoker, in particular that he isn't so much of a chainsmoker that he has cut a hole in the netting to fit a cigarette through. Not checking both of these things can be very, very bad. Plus, don't believe what you hear about camouflage. You can fully still be seen. We learned afterwards that cows die in the taiga round here in summer, not because they are bitten to death but because midges and mosquitoes swarm into their nostrils and suffocate them. Kids are injured now and again because calves get agitated and gallop blindly out of the woods.
Midges climbed into my ears and my nose. Somehow, while K and I were being devoured, Misha had begun to tell a story. He was unflustered by the mosquitoes, perhaps because his skin was made of titanium. I lost track of some of the details because I was thrashing at my hands and neck and face, seriously wondering whether setting a forest fire could have a downside. The story, so far as I can recall, had to do with some evacuees who were shipped here out of the way of the Germans during World War Two. One woman lived out here by the lake and during that time lost her daughter in the forest. Nobody knows what became of the daughter but some suspect she was murdered by a local man. Misha made me promise not to tell anyone. I do not know if I replied, because I by then I had lost the capacity to think. My eyes, lips, and forehead were swollen. My fingers were prickling and burning. When Misha, his own face coming out in angry red lumps, suggested that maybe we would be better coming back for the raspberries another time, I put my head down and galloped for the
clearing. I would not have cared if I had hit a child.
Dinner was reindeer meat and conversation. The evening began with us telling of Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Kylie Minogue and Kostya Tszyu and so completing the list of famous people we have in our country. It segued, as these intellectual evenings do, into questions about other famous people, including Jean Claude Van Damme, Mike Tyson and Shakira, on the off chance we might have forgotten about them sharing our passport. It ended, I feel in disappointment, not long after we had been asked, 'Do you have Jennifer Lopez in your country?'