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."

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