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?'

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