Published: April 22nd 2011April 8th 2011
Considering the title of this blog, the fact that the crust rupture in question erupts spectacularly every year or two and not forgetting the other potential attractions in the area, such as pretty much guaranteed sightings of the Kamchatka Brown Bear (in summer), one might expect the nearby town of Klyuchi to have some sort of infrastructure, or at least be easily accessible. Not so. Its snow-buried sprawl of wooden shacks lies 600km of dirt road north of Kamchatka's capital and is located in one of the Far East's many closed areas, places where no one, Russian or otherwise, is allowed to go unless they live there or have obtained a temporary permit.
Which is why, at 9am on a Monday morning, I found myself hanging around by the roadside just out of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, with Kostya. The people I had stayed with in the capital had put me in touch with him, as by an amazing coincidence he was also planning to hitch hike north up Kamchatka on the same day as me. He was a Muscovite who for the past eighteen years had been hitch hiking around his country, particularly the vast wilderness parts without any roads or trains.
He had caught lifts on helicopters in Chukotka, a hovercraft from Sakhalin island to the mainland, countless snowmobiles, sledges and of course rides along zimniks, the temporary winter roads that open up all over the Far North and Far East, made out of compacted snow or simply frozen river surfaces, and which disappear with the coming of spring. He had traveled for free from Southern Russia to Arctic Yakutia, the coldest inhabited place in the world, in the dead of winter, sometimes sleeping outdoors in a tent. He had been unable to leave an Arctic village for three months, during which time not one item of transport had come or gone. He had been stuck on an island in the Arctic Ocean for a month without food and had eventually ended up in Chukotka, the Russian province next to Alaska, where he had spent the past few years.
"So what's Anadyr [the capital of Chukotka] like in comparison to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky?" I asked him as we stood next to the mountainous piles of dirty snow heaped up at the roadside, holding out our arms at anything that passed.
"Anadyr and all the towns in Chukotka are incomparably better. There
are more modern buildings, the streets are much cleaner. I haven't seen buildings in such disrepair, so much rubbish and so much ice anywhere in Russia other then Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky."
I was surprised to hear this, as Chukotka has a reputation for being Russia's most isolated and impoverished province. Perhaps it was just that Kamchatka's reputation for stunning natural beauty blotted out most of the other, less positive reports from visitors.
After half an hour a large, new, clean pickup truck stopped. The driver, a dark-skinned, indigenous man in sun glasses and a leather jacket, wound down his window.
"Hello," Kostya said, bending down and peering inside. "We're planning on getting to Klyuchi by hitch hiking..."
"I'm only going as far as Elisovo," the driver replied.
"Could we go with you that far?" Kostya asked.
"Sure, jump in."
We drove down the last section of asphalt road that we would see on the trip, linking Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with the small town of Elisovo where the airport was located thirty kilometres away. Kostya, sitting in the front and being a native speaker of Russian, did most of the talking.
"So what do you do?" he
"I'm a fisherman," the driver replied. "Or at least I was until the police confiscated my boat and my whole catch."
"Why did they do that?" Kostya asked.
"They said I was a poacher," the driver answered. "But how can I be a poacher? You know the Russian law about indigenous people's rights?"
"Yes," Kostya said, "you're allowed to fish anywhere."
"Exactly! But even so they confiscated my boat along with seventeen large salmon I'd caught, gave me a fine and put me in prison. You wouldn't get them treating someone like that who was just out hunting rabbits."
"Of course," Kostya replied, "because salmon is money, whereas rabbits aren't."
"Exactly. I want to take them to court but the trouble is it would cost me a minimum of 40,000 rubles [US$1400] and I just haven't got the money."
He dropped us off on the far side of Elisovo, we walked a little further out of town, put our bags down and again began holding out our arms to passing drivers. After a couple of minutes a lorry stopped a few metres ahead of us and we ran up to the
"Hello," Kostya said, almost shouting to the skinny, cheeky-faced man seated way above us, "we're trying to get to Klyuchi by hitch hiking, could you give us a lift?"
"I'm only going as far as Koryaki," the driver answered, "but you're welcome to come with me until there."
"Where's Koryaki?" Kostya asked.
"Only about twenty kilometres from here, but at least it's in the right direction for you."
We ran back, picked up our bags and climbed up next to the driver.
"So where are you from?" he asked us.
"I'm from Moscow but I've been living in Chukotka the last few years," Kostya replied.
"And I'm from England," I told him.
"Nooo way!" the driver said, suddenly grinning maniacally, moving around on his seat as if he had ants in his pants and becoming extremely excited.
"Please, keep your eyes on the road," I said worriedly. Kostya was sat in the only other seat and I was in between him and the driver, slightly behind them both. The driver had begun turning round almost a hundred and eighty degrees for several seconds at a time to get a
look at me.
"Ah, don't worry about that," he said, joyously. "Can I take your photo?"
"Well..." but before I could say anything he had whipped out his mobile phone and turned round to look at me, left hand on the wheel and right holding up the phone to snap my picture. I had just noticed a large plastic beer bottle rolling around on the floor.
"So what are you guys doing here?" he asked.
"Just traveling around Kamchatka," I explained.
"Amazing, incredible, good on you! Good old boys!" he replied ecstatically.
He dropped us off just after the turn off to the village of Koryaki. Again we stood and waited. This time it was half an hour before we saw the next vehicles, three oranges lorries with black piles of coal peeping over the walls of their cargo areas. They one by one pulled up at the roadside after seeing our outstretched arms and we ran up to the door of the first.
"We're going to Milkovo," the driver called down. "What about you guys?"
"Well Klyuchi," replied Kostya, "but it'd be great if we could come with you to Milkovo."
"Can you take one of these guys to Milkovo and I'll take the other?" the balding, chubby, middle-aged driver shouted down the road to his colleague from the next lorry who had jumped out and was smoking a cigarette.
"Of course, no problem," the younger, leaner, shaven-headed driver from the next lorry yelled back.
Again we were off, bumping and jolting slowly over the crumbling road north. For many hours we seemed to be passing through some sort of valley, as about a kilometre to either side of the road mountains convulsed upwards towards the sky, their whiteness interspersed with apparently black patches of woodland that disappeared about three quarters of the way up, leaving only soft, velvety blankets of uninterrupted snow covering their peaks. Just above, the constant greyish blue of the sky gave the impression that the colour of the clouds and that of the heavens had been mixed up into one bland, uniform hue.
"So where are you from?" the driver asked me.
"England," I replied, "but I live in Moscow."
"And what are you doing here?" he asked.
"Just traveling Kamchatka. Yourself?"
"We're taking this coal to Esso,"
he replied. I knew the name Esso. A couple of hundred kilometres after Milkovo, Kamchatka's one road that led north up the peninsula, the dirt track on which we were now traveling, would fork. The right fork led via Klyuchi to its terminus at the small port town of Ust Kamchatsk on the east coast. The left fork petered out a hundred kilometres or so further north at the small village of Esso, halfway up the peninsula. Further up than that, spring and the melting of the zimniks brought complete isolation to the area, horses, all terrain vehicles and helicopters being the only means of reaching or leaving settlements.
"So would you be able to take us as far as the fork?" I asked.
"No, two of the trucks are dumping their coal in Milkovo then the three of us are heading on to Esso in one vehicle so there won't be space for you. Anyway, we're going to be in Milkovo four or five hours.."
We rode on in silence for a while.
"So what do you think of Kamchatka so far?" he asked.
"I really like it," I replied, pointing out of the
window. "It's the most beautiful place I've been in Russia."
"Well, you've chosen the worst time to visit it," he told me.
"Yeah, everyone's told me that April's the worst month of the year," I agreed.
"It's so beautiful in summer, the trees are the brightest green you'll ever see, there are flowers everywhere, enormous salmon in the rivers, bears everywhere!"
"Have you ever had a problem with bears?" I asked.
"No, of course not, that rarely hapens," he replied. "We have just a couple of cases a year, usually involving injured bears or ones that have woken up too early and are disorientated."
"But there are no bears at this time of yearr?" I asked.
"No, the first will start waking up in a week or two," he replied. I made a mental note to avoid any dizzy or disorientated-looking early riser bears I came across.
"And where are you from?" I asked after a pause. "Milkovo?"
"No," he answered, "I'm from The Town."
"You mean Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied. I would later come to realise that "The Town" is how everyone all over Kamchatka refers
to its capital.
"April's worst of all in The Town," he continued. "Snow melting, mud and rubbish everywhere, it's just disgusting."
"Yes," I agreed, "although Kamchatka is the most beautiful place I've been in Russia, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is definitely the worst city I've seen."
"It never used to be so bad," the driver told me. "During the USSR it was cleaner, safer, richer. Now everything's falling apart."
"So you think life was better under the USSR?" I asked.
"Well in some way it's better now," he answered, "but in many, many ways it's worse. Like now there's more choice. I can go into a shop and there'll be twenty sorts of salami on offer. But they'll all be sh*t, and you never know what they've got in them, dog, cat or what. Back in the USSR there would be only four types of salami on offer, but you always knew they were good quality, pure meat. No one could make extra profit by filling them with sh*t, no one had any reason to do that like they do now, so it was much healthier and much tastier."
"You mentioned more choice as being a way
in which things are better now," I said, "but then you went on to describe how in fact that makes things worse! I'm interested to know though, in what other ways do you think things are better now?"
"Well in some way it's better now, but in many, many ways it's worse," he said, using the exact same words he had spoken moments previously. "Everything you see in The Town was built during the USSR. Nothing new has been built since except shops that sell vodka twenty four hours a day. We have no roads, except this one dirt track, and the children learn nothing in the schools. Back then we had good schools, loads of sports clubs and football pitches but now they've all closed down. There's one gym but it's so expensive almost no one can use it. There's nothing else to do, so everyone just drinks. They drink because there's nothing to do and there's no future."
I was amazed. Those exact words, "There's no future," had been used by Denis, the trained Botanist working as an inspector of imported plants for Customs in The Town with whom I had stayed while there. This entire
speech, in fact, was almost word for word the same as Denis' own views.
"There's no future," the truck driver repeated, shaking his head.
We stopped for half an hour at an abandoned village, no more than ten houses buried in the snow thirty metres to the left of the road. The drivers changed a wheel on one of their vehicles and we drove on. It was the only settlement we passed in the four hours we rode with them to Milkovo.
Milkovo turned out to be a dirty, low-rise, concrete blotch whose empty streets and crumbling five-storey apartment blocks, like a much smaller and more extreme version of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, stained the surrounding natural glory as acutely as human feces on pure white toilet paper. The truckers dropped us off, we said our goodbyes and the two of us walked a short distance to a bus shelter which, according to some sort of GPS contraption on Kostya's mobile phone, was on the only road out of town, meaning that any vehicles heading in the direction of Klyuchi would be passing this way.
Kostya went to a nearby shop, filled up a saucepan with tap water, came
back and began cooking some rice on his portable gas stove while I stood with my arm out in the road. We were still within sight of the tiny town's main street, a hundred metres or so to our left, and a vehicle would turn off it and pass us every five minutes or so. Very few stopped, those that did immediately telling us that they were just taking the next right turn to double back into the centre of town and those who didn't telling us the same story with their hands from behing the windscreen. In short, we were too near to the centre of town and there were other streets joining this one further on which could provide traffic towards Klyuchi.
The rice cooked infuriatingly slowly, as did the corned beef we warmed up to accompany it. When it was ready we took it in turns to spoon it out of the saucepan before washing it with snow, packing up and moving on an hour and a half after we had arrived. We walked three kilometres out of Milkovo, passing on the way the reason for our lack of success in catching a ride: there was
a bypass allowing traffic between The Town and the North to completely cut out Milkovo, where we had been waiting.
We stood for another hour and a half just past the bypass exit in the gathering gloom. Perhaps five lorries passed us but none stopped. Most had no space, but in one case we saw clearly that there were two empty seats next to the driver. When it was completely dark we switched on our torches, walked about twenty metres into a roadside patch of woodland and set up tent in the thankfully relatively balmy -5C.
* * *
We woke up, boiled some snow, made a breakfast of porridge then packed up and stood out on the road again. A couple of vehicles passed but it was almost an hour before a small, silver minivan stopped for us. He was going to Anavgay on the road to Esso, but agreed to take us as far as the fork. With relief we bundled in ourselves and our bags, thankful to be moving on from Milkovo, where we had spent the previous eighteen hours.
"So are you from Anavgay yourself?" Kostya asked.
"Yes," came the
short, clipped reply from the middle-aged, slightly plump, balding, indigenous driver dressed in a black tracksuit. He did not take his eyes off the road.
"And what do you do there?" Kostya asked.
"I'm the head of their reindeer herders' collective," he replied. Again his head remained motionless, only his hands moving slightly from side to side on the wheel.
"Do you have a lot of reindeer herders there?" I asked.
"Whoever wants to can go and work with the reindeer," he replied. "Whoever needs money."
"So no one stays with the reindeer permanently?" I asked.
"No," he replied.
"And how many reindeer do you have?"
"Three hundred and twenty five," he answered. It was a far cry from the ten-thousand strong herd I had seen on the Yamal Peninsula, where families live a year-round nomadic existence with their reindeer.
"And where do the reindeer herders live while they're out with the herd?" I asked.
"We have some yurts and some log cabins."
"What do they wear? Do they still make clothing from reindeer fur?"
"No, we just buy our clothes now. No one wants to spend time
sewing those big heavy jackets."
"But really," said Kostya, "nothing saves you from the cold in winter like reindeer fur. In Chukotka they still wear it every day."
"And on Yamal," I added.
"Well," the driver said, glancing briefly towards us and grinning to expose his gold teeth, "we can get by without it."
"And why is the herd so small?" Kostya asked. "In Chukotka they're usually several thousand heads. I've seen one with nine thousand."
"All our reindeer were part of collective farms during the USSR," he replied. "After the collapse no one herded reindeer for a while. But there was almost no way to make money so several of us clubbed together and bought fifty animals from the government. People told us that fifty was too few, it wouldn't work, but we showed them. People still now keep trying to buy reindeer from us at half-price, thinking we're desperate, saying we'll lose them all soon anyway, but we always refuse."
"Why do people say you'll lose them?"
"Because we have so few. When you have several thousand, like our collective farm had during the Soviet time, they develop a herd mentality
and stick together calmly. But when there's only three hundred and twenty five they're constantly breaking up, running away from one another."
"What about in Esso," Kostya asked, "do they have more reindeer?"
"Yes, their village is bigger so they have a lot more. They have five thousand people but we have only six hundred."
"And if we come to Anavgay," I asked, "is there any chance of somehow getting out to the herds?"
"Well we're planning to go there on snowmobiles at the end of this week," he said matter-of-factly. "If you want you could come with us."
We took his number and waved goodbye as he drove down the left fork to Esso, kicking up a dust cloud that rose higher than the tops of the trees lining the road, and we waited for something going right to Klyuchi. After about twenty minutes a logging truck came our way and picked us up.
"We're going about five kilometres further than the river crossing," the logger told us, "but you'd be better off getting out at the river itself. There's a cabin there where you can make some tea and wait for the
next vehicle in warmth."
The crossing in question was only about half an hour further down the road. Kostya and I traversed its frozen surface on a long, thin gangway of wooden planks while the driver drove over the ice to the other side. Stuck in the ice to the right of where the gangway joined the far bank a flat, rusty ferry that could probably accommodate one lorry at a time sat immobile, waiting for the summer thaw. To the left was a small, green, metal cabin raised a metre or so off the dusty ground and with a wooden plank sloping upwards to a door that hung open. Kostya walked up it and knocked politely on the door.
"Excuse me," he said when a large, shaven-headed man in camouflage clothing had come to the doorway, "we're hitch hiking from The Town to Klyuchi and were just wondering if we could come in and make some tea?"
"Sure, come on in," the guy said. "Make some food too if you want."
Inside there was a very narrow passage in front of the door with a small kitchen through a low doorway to the right and
a bedroom with two hard, wooden bunk beds through a similar entrance to the left. With five of us in there it was so cramped that everyone was constantly having to squeeze back against walls or go into other rooms to let people past, but it was still more spacious than a similar cabin I had stayed in on the northern shores of Lake Baikal the previos year; there, the three "Fish Police" who lived in it had not even had beds but had slept together on a wooden surface next to the table on which they cooked and ate their meals.
Although it was possible to see any vehicles crossing the river from within the cabin, I decided to go and stand outside on the river bank to lessen the overcrowding of the cabin while Kostya cooked tea. Over twenty minutes a couple of lorries passed but they were only going a few kilometres down the road to a logging site. I saw two of the three almost identical men in camouflage clothing from the cabin leave and decided to go back in.
The remaining camouflage-clothing guy had a moustache that somehow completely prevented one from being
able to guess his age. He was showing Kostya a scar on his hand and explaining where he got it from. He was also swearing with such excessiveness, richness and variation as is only possible in the Russian language. (In Russian it is possible to speak using only swear words. To a handful of route words prefixes, infixes and suffixes can be added to create an entire language, known as "mat". There are extremely offensive possibilities for such ordinary words as "why," "chat," "put," "face," and "fall." Though "mat" is the same across the whole of Russia, I have only heard people using it in its full glory in Siberia, the Far East and the Far North, and this guy was doing a pretty good job. My own knowledge of "mat" is obviously very far from complete, and many of its words cannot be directly translated into English, but I still managed to get the picture of what he was saying, and will try to provide an English equivalent here.)
"The f**king gas can just f**king blew up in my f**king hand! It wasn't a c**tingly good one like yours, it was a f**ked up piece of sh*t! My
boss goes, 'you were probably drunk as sh*t,' but I go, 'no I was f**king sobre, if I'd been drunk I wouldn't have even touched that f**king piece of sh*t!'"
"Hello," I said upon entering. I held out my hand for him to shake. He turned to look at me directly. The change that came over his face upon hearing my foreign accent was quite staggering. The angry lines that had begun creasing it during the telling of his story died down and the thick purple veins standing out on his neck wriggled away. An expression of utter innocence, to the extent of dementia, flooded over his tough-skinned, stubble-covered face. His eyelids battered and a small, retarded smile lifted up the corners of his lips. "Who?" he said, pointing shyly at me and speaking in the sort of voice one might use when talking to a baby. For a moment I could not understand what he meant, then I realised he was asking "Who are you?" (which in Russian can mean "where are you from?" or "what do you do?") but was using only the first word in an attempt to make it easier for me, a foreigner, to
"I'm from England," I replied.
"He speaks Russian," Kostya added.
Even after telling Russians that you speak Russian, it for some reason often takes a very long time and constant efforts to prove you know the language for them to believe you, sometimes over a period of months or even years. I once had a student who I occasionally translated documents for, but who would nonetheless now and then ask me whether I knew Russian. This camouflage-clothing guy picked it up pretty quickly though, as I made an effort to talk with him and include some slang in my speech. Soon the childish, imbecilic tone was gone forever from his voice and he was back to his usual coarse self.
For a while he told us about the previous eruption of Klyuchevskaya Sopka, Eurasia's tallest active volcano and our current destination, where lava flowing down its slopes had been visible from his village, Kozorevsk, fifty kilometres away. We were aiming for the 5,000-strong town of Klyuchi, further down the same road but only twenty kilometres from the volcano.
After several minutes a grey Uaz minivan appeared at the far side of the river and
began crawling slowly across its surface.
"Come on," the camouflage clothing guy said to me, "let's go and stop them for you."
"So what's your name?" I asked him, having descended the wooden plank and taken up position with him at the top of the river banks.
"Vadim," he replied, "and you?"
"Ed," I said. "What are you guys doing here?"
"I only just arrived. I'm unemployed really but an acquaintance just phoned me and offered me a few days' work here. Were kind of like security, checking up on people, checking the thickness of the ice, etc."
"So when does the ice get too thin to drive on?" I asked.
"Mid April officially," he replied. "But of course people still try it for some time afterwards."
"So how do people come and leave from Klyuchi and Ust Kamchatsk when the ice is too thin for cars but still preventing the ferry from crossing?"
"They don't. It's not possible."
The Uaz rose up over the river banks and we stuck our arms out. It stopped and the driver wound down his window.
"Hello," I said. "We're trying to get
to Klyuchi and were just wondering if you could take us any of the way?"
"How many are you?" the driver asked.
"Two," I replied, "my friend's in the cabin."
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"I'm English and he's Russian."
"Well, we haven't got much space, we've got lots of baggage, but I guess if you can fit in... we're going to Ust Kamchatsk so could drop you off at Klyuchi on the way."
I ran back to the cabin, Kostya packed up his cooking apparatus and half-brewed tea, we said goodbye to Vadim and ran back to the van. The three passengers and one driver were standing outside now, smoking cigarettes. The man who had been sitting in the front passenger seat, a scruffy, red-faced, skinny man in light camouflage clothing with watery eyes, light stubble and long, uncombed, greasy hair, was pouring vodka into a plastic cup for himself. Of the four, the driver was the only one who seemed totally sobre. The other two were a skinny man in light camouflage gear and a tall camouflage cap and a podgy man not in camouflage gear but with a shock of
grey hair standing out to a distance of several inches from his head, each hair as straight and rigid as an arrow, in a way that gave him the constant air of just having been electrocuted.
"So what on earth are you guys doing here?" the scruffy man with the vodka asked in a slightly slurred voice, a wonky smile adding to his drunken appearance.
"We're just traveling around Kamchatka," Kostya replied. "What about yourselves?"
"We work in a shipping parts factory in The Town," the chubby electrocution victim told us. "We're taking a new part to one of the boats in the harbour at Ust Kamchatsk." He pointed through the open slide door of the Uaz to some huge, long, metal pillar lying on the floor.
"So what do you think of Kamchatka?" the chubby guy asked us once we had all clambered back into the Uaz and set off.
"It's beautiful," Kostya answered. "But you know, it's featured on all these stunning National Geographic type documentaries, but..."
"But those documentaries only show very remote places far away from where anyone actuall lives which they get to by helicopter," the chubby guy replied
with more animation and emotion than was required by the topic of conversation, the red patches on his cheeks spreading yet further up his face. "We've got plenty of places like that if you have the money to get to them. The average population density of the whole peninsula is less than one person per square kilometre. Now considering that of the 300,000 people that live here, 200,000 of them live in The Town, you can imagine how sparsely populated the rest of the place is!"
"Well yes," said Kostya, "but I was saying that because of this I was surprised at how awful The Town is."
"Yes, we already know that," the skinny man with a camouflage cap said from in front of us, laughing.
"It never used to be like that, it's democracy that's made it like that," the chubby guy went on, spit flying from his mouth. In another place or time I could imagine him as a calm, simple Daily Mail type, working his way happily towards a secure retirement, sitting in an armchair in his small sitting room with a couple of toddler grandchildren playing around his legs. But not here, and
not now. "Under the USSR we had order, there was no chaos, squalor or crime, none of these disintegrating roads and buildings that you see now."
We passed a dirt track leading off to the left.
"From the village at the end of that track," the chubby guy said, waving his hand at it, "in summer a raft goes down the river to Klyuchi. It takes a day and a half but it's cheaper than the bus. It's just a flat piece of wood, twenty square metres, with no toilets or anything. You have to wait till night when everyone's asleep and quickly squat over the side, trying not to fall in. That's how we live, can you believe it?"
Ever since Milkovo the trees lining the side of the road had been too tall and thick to see any mountains or volcanoes, but just as we were approaching the outskirts of Klyuchi two hours after the river crossing the trees disappeared and suddenly there was Klyuchevskaya Sopka towering above us. Its very base was covered in forest but its slopes quickly became so steep that no vegetation could grown on them, leaving almost the entire volcano
blanketed in white. They became more gentle just before the top and rounded off into a smooth curve at the peak, from which a small column of smoke drifted into the light blue sky.
A minute later the first houses of Klyuchi appeared, snow often piled up to and above their wooden walls and roofs. We drove down the muddy, snowy, icy main street, past an old man in camouflage clothing and a brown fur hat, his long, white beard wagging from his chin as he shoveled snow from the pathway leading to his front door. At the "central square", an area of mud and ice perhaps a hundred square metres with no monument or special buildings other than a small shop, we got out and said goodbye to the ship workers.
I phoned a vulcanologist called Yury who was stationed in Klyuchi monitoring the volcano and whose number I had been given in The Town by an ex-colleague of his.
"Hello Yury," I said after he had picked up. "It's Edward, do you remember, I'm an acquaintance of Ilya's? I phoned you two days ago and you said you might have a place for us to
"Yes, yes, I remember," he said. "Where are you now?"
"We're in Klyuchi, on the central square," I replied.
"Ok wait a bit, I'll pick you up in ten or fifteen minutes."
Ten minutes later Yury's Range Rover came trundling and splashing through the mud and pulled up next to us. "Jump in," he shouted through a wound down window. He was a small, heavily wrapped up, grey-haired old man.
"Thank you very much," I said after we had sat down, "this is very kind of you."
"No problem," he said.
"So how long have you been stationed here?" I asked.
"Since 1975," he replied.
I asked a few more questions but received brief, sometimes even monosyllabic answers. His face and voice were kind and I got the impression that his curt replies were not due to lack of interest, grumpiness or haughtiness, but simply a lack of practice in conversation. We drove for a couple of minutes and pulled up outside a green, wooden bungalow. A nearby dog that was tied up to a post started barking madly at us as we got out of the car.
this is where you'll be staying," Yury told us. "I normally run it as a kind of guest house for people passing through but you're friends of Ilya's, he explained you're hitch hiking and don't have much money so don't worry about paying me. If you need anything, that's my house, the next one down the street."
After he had left we made dinner and ate in the small kitchen. During our meal the front door swung open and five men, two old and three young, walked in.
"Hello boys," one of the young ones said.
"Hi," we returned. Yury came in behind them and started showing them one of the rooms. They seemed happy with it and went back out of the door. I followed them to have a cigarette. As I smoked on the porch they began unloading stuff from their grey Uaz minivan.
"We're going to be neighbours for the night," one of the young ones said as he passed back into the house, his arms laden with small sacks. "Let's get to know each other."
"Ok..." I said. I went back into the kitchen to drink tea with Kostya.
where are you from?" asked another one of the younger ones, leaning against the doorway into the kitchen. He had an enormous bald patch, with hair growing only in small areas at the sides and back of his head, and his beady little eyes immediately gave him an untrustworthy appearance.
"Moscow," Kostya told him.
"England," I said.
"Ah! Do you have Baptists in England?"
"Err..." the question threw me for a second but I got back on my feet. "Probably. I think most people are Catholic or Protestant though."
"How are things in England? How is life?" he asked.
"But don't you all have this electronic chip under the skin in your hands?"
"What on earth are you talking about?"
"An identity chip under your skin, which you need to buy anything and with which the government can track your location?"
"No we certainly don't have them. I guess it's possible that sort of thing might exist in the future but not yet."
"But it is written in the Bible, so it must be true! The Bible is the word of God and does not lie. It
is written that all sinners will have this chip, which is also the mark of the Devil, under their skin. Also, we have an acquaintance. He lives in america, so is able to provide us with up-to-date information on the situation there. He says that everyone there has this chip, the Mark, already."
"I've never heard of it," I said. "Anyway, nice to meet you guys but I think I'm going to go and rest now."
"Me too," said Kostya.
"You don't want to come and eat with us?" he asked. "We have lots of food."
"We're fine, I think," I said. "We've just eaten and are very full."
We lay down in our room and switched on the television. Thirty minutes later we heard the sound of merry, deep-voiced singing coming from their room, presumably to mark the end of the meal. A few minutes later we heard a knock at our door. The balding, beady-eyed Baptist strolled in and sat down next to Kostya on his bed.
"You know," he said, "television is just a form of government mind control."
"Actually I kind of agree with you on that one," I
answered. "I don't have one at home."
Undeterred by my immediate agreement with him, he went on to lecture us on the dangers of television. He then went on to describe their mission, which was to convert as many people in this town to Baptism as possible over the next couple of days. He then asked me about my beliefs and, upon hearing them, decided I was already well on the road to damnation and in dire need of saving.
"But there are so many religions in the world," I said, "how can you say that only you are right and everyone else is wrong?"
"Because the Bible is the word of God, so it has to be true," he answered.
"But the books in the Old Testament are part of a vast collection of Jewish books and it was humans, not God, who wrote them and who decided which books should be included in the Bible. Humans can deceive."
"But the people who wrote those books were God's tools. If you want to write something and use a pen, can the pen change what you want to write and deceive the reader?"
"No, because the pen isn't a human and physically can't deceive."
"Ah, I see your logic," he said, and went on to provide another equally pointless analogy.
It would have been interesting to have a real discussion with these people but it proved impossible. The conversation came back, every few minutes, to the "It's written in the Bible so it must be true" line. In the end I was forced to play a dirty trick.
"Let's go and talk in the kitchen," I said to him. "I think Kostya's tired."
We went out, I nipped into the toilet and on returning found that he was talking to the other Baptists in his room so quickly ran into mine and closed the door.
'These people aren't religious,' I thought to myself as I went to sleep, 'They're cowboys, cultists roaming the most far-flung, deprived parts of the country in search of people to brainwash among the poor, the disillusioned and the oppressed.'
* * *
We spent the next day wandering the streets of Klyuchi and tracks that snaked through the nearby woodland. In the town young and old alike picked their way carefully and slowly over the ice that covered every street, sometimes having to walk through the metre-high snow at the sides to avoid a particularly slippery patch. Everywhere we received glances and stares, our clothing standing out for miles around from the universal camo gear of the locals and our faces less weathered by lives of hunting and fishing in the cold.
"What are you photographing?" a couple of locals asked us.
"The snow, the mountains, the houses," I replied.
"The houses here are all so poor," one of them commented.
"I think they're beautiful," I said. "In England we don't have any wooden houses."
"Why not?" he asked.
"Probably because we have less trees than you in Russia," I answered.
"Hmmm. Well at least you can see the houses this year because there's so little snow."
"You think this isn't much snow?" I asked, raising my eyebrows.
"Much less than usual," he replied. "What on earth are you guys doing here anyway?"
In the evening we were invited to dinner by the Baptists and, tired of our rice, oats, buckwheat and porridge, we accepted. They had a delicious spread of raw fish, fried fish, chicken, pork, salad, pies, soup and more. For the first fifteen minutes the atmosphere was jolly, the conversation pleasant as we discussed some places in Russia that we all had visited.
"Edward," suddenly cried a voice from the other end of the table, and all other conversation stopped. It was the balding, beady-eyed Baptist. "May I ask you a question?" he roared.
"Go ahead," I said, grinning.
"What," he pronounced magnificently, "is the meaning of life?"
"How should I know?" I replied.
"The meaning of life is its continuation," Kostya answered.
"Ah-ha!" he yelled. "So you're saying we're no better than animals? Nothing separates us from animals?" Kostya was stumped.
"But," I said, "The fact that people think we're better than animals and above nature is our biggest, most important mistake. It's why we think we have the right to rape this planet, taking whatever we want and destroying it in the process."
"But," the Baptist replied, "It is written in the Bible that God created Man on the Seventh Day of Creation, and made him in His own image. So how can there be no difference between Man and the animals?"
"I told you yesterday, I don't believe everything that's written in the Bible."
"But Edward," he said, more quietly now, coming and sitting next to me. "It's the word of God so how can it not be true? And the number one unanswered question in the world is 'What's the meaning of life?' Only God can answer that for you."
"I respect your point of view, just like I respect all other religions," I said, "and I understand that you're well-meaning people at heart. But I don't like the fact that you have no respect for other people's beliefs."
"Yes," he said, "I know there are lots of people in England who think like you. But look where it's getting your country. Your Queen is dying of some genetic disease caused by inbreeding. Those two princes, grandsons of hers, their children are going to be deformed because of it, or maybe they won't be able to have children..."
"Where on earth did you hear all this?" I asked. One of the young Baptists, now lying down on a bed in the corner, laughed. He had a weak face, and I had the impression he was the sort of person who could easily be convinced into doing anything from hard drugs to robbing banks.
"It's well-known," the balding, beady-eyed Baptist replied.
"There's nothing good in that country," one of the older Baptists, a quiet, kind-looking man who until now I had thought to be less extreme than the others, said, referring to England.
The balding Baptist went on to provide me with example after example from the Bible of why all other faiths were wrong until I could take no more.
"Right," I said, "it's obvious you're not going to change my mind and I'm not going to change yours. We can't have a normal discussion so let's leave it at that. I'm going to go to sleep. It was nice to meet you all."
"You see, he's going to go and have a think about what we've told him now," said one of the old men, chuckling.
We shook hands, exchanged smiles, took a series of photos together at their request and went to bed.
* * *
The next day we got up early to find that the Baptists had left us a present of their remaining raw fish, for which we had shown particular appreciation the previous night. We packed up and walked out of Klyuchi, getting stopped to have our photo taken by two locals on the way. After several hours a lorry driver picked us up.
"The government's ripping everyone off," he yelled as we trundled down the dirt track at an agonisingly slow rate. "These are my woods, my mountains, I was born here, but they claim everything for themselves. You know we can't even pick berries. If you pick more than two bucketfulls they have the right to confiscate half of your berries."
"So you just have to pick two at a time, carry them home then come back!" Kostya said.
"Well yes, exactly, Russian people will always find a way!" he said, chuckling. "You know at one point they started trying to give us long-distance drivers better quality petrol than everyone else! We just sold it off and bought the cheaper stuff for ourselves. That sort of thing would have worked anywhere, but not in Russia!"
He was going to a logging site three kilometres before the river crossing but kindly took us the extra distance anyway. We traversed the wooden gangway and on the other side caught a quick lift to the place where the road forked to Anavgay and Esso. Standing motionless a hundred metres down that road was a large truck. We ran frantically towards it, hoping to get there before it set off.
"We're going to Anavgay by hitch hiking," I yelled breathlessly up at the driver, a shaven-headed man in camouflage gear with a scar running from his upper lip to his nose where the skin had obviously been completely ripped open. "Can we come with you?"
"Sure," he said, climbing down with a bottle of beer in his hand. "But there's two of us. The guy in the other lorry is way behind somewhere so we have to wait for him. Where are you from?"
"England," I replied.
"That means you have to drink some Russian beer," he said, twisting the cap off and passing me the bottle. "I got drunk last night so am just trying to sort myself out. This is the first one of the day, I bought it in Milkovo."
"Thanks," I said, taking a swig and passing it back to him.
"Where are you going?" Kostya asked.
"Palana," he replied.
"But that's miles away..." I said. "Is there even a road?"
"Just a zimnik from Anavgay," he told me. "It's thirty six hours from here."
"I bet you get good money for that," Kostya said.
"Of course," he replied, "especially now in April, when there's a risk of getting stuck in snow or falling through the ice."
"Have you ever fallen through the ice before?" I asked.
"Yes, last year it happened. It took us four days to get the lorry out. That's why we always drive in twos when we're going to Palana."
When his partner arrived we drove on into the setting sun, kicking up an enormous dust cloud all around. We arrived in Anavgay in -20C with no idea where to spend the night.
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