Published: May 24th 2010May 1st 2010
The people who got on the bus at Cheremshanka airport had hard, weathered, humourless faces. The small planes and helicopters there irregularly serve a range of settlements in the Extreme North, many of them closed Arctic towns and cities inaccessible by road and off limits to anyone who doesn't live there, places where the extreme weather and pollution from industry keep life expectancy as low as the forties. The people who got on the bus at the main Krasnoyarsk airport, its grimey windows, torn seats and faded paint worlds away from the sleek, shiney silver, luxury coach pictured in a poster at the bus stop, appeared to be a different kettle of fish altogether. I was amazed by how familiar and normal they looked; there, 4000km east of Moscow in the middle of Siberia, the middle of Asia, I was surrounded by people who no one would look twice at walking down the street in any UK community. There may have been less modern, fashionable clothes, a few more headscarves on the babushkas, a few more berets on the men than you would have seen in Moscow, but that did not change the fact that, bar the odd indigenous Siberian, they
were instantly recognisable as people of European descent.
It was this discrepancy between people and place that provided some of the fascination for me in traveling the BAM, a railway running parallel to the Trans-Siberian but 500km to the north. Before its construction there was nothing there other than nomadic tribes eking out an existence in the virgin taiga as their ancestors had done for centuries before. Then, in the 1930s under Stalin's command, into this far-flung wilderness were thrown hundreds of thousands-strong teams from all over the USSR in what is now generally recognised as one of the least profitable, most useless and most costly (in terms of money and lives) construction projects ever. In the 1950s it was abandoned unfinished when Stalin died, in the 70s begun again in an attempt to provide an alternative connection between Moscow and the Pacific in case the Trans-Siberian fell into potentially hostile Chinese hands. People flocked from all over the Soviet Union to take part in the "Construction Project of the Century". It was finished in the 80s but the collapse of the USSR provented it from ever being put into full use. Today just a handful of half-empty trains
run on it evey day, connecting small, bleak towns built purely as accommodation for railway workers and inhabited only by them and their families, the grandiose plans in store for the area now nothing more than faded dreams
But I was not yet there, I was on the bus from the airport to Krasnoyarsk, a major city on the Trans-Siberian Railway several hours before the commencement of the BAM at Tayshet, traveling through a landscape of browns and yellows, low undulating hills whose endlessly forested slopes had yet to reclaim the greens that winter had extinguished. Occasionally we passed a disintegrating asphalt road or dirt track leading off to some lakeside village of colourful wooden houses, its surface raising the wheels of the rare banger I saw only inches above the fields on either side, heavily waterlogged by the recently melted snow.
Apparently I was in the bus equivalent of the French TGV trains as a roadsign jumped from "Krasnoyarsk 14km" to "Krasnoyarsk 7km" in under a minute. The TGV became a time machine and the signs jumped from "Krasnoyarsk 2km" to "Krasnoyarsk 3km" then suddenly we came over the crest of a hill and there it was
right before us, a drab, colourless sprawl made drabber by the dull tones of the surrounding hills and the fact that grey clouds had just blotted out the sun. It began to rain. The bus entered the city outskirts, a land of dilapidated wooden shacks, corrugated iron roofs, oppressive brick-built carwashes, crumbling apartment blocks, brooding empty warehouses, heavily graffitied walls and building sites with the smallest cranes I had ever seen, less than 20m tall. Towards the centre the buildings became mildly more aesthetically pleasing with the odd intricately decorated wooden house, Orthodox church or salmon-pink, 2-storey, balconied building that could have been pretty if the paint hadn't been peeling off in patches bigger than the balconies.
The city was mercifully empty of trafic and we traveled quite freely down Karl Marx, Proletariat and Lenin streets, now in the very centre and passing the occasional pillar and spire amid the concrete. We crossed the centre, dropped some people off at the train station and headed out towards the bus terminal on the other side of town. Once I looked out of my window to see the barren, uninhabited slope of a hill rising up at the end of a
side-street leading away to our right. It seemed that the city's outskirts did not just peter out but ended all of a sudden, civilisation being abruptly swallowed by the desolation of the surrounding hills.
I tried to imagine the city during summer - would it be more plesant with more grass, trees and flowers? Would the surrounding hills turn green, become less grim and foreboding? Certainly spring transforms Moscow beyond recognition from a dirty, bleak and inhospitable land to a beautiful, relaxing and sunny European city; to be fair to Krasnoyarsk, despite the acrchitecture, I could imagine it being quite pleasant during warmer months.
* * *
After a bowl of homemade borscht (beetroot soup) at the house of my Couchsurfing host Xenia, a well-known local journalist, she put on her makeup, got changed and we headed out for a walk around the town.
"How was the winter this year?" I asked.
"Worse than the last few years. Minus 40 Centegrade for a while."
"Wow. In Moscow it didn't go below about minus 28. Have you ever been there by the way?" I asked as we walked past a huge, rubble- and rubbish-covered
wasteland amid the apartment blocks of the concrete jungle in which she lived.
"Yes, once," she replied. "I went to visit my ex-boyfriend, the jerk."
"Why was he a jerk?" I asked.
"He was Italian and a millionaire, although I didn't know that at the time. He gave me presents like a bottle of wine from the year of my birth, beautiful jewelry, I don't know if it's valuable or not. He said he loved me, then after we'd had sex a few times he said he didn't love me any more."
I was left a little unsure what to say at her openness and bluntness.
"He made me cry twice so I said 'no more'. He phoned me to try to apologise but I didn't listen. All my friends said, 'marry him, marry him, he's got so much money!' But I didn't want to. Lots of my friends married foreign men and left Russia for good. Myself, I want to travel, work in lots of different countries."
We stopped after ten minutes at the top of a hill overlooking the marshy, island-dotted river that divided the town in two and stood next to
a statue of a man standing atop a pillar with arm outstretched.
"He's a Kazak, the founder of this city," Xenia tells me, "but I can't remember his name right now."
"A Kazakh?" I asked, surprised, "Krasnoyarsk was founded by people from Kazakhstan?"
"No, a Kazak, you know, they were kind of ethnically separate people who lived in military communities in Western Russia. The government sent them East to explore and take control of Siberia."
"Ah, a Cossack!" I said, feeling stupid that I had not recognised the Russian word. I had read about these people in English but never heard Russian people talk about them.
"Yes, this was one of the main guys who opened up Siberia. I've remembered, Andrey Dubensky, that's his name. He built a small wooden fortress here in 1628. Now it's a city of almost a million."
We turned away from the statue and continued walking downhill. She pointed to a tall, grey, abandoned skyscraper looming above the town's skyline. "They were building a hotel there but ran out of money. They haven't done any work on it for fifteen years."
We stopped and she pointed at a
shopping mall situated down a slope from us near the bank of a river. "A group of government-backed Moscow businessmen built this a few years ago. There was a whole street of wooden houses here before that. The inhabitants were all offered money to move out but it wouldn't have been enough to find a new home so they refused. They had their houses burned down and now they're homeless."
"It's terrible," I said.
"Yes, and what's worse the mall has been empty since it was built. No businesses here can afford to pay the rent."
We arrived in the centre and walked down the main street, lined with neon-flowered fake trees and strangely attractive multicoloured neon arches stretching across it every fifty metres or so.
"Girls go walking here looking for Prince Charming. Most don't find him. Lots lose their virginity in that abandoned hotel construction site. Romantic isn't it?" She looked at me and grinned. "What about you, do you have a girlfriend? Do you like Russian girls?"
"Yes, I have someone in Moscow," I replied, a little bit flustered by her forwardness.
We went for a drink in a bar with
a live rock band and a small crowd of young people dancing in front of the stage. At the table opposite us a man lay slumped and unconscious at a table littered with plates of drinking snacks, shot glasses and vodka bottles.
"What do you usually do with your friends here?" I asked.
"Just walk around, sit on a bench and drink, go to the cinema and drink. What about you in Moscow?"
"Walk around, go to bars and clubs, sometimes go out of the city to visit nearby small towns."
"Have you ever got really drunk in Moscow?"
"Well, I guess..."
"Do you ever pick up girls in clubs and bars?"
"If girls here knew you were a foreigner they'd be interested, but you look too Russian. It happens to people who spend a long time in Russia, their faces pick up Russian features."
The man opposite was gradually slumping towards us and looked as if he would soon fall sideways off his seat onto the floor.
"Why do so many Russians want to leave?" I asked.
"Imagine, we live in a place where the rich
get richer and the poor get poorer. The number of millionaires and billionaires has gone up since the Crisis began but my salary has gone down to US$500 a month. There's no real Crisis here, it's all been engineered by rich and powerful people."
We took a taxi home to Xenia's house and, after she had got changed and put on more makeup, sat at her kitchen table drinking a bottle of wine.
"Do you believe in God?" she asked.
"Not really in God so much, but I believe in something."
"All religions are created to control people. You know, Jesus told my grandad he'd live to 100 but he died very early. Jesus lied."
"Your grandad saw him in a dream?" I asked.
"No, my grandad had belochka [little squirrel]. You know what that is?"
"Yeah, belaya goryachka [white fever]. Isn't it the stage of chronic alcoholism where your health starts to rapidly deteriorate?"
"It's the stage of alcoholism where you're almost permanently hallucinating. My grandad was constantly seeing demons, devils, terrible things. One day he went out hunting and must have seen something really bad because he shot himself. My
grandma remarried so I have a new grandad. He's nice but he's got belochka too. He's tried to drink my grandma's perfume and even eat her lipstick before. He saw a UFO when he was out in the taiga building the BAM railway. A Domavoy spirit told him to stop drinking but he couldn't. You know what a Domavoy spirit is? It's a spirit that lives in your house. If you treat your house well it'll be good but if you drink, party or do bad things it'll cause trouble. Anyway, these days grandma throws grandad out of the house when he drinks."
"What about your mum? What does she do?"
"She lives in a village. It's closed though. No Russians or foreigners are allowed there who don't live there, don't have registration documents."
"There's a nuclear power plant. I'll never go back there. I came to Krasnoyarsk, started to really live. I can't go back to country life, planting and picking potatoes all the time."
At around 1am we said goodnight. I slept for a few hours then after goodbyes at the bus terminal I headed to the beautiful old train station. I
crossed the square dotted with old-fashioned five-pronged black lamposts, passed the pillar with a lion on top, went through to the platforms and borded the 30-hour train to Severobaikalsk, a BAM-born town of 30,000 on the Northern shores of Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake, 1400km east of here.
Click this link for advice on independent travel along the BAM