A trip through Siberia can really take it out of you

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May 11th 2010
Published: July 4th 2010
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Komsomolsk, a Russian city of 250,000 on the same longitude as Japan but much further North, so unknown I had to put in a special request to TravelBlog to get it added to its list of locations.

"Look at it - God forgot this place," Misha told me as we trudged shivering through the gentle mid-May snow towards the bus station, me in a pair of yellow plastic sandals: my boots were still wet from falling into a patch of semi-melted ice on Lake Baikal, three days and half the world away.

"What do you mean?" I asked, falsely.

"You know what I mean," he replied.

Of course I knew. No one was meant to live here other than the indigenous nomads who had adapted to the extreme climate over milenia and who had been consumed by the Soviet thrust of concrete and misery.

The city had been founded in the 1930s on the site of an earlier village. Though it was named after volunteers from Komsomol, the Soviet youth movement, it had in fact mainly been built by prison camp labourers who had starved, frozen or died of exhaustion. Once the all-male city had been completed, a wave of women had been sent out to populate it.

"God forgot this place," he said again in the bus, having met me at the train station, told me he had been dinking and fighting the night before, told me he had slept only one hour and invited me to drink two pints of beer as we waited for the bus at 7:30am.

"I had to protect Tina, my wife," he had said, sipping his pint. "Some bastard tried to trip her up so we had to beat him."

I had nodded, sipping my pint.

"F**k, and then my alarm went off this morning. Tina shook me and said I had to wake up to come and meet you at the station. I had only slept one hour and she shook me so hard I ended up hitting her in the face. Now she's left me and gone to her relatives' place. I'm so ashamed, there's nothing worse a man can do. Edik, will you call her for me?"

"I really can't," I had replied, "I wouldn't know what to say."

"Just say where we're going and ask her to come," he had said, putting the phone to my ear.

Needless to say, Tina had refused my invitation.

We had gone to buy bus tickets after our beers and the ticket-selling babushka had screamed furiously at me for my not-up-to-scratch Russian.

"What a bitch," I had said as we had walked away with out tickets.

"Great, just great!" Misha had said. "You see, I had thought being British you would be a highly cultured person - I mean, I'm not saying that you're not highly cultured - but now I realise that you're just a normal guy like me! Some people would have had trouble calling her a bitch even though she is just... well, just a bitch - but you didn't! Great! I can tell we're going to get along."

We sat on the tiny bus as it trundled out of the city. It passed pine forests, snow-blanketed landscapes stretching as far as the eye could see and eventually towering, white-streaked mountains. Every few minutes the door flew unintentionally open and the driver had to stop to close it again.

When we arrived in Solnichny I saw that it was a decaying concrete mess, similar to Novy Urgal. The only difference was that here the population was about twice as big (12,000 maximum), everything was covered in snow and the settlement was surrounded by a beautiful ring of mountains.

"Maybe a live beer before we go home?" he asked.

"Why not," I answered, pursuing my policy of never turning down an offer from a local while traveling.

We entered a tiny, one room shop, got the serving girl to fill up a brown, platic bottle with live beer then sat on the only two plastic chairs around a small, circular, plastic table, drank a pint in a plastic cup each, bought a litre bottle then left, found Misha's block and climbed the stairs to his fourth-storey flat.

We drank the beer, ate pelmeni with mayonaise and I was introduced to Misha's friend Glosha, an incredibly tall man who had slept in his bright pink shirt and shiny black trousers.

"I feel like shit," Glosha told me.

"Hungover?" I asked.

"No, no," he replied, "it's from the fight last night. My shoulder blade's in pain, I can hardly move it."

After a few hours sleep between Misha and Glosha on the floor I was awoken by a new arrival who was energetically pacing around the flat and talking loudly, apparently to us.

"Come on, Ed," he almost yelled, "it's May the 9th, Victory Day! People are celebrating out in the square! Come on, let's go! My name's Zhenja by the way."

"Ed," I said sleepily. "Is it far? I have some bad grazes on my legs and it's hard for me to walk."

"It's ten minutes. OK, wait here and I'll bring my car closer to the flat and drive you there."

Gratefully I lay down and dozed for another half hour or so, during which time I heard music, shouting and the sound of a large number of people marching past the building.

Eventually Zhenja returned with another friend and the news that the Victory Day festivities were over. Once they had managed to round us all up we drank some live beer they had brought with them then set off in the car to Komsomolsk, on the way dropping Misha off at his place of work, a military base where he worked as an electrician.

Shortly after entering Komsomolsk we screeched to a halt as they noticed a friend of theirs walking along the pavement. His name was Anton and he joined us in the car, bringing our numbers up to five. We picked up some beers from a kiosk then stopped outside a hospital so Glosha could go in and get seen to by a doctor.

"Bastard," he said upon re-emerging ten minutes later, "I said I was in so much pain I could barely move my arm and he just told me, 'oh, don't worry, there's nothing wrong with you.' He just wanted me to pay him a bribe of course."

"What are you going to do?" I asked.

"Well I'm a bus driver and my work has its own doctor I can hopefully see tomorrow for free."

Sasha at this point left us and was replaced by Max, who had just arrived. We drove around a bit more and picked up some more beers. Presently the discussion turned to whether or not it would be possible to get any cannabis.

"Do you smoke weed, Ed?" Anton asked me.

"No, but feel free to if you want to," I answered.

We drove into a forest of crumbling grey apartment blocks on the outskirts of town, the area between the buildings littered with rubble and stone. Anton parked the car and disappeared into a doorless building for a few minutes. When he came back we drove round a corner, parked again and he lit up a ready-rolled spliff.

"What do the militsia here do if they catch you?" I asked, nervously peering out of the car windows.

"Well if they catch you just smoking a spliff they don't do anything, just take it away. That's why we always just buy one ready-rolled spliff like this. If they find some more on you though then they send you to see a doctor."

We drove on and picked up more beers.

"Shall we go and talk to someone about a dacha then?" Anton asked Zhenja. "We're thinking about buying a dacha, Ed. You can get a small one here for 10,000 rubles ."

It was agreed that we should go and check out dachas. We drove out of town and through a maze of muddy, bumpy, uphill tracks lined by row after row of small wooden houses. Some were fairly large while others were mere shacks that looked as if they were about to fall down. We eventually stopped outside a little green one of the smaller variety. It had a small patch of land attached to it that was surrounded by a picket fence, the posts of which had had upside-down empty bottles inserted over their tops.

A fat babushka waddled out of a dacha on the other side of the track and asked us what we wanted in a slurred, drunken voice.

Anton drew himself up, adjusted his sunglasses, pushed his hat up a little bit and wandered over to her.

"We're interested in buying a dacha," he said, stroking his chin and sniffing a little haughtily.

"Well I'm in charge here," she said, "so it's me you need to talk to."

We spent around an hour there. The woman's drunken condition had left her quite incapable of concealing her eagerness to sell and it turned out to be quite hard to get away from her in the end, even after Anton and Zhenja had got the information they needed. Get away we eventually did though and went to meet Misha in the town centre.

After a terrible pizza covered in mayonnaise and ketchup we went for a stroll by the river where, particularly on the central square where there was a stage and some live music, people were huddled around in groups to celebrate Victory Day. Although the snow had stopped at some point since I had arrived early in the morning, the day was still bleak and most were wrapped up tight in winter clothes. Efforts to be jolly ranged from the non-existent to a group of middle-agers dancing in the street. There was no reason to stay long though so Misha, Zhenja, Max and I - those of us who did not have work the next day - decided rather to celebrate back in Solnichny.

"What do they teach at school in England about the war?" Misha asked me in the car on the way back. "Who do they say won it?"

"They teach that the Allies won it together," I replied. I saw him nodding and drawing in breath to say something.

"But," I added, having had practice for this conversation back on the shores of Lake Baikal, "they also teach that Russia lost more men than any other country - 25 million, I think."

"Ah, that's what I was going to ask you," he said. "Here we say that the victory was Russian, but that England and America helped of course. We call it the Great Patriotic War. I'd heard that over there they teach that America won the war."

"No, I don't think so," I replied. But now that he had mentioned it I did seem to remember being taught something about the Americans' entry into the War tipping the balance and winning it for the Allies.

Back in Solnichny we bought three bottles of live beer and three of vodka. Zhenja disappeared for half an hour to return with a girl called Nastya who had the art of flirting down to a T, both in her conversation and in her every movement. Bottles were opened, toasts made, shots knocked back and thumping dance music put on. Two tunes repeated themselves more than any others. The words of one were the following:

'American boy, American boy,
I'll leave with you,
A permanent farewell to Moscow!'

And of the other:

'Russian, Russian, Russian girls,
Give me, give me only love.
Russian, Russian, Russian girls,
You take my soul.'

"Ed," asked Nastya, "do you have a girlfriend?"


"I've got some very beautiful friends if you're interested?"

"No, I'm fine thanks," I answered.

"Oh come on, let me at least invite one of them round!"

"No, really, I'm fine..."

But she was already on the phone.

"Masha," she said to her friend on the other end, "come round, we're having a party. There's an Englishman here for you too, he's from... where are you from, Ed?"

"Oxford," I answered.

"He's from Oxford!" she said excitedly.

Less than half an hour later Masha was also there. Thankfully she was quiet and shy which made it easy for me to avoid talking to her. I talked to Nastya more, which I assumed was safer as she was with Zhenja.

"So, Ed, do you like this girl?" Misha asked me, pointing at Masha somewhere on our way through the second bottle of vodka.

"Well," I stammered, with Masha eyeing me intently, "she seems very nice but like I said I've already got a girlfriend."

Some time around midnight we headed out and trudged through the snow to Solnichny's only bar. Inside everything was tinted red by the lighting. People sat at tables while a few danced in the aisle next to them to the beat of 'Russian Girls' or 'American Boy'. We found ourselves places and began ordering bottle after bottle of vodka. At some point during the night I began to sense that Nastya was flirting too much with me and mentioned it to Zhenja.

"I think she likes you," he said. "Go for it, I don't mind."

Opposite us at the same table was sat a gaggle of scantily-clad, heavily made-up and alarmingly ugly women. One, whose skin-tight top stretched over the most disproportionate beer belly I had ever seen and who was missing a number of teeth, seemed to be of the same opinion as Zhenja.

"Watch out for that Nastya," she said. "She's coming onto you but she'll charge if you have sex with her."

"I don't plan on having sex with her!" I almost shouted, infused with alcohol.

"Good, because there's plenty of girls here who like you and who'll do it for free." Her definition of 'girls' was obviously slightly broader than mine because she then went on to point out two of her friends, both of whom, if they were still in their forties, had not aged well.

I mentioned the toothless woman's claims about Nastya to Zhenja who said it was rubbish and went on to prove this by going home with her after we left.

The next day I had live beer forced upon me within fifteen minutes of waking up. When we finished what we had, we went out to the bus station, met up with Zhenja and Nastya and drank more there. Then we bought more and drank it at home. At some point, although my ability to follow a conversation in Russian was by now greatly diminished, I picked out the name 'Stalin' being mentioned several times in what sounded like a none-too-negative context.

"You admire him?" I asked Max.

"Of course we do," he replied. "He was our guy."

"But you know how many people he killed?" I asked, shocked.

"I know," was all he said and we left it at that.

In the evening we headed into Komsomolsk and went round to Max's flat where his wife had prepared borsh for us. After that Zhenja, Misha and I headed to the train station where we drank a final beer, hugged and said farewell.

"Come back as soon as you can," Misha told me.

"And you come to Moscow whenever you want," I replied.

"That'd be great," he said. "It's our capital city but none of us have ever been there."

I arrived in Khabarovsk, 'the world's coldest city of over half a million people,' early the next morning. I wondered the central streets for a while and was happy to see, for the first time in Siberia, some really beautiful architecture. But in the end, with the grazes on my legs and the bag slung over my shoulder, it became too much effort and I took a bus to the airport.

I sat in the departure lounge, tired, hungover and in severe need of a detox. I thought back to the places I had been and the people I had met in the previous 12 days. Other than the natural beauty of Lake Baikal, the places had all been bleak, depressing concrete or wooden towns and villages. Many of the people though, despite being from communities ravaged by alcohol and cursed with the coldest winters of any human settlements, had been possessed of a warmth, hospitality, pride and raw, essential humanity that had deeply touched me.

Moscow, my destination 9000km and seven time zones to the west, seemed like another world.

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