Bridge over the River Pyalma

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June 6th 2011
Published: June 16th 2011
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As I arrived in Pyalma the sun, though it would never entirely disappear at this latitude at this time of year, was drifting slowly downwards in the vague direction of the horizon, illuminating the world with a magical light that I could only recall having seen twice previously on equally clear days during summer in the Far North and Mongolia. This light, which quite possibly occurs far more frequently than I realise but only sticks in my memory during moments on the road when it throws itself on places of exceptional beauty, flooded the world with the sort of glow that film directors give certain scenes to make them seem more alive, vibrant, peaceful or memorable, enhancing the colours to an intensity and warmth that is almost unnatural. As to the viewer of that sort of scene, to me the difference between the world as it usually is and how it was under the rays of that setting Northern sun was immediately noticeable. Though there was no brilliant sunset, no golden-red clouds and the glow itself was colourless, it lent its fire to every drop of water, blade of grass and log of wood so that they radiated their own colours out with such supernatural brilliance it was almost as if these were new members of the spectrum I had never before seen, as if the world that had previously been dead had suddenly come alive, bursting with a quiet life force, joy and mirth.

At first as I cycled through the village the houses, their greys and browns transformed to oranges and yellows, were only on the right bank of the River Pyalma. After a minute or two I came to a place where the river, its waters glowing a deep, dark, opal blue, meandered to the right and the log cabins that had lined the dusty track along which I was cycling came to an end. A wooden bridge spanned its fifty metre breadth to where a few lonely houses stood on the far bank and, to their right and a few metres from the water, a tiny log church was surrounded by a graveyard. The lush, emerald green of the forest stood not far from the last dwellings, which took up a relatively small cleared area between its edge and the banks of the river.

“Excuse me,” I asked a portly, middle-aged man who was ambling across the bridge, “do you know who here has the keys to open the church?”

“Oh, yes, cross over and go to the second last house on the right, it’s a light blue one. The man’s name is Peter.”

I had crossed the bridge and gone a few more paces, pushing my bike now, when a small fat boy of about seven ran up to me from the direction of the church.

“Hey! Can I have a ride?” he squeaked, pointing at my mountain bike with 15kg of luggage attached to the baggage rack.

“You can try if you want,” I replied, “but I think it’s too big for you.”

I gave him the bike, he got his feet on the pedals, found he was too short to sit on the saddle at the same time and began trying to pedal anyway. He was not strong enough to get it started though and the bike fell over to the right, nearly putting him on the ground.

“Owch,” he said, scratching his head. “I think I’m too small. You speak strangely - where are you from?”

“England,” I replied.

“Wow! No way! What are you doing here?”

“I’m looking for Peter’s house,” I told him.

“OK, come with me!” he shouted, running down a grassy lane away from the river. “Leave your bike, it’s OK!”

I followed him. Twenty paces further we turned right and passed through a knee-high swing gate in a picket fence into a tiny, grassy garden cluttered with junk. The boy ran a couple of paces from the gate to the door of the light blue log cabin and knocked four times on it. A few moments later a tall, well-built man opened the door. His age was hard to guess because although his face and grey hair indicated he was mid fifties to early sixties and the belly under his light yellow T-shirt wobbled slightly, his general structure was that of a still very much on form rugby player, being twice as broad at the shoulders as he was at the waist and with perfect chin-up chest-out posture.

"Hello, are you Peter?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied, a mixture of surprise and confusion appearing on his face upon hearing my foreign accent.

"I'm sorry to bother you," I went on, "but I was interested in having a look at the church and they told me you might be able to open it up?"

"Yes, no problem," he replied, disappearing immediately back into his house. A couple of minutes later he reappeared and we walked off along the grassy river bank to where the church stood a hundred metres or so away.

"So what do you do?" I asked him.

"I'm busy trying to preserve the village," he answered. "There are 420 dead villages in Karelia and I don't want it to happen here."

"By dead you mean everyone just left to live in towns?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied. "Under Communism there was no way to make a living here, no factories, no farms, nothing."

"People couldn't hunt or fish?" I asked.

"No, if you were caught hunting or fishing not for the government you were put in prison. I went to university in Petrozavodsk then got sent to work in Eastern Siberia afterwards. There was no way I could have stayed here."

"So how many people live here now?" I asked.

"Lots of families who used to live here permanently got given apartments in a town during the Soviet Union and only stay here in summer now. If we're talking about the low point of the year, in the middle of winter, then there are only about ten very elderly ten people here,"

We walked up to the door, the little boy following hard on our heels, struggling to keep up with Peter's brisk pace. Peter unlocked it and we stepped in. The area of the room inside was not more than ten square metres. Immediately ahead of us stood a table covered in a white cloth on which sat a collection bowl with a handful of near worthless coins in the bottom. Every inch of the wall behind it was covered in icons.

"They're not the originals," Peter told me. "The originals are priceless, done at the same time as the church at the beginning of the eighteenth century. During Communism they came and took them away. They're in the Hermitage in St Petersburg now. I've been trying to get them back for five years but they won't give them. Do you want to go up into the bell tower?"

We walked up a short flight of wooden steps to arrive on a little walled platform under the spire from which a single brass bell hung.

"Listen," Peter said, sitting on the waist-high wall and closing his eyes. The only sounds were the gentle gurgling of the river to our left and birdsong from the woods to our right. After a few moments he opened his eyes. "I've never seen or heard such beauty anywhere else," he said. "It has to be preserved."

"What else do you do to help the village?" I asked.

"I stop people cutting down the trees," he replied. "Since the end of the USSR lots of people have wanted to cut them down but I don't allow it."

"You bought them?" I asked.

"Let's just say I received them," he said. "They used to fell trees differently from how they do it today. My father was born in 1909 and his father told him that in his day whenever anyone wanted to build a house they had to consult a kind of wise man who knew the forest well. He would go into the woods, looking at and listening to each tree individually. Then he would say, 'You can cut down this tree but not these ones,' and so on. So they took only trees deemed ready, and never ones that were close to each other. That way the forest stayed alive. Those trees take two hundred years to grow, there are so many birds, animals, mushrooms and plants there, lots of interesting types of trees. But these days they don't care about any of that, they just want to cut them all down. But imagine if they cut them down, there wouldn't be any birdsong... no, even if a local wants to cut them down to make space for more potato patches I don't allow it. Everyone has plenty of potato patches anyway, what do they need more for?"

I decided to take a photograph of the view and suddenly realised I had left my camera with my bike in the grassy lane between the bridge and Peter's house. I panicked and told Peter.

"You want to go back?" he asked calmly, standing up.

"Well, I'm just worried about my camera..."

"No, no," he said in a slightly reprimanding voice, sitting back down, "that's OK, I guarantee no one will take it."

"So what other animals are there in the woods?" I asked after a moment, trying to continue our conversation of earlier. "Do you have bears, wolves, moose?"

"Yes, all of those," he replied.

"Do you ever have problems with wolves or bears?" I asked.

"The wolves sometimes come into the village but they don't bother anyone," he told me. "We see bears less often. They try to avoid meeting people. I've only had close encounters with them twice. Once I left my rucksack on the ground and walked off a short way. When I came back a bear was there sniffing at it. He realised there was no food there, swiped his paw angrily and the bag went flying about twenty metres! Then he just walked off. The second time I was waiting next to a boat house for some other guys I was going out fishing with. I heard a noise from the other side of the boat house, thought it was the guys, stepped round the corner and came literally face to face with a bear. He didn't move and neither did I, we just stood looking at one another for a few moments. Utter terror was flying through my mind, I was thinking 'run, run, run!' But somehow fear rooted me to the spot. After those first few seconds my thoughts became more rational and I realised that if he'd wanted to he could have knocked my head right off with a swipe like the other bear used on my rucksak that time. I thought perhaps he was just as scared of me as I was of him. So very slowly I turned on the spot, ninety degrees to my left and I swear it seemed to me he also turned away by ninety degrees. I slowly turned the rest of the way round until I was facing away from him and again, I'm certain he did the same! Then very slowly and quietly I crept away. When I looked back he was gone."

We walked back down the steps, locked up and headed off in the direction of the bridge.

"Um, Peter," I said, "I just wanted to ask if there's anywhere to stay the night in this village? I'm cycling to Medvezhegorsk tomorrow and I have a tent, but..."

"Don't worry about that, you can stay with me," he said casually. "By the way, let me show you the museum building. I've just cleared everything out unfortunately because I want to give it all a good clean - if only you'd come a few days ago!"

We went inside a larger than average house and climbed up a ladder to the attic. The pervasive smell of burned wood was surprisingly pleasant, as if whoever had lived here had built fires from some unusual, highly aromatic type of tree over a period of many decades. The log walls of the attic sloped inwards, meeting at the top and giving the room the shape of a triangular prism.

"Look," Peter said, pointing at a window set in the wall at the far end. Through its pane almost the only thing visible was the river, bordered at the top and bottom by narrow strips of grass, the movement of its waters only just noticeable from this distance. "Such beauty!"

"What's in the museum?" I asked.

"Old clothing, old artifacts, stuff that shows the village's culture, traditions and history."

We went back outside and Peter squatted down next to the wall. He pointed to the very bottom logs in the building's structure, which I noticed were sloping downwards, one end sunk into the ground.

"I'm trying to save this house," he told me. "It's so old and beautiful. It's hard work but I've got time. Little by little we'll get there. I've already saved a couple of old, beautiful houses in the village this way."

"Do other people help you?" I asked.

"Everyone helps as much as they can," he replied. "Often that means moral support, occasionally even money. Like that bridge across the river - I built it. Before that we had to cross in a boat. I applied to the local government for 20,000 roubles to build it but they refused. They said 'No way can you build it for 20,000, you'll need three million!' They have money in the budget for this sort of thing but they wanted it for themselves. So I did their work for them. I went around the village explaining my project and asking everyone to contribute as much as they were able to, just a few roubles here and there. At first I managed to raise 6,500 and set to work. Eventually, when I'd nearly finished the bridge, the government decided to chip in and sent me the few materials needed to finish it off."

"What do you mean by moral support?" I asked.

"Well, like when I was building the bridge, one old lady who was too poor and weak to help came up, supported by her children, and symbolically placed one piece of wood on the bridge, laid one plank, as if to say 'we're behind you on this, keep going!'"

We went back to his house and I put my bike in the garden.

"Listen," he said before we entered, standing still and closing his eyes as he had done in the bell tower. I heard only birdsong from the woods. "I wake up to that every day," he told me, eyes still shut, a small, peaceful smile drawing the corners of his lips upwards. After half a minute we went indoors and he showed me around the house. One of the two main rooms was piled floor to ceiling with junk and had a toilet cubicle in the corner whose door neither locked nor closed. A hole in the wooden floor led down to a cesspit below. The other room included a gas stove, table, two beds and a home made sink consisting of a bucket that hung above a basin and required manual refilling.

"Peter," I said, "I'm going to go out and take some photos. I'd also like to have a look at Lake Onega - is the way easy to find?"

"Well, that path we walked to the church continues on to the lake but it crosses a swamp that's too big to jump across at the moment. There are other paths that go round it but thery're too difficult to find... Maxim," he said, addressing the fat little boy who had been following us silently all the time, "you know where I keep my boat? Can you show him the way there?"

"Ii know where it is but I can't remember how to get there," Maxim replied guiltily.

Peter sighed, grabbed a paper and pencil and spent five minutes sketching a map with every house, boat hut, path and turn off on it.

"If you find the way," he said after explaining it to me, "you should come out on the lake shore next to a couple of old huts."

"What are the huts?" I asked.

"They're disused fishery buildings."

"There was a fishery here? But I thought you said everyone left because there was no way to make a living, no state farms or anything?"

"That's right, after the fishery closed in the 1950s there was no way to stay here. Fishing was illegal if not for the government and we weren't allowed to open our own businesses. Now I'd like to open some businesses here, like a shop or hotel, maybe expand the museum, so that it's actually possible for young people to live and work here again. That's all in the future, but bit by bit we'll get there."

After twenty minutes of tramping around the swampy, mosquito-infested woods beyond the village, I emerged on the shore of Europe's second largest lake. Several logs lay washed up on the sandy beach where I stood. Further along the dilapidated fishery huts were sinking into the ground and beyond them the coastline curved into a long, flat, green promontory jutting several hundred metres out into the lake.The ripples on its surface, the rich, dark blue of which was impenetrable to the eye, glittered golden with the rays of the low, evening sun. The grey outlines of islands shimmered in the distance, unusually tall due to the trees that covered them.

"So, do you want anything to eat?" Peter asked when I arrived back at his. "Some porridge? Some eggs?"

"Well, if you don't mind," I said, starving hungry but feeling a little guilty to accept so much hospitality. "Eggs would be great. I have my own salami and bread."

I fried a 3-egg omelette with salami and made several sandwiches from it. Peter, who had eaten while I had been out, sat at the table with me.

"Could I have some water?" I asked between mouthfulls.

"Sure," he said, "use that scoop hanging on the wall to drink from those two buckets. The water's great, it's from the river here. Lots of people remark the water from the River Pyalma makes exceptionally good tea."

I got up, walked over to the buckets and drank two scoopfulls of the yellow water before returning to my food.

"You know," Peter told me, "if you'd come a few days later you could have met my wife. She and our children are coming from Petrozavodsk on Monday. She's Finnish, by the way."

"Finnish?" I asked. "What, born in Finland or born here?"

"Born on the Taymyr Peninsula," he replied.

"Taymyr? What the...?" I asked, startled. That vast wilderness is the northernmost part of the Siberian Arctic.

"Her parents lived in St Petersburg but when World War Two began they were sent off to Siberia. Stalin was worried they'd work for the Nazis, who Finland was allied with. They could have had it worse though, they could have been set to work on the Belomor Canal right here at Lake Onega - so many people perished there! You know what it is?"

"Yes," I replied. The next day I would cycle across the infamous 227km waterway that had been dug manually by concentration camp victims under Stalin, 100,000 of them dying during its construction.

"Anyway, instead they were sent to Taymyr. They crossed southern Siberia by train, starving, thirsty and filthy in cages with hundreds of other prisoners then they travelled for a month by boat up rivers then along the coast in the Arctic Ocean. Eventually they just put all the prisoners ashore and left them there on their own. They probably would have died but a local tribesman appeared out of nowhere and showed them how to build tents, where to catch fish, what berries could be eaten and so on. They lived there for fifteen years until my wife was six years old. Then Stalin died and lots of prisoners were released. They were allowed to return home. I met her at university in Petrozavodsk. After we graduated I was sent to the Far East and she to the Far North. I worked many years, saving up money and eventually was given an apartment in Petrozavodsk. I went to where she was working in the Far North and asked her to marry me. We lived together for fifteen years in Petrozavodsk then retired and moved back here to Pyalma."

"That's a very interesting story," I commented.

"Where do you live?" he suddenly asked, looking down at the table and speaking in a disinterested voice utterly different from the keen, animated one in which he talked about Pyalma or told stories.

"I'm from England but I've been living in Moscow for four years," I said. Though I knew his life story, dreams and everything he was busying himself with at the moment, this was the first piece of information he had learned about me as it was the first question he had asked. Since I had forgotten to introduce myself when we first met, he did not even know my name.

"I'm an English teacher," I added after a period of silence. He nodded but did not respond.

"So where did most people from Pyalma go after they left?"

"All over the place," he replied. "Last year I managed to organise a reunion of people who used to live here, who remember it as it was. People came from Belarus, Ukraine, Moscow, Krasnoyarsk, even Taymyr, one guy came from Taymyr. Of course we reminisced a lot, talked about Pyalma and how we remember it. It was a good time."

When I awoke the next morning Peter was already awake.

"I've been out listening to the birds," he told me.

He had also had time to cook a cauldron full of porridge and piled our plates high with the biggest portions of the stuff I have ever seen. After breakfast, while I was packing my bags and strapping them to my bicycle's luggage rack, he came running in excitedly with a rolled up piece of paper in his hand.

"What's your name?" he asked, happily unrolling the paper.

"Edward," I replied to the second question he had asked me. Without answering he went ahead to show me his gargantuan family tree, the members of which seemed to have had an average of ten children. Afterwards, before I left, I offered him a 500 rouble note.

"What are you doing?" he asked surprisedly, not taking the note.

"It's for Pyalma," I replied. "For the church, the museum, the houses, or however it can help."

"OK, thank you," he said, taking it and smiling.

We walked out, shook hands and I left him sitting on the edge of the wooden bridge, arms wrapped round legs, eyes closed and listening.

Click this link for advice on independent travel in Karelia


16th June 2011

You are one of the great travel blog explorers.
Ed, we always enjoy your work and love the descriptions of the light as you arrived in town. Can't wait until some day when you publish your book. You'll be remembered along with Drake, Magellan, De Gama and Columbus as a true explorer. I just realized we had not recommended your blog and now we have. Happy travels and can't wait to read your next adventure. Very nice of you to let the little boy on your bike. Very cool. I don't suppose you have Peter's address. We'd love to make a donation to the work he is doing on the church and other buildings.
16th June 2011

Sooo Russian!
The pictures and the story are exactly as one would imagine Russia to be like (well if you don't regard the cliche Kremlin with snowfall that is used in every film). It somehow reminds me a bit of Dr. Zhivago. You seem to meet a lot of very interesting people in all of those out of the way places. Peter sounds like you could write a book about just him. What stories he must have. As always I am jealous, but I humbly thank you for providing us with a glimpse of the true Russia.
17th June 2011

Just want to let you know that I am always eager to read stories that can only be told or written by you. The off the beaten path places you visit, the interesting people you meet, the adventures and not-your-usual travel experiences. Your travelogues speak volumes about how truly interested you are in people and what they do or think. And now, you even threw in such stunning photography which can only be captured "from the heart". Like photos of things and places you want to etch in your memory. Wish there was a photo of Peter, and of the little fat boy who tried your bike. God bless you, Ed. We're all traveling with you here.
28th July 2011

Lovely blog
I loved reading about your time here. Your description of Peter and the little boy give the story real character. I felt like I was reading an old tale. Keep it up.

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