To the Siberian Arctic

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December 30th 2010
Published: January 13th 2011
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The train chugged out of snow-blanketed Moscow, through its heavily whitened suburbs and into the Russian countryside on the first of three days it would roll north west, eventually crossing the Northern Ural Mountains and stopping on the Arctic Circle in Western Siberia. I, having loped up to the platform minutes before departure, had been forced to enter at wagon fifteen when in fact my bed was in wagon one, in order to be sure of not missing my ride. I now had fifteen heated wagons to traverse with a large backpack on, a gargantuan pair of almost knee-high super-padded boots tucked under my left arm and my ridiculously large super-padded jacket under my right. The aisles on Russian trains are narrow enough that not only the stuff under my arms but my back pack too was scraping the sides as I passed, sweat from my forehead splashing from side to side as I tried to negotiate my way between unpacking families, passengers making their beds, playing children, random sets of bent-over hindquarters protruding into the aisle from the compartments as their owner searched for something in their luggage and countless other obstacles. "Excuse me, sorry, excuse me, sorry!" I repeated endlessly as innocent toddlers and frail babushkas no doubt fell at the wayside under the unforgiving power of my swinging luggage.

After ten minutes I gasped into my own carriage, found my bed and took off my backpack, a sweaty embarrassed mess.

"Can I help you?" a very young but prematurely balding man with a prominent widow's peak and a beer bottle in his right hand asked me as I was lifting my backpack up onto the baggage shelf. The common carriages on Russian trains have fifty four beds in them divided into un-walled compartments of six that open onto an aisle than runs from end to end of the carriage. Other than this young man, my compartment contained a sad but severe-looking babushka with short grey hair, a young woman perhaps in her early thirties, two young parents and their toddler girl.

"No, I'm OK," I replied to his offer.

"Where are you from?" he asked, looking at me quizzically.

"England," I replied, pleased that I seemed to have at least one friendly traveling companion for such a long journey but at the same time irritated that even from those three words he could tell that I was foreigner from the ridiculous British accent that try as I might I cannot eradicate from my Russian.

"That's so cool!" he said, shaking his head and smiling. "I'd never have imagined I'd be traveling with an Englishman. I thought it was just going to be us five! I'm Ilya,"

We shook hands and I introduced myself to him and the others.

"Will you have a beer?" he asked, fishing one from a plastic bag on the seat next to him.

"Thanks," I replied, taking it. "So where are you all going to?"

It turned out that with the exception of the young woman, Anjelica, they were all going to the same place as me: Labytnangi, the train's final stop, a closed town of 20,000 in the extreme north of Russia to which entry is forbidden to anyone, Russian or foreign, who does not have a stamp in their passport registering them as a permanent resident of the town. The only way round this problem is to apply to the local border guards two months in advance for a temporary permit, although information on the procedure is non-existent and there are endless complications.

"Why are you going to the North?" Anjelica asked me. "You've got a holiday, you should be lying on the beach somewhere!"

"Who wants to lie on the beach!" Ilya butted in. "The North is much cooler!"

"I'm just traveling," I replied. "I want to go north from Labytnangi to a village called Yar Sale."

"I've heard of Yar Sale," Ilya said, grinning and swigging his beer. "That's so cool!"

Labytnangi is the only town in Northern Siberia connected by railway to the rest of the country but, like the rest of Northern Siberia, it is completely cut off from the road network. To communities further north or east from Labytnangi, all the way to the Pacific Ocean, access is by river or air only. That means an inhabited area the size of Canada completely without roads or railways. In the short summer navigation period boats ply waterways connecting communities with their neighbours and in winter all terrain vehicles drive on their frozen surfaces. My plan was to head north on the Ob River into the Arctic to the village of Yar Sale on the Yamal Peninsula and from there deeper into the tundra, the domain of the nomadic Nenets reindeer herders.

Ilya, originally from a small island off the coast of Kamchatka, turned out to be nearing his alcoholic limit as he cracked open what he claimed to be his sixteenth beer. He suddenly took his trousers off and sat there in his hoody and boxers.

"Come on, it's hot in here! You're not shy are you?" he responded unbelievingly to the protests of Anjelica and the babushka.

"Of course I'm shy, I'm a woman!" Anjelica replied.

"Young man," the babushka said sternly in a slightly raised voice, "this is the first time in my life I've seen such awful swimming trunks!"

Eventually she completely lost her temper with him and forced him to climb up into his bed and go to sleep.

"It's not fair, it's not correct!" Ilya complained loudly from under his sheets. "She's making me go to bed before the lights are even out!"

* * *

The next morning, as day dawned, the blunt beauty of the north unfurled through the train windows before my sleep-blurred eyes. Russia's great taiga forests, covering a land area larger than the USA, hemmed us in on either side, the railroad cutting a ridiculously narrow path through their unimaginable vastness. The temperature outside was minus 25 Centigrade; so much snow lay on the ground, the branches of the trees were so laden with it and the sky was so white that the view through the window was almost like looking at a sheet of paper, the parts of the trees visible despite the snow appearing more as a tangled mess of crazy pencil scribblings in the middle between the blank whiteness of the ground and sky. Occasionally a shocking new hue would be thrown upon this monochrome world when a patch of the forest was suddenly bathed in the deep red glow of the morning sun, as if drenching the trees in molten metal and transforming them from dreary skeletons in a still, stark, frozen landscape to ardently glowing recipients of an almost supernatural life force.

The forest was interrupted only near settlements, which we could go for hours without seeing. When they appeared they were sprawls of wooden bungalows buried in snow, smoke pouring from their chimneys in columns many metres high, immediately surrounded by the flat white expanses of fields and rivers before the taiga once again took control of the landscape. While the smallest settlements were just tiny collections of shacks nestling together amid the encroaching forest, the larger would have some small factories clinging to their outskirts and the larger still an injection of Soviet five-storey concrete.

By midday the sun's fierce red glow had turned to a golden one that contrasted less strongly with the rest of the world. The babuhka's commanding streak was becoming apparent as she ordered Ilya around:

"They've changed the wagon numbers! My son won't know where to meet me and I have no money to phone him or get a bus! Go outside at the next station and check the numbers for me!...Go and fill up this mug with hot water at the samovar!...Go back to sleep untill 11 o'clock!"

Another man whose appearance would have been big, tough and scary had it not been for his kindly smile, gentle manner and polite behaviour, came and sat with us and was not slow in letting us know that he was an ex-convict. He began buying me and Ilya beers from the carriage attendant and brought over his supply of provisions. We brought out ours too and soon the table was laden with dumplings, salami, bacon, cheese, bread and sweets. Anjelica and the babushka had some beer too, the conversation flowed merrily and everyone was in good spirits.

"Look at that!" said Vasya, the newcomer, pointing out of the window at a tiny group of wooden huts in a forest clearing. "Such beauty! Such freedom! I couldn't live anywhere other than Russia. It would always draw me back. Even when I'm in Moscow, all I can think of is getting back to the North, to my little village."

"Me too," said Ilya, "I could never live anywhere but Russia. And the North is the best part. In Moscow and St. Petersburg they're just zombies, working or watching TV all the time, believing adverts and buying everything they see. People in the North are better, kinder."

At Kotlas, the biggest town we stopped at on the second day, Ilya, Vasya and I went out for a walk.

"Do you have any vodka?" Ilya asked in a tiny, one-room shop on the platform.

"No, of course not," replied the woman behind the counter.

"I've got some. Vodka 250 rubles, cognac 450," said a man behind us whose enormous build and complete lack of emotion in either face or voice made him quite intimidating.

"If you guys want to drink then let's get some cognac," Vasya suggeted. "Vodka's just brutality. Ed, will you have some?"

"I will if you guys will," I replied.

Vasya paid and refused all offers of contributions. The man went behind the counter, fished around in a box and produced a bottle of cognac.

After a thirty minute stop at Kotlas South, the train rolled briefly forward, stopping again before it had had a chance to pick up any speed at Kotlas North where we had another forty minute wait. Again we went for a walk. This time Vasya bought a whole roasted chicken and home made sauce from the crowd of babushkas hanging around near the platform, Ilya spent his last pennies on a toy flower for Annushka (the toddler in our compartment) and I, feeling that I should also be contributing something to the group, bought a large jar of home made jam. By now, our table back on the train was incredibly cluttered with food and drink so that there was barely an inch of free space.

"You know," Vasya told us after he, Ilya, Anjelica, the babushka and I had had our first taste of the cognac, the quality of which was very much to everyone's approval, "I used to be able to drink for a week without stopping and wouldn't even have a hangover. Now four days is my maximum. The first and second days I'm OK, the third day I have a hangover and drink even harder to get rid of it and on the fourth its clear I can't go on so I just drink lightly to keep the headache at bay."

In the evening, when we arrived at the station where Anjelica was transfering to another train that would take her the final eight hours home, I helped her off with her bags.

"I don't like such alcoholics," she said sadly as the train drew to a stop and we waited for the doors to open.

"They seem like good people though," I interjected on their behalf.

"Yes, that's Russian men for you. Both my husbands were just like Vasya, always inviting, treating, buying, spending money on people. Great to their friends, but completely different at home. Vasya's a great friend, but imagine when he comes home drunk to his family having spent all his earnings on drink and his friends."

"Money's not important," Vasya was saying when I came and sat back down with them. "I just like to be happy and make other people happy."

He got off shortly after Anjelica, the view through the window long since having changed from white to black, and we lay down for an early night.

* * *

As things came into focus I saw Ilya standing below my bunk and the babushka squeezing some of her toothpaste onto his brush.

"Mind you don't lose it!" she barked aggressively. "Brush your teeth carefully, wash your face then come and make us some tea!"

We were now in the real north. With a couple of exceptions ("towns" such as Kharp and Yeletskaya with populations of one or two thousand) the train stops on the third day were mostly tiny huddles of wooden cottages, sometimes numbering just one or two, snow drifts reaching to within inches of their roofs. These were places without stations or platforms where the train simply stopped next to the dwellings, a lonely passenger or two exiting and struggling off through the knee-high snow.

By midday the taiga forests were giving way to the vast, flat expanse of the tundra. In some places its emptiness was broken by patches of woodland (although the trees were now much smaller, fewer and further between) but in others the whiteness was so complete that it was almost impossible to see anything, the ground melting into the sky at an undefinable horizon.

By two in the afternoon the world had started to darken and one of the most brilliant sunsets I have ever seen was spreading over the world, its fiery red heart sending off tendrils that streaked across the sky and around the edges of clouds in zig zags and spirals. A phenomenon also occurred that no one on the train could name or explain and all gazed at it intently for some time, remarking on its beauty. Someone called it a rainbow but everyone else agreed that it was not; if it was then it was unlike any rainbow I had ever seen or heard of previously. In two patches of sky, one just above the other, two multi-coloured splodges of light appeared. All the colours of the rainbow were present but their form was not that of an arch: it was the sort of shape you might expect if someone had poured lots of different coloured paints into a pot and, very quickly before they had time to mix, had poured them out from a height so that they splattered on a piece of paper. The centre of each splodge was yellow while its edges were framed first in green then in purple.

By three o'clock darkness was complete. Five hours remained of our journey and as usual they were the most restless. Anxious now just to get off the train I moved constantly between sitting below and lying up above on my bunk.

The train was now emptier than it had been at the start of its journey and a second babushka had come to join us from somewhere else in the carriage with several large containers of home made syrup.

"I bought this in Moscow," she complained, "but it's not good. Like everything in Moscow."

Another babushka wandered through the carriage every half hour or so, her arms overflowing with home-knit woolen clothes for sale.

"So many years I've been taking this train," the new babushka told me, "and that woman's been walking up and down that aisle as long as I can remember! At least since the early eighties. Sometimes you get Nenets, Khanty and Komi in here too selling their clothes made from reindeer, but there don't seem to be any today."

"Do you know any Nenets?" I asked her.

"Of course, lots," she replied. "They're extremely intelligent people. Very traditional too, lots of little rules and laws that outsiders can't understand. One of them is that when drinking a bottle of vodka, no one must drink more than anyone else. I know of a woman who killed her husband by hitting him over the head with a frozen fish for breaking that rule."

"Do they drink a lot?" I asked.

"Only those that live in villages," she answered, "which is about half of them. Those that still herd reindeer mostly don't drink."

The conversation got me thinking about my upcoming journey to the Yamal Peninsula where I hoped to find Nenets people who migrated thousands of kilometres every year with their herds, living in teepees, traveling by reindeer sledge, dressing in clothes made of reindeer skins and spending days on end outdoors in temperatures that had been known to hit minus sixty Centigrade not including wind chill.

When we got off the train Ilya was met by friends who offered to give me a lift to Salekhard, a town of 30,000 right next to Labytnangi. They dropped me off outside a wooden bungalow, the house of my friends Igor and Marina who had helped me apply for my permit and put me in touch with people further north in Yar Sale.

"As you see we've brought chicken and beer," Marina said, pointing to the kitchen table.

"Great, I'm starving!" I replied. "Can I just grab a shower though? I've been on the train for three days!"

"Sure," she replied, "it's just..."


"It's just the Trekol to Yar Sale leaves in forty minutes," Igor told me, referring to the all terrain vehicle that would drive north up the frozen River Ob. "It probably won't go tomorrow because it's New Year's Eve and everyone will be celebrating and probably not on New Year's Day as everyone will be hungover or drunk again. Basically there's no telling when the next one will go. If you want to go you need to go today."

For a long time I had no idea what to do. I had hoped to spend at least one day with them but at the same time if I did not take the Trekol right now I might not achieve what was in fact the main goal of my trip: meeting those nomadic reindeer herders. I felt extremely rude because it was in fact Igor and Marina that had organised the entire trip for me but there appeared to be no choice. They seemed to be in agreement though that I should go.

"It's a shame there's no time," Igor said while we quickly scoffed some chicken and drank one of the two brown plastic bottles of beer. "We're making a documentary at the moment and I'd told people that an Englishman was coming, someone with a Western mentality who can tell us a lot."

"Yes, it's a real shame," I agreed.

Before putting me on the Trekol, a car that would have looked like a normal four wheel drive had it not been for its chest-high wheels, they gave me a bag containing water, chocolate, the remains of the chicken and vodka.

"In case it's cold in the Trekol," Marina told me. "It's minus thirty five now."

For seven hours five Nenets and I, crammed into the back of the Trekol, sped north through the night along the icy surface of the River Ob and into the Siberian Arctic.


13th January 2011

Great writing, as usual
If there is anyone who would do it, I'd put my bets it would be you, Ed. The things you have to undergo in the name of adventure. And here we are, your readers, enjoying your adventures without suffering minus 35 degrees in the cold and missing meals and winks. Way to go ,Ed. Can't wait for your next blog. You don't miss the details. And I love that about your blogs. Stay warm and dry, if you can.

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