Ulan Ude, God-bothering capital of Siberia

On inspection the 001 ‘Rossiya’ train (originating in Vladivostok and ending up in Moscow) is not the 5-star luxury model I anticipated (that turns out to be the 003), but on closer inspection this is even better: First my convivial companion, Natasha, a GT whiz, organizes both our shared breakfast and a substantial conversational duel.

I’m sorry Natasha gets off at the first stop; she’s sorry she can’t persuade me to get off too.

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Second we have the best kind of Prodnitsa, an energizer bunny who spends her time vacuuming, polishing and keeping the bathroom in tip-top condition along with deploying spectacular air freshener.

Maybe the train isn’t 5-star, but the Prodnitsa is.

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Third, the kitchen shows up, not with the usual greasy pastries, but with ice-cream.

Vanilla or pistachio, the texture is a bit suspect but looking out the window while eating ice cream can’t be beat.

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Finally once Natasha gets off I have the compartment to myself for a whole 24 hours.

A room of my own

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The snow has melted and the dense taiga clears out

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The snuggling villages strung out beside the train track might be beginning to wake up for the spring.

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At the start occasional cars are still cruising the ice-roads

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But by the end of the day the 2020 ice roads are becoming a thing of the past.

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The Old Believers

Here to meet me at the train station is Darima, my guide for the day (can’t believe I don’t get a photo of her) and yet another Alexey, this one infinitely less dour, who will drive us to Tarbagatai, an Old Believer outpost south of town, closer to the Mongolian border.

The Old Believer sect split with the Russian Orthodox in the 1600s after some dispute (as I understand it) about whether it is more appropriate to cross oneself with 2 fingers extended (RO) or 3 (OB). Not surprisingly this catastrophic schism resulted in significant persecution and the OB had to flee for their lives, this particular branch ending up in Siberia. Not surprisingly also they are still carrying the grudge (as told to me by Darima, a Buryat [the indigenous majority here] Buddhist who has no skin in this particular game). 

First stop though a monument marking an ancient Xiongnu town (3BCE). Recall from last year how the continual Xiongnu harassment of the Han Chinese led to construction of the (ineffectual) Great Wall. This evidence of the northernmost extent of the Xiongnu empire is totally unexpected, and very satisfying.

As usual all the artifacts associated with the site have long been removed. More unusually they are in St. Petersburg rather than London or Berlin. 

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A quick climb. We don’t go to the actual summit because it’s a holy mountain for Shamanists and in any case we are women. Darima tells me how, during the Great Patriotic War (WWII to you) Stalin called on Shamans and famous Tibetan Buddhist Lamas from the Ulan Ude area to make spells so the winter of 1941 would be cold; in fact it was the coldest winter of the century and the Germans were prevented from taking Moscow. As a result Stalin forbore to persecute those religions here. “Do you believe that?” I ask. Darima comes from a long line of Buryat Buddhist Lamas “Yes of course” she says firmly.

Shamanist ribbons barely visible in the trees.

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From the other side,  the vast Selenga river with Ulan Ude barely visible at the far bend.

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Once in Tarbagatai first stop is the museum run by the local priest – an ‘unofficial’ archeologist who brings the mammoth and other prehistoric bones he finds here rather than to the official state repository in Yakutsk.

Contraband prehistoric bones, much to everyone’s disapproval.  

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More ancient OB artifacts

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It seems like every clearout is dumped in the museum

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The ancient handwritten texts are slowly succumbing to the inappropriate cold and damp.

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Off to the church, no interior photos please.

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Sasha, the priest’s son, is caretaker of the museum and the church.

Darima: Sasha is very interested in coronavirus

(Darima herself has a PhD in philology and is both highly educated and very well read. We have had several thorough conversations on the politics of pandemics already).

I swing into didactic mode: Quick overview of viruses. Explanation of mutations and natural selection. Infectivity, contagion, and the death rate. All perfectly calibrated for a religious fanatic who probably doesn’t believe in evolution. Rather a tour de force I tell myself smugly.

Sasha: What a load of nonsense. Everybody knows pork fat and garlic cures everything.

Me: Can we at least get soap and water into the mix?

Sasha rolls his eyes.

Sasha

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Time for lunch. When Dusia’s husband died she proposed making lunch for tourists as a way of bringing in income. At first her neighbors objected strongly. Now they all want in on the action. It is the only way to visit the village. Dusia’s homestead is entirely self-sufficient, and she manages it all herself; her daughters only come to help for the hay season.

The hayloft at the homestead.

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Make no mistake this is a nasty-ass dog.

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The banya.

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Dusia is a really delightful, naturally hospitable person and a good time and lunch is had by Darima and Alexey and especially by me.

Lunch is all home-raised and home-made. Even the potatoes drenched in home-made butter are the most perfect version of potatoes and butter.

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Dusia is famous for her baking. Ethereal carrot piroshkis at the front then rice pudding and lingonberry tart at the back. The rice is not home-raised but a traditional treat for guests. Not shown, the less-than ethereal home-made vodka.

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After a couple of glasses Dusia and her friend are ready for some after lunch entertainment.

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Then, back to Ulan Ude to the Maryusa ‘Boutique’ Hotel.

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The nosy ladies of the hotel are also Buryat (the Buryat language sounds like a hyperventilating bee) but don’t speak any English or, it seems, Russian. This does not stop them hauling themselves up the stairs and parking themselves outside my room whenever they hear me speaking English inside, such as Skyping with Jim. Occasionally they will create a lame pretext so they can check I am alone.

In the end they confess to being worried about me since I am clearly way too eccentric to be on my own.

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My second religious experience is at the Orthodox cathedral. I am drawn inside by  wonderful polyphonic singing. Despite the sparse attendance the liturgy is quite energetic: First, the two babushkas front and right provide the polyphony punctuated with monotonic recitations. Second, the illuminated doors up front occasionally open and a priest momentarily joins in. Third, this is the cue for more of an audience to emerge from nooks and crannies like the shop, and prostrate themselves; they disappear back once the priest goes back inside. Finally one of the front-and-right babushkas comes down the central aisle and bashes me nastily with her walking stick evidently because I have crossed my legs.

The stolen photo is not ideal.

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The rest of Ulan Ude is small and quite delightful in the spring thaw.

Delicate fretwork in the old part of town.

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Lenin’s head (to celebrate his centenary in 1970) occupies pride of place.

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According to Darima, Ulan Ude Russians are direct descendants of gulag survivors, both political prisoners and actual criminals. This results in a population with the killer combo of being both unusually smart and not inclined to pay attention to the Moscow government.

The old KGB headquarters where gulag ‘interviews’ took place.

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Round the back, an actual gulag monument.

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Some made it, but most didn’t. Many, I suspect, are still not accounted for

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A satisfying lunch at the best dumpling place in town.

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$2. Tea included

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In the afternoon my third religious experience requires taking two mashrutkas (minibuses) into the hinterland. The Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist temple was allowed to open in 1945 by a grateful Stalin (see above) and is the home of the leader of all Russian lamas.

Mashrutka life, these two likely lads had been having a good time long before they got on board.

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The hinterland steppe on the way to the temple.

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The temples are done out to be pretty traditional despite being relatively new.

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Stolen inside pictures. Not shown, the ‘naturally’ mummified body of the original lama, who was buried without being mummified, but then found to be remarkably preserved when he was dug up for some reason.

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The inevitable stupa, well used.

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On the way back I chat a bit with the lady on the right who is visiting the temple with her mom. The second mashrutka is packed and we don’t talk further, but all get off together at the last stop. The younger lady presses a gift into my hand  “For friendship and peace” she says as she leaves. When I open it in my room she has given me a Tibetan prayer flag and a 1000 ruble note. I am shocked. She is a teacher and I doubt she earns more than 7000 rubles a month. I have no idea of her name, and no-one can offer an explanation for this incredible gesture,

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The last tourist in Russia

The half-empty train to Novosibirsk. “Well who are you?” asks Anton, throwing his bag onto the place opposite mine. “I think you must be the last tourist in Russia”. And so my last train ride in Russia upends yet another stereotype. Because the entirely unprepossessing Anton, despite a couple of alarming tattoos and questionable taste in train T shirts, turns out to (a) speak perfect colloquial English (b) be extremely thoughtful and very well read and most importantly (c) be a foodie and insistent to share his excellently curated meals. And so we spend the next day and a half in fascinating conversation that covers all the interesting Russian topics – the economy (the sanctions have protected Russia from a global recession – yes I heard it here first);  Putin (two thumbs down); anti-American propaganda (is it true Americans are so fat they have to travel around in golf carts); and  at one point, a sotto voce discussion on state surveillance that prompts him to bury his phone in his duffle.

I insist on a smile for the photo. “You don’t understand” he says, “Russians are angry people who are deeply suspicious of each other”. And he grins. 

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When I get off he carries my bags onto the platform, gives me a hug and makes me promise that when I come to Siberia again I will look him up and stay with his mom and dad.

 

 

How much taiga is too much taiga?

Alex informs me that these two trucks have spent the night side by side on the ice road. Which seems like a potentially colossal error of judgement.

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How much taiga is too much taiga?

I’m about to find out. Tomorrow my return to southern Siberia on the local train that goes no faster than the Needham Line, will take a full 36 hours. Then getting somewhere I might actually want to be will be another 18.

Meanwhile Alex has exerted revenge for my relentless efforts to engage him in conversation by secretly arranging personal tours of the Permafrost and the Mammoth Research Institutes. ‘Go talk to some professors’ he smirks, no doubt realizing that with professor visitors being a rare commodity in Yakutsk each tour will take at least 3 hours.

The venerable Soviet Era Permafrost Research Institute. Could they be engaging in cutting edge research after all? They hide it very well.

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It must have been quite something back in the day but the day is now nearly 100 years ago .

The venerable pre-Soviet father of Permafrost Research himself. Except for the Permafrost itself, things haven’t changed much.

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What’s going on

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Marginally interesting: Ice crystals down at the lowest level have incorporated various effluent from our breath (apparently). Not sure what this has to do with Permafrost however.

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The newly Doctor Svetlana who has been deputized to show me around squirms lest I think it is the full extent of their current research efforts. Which of course she can’t show me. Or talk about.

Dr. S. smiles wanly as I force her to describe the antiquated equipment on display.

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It turns out there are many important things I didn’t know about Permafrost: a) It’s everywhere except for Australia. b) In most places it’s confined to the mountains (hence it is found in Africa) c) It begins about a meter below the ground (which is why vegetation can grow on it in the summer). d) The thickest layer is about 150 meters thick (I think).

Permafrost in Siberia. The two darkest blue colors mark where it is actually permanent; the thickest the dark blue in the middle. The problem is in the light blue areas, where it comes and goes. They are most sensitive to the environment.

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My rapt interest in Permafrost eventually does the trick and a thread I am actually interested in emerges (I was tipped off to this by the NYM journalist on the flight from the UK, Alex of course was clueless):

Dr. S: Permafrost melting when tree cover disappears, no more insulation from sun. (In fact it is a vicious cycle: because the permafrost begins about a meter below the surface, when its temperature rises there is more standing surface water that smothers more tree roots).

Me: How do trees disappear?

Dr. S: By fire or cutting.

Me: Can the permafrost recover?

Dr. S: Yes if trees are replaced.

Me: Who cuts the trees? (This is the $75,000 question).

Dr. S: Shrug. Now we pass law saying no more clear cutting of taiga.

Me: Well who owns the land the trees are on?

Dr. S: Government Land

Me: Do people obey this law?

Dr. S: Yes.

Then, she gives me her private email in case I want to follow up.

At the Mammoth Research Institute, a lot of bones. Thousands are washed or dug up every year and most of them make their way here.

Bones up the wazoo at the Mammoth Research Institute (they have closed for ‘renovation’ in self defense).

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Some mammoths have been reassembled

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And organs! And poop! And baby mammoths! they have it all.

Mammoth stomach containing mammoth lunch, I skip a photo of fossilized what comes out the other end (of which there’s plenty)

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Delightfully chatty museum director Professor Fedorov is more than happy to describe everything about every bone. He is disappointed I don’t buy a fridge magnet.

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In the way of science, it turns out we have mutual acquaintances. That, and my rapt interest in mammoth bones elicits a movie showing a nearly intact mammoth corpse being unearthed. I can barely watch. The rapturous multinational research group swarm all over it, hauling out chunks of intact flesh, and then the motherlode! actual mammoth blood! It is like a satanic ritual in which none of them are wearing even gloves. They are extracting the DNA so they can combine it with elephant DNA to clone an intact living breathing mammoth. Director is politely scathing. ‘It will be just a hybrid’ he says sadly, fondling his favorite mammoth tooth and explaining just what defining characteristics to watch for when the hapless creature does eventually emerge.

Eventually we run out of bone and mammoth anecdotes and I seize the opportunity:

Me: At the Permafrost Institute they told me that permafrost melts when tree cover is lost.

F: True

Me: I have also heard that the Chinese are clear cutting the taiga.

F: Also true. They have special automated machines that can cut very fast in secret.

Me: Isn’t that illegal?

F: Yes.

Me: Who owns the land?

F: Its government land

Me: So how does that work?

F: Well you know that two and two make four.

He gives me his personal email too.

Postscript: I later learn that plans are afoot, not just for nouveau mammoths, but also for bisons and all sort of prehistorical mammals which will repopulate the taiga and protect against global warming. Watch this space. I guess.

To Skovorodino!

The Yakutsk train is a prize among rail travel aficionados (a group I modestly embrace). Only operative since last November it has taken 100 years to build, and was only finished to placate escalating Yakutia rumbles about independence (and who wouldn’t harbor dreams with all that gold, diamonds and uranium, certainly Alex does).

Unfortunately the long gestation period has not avoided certain design flaws, chief among which was the choice to follow the right side of the Lena river (whereas Yakutsk itself is solidly on the left). As a result the line actually ends in Nizhny Bestyak, population 3500 (100 times less than Yakutsk) and is accessible only when the river flows in summer or when it is fully frozen in winter. During the several  sloppy months intervening before and after the hard freeze it is not accessible at all.

Add to this global warming (which, to be fair, was maybe not forseeable) and now we are in a situation in which the official ice roads must be maintained to ensure that the ice depth doesn’t drop below 60cm, while their ancient counterparts, well, aren’t. Not surprisingly few residents of Yakutsk have heretofore embraced the train as a way of escaping to the outside world.

My Uber driver rushing me to the station for an exhorbitant $15 has opted for a questionable short cut. It seems ominous that even at ‘rush hour’ we are the only ones here.

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Few takers at the spanking new station that is not only not in Yakutsk at all, but is most often inaccessible.

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Third class only, but satisfying new train smell, and more than half empty.

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The exception that proves the rule. Jocho has bought himself a rucksack and is off to seek his fortune in Vladivostok, the first time ever he has left town.

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Many new stations along the way, but since there are no villages, no one gets on or off.

Conspicuous absence of footsteps around the station. The cellphone tower too is fake – no signal for 24 hours.

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Finally after 24 hours, the big city – Tynda, population 30,000. Since we have a 5 hour wait I take myself off on the #6 bus to find the bright lights

Me: Excuse me, where is the center?

Babushka: What center?

Me: Town center

Babushka: What town?

She is being unfair. There is a town center, here it is.

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Back at the station 2 hours later, I amble round to where our train is, or rather was 2 hours ago. I hoof it round to Information ‘I’ve lost my train’ my GT tells them cheerily. Alarmingly no ‘This happens all the time’ response is forthcoming. Finally a long-suffering denizen hauls on their polar gear and accompanies me out to the nether regions where my carriage hides in forlorn splendor. Happily, once it is hooked back up to a means to move it along to our next destination, we have acquired the unimaginable luxury of a restaurant.

Masha had the same soul-shattering experience so we take ourselves off to the bar to recover with several beers and caviar.

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The barmaid is happy for the company and contributes a bar of chocolate to our celebration.

Our friendly barmaid. We are the only customers thereby upending several stereotypes about Russians, and trains.

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Changing trains at Skovorodino in the middle of the night with a 4 hour layover, is causing some anxiety thanks to all the unwelcome information obtainable through the Internet. The 18 stalwart citizens who have offered opinions average a 3 star rating (initially quite promising given the Russian glass-half-empty world view, but closer inspection indicates the positive reviews are simply grateful the station exists at all). Elsewhere Skovorodino is ‘freezing cold’ ‘infested with cockroaches’ and ‘the toilets are terrible’. Even the Lonely Planet (train travel subforum) has told me explicitly ‘No-one will be getting off at Skovorodino’. This is all canard and the event is a nothingburger.  My carriage disembarks en masse and since we are stopping for 20 minutes dear Masha gets off too to ensure I can identify the blazingly illuminated front door. Inside, a mere $5 investment gets me a sparkling room with toilet so I can not only avoid both cold and cockroaches but also have a nice nap, since all three people on night duty pledge to come and wake me up in time, and some come more than once

No trash talk about Skovorodino station! The resting rooms are well worth the $5 investment

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Sadly no-one is willing to brave the cold to ensure I actually make my connection, which worryingly will only stop for 2 minutes. Naturally, opinions differ as to whether carriage 2 will be to the left or right, a decision that must made with dispatch when a train could be 50 carriages long. Salvation! the couple already on the platform reassure me they too need carriage 2. They do not, however, elicit confidence. First they are dressed in party clothes and not much else, second they have neither luggage nor the requisite week’s supply of food, finally they can’t manage to get down the platform to where they are sure carriage 2 will stop without each falling over at least once. I need not worry. They are here (from where though?) merely to greet a similarly inebriated friend, himself in transit to points west, and yes traveling in carriage 2. “Privet Russki!”* they holler at each other at 2:30 in the morning while I struggle up the steps. Once aboard the prodnitsa enfolds me in a full embrace, and when I’m all settled in brings me a nice cup of tea, with two lumps of sugar. I will need to lie in tomorrow morning.

*Hi there Russian!

The Road of Bones

Yesterday we traveled from Yakutsk to Khandyga (yellow) today we will travel into the northeast Yakutia mountains (green). Alex promises the roads will be even worse.

Yakut map

The gold in the northeast Yakutia mountains (also replete with diamonds and uranium) was well known by the Tsars, but they reckoned no-one would voluntarily endure the extreme deprivations needed to mine it – seasonal fluctuations between – 60° and +40°C with vicious mosquitoes in the summer. And so it more or less sat. Post-Soviet revolution, circumstances were different. Breakneck industrialization needed urgent financing. Eventually a solution emerged: A captive work force, sentenced by law to hard labor. As each wave succumbed to cold or disease, ever more spurious charges kept the pipeline rolling. And so the purges. And so the gulags, where we are headed today.

Few of the villages we passed yesterday, strung out every 50 km, appear on any maps. Today we will see only one village Treply Kyuch. It isn’t on the map either (even though its cafe gets a 4 star rating on Trip Advisor, for no reason I can discern).

All the villages look like Treply Kyuch, snuggled into the snow, barely visible from what passes for roads. Conspicuous absence of bustle.

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We are not just passing through though, because Treply Klyuch is the home of the Gulag Museum. Up until 2019 the Gulag Museum was housed in the village kindergarten, it has since been moved to its own more spacious accommodation in the cultural center.

The gulag museum has in fact received many rapturous reviews

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Since I thought I would also be visiting 5 year olds, I have brought along a book for them as a gift. I present it to the museum director, to her great confusion.

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Alex insists everyone sentenced to the gulags were bona-fide criminals, even when presented with pictures like this. ‘Moscow family’ the Director tells us.

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This unlucky young lady was sentenced for stealing 5kg of potatoes during the famine. It is not clear whether Alex regards this as evidence of a true crime.

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I am currently reading a book by an American true believer whose family emigrated to the USSR in the 1930s. He was thrown into the gulags around here for 12 years on a trumped up political charge, or more accurately no charge at all (he was exonerated, as were many others in the 1950s)*. He claims many fewer than 1 in 100 survived to tell the story, others put it at more like 1 in 1000. They fashioned padded mittens from American flour sacks to stave off the intense winter cold as they worked the gold mines.

The mitten in question, right here.

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“Did your family suffer during the purges?” I ask Alex. “No” he says “My father big communist leader, big fan of Stalin”.

The Director insists we see the second room, which is devoted to Soviet glories and war heroes. Alex cheers right up.

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The route of choice to the gulags from the west was by train to Vladivostok, on the east coast, then from Vladivostok to Magadan by boat via the East Japanese Sea. Magadan to  the mines in Kolyma required a road. The prisoners dug it and then paved it with clay, gravel and their bones.

The road we take out of Khandyga is a spur off the Kolyma Road, en route to the most dreaded Ust Nera mines where harsh physical deprivations (-60° in nearby Oymyakon, the coldest town in the world, is normal) needed equivalently harsh discipline to keep things rolling. It is another Road of Bones.

Vast and the empty it is hard to conceive of building this road.

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Earlier

Me: Are there bears here Alex?

A: Here no. In the mountains. Many people killed by bears every year. But now they are sleeping.

Later, in the mountains.

Me: Is this where bears kill people Alex?

A: Yes only when they sleeping at the wheel.

Don’t sleep at the wheel

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There are many gulags beside this road to the mines. Many are still unexplored. These nearest ones are our only possible destinations, given the distance.

Alex: Go along this path to the gulag. It is about 2km. I will meet you back here in one hour.

The path to the gulag

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A bridge to the mines, built by the miners.

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We turn towards home. Suddenly in the distance, unbelievably, people on the road! Alex is agitated “Erweks” he groans “This will be problem”. I later learn that Erweks (another area indigenous minority) only take to the road when they are drunk, and weaving from side to side.

But no! It is not drunken Erweks, it is 4 Japanese from Kyoto who have had the brilliant idea to cycle 750 km along this road in March (to be fair it is impassable in the summer because of mud, bears and mosquitoes).

They seem grateful if somewhat confused by my gift of vile cabbage dumplings from the Treply Kyuch cafe. It is currently -37°C.

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Back out of the mountains: Sunset over the taiga

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*Dear America: The true odyssey of an American youth who miraculously survived the concentration camps of the Soviet Gulag. By Thomas Sgovio.

A self-published first person account, free on Amazon so its not a literary masterpiece but nonetheless both chilling and very poignant. 4 stars.

 

 

Well Z’drasty* Yakutia

*Hello

Checkered demographics on flight 5671 Novosibirsk to Yakutsk: A few pale ‘n pasty Russians, the rest stoic Sakahs, the Turkic indigenous majority in Yakutia, and the continually belligerent Tajik and Kyrgiz (miners I suppose) To a man (there are few women) they have spent the weekend partying hard in Novosibirsk. About half have brought the party back to the airport while the rest are already regretting the whole adventure. The exasperated flight attendants who have seen it all before strongly encourage us to stock up with paper bags. In the event the flight is subdued, if not entirely sober. The buckwheat at dinner sops up any circulating alcohol, while stern PSAs continually remind us it is against the law to replenish it with any we might have sneaked on board. In the absence of in-flight entertainment (except the interminable queue for the toilet) and with the lights firmly doused, the only recourse for my fellow passengers is sleep. We set off at 11:00pm and are supposed to arrive at 6:00 but the time changes so often (three times, including, apparently once backwards) it is impossible to keep track.

Party time at Novosibirsk airport. There is no Guinness, only vodka

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I do not sleep (I will regret it later). The sight is staggering. Ten minutes outside of Novosibirsk the lights end and for a full 3 hours under the bright night sky the marshy taiga of southern Yakutia shows no evidence at all of human habitation. Only at the central plains do clusters of lights appear, maybe once every 15 minutes, tracing the rivers. There is only one road and it’s not here, so communication is by water – in the summer by boat and in the winter on ice roads (more about ice roads later). Only a million people dispersed over an area 5 times the size of Europe. Fully a third of them huddled in Yakutsk where it is barely dawn and fortunately -37°C (below -45°C the frozen mist presently hugging the ground and making us gasp as we inhale, becomes pervasive and the plane would have difficulty landing). Eventually the key to the terminal is located, and I barely avoid my first acute hypothermic emergency. My fellow pickled passengers aren’t even bothering with gloves.

Two four hour flights get us to the heart of Yakutia

Map of Yakutia

Alex, my driver, is half Sakah and half Russian. We can tell he is not fully Sakah because, in his own words, he is pale, tall and fat, and also not pigeon-toed. On inspection he is quite correct, the Sakah are small, dark and stocky and invariably pigeon-toed. Alex is also a shamanist. He is evasive about what that spiritual practice entails but it may include being surly around babushkas. We set off immediately because today we must cover 400km east into the taiga, crossing three rivers on ice roads to reach our overnight stop in Khandyga, and tomorrow a further 400km north on a road that doesn’t seem to appear on any map (there are actually no road maps of Yakutia) to reach the nearest gulags. I trust we will manage to arrive back for the train out of Yakutsk, which goes only once a week, on Thursday morning. Still, because the roads that are not ice are built on permafrost, they cannot be paved, and I am happy to trade Alex’s skills as a driver for his defects in the small talk department; in the end he will get an upgrade to merely shy.

Alex, smiling excitedly. 

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Alex tells me the ribbons indicate trees that are important to Shamanists. He won’t tell me for what.

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Dawn over the ice roads across the River Lena from Yakutsk to where we are going first. The river banks are almost out of sight, but that is going to be OK because this is the  official road: water is constantly poured on it to make sure the ice stays 50cm thick, which doesn’t seem too thick to me.

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Where we are going first is Cafe Nal. Its main claim to fame is a ‘hot toilet’. Not having to pee in temperatures approaching -40° is a major preoccupation.

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Sakahs eat the same food at breakfast, lunch and dinner, which means they only have to cook once a day or even less. Alcohol is never available.

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No trip would be complete without a stop at an ethnographic museum. Since it is closed for the winter the security guard, Andrej, is deputized to deconstruct every tool on display for my benefit. He is very happy to oblige.

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Andrej waits impatiently to explain how ancient Sakah tepees are made from pliant Siberian larch (I assume).

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Unexpectedly, mud houses. The frozen walls provide insulation, like an igloo. This idea went out of fashion rather quickly except for the Shaman whose house this was.

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But we still see houses like these everywhere

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As well as churches like these

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The insides would be more charming if they weren’t at -40° (hypothermic emergency number two)

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Next, Alex is excited to show me the work of a local sculptor whose medium, rather originally, is frozen horse shit.

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The horses in question live outside winter and summer. They eat the grass through the snow and also bury their noses in the snow to sleep, like the one at the front.

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After 400km including 3 more ice roads we arrive at Khandgye. The whole village’s heat comes from a coal power plant and is circulated round the streets in colossal pipes.

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Our ‘apart hotel’

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My part also doubles as a sauna

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But we eat dinner and breakfast (shown) at the best restaurant in town.

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After 8 hours we are half way there.

 

2020: A quick look at Russia

But before we start, a 10 day (or was it 12) spin around Tunisia with Jim and the crew from Iran a couple of years ago. A most convivial crowd of old friends and new. We have a blast and manage to leave exactly a day before the actual blast caused by a couple of folks blowing themselves up outside the US embassy.

Poor Tunisia! the only functioning democracy in North Africa has managed to elect itself a repressive government with corruption that has bled the country dry. Those who can have fled, leaving behind an overwhelming aura of opportunities not developed or taken and a population barely able to control their frustration. Hence, no doubt, our suicide-vest friends aided and abetted by Isis who are camped out in the mountains on the border with Algeria.

But all is not lost! Tunisia can’t compete with Morocco in neither the glamour of its decor nor the sophistication of its cuisine but does win the following categories:

World class Roman ruins, open for clambering, at every turn.

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On the right, not tourists but the Serbian Tourist office, shooting a promotional film with Serbian gladiators and slaves, in Serbian of course.

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With world class mosaics on every wall:

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Luckily we only camp one night in the unnervingly cold Sahara desert (our mod cons seen gratifyingly in the rear)

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No mod cons here

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We visit all the Star Wars sites, of which I’m led to believe this is one

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For some Star Wars cosplay, of course.

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Then a quick sayonara at the usual place in Heathrow Airport

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And I’m On the Road Again!

There is no snow in Moscow

And what’s more there evidently hasn’t been in living memory. On the Metro, where most folks are cradling huge bouquets of tulips, my T.J. Maxx polar outfit generates some serious side-eye, but nonetheless the usual relay team of anonymous nice young men (NYM) ensure I don’t have to carry anything up any of the stairs from the airport to the Metro exit, where the usual despicable babushkas greet my return with barely concealed derision.

Fortunately last year’s effusive review has apparently earned me an upgrade into a huger room than I could reasonably expect for the price, with not one but two free bottles of water and more importantly enough bars of soap to accompany me and my reviled polar gear to Siberia (more on this later). I take myself off to the cafeteria up the road and enjoy a robust dinner once I’ve remembered the somewhat confusing order of operations (take a ticket, make an order, pay, eat).

The cafeteria in question. Apparently Soviet style dining is having a comeback. Certainly it is packed out at all hours of the day and night.

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I had hoped this might be mushroom soup (it seems to be squash) but clearly my (now) 230 word vocabulary has some serious flaws. Still for $7 it would be churlish to complain. Sadly no beer.

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Moscow is a strolling city, but this morning, despite the 42° temperature, Muscovites, who would be out in force if it was 10° colder, are nowhere to be seen. Despite (or maybe because of) the lack of official interest in coronavirus at the airport (the guy supposed to be monitoring the heat camera was having a sandwich instead) citizens have evidently taken things into their own hands*. Certainly I detect no tourists.

This is usually take-a-number selfie central, today I have it to myself.

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Hardly anyone is ploughing through the seriously melting ice at the skating rink in Gorky Park thereby making the extensive security, presumably to prevent us getting a free peek, somewhat superfluous.

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No takers, only the wannabe Van Goghs themselves, outside the Tretyakov Gallery

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And the bulbs frantically elbowing their way into the sunlight have fewer admirers than they deserve at this time of year.

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Even the Kremlin seems to be self-quarantining

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And the faithful, who are usually lined up 10 deep for a fervent slobber are evidently praying at home.

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Still the ultra-contemporary Garage museum doesn’t disappoint, despite its usual complement of alarmingly obscure exhibits you can always count on lunch.

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Six hours and 35,000 steps later I am deeply regretting my ambition, particularly because tomorrow entails an 8 hour flight (OK two 4 hour flights) to the coldest place on earth, where hopefully my appearance will seem more appropriate. Inexplicably, even though we set off at 1pm we don’t arrive until 5am the next day. And then immediately into the Taiga! Stay tuned in the unlikely event there’s (a) internet and (b) my phone doesn’t freeze.

*Reassuringly I later find that tout Moscow is hoovering up the bargains at Uniqlo.