The great Iron Curtain of Soviet Russia may have faded into nothing more than a flimsy, bed sheet for the last great libertine race – stained heartily with vodka urine and indiscriminate love; but Russia holds one last huge secret: Siberia!
In this over-discovered world, Siberia is perhaps one of the last true frontiers.
More soon.... but fists some quickies:
Siberia: a name of old terror, instantly synonymous with bleak oppression, suppressions of thought and utter futility, as desolate as the spirits it destroyed. But there is much more too Siberia than salt mines and gulags.
- Home, you go to the pub, you go to the toilet, the cubical door doesn't lock properly!!!! A shy, anxious, nervousness starts to consume you, you try all sorts of contortionist acrobatics to do your business and keep the door shut. Here, you go to the pub, you go to the toilet, you have a cubical: luxury; you have a door: bonus; nothing ever locks....
- In some countries women should be discouraged from wearing tight fitting, sheer, white pants, Russia is not one! As one Russian so aptly put it, "we have our vodka, our beautiful women, our bad diets, life is hard... it could be much worse."
- Alcohol is such a way of life here that when you see a very elegant well groomed young mother strutting down a sunny avenue pushing a pram in one hand and swigging from a litre bottle of beer, firmly clenched in the other, you don't give her a second glance. In Oz she'd be stoned, here she's no different to any Chanel clad exec trudging to work with a king brown in her hand!
- However, one town we visited did ban alcohol for 3 days leading up to a major event. As it was explained to us: "Absolutely no alcohol was permitted at all, so everyone had to drink beer" ?????
Even that didn't stop one well-to-do local that was so drunk that when he finally manged to unlock his car door he started dribbling on the steering wheel. When asked by friends what he thought he was doing,as he started the car: "I'm simply far to drunk to even attempt to walk home...."
Rather than being barren, it is a land of overpowering beauty; it is wild and free, hard and huge.
With over 5 million square kms of Taiga –forests, 25% of the world’s wood reserves – the word ‘wilderness’ is precise.
“Where it ends, only migrating birds know”, is how Chekhov succinctly described this land.
The blanket of spruce, pine, birch and fir trees is so thick and dark, just looking into it your mind conjures up eerie images of fairy-tales gone wrong: Hansel & Gretels' decomposed remains discovered at the end of a crumb laid trail, still a 1000 miles from anywhere; the wolf fat from Peter and his family; a ripped and tattered hooded cloak of red hanging off a branch....
Yet it is not a land scarce of life, beneath its deep, dense, dark Taiga umbrella lives a world of the fierce, the rare, and the huge: moose, reindeer, black bears, the world’s largest tigers, snow leopards, mink, sable, wolves and giant falcons, just to start.
And people live here too, the native Evenki, the hunters, the woodsmen, and (along the waters) the fishermen. They survive in a climate that can climb above 30C in summer, but spends most of its life dressed in white with crystal adornments somewhere between -40C & -50C. They are people as big and gruff and as tough as this land, with humour to match and hearts even bigger.
And through this vast and beautiful wilderness, like a crack in a great moss ridden boulder, cuts a small, but significant railway line…the BAM (Baikal-Amur-Mainline).
Many may know of the Trans-Siberian, or Trans-Mongolian, as two of the world’s great tourist tracks, which pass through the softer parts of Siberia; but few have heard of the BAM - a utilitarian, and simple, often single tracked, diesel line, as precise as a Swiss watch, that represents one of the great engineering feats of the twentieth century (indeed the politics and terrain through which it had to be carved means is took almost a century - 1911-'89 - to complete).
Less touristed than Iraq, it is more than a railway; it is a life force, a vein that keeps the land alive, through country no road can cross during summer when the rivers run.
The sparsely spread towns, villages and hamlets she services are more like like very small knots on a very long string weaving through this wonderland.
Its a trip I've wanted to take for over 15 years, and now one I want to do again.
To get to the BAM we came in through Harbin – China – to Vladivostok. Time became a window through which two nights and a day leapt, whilst we sweltered in a sealed, brown, bunked, box, or sat at border crossing watching nothing and our customs officers do even less in the name of Russian ‘efficiency’ and ‘security.’
It was a nice feeling to be back in a country that, visually at least, we understood; with trees we could recognise, crops we had farmed, and houses that looked like homes built for a family, not shoe boxes for mice.
Vladivostok is the ‘dirty old town’ that I imagined, so much so that the evergreens have brown leaves.
Bulking, grey and industrial, it's actually a port-city. In need of a good scrub; many of its buildings look as rusty and wrecked as its ships; the sort of place where you see rainbows in the sea, the livery of old ships, oil leaks and many years of trade.
And in this great winter city, it is now summer.
Bodies line the dirt, and the decaying boardwalk, to catch the rays. Men dive off the bow of a big old ship, run-a-ground and slowly rusting into the shore; large etiolate women turn red under skeletons of big umbrellas no longer wearing their shade cloths. Sexy, skinny young couples, the way nearly all of them are until their numbers begin to climb in years and size, cuddle and canoodle, walking along the waters edge, eating ice-cream, drinking beer, and growing into their thirties.
Like wheat stalks in a rocky field the thin young girls and large women, both looking like they are wearing the same sized costumes – achieving varying degrees of allure and admiration -, tangle on the paddock they call a beach.
The day we spent here was enough, but don’t for a second think Vladivostok is ugly. Its tardy old suit is not vagabond garb, just comfy old clobber, well worn through honest toil, long winters and hard years.
Now in Khabarovsk – the capital of the Russian Far East for the last four years, it has been bankrolled by Moscow and is a much prettier city than Vladivostok.
It was a much shorter train trip, with magnificent skies: pink sets and orange rises - both flamed, almost pupil blistering.
It’s a smart, clean, lively, city. Sitting on the banks of the Amur river, close enough to China for the occasional hand-to-hand battle over land; it feels more like a coastal resort than a river town.
New, bright coloured, golden doomed Russian Orthodox churches steeple key locations – as there were only 3 left, pillaged but standing, to service over 600,000 people after the Soviet years.
Beer tents are everywhere; people wander the walk ways, smile, chat and drink; bands are busking; people swim in the huge river, or play volley ball on its banks. Summer is almost over, it will snow in a few weeks and the river will be metre thick ice by October.
Here we do a home-stay, and while we stay in the woman’s place it certainly does not feel homely. Ahhhhhhhh, that great Russian stolidism, the hangover of a stoic existence; can anyone but the Russians open their home to you in such a way that says "fxxk off"?! Still, it’s nice to be back in a country where toilet paper is supplied, even if you can’t flush it down the toilet.
Khabarovsk is where the BAM begins and after two days here we begin our journey in a carriage with two undercover cops, big, beefy, very intelligent and funny, its times like this you really wish you spoke the local language. Not to worry, we all understood enough to all get frustrated with what we couldn't communicate; and to understand that whilst with them all booze on the train was free. They also managed to inform us we were heading for Komsomolsk, though no matter what language they spoke they could not have prepared us for it.
Komsomolsk-on-Amur, to be precise (meaning: Young Communist League on the Amur River), is Siberia. Whilst the main street is a pleasant tree-lined avenue, walled by crumbling 3-story terraces with crooked balconies, most of it is the Siberia of your dread.
Big, ugly, utilitarian, communist era housing blocks line the pot-holed road like old giants, imposing yet pitifully depressing. They are coloured dreary grey (perfectly toned with the sky and landscape much of the year) and stained rusty red, while black pock marks, from coal pollution, sit between the concrete cancer welts. Apart from flaking graffiti, the only thing that adorns their walls are bold, bright and happy LG posters promising a shinny new life with their shinny new appliances - for not even the cold, drab, wilds of Siberia can keep a Korean's international branding campaign at bay!
While I maintain that Siberia is perhaps the most awesome region I will ever see, Komsomolsk is the Siberia that can make a heart freeze stop. The fourth largest town in Far East Russia, raising to this status from a small farming village in just 7 years when the Party sent in builders during the 1930's, it became the capital of the Gulags ~ during Starlin's purges some 900,000 souls tramped and perished through its camps. - To leave a happy (ish), prosperous (ish) life and be forced to spend your remaining existence in Komsomolsk now would be heart-breaking; then, in those conditions, you'd be praying for death.
Kostya Tszyu, the great Australian boxer, and the Mig17 fighter jet come from Komsomolsk.....
I'd been wanting the drab and dreary Siberia of our Western education and Komsomolsk was it, something like Canberra without the politicians and their money. But like Canberra, it has some beautiful surrounds and we spent a sunny afternoon lounging on a sandy island in the River Amur, keeping company with a local guide, enjoying his secret barbecue hot-pot and a Spanish red, before boarding the train once more to let boredom set behind us with the sun.
Summer turned to Autumn over night as our cosy little carriage bounced to the clickity-thump of th wheels. We woke to see that not only had the trees begun to turn from green to reds and golds, but the big bright sky had fallen into a tight, dull, damp cloud much closer to the ground.
And still more trees, and occasionally in amongst the canopy a river or lake; and rarer still, a cottage or power line; then for an instant you'd see a road or track and remember people not only survived out her, but lived, worked and played. This is the type of land that spawns either great philosophers or huge fools.
For us Autumn moved to Winter upon our arrival at Tynda - the rain started and snow will begin in a couple of weeks - but the locals this is still Summer, albeit the 'old woman's' end.
Tynda is BAM HQ. While it must have employed some of those brilliant designers from Komsomolsk whose somber grey buildings match the cold dark dull winter clouds so perfectly its hard to tell where depression ends and dreariness begins; it has some spirit. It also has the BAM museum, which shows just how hard it must have been to cut a track through almost impenetrable wilderness - a track Gorbachev never wanted completed. The museum also gives you an indication of the wildlife, minerals and natural wonders hidden in the Taiga.
Beyond the museum, a river, and several 16 story apartment blocks, in what is little more than a country town, there is little more to hold your attention. The bottle shop that guards the church gates serves as a good indication of priorities, while the young drug addicts and older alcoholics are testament of how interesting Tynda isn't.
But it's not what's in Tynda, rather what's outside it that makes it so appealing - the locals live much of their lives in the forest: collecting mushrooms and berries, fishing, hunting, rafting in summer, powder boarding, heli-skiing and doing cross-country during winter.
On the train again. My dreams are of clearings on hills, covered with twisted useless rust ridden mental; pointless and ugly forlorn monuments, marring a beautiful scape. Here people live and survive truly in the middle of no-where, but it is the government and their souring inflation (that seems to compound down the track, getting higher as the people get poorer) not the wilderness, that appears to make this land so desolate.
The drizzle on the windows and my melancholy mood clear, to be met by yet more trees - the assured constant in these wild lands - lakes, large rivers, a bright sunny day, Severobaikalsk and Rashit Yahin.
Rashit is a man whose smile has the warmth and wisdom of a universal grandfather. A master chess player, he is much of the motivation behind Baikal's UNESCO World Heritage Listing - which will preserve much of the great wilderness around Lake Baikal. He is so full of vigour that even a stroke has not dampened the passion and determination he has for people to understand and appreciate his vast and beautiful country.
And when you get to see this North end of the world's oldest, deepest and largest (by volume) lake - making up 1/5th of the world's fresh surface water supply - all you can do is thank him.
It is here, for 3 days, that two years of planning come to fruition. Three days with the companionship and guidance of Vladimir and Alexi - big hearted bush savants of the highest order, that know and love this land just as much as Rashit.
In three short days we sea kayaked on Lake Baikal; camp on one of its islands, shrouded in fog; eat the great Omul - THE fish of Baikal's big selection- (smoked, sashimi & campfire cooked); lie in the forest under the pines, by streams, soaking our bones in boiling hot mineral springs; camp in the Evenki home lands; canoe down glass clear creeks; spend a night with Alexi's extended family in their home by the lake; had a banya - Russian steam bath - complete with birch branch beatings; eat; drink, get drunk; laugh; and wished we could come back again in winter when the lake is ice, the land is snow, and the country belongs to the
hunters in their wild world of minus 40C and below. (During summer less than 300 Westerners visit this end of the lake, in winter it is rarely more than none.)
And again the train, for two days, to the bottom of Baikal - the hydrofoil, during its short season takes only 10 hours, but the lake is already to rough for it to run - via more trees and the world's largest hydro station, for 3 days of beautiful sunsets in Listvyanka, a fishing village, tourist spot on the shores of the lake.
A much wealthier region, Listvyanka is peaceful and picture-book pretty, with neat, happy, little cottages holding pale blue shutters, surrounded by gardens of big bright flowers. Around the village the thick forested hills turn yellow gold and flame red while we watch. We walk, relax and feel like we we are on holidays for the first time since we began travelling - tiredness was beginning to sit upon me like a saddle, insomnia its merciless rider, so it was great to be able to stable down for a few days.
We enjoy the company of two fantastic Kiwi women. You don't realise how calming it is to spend time with people that 'get' your obscure, laconic Aussie ways - American's still can't seem to find the funny side of my aeroplane jokes...
We drink Czech Absence with wealthy young Russian law students, out of town with their "other" girlfriends, snorting good cocaine, drink driving, bribing police and generally ensuring that Russia's great march into the highlands of hedonism will be perpetuated for another generation.
We sleep-in, eat sea-food, write post-cards and enjoy being amongst people that speak some English again after three weeks of trees, the BAM, and a journey worth a lifetime of waiting, along a track through one of the world's last bastions of wilderness.
We hope all is excellent with you.
Thank you to everyone that has written recently, we will reply soon. We have just returned from 10 days in Mongolia, with rat slaughtering nomads, drunken camels drivers and Mongolian smugglers that turn trains into their personal shopping centres, but more of that soon.
Till then stay happy and having fun, you are in our thoughts.
Lockey & Kaz xoxo
PS. We can't go without making a special thanks to Brian (The Adventure Specialists) and his team for the mad hours and weekends that went into navigating Russian bureaucracy and scheduling some amazing connections to make our mad mess of an idea, called Siberia, a reality. Most travel agents would have simply tried to discourage us by saying it was impossible to do, Brian jumped at the opportunity to make it even harder for us. You truly are brilliant and we couldn't (wouldn't) have done it with out you!
Michael & Karen Locke, 29.09.2004