At just 450km south of the Arctic Circle, Yakutsk (Яакутск - Дьокуускай in Yakut) is pretty far north, it’s buildings are on stilts to keep them out of the permafrost, and it’s the coldest, most populated city in the World. It’s also where lots of relatively fresh remains of mammoths and other large mammals have been found over the years; some part of them, a tusk perhaps, poking up out of the snow. We decided to go there and, in quite a minor degree, follow in the footsteps of the Mammoth Hunters.
Rather than go by train, we decided to fly to Yakutsk for a number of reasons: it’s pretty far out of the way, our time in Russia is running out (this mainly hinges on flights from Tokyo to Sydney), and it’s quite difficult to get to. The railway does now extend all the way there, however this is a recent development and its currently only bringing freight. Next year, we hear the line will be open to passenger services, which will mean you can travel all the way from Oxford to Yakutsk by train! Mike wanted to do this or at least to come as far as we could by train and cover the remaining kilometres on the rough road in a taxi or minibus that would take 10 hours. So we flew from Irkutsk. And what an interesting experience that was.
Irkutsk airport was a bustling mass of travellers, mainly taking internal flights (Russians travel very little abroad but a lot in their own country), we checked in and pootled around the main hall for a while. Mike had a last bottle of beer in his bag and decided to neck it rather than having taken off him as when we went through to the departure hall. The rules are a little different from the rest of the world; Russians have their own way of doing most things and they haven’t suffered devastating terrorist attacks (ahem). They didn’t seem that worried about what people were taking onto the aircraft: bottles, hampers and dogs. It was a much more relaxed and consequently I was not nearly as nervous about the flight. The whole experience reminded me of the halcyon days of air travel, totally lacking in anxious paranoia but rather felt like a thrilling adventure. Within moments of taking off the stewards were scurrying up and down the gangway offering sweets, then blankets, then juices, and finally meals in plastic trays, accompanied by coffee or tea. It was pretty civilised and harked back to a bygone era before every aspect of flying became separately priced.
The flight lasted three or so hours before we touched down in Neryungri (Нэрюнгри - Нүөрүҥгүрү). We disembarked for an hour or so and gathered in a glorified Nissen hut before being ushered through another security check; as British travellers we were a novelty; surprised faces when passports were checked. Very soon we were all boarded onto another old bus and driven all of 200 metres across the tarmac The bus stopped by the aircraft, engine’s rumbling, but the doors remained shut. We all watched and waited. Eventually a couple of policemen arrived looking very purposeful; they met with a member of ground crew and they stood around looking anxious and staring out into the middle distance. After a period of waiting and wondering, a police van pulled up in front of the bus and a woman and a man were escorted up the staircase and into the plane; the man was obviously ill and somewhat disabled. They were followed by two other men surrounded by a cluster of cops; both men were hand-cuffed, awkwardly struggling with their own luggage up into the aircraft. Who were these mysterious fellow passengers and what were their crimes?
When we were finally allowed to board the plane, one of the stewards hurried up to us to say that we couldn’t sit in our allocated seats so we swiftly chose somewhere else to sit; at the back of the aircraft sat the large group of cops and robbers (if that’s what they were). It made me think of the film ‘ConAir’ and I wondered if we’d be alright. The final leg of the journey to Yakutsk was only an hour and passed quickly without incident. There was just enough time to pass round a glass of juice before we were disembarking for the last time and boarding a bus to take us to the terminal. Again the bus idled with the doors shut and we were all treated to another spectacle of the cops leading the criminals into the prison van. This time it was apparent that it wasn’t just the two men who were hand-cuffed but the woman too. The disabled, old man was also continuing his journey in the prison van! Who were these people? Are they members of a notorious gang? A group of saboteurs? Once they were safely stowed in the prison van we too were allowed to finish our journey as far as the terminal. One thing was sure, the crew seemed to want us all to witness this exchange of prisoners for whatever reason.
Yakutsk is a nice enough place, not as ascetically pleasing to the eye as Irkutsk and Khabarovsk, mostly comprising of fairly utilitarian modern and Soviet apartment blocks. We spent our time there doing a tour of the various museums: The City Museum, The Mammoth Museum, and the Ethnographic Museum; these last two are housed in the same building and are excellent. At one of them we met a man who worked there. He asked where we were from, and when we said Oxford, and knowing it was the day of the EU referendum, he mentioned “Brexit”. We said that we hoped our fellow brits would be sane enough to vote to remain. He told us that he’d recently been to Belgium and that there had been a lot of women in hijabs there; “terrible”, he said. Ignoring this I asked him if he thought that if the UK voted to leave the EU, it might join the Russian Federation instead; he laughed. I think we might get along rather well.
Although the other three museums were good, undoubtedly the best place was the Underground Laboratory at the Melnikov Permafrost Institute where we had to make an appointment to visit and have a private tour. Some years ago, a host of tunnels and caves we dug beneath the River Lena through the permafrost layer. After entering, one descends several flights of stairs and arrives at a depth of twelve meters underground in a frost encrusted tunnel. The temperature is about -8 degrees Celsius and the ceiling is encrusted with regularly shaped ice crystals; the frozen breaths of all the people that have been down here. Our guide, a very nice man who looked a lot like the American singer-songwriter John Grant, pointed out several roots poking out of the ground, casually mentioning that they were some 10,000 years old. He handed a piece of wood to us; “this is also 10,000 years old”, he said; it feels light and dry, like a normal piece of wood, but we still look impressed. Then he handed us a much heavier, more petrified piece of wood saying that it was 25,000,000 years old! We were flabbergasted. That piece really did feel like the fossil it was. Almost just a shocking is that we were allowed to hold the things, poke stuff, have a tug at the ten thousand year old roots; it was all very casual and hands on, no sign of any glass cases, barriers, or “Do Not Touch” signs.
Later on during the tour, the three of us had been grappling to find a word for several minutes. I wasn’t really understanding what was going on, but this word seemed key to completing the explanation of the current phase of the underground tour we were on. What was this word? It was something to do with the white stuff that covered the walls. Was it paint, or a form of whitewash? After about five minutes of discussion, including recourse to Alex’s mini Oxford Russian-English dictionary, we finally discovered the mystery word: lime. Yes, that was it: the walls were painted with lime, and, over time, some of that lime had fallen off. As if it hammer the point home, we prodded some of it and more fell off.
I don’t really understand why this was so important that it was worth spending so long to get to the right word, but it highlights our predicament on guided tours such as these: our guide could not, or would not, make any allowances for the fact that I can’t speak a word of Russian, and Alex, although good and my saviour on the Russian legs of our trip, isn’t given time enough to translate for me. Here’s how it goes: I snigger nervously to myself as our guide speaks for several minutes about something or other, and Alex, having finally got a chance to try to translate some of it, says something similar to “yes, the lime is falling off here”. It’s odd, but the various times we’ve been in this situation it seems that the guide has been incapable of making allowances for our language restriction by speaking slowing in simple sentences, and allowing me a chance to get a translation from Alex. I think I understand what’s going on. Our guide has a set patter, a set of points to cover, a set of things to show, and there’s not a shortened or simplified version that they are able to quickly switch to. It reminds me of situations I’ve been in when I was the person about to explain something to a group of people and quickly realised that they didn’t have the basic background knowledge to understand what I was going to say, but in the moment, I could do nothing else except plough on through the material for the benefit of the blank faces staring uncomprehendingly back at me.
This is not the first time we’ve been in this situation in the last few weeks. Whilst we were in Irkutsk we visited the Museum of Siberian Communications, a small museum in the city that looked interesting (at least for me). After a first failed attempt to visit due to getting the opening times wrong, our second attempt nearly failed as well because the museum only does guided group tours. Alex used her Russian skills to persuade them to give just the two of us our own special tour; hinging on the fact that I was very enthusiastic about technology. So we began. The woman doing the tour again didn’t pause a moment to make sure that we understood what she was saying, nor to give Alex any time to translate anything to help my understanding. There we often long parts whilst she explained in great detail how some object came to be in the museum, who it was donated by, when this was, how much it cost, and, I imagine, other seemingly extraneous information, such as when the glorious benefactor got married, to whom, and what University degree they obtained, and in which year; it was impossible to translate.
If that sounds a bit critical, let me just say that those at the museum were really, really nice, and our guide was a very kind and friendly lady, and they were all volunteers; the museum was incredibly interesting with lots of old Soviet technology that you never see in the West. In the West all one hears about is the British, and, mainly, American inventions and inventors. But here in the East they had their own pioneers, there own inventors, and their own ways of doing things. For example, we particularly liked the machine for sending templates of newspapers by telegraph so that they could be printed and distributed locally. It’s good to get a different point of view; a different take on things; a view from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Towards the end of the tour, a flamboyant (dressed as if she was on her way to Ascot), and friendly lady turned up and we were introduced to her. Her name is Valentina Mikhailovna (Валентина Михайловна) and she was obviously a very respected guest. Lots of conversation in Russian proceeded and I didn’t know what was going on, but it ended up with Alex and her agreeing to meet in a few days time at a Library in some other part of Irkutsk in order that this lady could give us a book about the city. A few days later we arrived near the appointed time. As we sat and waited in the lobby of the library, someone asked us what we were doing there. Having mentioned the name of the person who invited us, with considerable enthusiasm we were ushered into a room with paintings hung around two of the walls, partook in tea and biscuits and chatted whilst we waited. I didn’t really understand a word of it. At one point all the women seemed to be talking a lot about sex (I could understand that bit). After one of the woman fetched a paperback book, it emerged that they were talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. The paintings had all been painted by the same artist, all in shades of grey, and there were fifty of them; they didn’t appear to have anything to do with the book itself. “Which is your favourite?”, they asked. We told them: They produced a writing book, and we wrote which one we liked best and why we liked it.
Then I had to dash off to meet the person who was our next Airbnb host, but Alex stayed and, shortly afterwards, the flamboyant woman turned up, she was giving a lecture to a reading circle and Alex joined in. It took me about an hour and a half to return, by which time Alex had been invited to speak a little about Oxford (she declined), we’d been given a signed copy of the Valentina’s book (she turned out to be the author of 3 or 4 anthologies of Stories from Irkutsk), and had our photo taken with one of the woman that worked in the library, and exchanged email addresses with everyone. Although I didn’t really understand what was going on, they were really nice; it was a pleasure to meet them. I guess it isn’t everyday that two strangers from Oxford turn up in their library, or in the Museum of Communications, or even, bar the obvious tourist spots and backpacker hostels, Irkutsk itself.
Coming from Oxford can be useful; everyone’s heard of it. I remember reading some ten years back that the name Oxford was in the top five or six most recognisable brands in the world (Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s were also on the list). Everyone’s heard of it; everyone knows it’s in England; lot’s a people have an Oxford dictionary; everyone’s read Harry Potter or seen one of the films; lot’s of people have watched dubbed versions of Inspector Morse or Lewis, and of course knows who J.R.R. Tolkein is. From peoples’ reactions, I generally get the feeling that if you say you’re from Oxford, then you most probably ordinarily where a cloak and hang out in some ancient building covered in Virginia Creeper. The name is synonymous with the town, the place, and the people; it makes no difference if you’re a currently-not-employed programmer or carpenter, you’re from Oxford, and that’s all that matters. As my daily life in the town is very much that of the Townie, as opposed to a Gownie, it feels nice to have some of the glory for a short time. As a nation Russians appear to be very cultured people; they love art, poetry, writing, and they are flamboyant and verbose with it too; they appear to love, or respect, the idea of Oxford, and it feels good to be on the receiving end of that enthusiasm for a while. It works better than telling them you’re from Weston-super-Mare: Most foreigners when told this just look at you with a confused and slightly worried look on their faces; come to think of it, so do many of my fellow country-folk.
Back to the Cryogenics chamber. As I said it’s cold down here. Yakutsk is in continuous permafrost (yes, despite the name there’s such as thing as non-continuous permafrost). As we descend the steps into the underground laboratory we see the current line of the permafrost where the ground turns to ice. It’s midsummer and it won’t get any lower. Yakutsk is further north than the Shetland Islands, is a long, long, way from Moscow, or almost anywhere, and the temperature ranges from -40 in the winter to 30 in the summer; that’s a staggering range when compared to a near Mediterranean climate such as the UK has. Due to the permafrost, all the buildings here are on stilts; most of these being thick concrete stills suspending apartment blocks, shopping centres, anything, into the air and out of the reach of the icy tendrils of the permafrost. After our time in the chamber I notice that the temperature has risen to a toasty -7, which is due to the combined body heat of the three of us warming the place up in the 15 minutes we were down there.
And so we’re airborne again, bidding our farewells to the Yakutsk and the Sakha Republic (Республика Саха - Саха Өрөспүүбүлүкэтэ ), on a southbound plane to Khabarovsk (Хабаровск), where we’ll stay for a night before picking up the Trans-Siberian railway again heading for the end of the line: Vladivostok (Владивосток). There we’ll finally depart Russia, stepping off the Eurasian Continent and on to a ferry to set sail for the shores of Japan (Япония).