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SIBERIA-MONGOLIA 2018SiberiaMongoliaLogo

Text by Tiina Jokinen.


Day 1

After battling an 8-hour jet-lag and suffering from bad conscience from all the work that still remained incompleted on my desk, I woke to a misty and cloudy early morning in Magadan, hating myself for coming voluntarily somewhere where others have been taken against their will and so already for some centuries with the climax between 1932-1953. With the sense of duty prevailing, though, I decided to make the most out it a possibly wrong decision and self-loathing and managed to drag myself out the bed and my hotel room just in time to meet Alexei – the gentleman that released the sea container that had delivered our expedition Land Cruisers.

Thus by 10 a.m. we were hassle-free in possession of our specially equipped engines for starting off towards Yakutsk along the notorious Bone Road.

As all days that start off with guilty conscience one might find an unexpected grain of gold. Just as smalltalk I asked Alexei if he happened to know some places in the vicinity where we could meet some aboriginal people (how on earth else should you call Koryaks, Yukaghirs and others that probably inhabited those areas since times immemorial), he proudly announced that he had participated in archaeological excavations and we should definitely pay a visit to the local museum. In addition, though, he asked a colleague that bhelped to purge the container if he could direct us to some specific areas and, indeed, the latter advised us to visit a fishing village of Nyucla (ca 30 minutes from Magadan).

While in the end we successfully found the place and due to a lucky coincidence (read: Monday and Tuesday are days of fishing ban in order to grant the migrating salmon fish at least two days of free passage) found an empty beach at the Ola River Delta, at a closer scrutiny we noticed swarm of salmon fish that struggled to get upstream positively leaving an impression of a bubblling fish soup kettle – and a thick soup it was. As a cherry on the cake the huge delta was also full of truly „big fish" that turned out to be local arctic seal or nerpa as the locals call them performing a dance the name of which we could not really determine. Actually, the animals resembled more hungry border guard that collected tax from each fish swarm trying to enter the delta.

Under our very eyes the low tide strained the river bed and several of the poor migrating salmon (keta, gorbusha, trout) were literally stranded and condemned to a most horrible death through the beaks of hungry seagulls. We actually tried and did our best to salvage some of them by catching and throwing them out into the open sea but truth be told, some of them basically crawled into a pot that happened to be on the beach. The laws of nature are merciless...

After the marine adventure we noticed a nice log house with a broken fence on the beach – on a closer scrutiny it happened to belong to a local boss. The fence, however, had suffered a bad luck in the hands of very drunk guards that could not find the breaks of the owner's jeep and had accidentally flown directly into wall of the fancy villa. The laws of nature had again shown their might...

The evening saw us back in Magadan where we duly celebrated the funeral of the stranded salmon (keta).

To be continued when back in the internet coverage...


 Chapter 2

A lot has happened during that time after we left Magadan for our great Siberian adventure – enough to fill a lifetime, it seems...

Under seemingly endless rain we travelled through breathtakingly beautiful landscapes of the Far North. In summer as it is, it is not so easy to imagine all the anguish and actually life-threating experience that the people from Stalin's slave ships went through. To think how many lives in fact ended here in the forced labour camps amidst the natural beauty is beyond me... in order to get a better idea, we decided to visit one of the few prisons the remains of which are still standing, Dneprovsk. The Almighty, though, had made other plans for us and due to the constantly drizzling (sic!) rain the water level in the rivers was rising rapidly. Upon trying to cross the final (number 4) river that separated us from our destination, the current nearly carried us away. We made it successfully to the other bank as turning in the middle of the river is impossible, but took an immediate decision to return on the spot as the water was still rising under our very eyes. OUr visit was probably not meant to happen.

Instead we visited the first center for gold mining where they find the so called „samorodky" – nuggets of gold created by Mother Nature. Somehow the people running those enterprises are not too welcoming for visitors, but something we still managed to see. At least we know that the lucky ones (mostly Ukrainians) that have managed to secure several mining sites are doing really well: the owner of Palatka enterprise for example owns 17 sites and is also politically active.

As we were running hopelessly late with the „accommodation hunt", we had to pitch our tents at a roadside cafe and tire repair shop where a young bear used to visit every day at lunch time. After a short but much needed rest we woke quite late and decided to wait for the bear to come and take his lunch. Luck, however, had turned against us and the bear-boy had decided to skip lunch that day – maybe he had had enough of junk food from the cafe's garbage bins.

We continued through ghost towns and beautiful nature towards the capital of gold - Susuman. The ghost towns en route were in reality industrial cities where production after the collapse of Soviet bankrupt economy had stopped and within a couple of year from that almost all the inhabitants had been forced to leave when the city's supply of water and power had been cut. It is just incredible why someone far away in Moscow had planned tractor spare part production into the Far North where there was no use for that type of tractors nor were there iron, steel or any other necessary ingredients nearby. The demise of that kind of settlements was inevitable, causing a lot of pains for their populations. In some of those towns, though, new settlers, mostly from the Eastern Ukraine, were arriving and buying property for next to nothing. Time will show what comes next as no one seems to have a fixed plan one way or another. Maybe it is best if the mighty Arctic nature claims hers back.

In Susuman we managed to negotiate our way into a fully functioning open gold mine. An interesting experience, especially considering that the methods have not significantly changed from the ones that have been used thousands of years ago: soil is ladled onto conveyor belts, mixed with water and the rubber mats with coarse relief will keep the heavy particles, i.e. mostly gold, to be harvested later. Teh yield was harvested under our very eyes was impressive.

The road side was full of so called „starately" – people that come, settle for most of teh summer in abandoned houses, rent bulldosers and other machines and privately mine gold. Unlike the regular Klondyke they actually find it and live off it relatively satisfactorily. Surprisingly, their houses are usually extremely clean and cosy inside with most of the modern conveniences despite their „after-the-nuclear-war" appearance. We were invited for tea by a couple of those prospectors and cold only admire their households. Those settlements consist mostly of men from either nearby towns that still exist pr from as far away as Moldova, the Ukraine, the Caucasus etc.

Our next place of accommodation was in a garage of an abandoned city where we pitched our roof tents with the hope of escaping the constant drizzle and its devastating effects on our sleeping gear. An experience it was even despite the fact that almost at midnight a van with 13 Polish students arrived with exactly the same thoughts in mind.

Chapter 3

Leaving Susuman after a productive visit to the gold mines, we carried on towards Sakha republic, with the first stop in another gold town Ust Nera on the banks of the Indigirka. Although the annoying drizzle had stopped and the surrounding sopkas (mountains) under the clear blue sky were bathing in an incredible spectre of colours both from the different minerals and also arctic vegetation, the river was still higher than usual and the town's water supply had obtained a deep yellowish-gray tint and was nearly unusable even for washing. For want of any better accommodation we separated and part of the expedition crew found housing in an apartment, while others had to make do at a pretty peculiar local hotel which was a true remnant of the bygone Soviet era – in our group slang the Soviet rubbish.

After as short a stop as possible in Ust Nera, we continued to the Pole of Cold in the Northern hemisphere – Oymyakon. Rushing a bit ahead of the actual events, I would like to make an amendment to our general knowledge of the world: the lowest temperature was actually measured in the neighbouring village from Oymyakon, Tomtor. As Oymyakon, however, is the name of not only one village but of the whole region, the honorary title of the Pole of Cold was given namely to that place.

We must consider ourselves lucky, since after our arrival in Tomtor, we learned that right behind us the road had been flushed away by the flooding Indigirka. There must have been a reason why we made our stop in Ust Nera as short as possible...

On the way to Tomtor we passed through an Even village Yuchyugey. It feels quite strange when upon entering a village you see people rushing into the houses and warily watching you through the curtains. Upon greeting them you notice how they hasten their steps and try to find cover in the buildings or some activities that require absolute concentration. It was weird and that only to say it mildly. After some time, though, we managed to make contact with two boys that came to the village festival square with an obvious aim to play football. Thank God that for a 13 and 10- year old football was still irresistible despite the threatening alien invasion... Thus I managed to explain through the boys to the village community that we were almost their distant relatives speaking a language that was closer to them than to Russian and in general we had not come to eat them up. Apparently, though Russian is the „lingua franca" between the different peoples on the territory of the huge federation, not everybody speaks it well and willingly. Only naturally the villagers take visitors with foreign appearance for Russians or in general for a nuisance to whom one should „smile in a foreign language" and typically for Northerners, they try to keep to themselves. When we finally discovered how many similar words our languages contain even at first glance, most people came to talk to our strange looking gang and we learned a thing or two about their life. Like the fact that their natioanl sport is a special type of wrestling and that just two weeks prior to our visit they had had their national festival where all neighbouring villages had gathered dressed in their national costumes. We also learned that the village had 300 two-legged inhabitants (a mix of Evens and Yakuts) and 500 reindeers, let alone innumerable husky or laika dogs. Finally we were honored by taking photos of the beautiful girls in the village and even allowed to show them in our documentary as a dress rehearsal for their future career as film stars. Life will show if their dreams come true.

Oymyakon, actually Tomtor, greeted us in a considerably friendlier way: the guest house owner came to meet and greet us at the cross roads and became our guide for three days. The permafrost museum as well as the local ethnographic museum opened their doors to us and gave us a chance to admire the wonderful artwork of the local ice sculpturers and deeds of historical persons. As legend goes winter cold arrives each autumn riding on oxback from the Polar Ocean and in February the first horn of the mount is broken around the 18th and the second around the 28th, after which teh beast with his rider returns to the North to grow new horns in order to return again. When the Cold has the region in its power, the temperatures can drop down to -70 Celsius. Due to permafrost there is no running water or sewage in the houses but central heating works faultlessly.

During our visit the actual village of Oymyakon stood out in a completely different way than the Pole of Cold – it was namely almost totally flooded by the Indigirka, probably to teh great joy of the village kids that were running through high water accompanied by their laika dogs. It certainly seemed quite a change for the eternal cold switched by swarms of mosquitoes in the short summer.

Chapter 4

Shamans are certainly a keyword for North-Eastern Siberia. A Burjat geologist that had lived in the Far North for nearly 40 years told me that her niece had ever since childhood suffered from mystical diseases that our evidence-based medicine could neither diagnose nor treat. The family decided to ask a powerful shaman for help. The latter had agreed and informed the family that the girl has to become a shaman because from her mother's side there had been shamans in the family and also her Russian father had a witch among his predecessors. However, if the girl agrees to fulfill her duty at a later stage in her life, the shaman can make her healthy so that she can grow up, have a family and raise her children before dedicating to her true vocation. And indeed, both kept their word.

We had also learned about a shaman that lived close to Ytyk-kyol town. The present shaman's father Foma had been even more powerful in his lifetime and treated all kinds of diseases. His life, though, happened to coincide with the worst period of the Soviet era and several stories were told how the militia or NKVD tried to persecute him. Once a militiaman had arrested him as an enemy of the people and in order to be most effective had decided to shoot him on the spot without any court or conviction which obviously would have approved his judgement anyway. He pulled his gun and aiming at the shaman told the latter that he was unworthy of occupying a place under the sun, while all of a sudden he noticed that he held his gun to his own temple and the words were addressed to himself.

Another story goes that the NKVD came to arrest Foma and locked him in a cell. Afterwards, though, they saw the shaman exactly on the same spot where they had arrested him. In order to be on the safe side, they arrested him once again and locked him in another cell. The same story repeated itself with Foma being locked in the third cell. When they went to check the first cell, it was obviously empty. The same goes about the second cell. In the third one, however, a big brown bear was sitting and charged at the NKVD men.

Foma's son Mikhail has lived in considerably easier times, but even he has had his fair share of possibilities to show his power. It is said that being a bright pupil, when he got bored at a class, he turned into a piglet and ran around between classmates and teachers.

Be it as it is with those stories, but one thing is certain, when Yakut people tackle health porblems that ordinary doctors cannot help solving, Mikhail might be the one to turn to.

And strangely enough, although, it was not our main aim to visit him or any of his colleagues, before arriving at Ytyk-Kyol, I noticed a small road leading into a pretty ethnic Yakut village and something almost forced me to turn there. We came to an almost empty but very picturesque place where only children were running around at their farm yards. Despite our repeated attempts to communicate with them, not even a single head turned our way. It felt as if we had become transparent or invisible. The whole atmosphere was syrrealistically film-like. Only later we learned that this was Mihkail's village. To our greatest pity we did not meet him, though we tried to call him the next day and ask for an audience. He was said to be busy making hay as the rare and few hot sunny days needed to be used to their maximum.

Probably our meeting was not meant to be.

Chapter 5

It is sadly impossible to travel the route from Magadan to Yakutsk without mentioning GULAG and all the injustice that has been done under a pretext or another. I actually tried to avoid the subject as long as possible because no words, let alone mine, can describe the atrocities done. So let those few passages be just a personal thanks to all the peoople that have lost their lives at somebody's whim in a huge sadistically ingenious scheme to obtain the almost unobtainable natural resources at that time. And let it also be a prayer that the lost lives have served a greater purpose in the history of humankind whatever that is – to be a warning for the future does defintely not sound profound and adequate enough...

From 1931 the government in the Kremlin invented a system of prison camps in the Far North in order to mine gold, diamonds and other natural resources that the impoverished country with its rogue leadership badly needed for its existence. As I briefly mentioned before, the usual slavery based social systems set up a legal code on how slaves should be treated and kept up to a point where in several African pre-colonial states the slaves had the right to complain about their owners and demand a transfer to another owner and even buy themselves free for exemplary service. In the evil Soviet empire, though, the slaves were snatched from their homes, stamped criminals for nothing and sent to GULAG as total outlaws. The figures obviously vary but in these parts it is maintained that by 1953 a total number of 12 million people were sent to the labour camps. Before ww II it is said that only 10% of the „slaves" survived their tragic destiny.

We travel along the road that bears an unofficial name „the bone road". That because it is literally built on the bodies of the people that died here working under impossible conditions. They were buried directly under the roadworks. No wonder the Nature rebels from time to time and flushes away parts of the highway even today...

Should you wish to visit a former labour camp, however, it is almost impossible as most of them have been carefully cleared away so that even no bit of wood remains.

Anyone who wishes to know more about that period of time can find information in several research papers publicly available in the vast space of internet.

One thing is clear, there is no comparison between the destiny of Stalin's victims and that of the tsar's exiled „undesirables". The latter were sent to inhabited areas and the local community had to provide them with private accommodation, food and even a servant-assistant. In Chorkyokh there is a balagan (traditional Yakut dwelling house) consisting of three cosy rooms that had once upon a time belonged to an exiled Polish linguist. The living conditions were often favourable enough for people to voluntarily stay on even after their official exile was over.

Chapter 6

After several campings by the picturesque rivers along the road we finally reach Russia's capital of diamonds – Yakutsk. What a relief to wash the cars and ourselves and sleep in a soft bed for a change!

Yakutsk managed to surprise by being warm (literally), clean, well-kept and beautiful. While walking through the streets of the Old Town to the monument of Beketov, the founder of Yakutsk in 1632, a nagging doubt about the actual origin of the city kept disturbing me: why namely here on this spot? Was it really an empty place in the middle of taiga or was there something here before? After looking at the Sakha (Yakut)handicraft and noticing a pattern of runic script on several of them, another question arises. Was it really the Russians that brought culture and literacy to the savage nomadic tribes in the Siberian wilderness or could it have been that the Sakha people actually had their runic texts that wait to be discovered and interpreted? And maybe on the spot of the present-day Yakutsk where Beketov built the block-house there was another settlement before? Permafrost has preserved the mammoth remains in an exemplary condition but probably eliminated the chance to erect buildings that could be excavated by archaeologists today. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the local nations have preferred lighter structure for housing thus making it more difficult to study their earlier history?

City people in the capital differ cardinally from the their village relatives. While in the village it is not so easy to get in contact with anyone at the first moment, then in the city people are less suspicious and open to conversation with foreigners.

We paid an interesting visit to the Sakha Republic's Treasury exposition and were surprised to learn that despite being one of the biggest producers of diamonds in the world, nearly all of them are exported to the so-called Mainland (Russia) were the stones are cut and processed into jewels or other necessary final products and part of them are imported back to Sakha – approximately like crude oil from Nigeria and refined product into Nigeria. It was quite surprising to discover that Sakha's jewelry tradition concerning diamonds started only in 1992, i.e. after the collapse of the USSR. Silversmiths have longer traditions in the Sakha culture and so silver jewelry is prevailing in the national costumes.

While driving South, the roadside is „embellished" by mines of various precious stuff or alternatively holy places usually in breathtakingly beautiful spots like watarefalls, non-melting glaciers, natural springs etc. In one of the latter we met three people that treated us to home-made pancakes – really delicious – and told that they were on a kind of pilgrimage through the sacred sites of Sakha people. In the course of various rituals there had been a so-called rebirth of a lady and they were now waiting if she would become a shaman or a healer. All of a sudden, two people of the group asked me to stay with them for a couple of minutes more andd started palying jew's harp (homus). This was a truly beautiful melody and while I was grateful for being the sole attendant to such concert, they told that this was actually a ceremony and they had a message for me.

Things happen in this wildly surrealistic country.

Chapter 7

So much is happening only by driving a hundred kilometres: visit to the capital of gold in Sakha, a city called Aldan, among that. Actually a small town surrounded by various open mines where in addition to gold also platina and diamonds see sunlight. The houses clearly show that people are not entirely deprived of at least a microshare of the huge profits earned from the mountains. As in most cities that we pass through, new Orthodox Cathedrals dominate central squares or their respective sites. Eager young clerics tell us over and over again the stories of martyrdom when Christianity was brought to Eastern Siberia. At the same time it is not so easy to spot any first nation representatives on the streets. Maybe it is for their own good that they still often hide deeper in the taiga and pursue their traditional ways of living like raising reindeer.

En route we pass through an Evenk village. Maybe because it is already further South, but people are more open to contact with foreigners. However, upon asking about their daily life, I learn that not so many can speak the Evenk language any more. Reputedly, only the older generation knows it. Luckily, they have not completely abandoned their own ways as at least every self-respecting family must have a herd of reindeer. Solely visually judging, the Evenks differ greatly from their neighbours Yakuts and Evens.

Before leaving Sakha behind, we visit a forest spa. To call it a spa is a slight exaggeration, but it is a place where the water flows from the depth of more than a hundred meters and keeps a constant temperature of 30 C even at the harshest winter months. On the taiga path we encounter nomadic Yakuts with their reindeer. The road to the hot water springs is peppered with obstacles – huge stones and finally we have to cross a river, as last winter's ice has taken the old bridge with itself to the Arctic Ocean. The so-called spa complex itself comprises some ascetic wooden cabins, two pools where the water constantly flows and surprise, surprise! – an Orthodox chapel. It is a holy place after all with all the thermal water. It has probably been holy also for the aboriginal people but not many traces are left from that.

Our first stop after Sakha is Tynda. This is the capital of the former Komsomol shock construction project. Though parts of the rail-line were constructed earlier using prison labour, in the 1970s-1980s it was a popular project in the USSR where young people went to work and many of them stayed. 30 years ago Tynda was called the city of youth. By today, though, it might as well be called the opposite: many people have left as the BAM line is not exploited to its maximum to say the least and aside from providing railway education, there is not much to do in Tynda. The railway station, though, is an impressive building housing some quite prestigious businesses like banks, jewellers etc.

Talking about railways, we pitched our tents for overnight not far from Moscow-Vladivostok rail line and there we defintely could not complain about the under-exploitation of the route. I guess in every 10 minutes an incredibly long train roared by either in one or another direction. In addition to mining, logistics must be a lucrative branch of economy in these parts of the world.

Chapter 8

In another Evenk village we met a nice lady of Evenk descent that told about the same story as the ones in previous places: not many people know their language any more and younger people tend to leave for bigger cities not to return so eagerly. But the ones in the villages still stick to their old ways, i.e. grow what crops the soil and climate support – potato mostly – and keep cattle or reindeer at higher altitudes. The people have become mixed with Russians and now also with Chinese. Each and everybody maintained that in Siberia all the colourful mix cohabit in a friendly way.

I tried to get a better picture about the relations with the central power in the Mainland (Russia). Apparently, the difference between our dear EU and Russia is not as great as we would like to think. An entrepreneurial cafe owner, a true Siberian Cossack descendant, explained to me that she had applied for a grant to establish the roadside cafe, to employ people and grow her own vegetables and produce beef and mutton and her application had been successful. For all that she needed to write a project just like we have to do and submit it to Moscow (well, in reality a local representative of the central power) just like we have to submit ours to Brussels or their local substitutes on the Earth. The only difference at the first glance, though, seemed to be that the whole application process is considerably shorter in Russia and also that in case of approval the money is tranferred right away in advance, so that the entrepreneur does not have to take any loans in order to carry out the planned works. Maybe our Eurocrats should be sent to Siberia or at least to Moscow for improving their professional qualification?

Another similarity between the EU and Russia is the reform of local governments. In Estonia there were even several city governments that disappeared altogether and here in Russia, several huge oblasts, krais and okrugs seized to exist. This way the Amur oblast and Aginsko-Buryat Autonomous region formed a huge Zabaikal Krai. I asked several people, if that changed something in their lives and it turned out that the aboriginal Buryats that formerly enjoyed their special subsidies had lost most of that while the others whose predecessors had come to Siberia during the Russian invasion (under that I mean tsarist Russia) had gained some.

Our next stop was Chita, the city of Decembrists and their wives. The church where the progressive thinkers – after all the 1825 December revolution was an attempt for constitutional Russia – were taken from the prison to pray during important Orthodox holidays and where they could occasionally even glipmse their wives that had followed them to their destiny, has been converted to Decembrists museum. To think only what could have been different in the world if instead of ending up in Siberian silver mines, the forward thinking army officers would have succeeded...

Another memorable visit that we made in Chita was to the only Tatar Mosque that serves a community of about 20 000 moslems in the area. The building dates back to the beginning of the 20th century while during the Soviet time it had been used for many different purposes, a chicken farm among them. Today we received the most cordial welcome and a hafez from Yemen recited the first Sura for us. The Sheikh said that invited guests are guests of the hosts, but the uninvited ones like us are guests sent by the God. Be it as it is, we certainly felt that way.

On the way out of Chita, we paid a visit to the only Buddhist temple in the city and the welcome was not less cordial than in the Mosque. The head of the monastery took an hour out of his busy schedule to explain to us how the temple was rebuilt on its present site after the original one in the city centre behind the Army officers' club had been destroyed.

It seems to have been a rule in Chita that all the sacred buildings had to give way to some more important structures like the original Kazan Cathedral to Lenin's monument and the Buddhist temple to the war history park. About the mosque we already knew. Luckily, all of them have been rebuilt or restored after 1992.

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