|2004-12-19 - Alexei in Ambar
19 Dec, 04 - 20:22
GPS-pos: N67°28´ | E153°42´ | Alt: 11 M
It is the 19th of December today and the temperature is a mere -49°F, and we´re hiding indoors in our comfy little apartment in the yakut settlement of Srednekolymsk. We will stay 6 weeks here. There´s no wind out there, it is snowing a little on and off and people are right now, shouting hotly at each other in the corridor just outside the apartment.
Amazingly enough we were greeted as heroes when we arrived here the other day, even though, it seems like, nobody really believes that we´ve actually skied all the way here from their nearest neighboring settlement in the south, Zyryanka, 400 km:s southwest of here. But, the hardest thing to digest for them, has been believing that we´ve actually slept outdoors in a tent without a warming stove! This apart, these people are truly nice folks and the way they spontaneously converse with us, well, it is like we´ve been friends for years. This is, however, a typical trait for people living along the Kolyma. One of them, a bloke we´ve never seen before, just turned up knocking at our door yesterday, stayed half a day and talked about pretty much everything. Mainly hunting and fishing. And how he this summer turned over in his boat in a violent river and lost a new 4 cylinder Mercury boat motor. He didn´t mind the boat, but the motor! By the way, it took him four days to walk back through dense bush to Srednekolymsk!
´´Gee´´ ,he said slightly annoyed when I asked, ´´this is normal out here. Normal!´´
We also showed him the 3 minute slot we´d just made to be broadcast by the Swedish Television the same day. A bit about our freezing trip and a lot about a couple of trappers we´d met and filmed. (See www.svt.se and click Gokväll in the top list of options.) He didn´t seem impressed at all, and reacted only once, when he saw that one of the toughest guys I´ve ever met, were handling the fish in a mere -49°F in rubber gloves.
´´A weak guy, that one´´ , he said, ´´I do the same without gloves.´´
We´ve presently put up camp in a tiny apartment north of the settlements center, at the end of a coal pipe this time, so the indoor temperature is much better this time in comparison with the one in Zyryanka. 61°F, so it suits us fine. The further you live away from the coal station on the coal pipe, the colder your apartment is. In Zyryanka we lived next to it and had an indoor temperature of 74°F! As usual, there´s no cold water, only burning hot and the extreme cold makes it impossible to look through one of the windows, since they´re all covered by ice. Both on the outside and inside. We had some problems sleeping the first two nights, though, since our neighbors below us, where quarreling due to heavy drinking and it all ended up with a crushed window. Nevertheless, it´s calm at the present! Even though the volume of their TV is put at maximal sound. But than again, they´re probably half deaf from all the drinking. Ah, I was supposed to tell you about Alexei in Ambar. Here we go:
´´Is that all Russian you speak?´´ complained Alexei when he realized that our conversation would be limited, ´´that is complete shit, that is. Crap is what it is.´´
Alexei had lived by himself in Ambar for over 20 years. In a small log cabin which he had built by himself and added on more space for every year passed. He had stuffed the walls with grass, felt and hay to keep any draft out. He had also covered most of the walls with old newspapers. The cabin was clean and very tidy. There were spikes and strings all around the home made steel stove, where we could hang all our sweaty and wet clothes to dry. He had made a specific place for boots to dry. Everybody, with no exception, wear a specific light felt boot called valenkis here, once the extreme cold arrive. Alexei huffed discontented when he placed our heavy and modern ski boots on the shelf. He probably would have said that they were, in his own words, crap, if he hadn´t been to dignified a person. Alexei had a big Santa Claus beard, moved slowly, leaning forward a bit, just like he was on his way to pick something up from the floor, and he seemed very intelligent and well-versed in any global subject. He´s age was a bit over 60, he had strong and coarse hands and he had worked, up till the arrival of perestroika, in Zyryanka, located 20 km:s south of Ambar. He´s work had mainly consisted of hard menial work. That is the way he described it. As quick as we turned up unexpectedly at his door, he served as some fresh maxa. This our favorite of all local food, is frozen raw liver from an endemic fish called Nalim, which is served like ice-cream and one dips it, on and off, in some salt. Extremely tasty! This liver contains an enormous amount of fat, it seems, because your body temperature goes up quickly. It is, no doubt, the most perfect appetizer to get when you walk in sweaty from a -31°F cold, as it was this first day when we left Zyryanka. I immediately noticed several books stacked neatly in several shelves in the corners of the room. Alexei was reading one of them, a ragged novel, when we arrived. He used his worn reading glasses as a bookmark.
´´Good book?´´ I asked him.
´´Nothing but crap´´ ,he said glumly, ´´this type of book are the only ones I can find today in Zyryanka. Not classical Russian literature, only these, which are only in this house for me to pass the time with. Crap it is!´´
This was the first time we came across that abnormal heat which plagues every little occupied cabin along the Kolyma. The heat was so intense, that we sweated profoundly and it didn´t take long until we were sitting in our long johns.
´´The temperature is 104°F right now´´, Johan told me and continued: ´´It can´t get worse than this.´´
Wrong, the heat got almost unbearable when Alexei started cooking a delicious hare casserole for dinner. It was this combination of first extreme cold, followed by extreme indoor heat and than followed again by extreme cold which gave me this cough, which never seems to give up.
´´Great dogs you have´´, Johan noted, but Alexei disagreed: ´´Not at all, they´re to young. They´re crap, they are.´´
There was no doubt about what Alexei thought about the changes which arrived with perestroika. He didn´t like it one little bit. He´d lost his job, he´d become isolated out here in Ambar since all transports suddenly stopped and his pension was far to small to survive on. But since he was a true Siberian, he still, somehow survived with great dignity. And with the help of trapping, hunting and fishing. His anger is easy to understand. I have learned and understood by now, that this isolated part of the immense Russian State got on very well during the Soviet Era. They received their wages in time, they had a decent pension to live on, they could take a holiday every other year at the Black Sea, health care worked very well, there where professionals in every corners of life and all these negative aspects with Soviet life, like the bureaucracy, government control, no freedom of speech and a tight and dangerous security police (the KGB) and other nuisances which plagued the lives of Russians living further west, wasn´t nearly as bad other here in this remote part of the Empire. In addition to this, wages where higher here and food prices the same. Today it is the opposite and food prices are far higher. The social security was bigger than.
´´Life is nothing but crap today´´, added Alexei.
´´Where can I have a piss?´´ Johan asked in the crude form of Russian that we´ve learned and that we´re speaking.
´´You can urinate wherever you like outdoors´´ ,Alexei corrected Johan softly and added: ´´When the spring flooding comes, it will all vanish in no time. And this part of the house will be covered by water, so when spring arrives, I move upstairs.´´
I shared an u-shaped bed with Johan. We sweated intensely throughout the night and didn´t get many seconds of sleep. The reason for this intense heat, was due to the fact that Alexei discovered a big frostbite I had developed on my right thumb that day and he, therefore, didn´t want us to feel cold. He hardly slept anything himself, shoving in firewood in his effective Kolyma stove every half an hour. This is truly the signs of a good human being!
´´Eat until you can´t get one more single piece of food down your stomachs´´ , he explained just after having woken us up 5 minutes to six and immediately served us some more hare casserole: ´´This upcoming winter will be very cold. I can sense it in my bones.´´
For this reason, as quick as we get outdoors, we check our digital thermometer. It is dead. The second day of our winter haul. Another gadget which couldn´t handle the Siberian cold!
´´Crap!´´ ,said Alexei when he came out in many layers of thick clothes and said Goodbye: ´´Nothing but crap that is!´´