Thursday, June 28, 2007

Day 333: Techno-Polka

Last week – June 21, to be exact – was the summer equinox, longest day of the year. While Cherskii is certainly an Arctic outpost, it’s only about 69ÂșN latitude. The sun is in the sky 24 hours a day during the summer, but the sun is close to the horizon at midnight, rather than high in the sky like it is in Longyearbyen. I live slightly below the crest of a small hill, so a midnight the sun does appear to “set” – although the sun is clearly shining on the land directly across the river, only a few hundred meters away.

Anyway, the equinox! After a bunch of days of not much - reading, writing, etc, I noticed a whole bunch of people walking around near our group of cabins. Turns out there was a celebration going on for the equinox festival on the hill down the road. A friend of Sergei’s son recently came to visit, so he came by and we went to see what the festival was all about. I believe his name is something like Martek, but my spelling and hearing are not to be trusted.

So often at these sort of “traditional” festivals, I feel completely turned off because they feel like they’re created for the benefit of tourists, or a sort of meaningless show, and sometimes its hard to figure out the difference between true traditions and what attracts spectators. Not so here – Cherskii doesn’t exactly have a thriving tourist industry. As the only outsider in the crowd, I got a spectacular opportunity to witness some culture.

In a clearing at the top of the hill, there are a series of totem poles carved with horses and birds, and inlaid with metal numbers for the dates. Although very reminiscent of Native American totem poles, I’ve been told that these (and the practice in general) are very modern here, put up within the last few decades. Regardless, they are the site of any major celebration in town and provide an awesome view of two joining branches of the Kolyma.

A huge rainbow-colored banner was hung up, in front of which a stage hosted songs and dances preformed all throughout the day. My escort provided a limited explanation of what was going on. Not necessarily specific to the equinox, the songs varied from Yakutian folk ballads to patriotic Russian marches. Not having a very detailed clue to what was exactly happening, I’ll let some photos speak for the experience.

The performers ranged from a group of older women singing heartily about Cossacks, to two ultra-skinny adolescent girls squeaking out Russian pop, to leather-clad dancers performing to a hunter’s animal calls, to tiny toddlers running around in a bare-semblance of organized performance.

BY FAR, however, my favorite event of the stage occurred as follows. A young boy, perhaps 11, took to the stage in normal street clothes with a microphone. Out of the loud speakers suddenly blared Eminem’s “Slim Shady”, sped up and overlaid with a techno-polka dance beat. Techno-polka is the only way to describe it. Then, out of the blue, this kid starts rapping a traditional Russian ballad about farming, and busts out jigging. The crowd LOVED it and everyone started dancing.

My hero:

I have no idea what that had to do with the equinox.

Off stage, more amazing things awaited. Like most festivals anywhere, there were carts set up with various things to eat and drink. I basically don’t carry a wallet with me anymore, so I didn’t get to partake. But I did get to witness a bigger selection of the local population than I’ve been able to interact with before. It’s not so often that the townspeople collect en masse.

It was very hot that day, and the styles ranged from skimpy-to-a-socially-questionable-scale on the women, to grandmothers covered in traditional robes, to the universal male dress code of shirtless. From my extraordinarily vague knowledge of the fashion world, I get the impression that a number of super models are Russian. I have to say, a surprising number (statistically) of the girls in the crowd were very good looking, and extremely skinny (mostly in a body-shape way, not in a malnutrition way). Although I wonder about the fact that there wasn’t a stitch to spare on many of them, and while on the other hand American fashion trends aren’t something I necessarily support, a crowd where most females aged 10-50 are wearing skin-tight clothes is both visually unappealing, and makes you think about the social factors at play.

Interesting. In comparison, I may as well have been wearing a potato sack.

But to continue to other remarkable events. After Martek and I got tired of the singing and dancing stage, we went over to a crowd of men where a crude ring had been set up with stakes and twine. Inside was a heavy table with big pads on the top. As we watched, two burly men came over, vigorously grasped each other’s hands, and began a muscle-glistening arm wrestling match. Although I couldn’t make heads or tails of the pecking order, two guys in the random matches kept beating everyone who came up to try.

After the guys got tried of being beaten by these two, a sort of lull came over the crowd, and I waited for whatever was going to happen next. What happened next was awesome – the WOMAN’S arm wrestling matches started. Although it took a bit of coaxing from the crowd, two fairly rugged-looking women, the middle-aged house wife sort, walked forward and went at it. Only a few women stepped forward to compete (no, I certainly did not). My favorite match was between a stout woman and a pretty, more-delicate-looking woman in light flowery dress. Turns out that little flowery number contained ripped biceps.

So the arm wrestling finished soon after, and the ring was cleared – for the proper wrestling matches. When I say “proper”, I have no idea what I’m talking about – it wasn’t boxing, but whether it followed any formal definition of the wrestling world I have no idea. Two men, stripped to the waist, would jump in the ring with a referee grabbed out of the crowd of waiting competitors. Never having watched any sort of fighting match before, I didn’t think I’d be too interested – but it was fascinating. A really, really fun sport to watch - crowded around a shabby patch of dirt, yelling at the fighters with everyone.

The wrestlers clearly weren’t trying to hurt each other – just flip their opponent into the dirt, in a method that seemed to primarily involve grabbing the other’s leg and turning him upside-down. The worst injuries were from people skidding out of the ring, bowling over kids and elders, earning some minor road-rash. In general I have a low opinion of fighting sports, but this was just fun – no one got angry, there was no actual “fighting”, and none of the losers ever seemed upset beyond minor disappointment, always finishing the match with a handshake and a hug.


One young fellow, perhaps 19, was obviously trying to step out and prove himself – in a polite way, but he was clearly eager for the crowd. With a few exchanged winks amongst the gathered contestants, he was pushed into the ring with a guy built like a barrel. Although muscular, this skinny young guy didn’t stand a chance. After putting each other into a head lock, barrel-man picked him up, flung him over his shoulders, and ran around the ring with him over his head. Hilarious.

Well, that was that. The next notable event of recent times was the arrival of 5 scientists last Friday – 2 Japanese, 2 Russian, and 1 American from Georgia, all botanists come to work on a plant survey of Asia. We hit it off pretty well at first, and I was excited to have some people to talk to and maybe start doing some field work with them.

Unfortunately, when I went out with them the next day, it became clear that they really didn’t need me – they didn’t even need the Russian post-doc they had with them. I ended up rambling around the mountain taking photos for nearly the entirety of the 8 hours we were out there.

We drove quite a ways out from Cherskii to another low-lying mountain across the river plains to find somewhere relatively free of trash. The Jeep (I think it’s a Jeep, but built like an Explorer) we use around the station has an interesting tendency to turn off if you go in reverse, or if you don’t rev the gas when you try to start moving. We got half-way up the hill when the road got too rough, and we decided to turn the car around, park, and walk the rest of the way. This was on a dirt road with ruts half a meter deep in the middle of the taiga. The car said no. Pavel, the leading Russian, managed to rev the car forward enough to turn it into the forest, then let the engine shut down and just allowed the car to free-roll down the hill back onto the road. No problem.

Another interesting note – around here people drive on the British side of the car, but the American side of the road.

Anyway, we set off. Their work mainly consists of selecting patches of vegetation, approximately 3x3m, and identifying every single plant in the section. Ideally, they select plots that represent general areas (taiga, forest taiga, grassland taiga, slopes, river banks, tundra, etc) then correlate the identifications with satellite images. The extrapolations involved seem rather broad, but that’s science I guess. Without an extremely detailed knowledge of Siberian plant species’ Latin names, I couldn’t help much except for carrying lunch.

Flower related to the California Indian Paintbrush:

Now, I know I’m a nerd, a big science nerd, and I’ve gotten all excited about jobs that involve being covered in bird poop and filtering water and staring at amphipods all day. But nothing beats watching three grown men, in a flurry of excitement, crouch around a single little yellow flower and babble in Latin.

Looking back at the station:

Around the mountain, there was a nice breeze, so it wasn’t too hot and the bugs stayed off of us. Towards the top, cleverly camouflaged with green paint, was an enormous decaying Russian radio sensor from the 1960’s. I felt like James Bond. The Russian post-doc – Sasha - rolled his eyes and, making quotations with his hands, called it a “Russian weather station”.

On top of the hill:

Down the other side of the hill and across towards a gold quarry, it got absolutely miserable. Hot and endless bugs, and with nothing to do I tried to cover as much exposed skin as possible and wait to go home. Saw some interesting birds, went slightly crazy and used cranberry juice to draw animals on my pant legs. This part of the land was turning from the mountain rumble we were previously in into taiga forest, possibly one of the more difficult places to hike I’ve been in. The innocent-looking vegetation easily goes thigh-high (not including the trees), and the ground is an ankle-wrecking maze of tussocks and ditches, completely impossible to see from the top. The only option is to plow through hoping not to hit too deep of a pothole. My bad leg was not happy when we got home.

Some birds:

The hike:

A bug that would like us dead:

The Japanese woman scientist seems to have made it her personal mission to kill every bug that comes near her. That endless task is somewhat maddening to witness.




Slap slap slap slap.

(times a bazillion)

Well! Two vacationing Swiss birdwatchers arrived on Tuesday as well. More about them, and adventures since, next time.

Here's the whole contingent gathered for dinner in my living room/dining room, where we eat three meals a day together. Left to right: 2 Japanese scientists, 1 Russian post-doc, 1 American professor, 1 Russian scientist, and 2 Swiss bird watchers.

Other things I keep forgetting to mention…the Frozen Five got back to Longyearbyen a week or two ago, 100% successfully. Belated congrats to them!

I have absolutely zero contact with current events here. The internet really isn’t good enough for me to spend time on news sites. If something important happens, someone please let me know.

This is why I never sleep without a blanket anymore:

I will be in California in exactly one month.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Day 330: Because the Internet is Working

And I have some extra photos on my jump drive, here's a little photo post before the next essay.
Old stuff first: the helicopter I flew 2 horus to Cherskii on, after the suspicious little airplane took me to somewhere 3 hours from Yakutsk.

Even older news - amazing that its been three weeks since! - getting the cast off.

I don't think the tech appreciated me whipping out the camera and asking (joking!) if he'd ever used that saw before, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

My cabin and sweet ride:

(The sweet ride does not, in fact, go anywhere.)

Settlement on the riverbank about an hour out from Cherskii:

Sergei coming out of the tank for a break:

Sergei #2, a mammoth expert who helps run the station and lives next door to the Sergei above, with mammoth, bison, and horse bones.

Bear damage:

Fixing a loose bolt in the tank. With a sledge hammer.

Eating fish at the fisherman's house:

Old man crossing the yard at the cattle village:

And that's all for today.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Day 329: Permafrost

To start things off right, a photo! Of the wicked thunder storm we had a few days after I got here:

Look for more photos at the bottom of the post!

The day after Tank Adventures we got ready for another boat ride, a much longer one this time. As it turns out, I don’t live precisely on the Kolyma river – well, it is the Kolyma, but it’s a branch of the river rather than the proper thing that travels in front of the town of Cherskii.

When I originally flew in on the helicopter, I thought we were passing over a huge lake. As a LAKE, it would have been one of the biggest lakes I’ve ever seen. As a river it was unimaginable for me. The thing is about 4 km (ehh…2 miles) across. I realize there’re plenty big lakes and rivers out there, but they don’t enter my world too often.

But a river it was, and after an hour or so of traveling through side branches we entered the main channel. Another gorgeous day – just enough clouds to give the sky some texture, and the place is so incredibly flat that every time we jumped a wave it seemed like you could see to Moscow. After the half hour or so that it took to just cross to the other side of the river, we traveled close to the banks out of the main current (which we were going against) and tried to peer into the heavy willow-covered bog to look for moose.

This time we had another little boat following us with some of Sergei’s neighbors. They came along as a sort of safety net in case our engine stopped working (hm…) and because we planned to visit a few of the little settlements along the way. While Cherskii is the major center for the region, there are a number of families scattered around the nearby wilderness that periodically visit town by boat, but otherwise nearly exclusively live off the land. A majority of the people living in and around Cherskii are Yakutian natives.

Cherskii used to be a thriving city of over 10,000 people, with prosperous gold and diamond mines and fishing exports. Sergei and Galina have lived here for nearly 30 years, and recall a time when the city had a first-rate school, with guest professors from all over the Soviet Union. As I mentioned before, the town is now in shambles. Over half the city has been abandoned, with all utilities shut off to converse money for the town. From a distance, the huge cranes in the port suggest a significant market, but now all but one or two are shut down. In the hills behind the town (near where I live) a field of 50 or so enormous cylindrical tanks used to hold oil and fuel for the airport, which supported multiple flight every day to Yakutsk, Moscow, and even Alaska. Now the tanks are empty, and the highest travel seasons only bring 2 helicopters a week from an equally small settlement halfway between Cherskii and Yakutsk.

Despite the obvious and unabated decay of the region, which clearly correlates with the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of government financial support, there seems to be very little yearning for the old days, among the people I’ve been able to communicate with. Once again I desperately wish I spoke Russian well enough to explore this issue further. I’ve gotten past “hello”, “thank you” and “good health” which isn’t really enough to support a good political discussion.

Our first stop was what Sergei optimistically called a “village”, which proved to be a small water-logged plot of land with 4-5 buildings in various states of repair. Here we found a small herd of cattle, roaming freely through the buildings. Literally through the buildings. Sergei explained that the village was something of a historical artifact. It had been established nearly 300 years ago, and the cattle were the continuation of the herd that had supported the 2-3 families that had lived there ever since.

While BBC guy and Sergei went off for a little interview, I put on some rubber boots and unsuccessfully tried to cross a small stream to a Russian monument. Instead I mingled with the cows and omnipresent mosquitoes, watching an extremely old man slowly cross back and forth from a brightly painted house to a telephone pole, clutching a worn string that seemed to have been strung up for that exact purpose.

Further down the river in another side branch, our next stop was a much smaller settlement – only two buildings tucked away in the willows, the home of a single fisherman and his family and a pack of mangy dogs, their enormous fur coats reducing them in the summer heat to sitting in various corners worrying at pieces of fish head. The buildings were on a small spit of land, fronted by the river and backed by a small lake fed by other branches of the river. The collection of random junk everywhere is astounding – things that would have been trashed are kept, necessary for random eternal reuse.

While the main house was further back from the river, we hung out around the shabbier building that was used for work and “quick food and quick drinking.” Part of the building appeared to be held up by the interior of an old semi-truck. Fish were everywhere – drying in cages out in the sun, shredded pieces rotting under the little sidewalk made out of old snowmobile tread, and their scales splattered all over everything. As Sergei and the others conversed with the fisherman and his wife (old friends, apparently), I stood around and looked extremely awkward taking photos of everything. As much as I try to look normal and only wear practical clothes, it feels blatantly obvious that I’m some kind of rich foreigner eyeballing the natives. The ginormous camera doesn’t help.

Eventually I was ushered into the shed by the tattooed fisherman, with a cheerful “SIT DOWN!” half-way completing his English repertoire. Crammed in on a bed and some dragged-in tree stumps, we packed 8 people around a tiny table for a small meal. To eat was fish, fish, fish, alcohol, and some bread. The first fish was dried in a way I’ve never seen before – thin strips of skin with long rows of meat that had been sliced into sections and totally dried. The next fish was an entire half of a semi-dried fish, which was slammed down and vigorously chopped into sections to be passed out. This fish had to be dipped in salt, which was poured onto a little piece of old newspaper for communal dipping. They weren’t too bad, if you completely ignore everything you know about hygiene. After the group quickly exhausted the vodka, the fisherman went to a back room and pulled out a huge recycled jug of something yellow – homemade sake.

Eventually we got back in our boat and continued upriver. After two hours, we came up along side a small cliff on the east side of the river. As we got closer, you could see a series of undercuts going along the bottom edge of the cliff – the melting permafrost. This section of the river is one of the famous grounds for witnessing the dramatic action of the permafrost, and the mountains of fossils it throws up.

What began with some unimpressive undercuts exponentially increased, along the cliff edge, into an amazing display of a veritable mud-glacier. Huge sections of land were undercut and cracked, separated from the land like a giant handful of dirt viciously thrown into the mud. Unlike most geological phenomenon, this section of permafrost was decaying before our very eyes – tumbling and sloughing off landslides of mud and ice, threatening swaying trees on the upper edge, which crazily swung in every direction as the land beneath them disappeared.

It was certainly the clearest display of permafrost I could imagine. At the top was a layer of about a meter of regular sediment, beneath which was – from our vantage point – up to 30 meters of what appeared to be frozen mud. As Sergei tried to explain, however, its not technically frozen mud but actually ice. Not being well-versed in permafrost studies, I’m not terribly good at describing it – visually, it looks like a mud glacier, with – as Sergei described – ice wedges thrust through that truly are pure ice (although disguised by the constant mud splatters). This section of permafrost, on the edge of the river, melts at a rate of about 3-5 meters a year – as in the river gets 3-5m wider every year as the bank retreats. Having been here for over 30 years, Sergei could point to a far-out section of river, where he remembered the bank used to be.

Although it would be easy to take this dramatic image of the melting bank as alarming, despite the effects of global warming the process is quite natural. As for how much it’s increased in the past decades, it’s hard to say.

One thing this melting does do is constantly expose new bones and bits of prehistoric animals. Sergei estimated that there was a mammoth skeleton every 30 meters. We drove alongside the cliff for a few kilometers, looking for a mammoth skull to fall on us. Despite his estimate, we didn’t see anything obvious. Part of the problem is the amount of money that mammoth bones, and particularly tusks, are worth. Fossil hunting is a major source of income for some people in the area, often cleaning out some areas of anything major as soon as they’re exposed.

However, we eventually stopped the boat against the cliff, and in another stunning lack of judgment we all got out to scamper along the edge of the permafrost overhang. We walked along, one hand brushing the mud-glacier to keep our balance in the pile of mud giving us a few feet of edge to walk along. The overhang was so drastic as to be cave-like – I easily could have walked under the cliff, nearly upright, a dozen meters under the mud ice. Tiny trails of muck hung down from the ice – the remnants of Pleistocene grass. The entire area stank as billions of tons of ancient matter slowly melted and finally began to decompose. Among other things, we were smelling mammoth dung.

Once we got out of the boat, the fossils started showing up. I immediately found the finger bones of a small mammoth (one bone equivalent to the size of my entire hand), while our boat rested on a shattered shoulder blade.

The area, though, was unquestionably perilous. Other than the land-slide mud cliff and threatening over hang, the tiny boundary between the river and the cliff consisted of a thick, deceiving mud – quicksand. Tussocks of harder mud and old grass piles made jumping around not too difficult, but you had to keep moving constantly unless balanced on something firmer. BBC guy, stopping to record the sound of the ice melting, got into a bit of trouble and nearly lost his boots.

SO MUCH FUN. Sergei, once again, is insane. He calmly dragged BBC guy up the cliff, while I kept my distance on another side of the cliff to keep out of BBC guy’s sound recording. There’re bones everywhere! Stunning view, stunning place.

On the way home, we stopped at the fisherman’s place again for dinner. Fish fish fish. Fish (sturgeon) stew, home-canned river salmon, and more dried fish. After dinner one of Sergei’s neighbors went swimming. Although I plan to try at some point, so far the threat of mosquito bites over my entire body has stopped me.

After dinner, we headed home, taking the fisherman’s wife with us so she could get some things in town. With her she carried a big bag…which, it was soon revealed, contained her CAT. I can imagine no greater hell for that cat than being stuffed into the bottom of our aluminum boat in a spraying cold river with a loud motor. So the lady took out the cat and curled it in her jacket. Here it is, I thought. The cat is going to kill someone. Instead, it fell asleep after she smothered it with kisses.

Even though I look ridiculous and can hardly communicate with anyone here, I’ve been struck at how kind the people are to me once it becomes clear that I’m shy and not much of a threat. As we cruised along the river in the cold wind, the fisherman’s wife kept giving me little handfuls of pine nuts out of her dirty pocket, as though I was a lost squirrel.

Despite being nearly a week behind in the news, I’ll stop here and pull together some photos for youuu. I’m sorry they all have to be super small now to upload at all.

Sergei: the man, the legend.

Half-sunk barge outside my cabin:


Exploding some trees...

Cutting up dried fish:

The Kolyma River, around 10pm:

Permafrost mud-glacier!

Awesomest photo ever - Siberian fisherman makes fun of me:

I will say this – it has been unbearably hot the last few days. Like, 35C (90F). Today the temperature finally dropped to a more normal 15C (60F) and I’m no longer dying.

In other news, happy birthday Mom!

Mammoth knuckles.