I am not writing this in a wooden shack, with a round-faced lady looking at me, inquisitively, over a pot of hot fish soup while chanting harmonic tones from her throat (as much as I would like!). There are no wolves chasing the night, or bears chasing me (thank god!) and the ice tundra isn’t desolate, scarce or inhospitable. Why? Because I am in the Russian Federation!
I am writing this in a cafe called ‘Travelers’ (not Travellers!). This spelling mistake would’ve, normally, passed me by, if I were not an English teacher, abroad (where’s my channel 4 series?). English by trade, English by nature. I am here (on opposed to any other country hiring native English speakers) by chance, and (retrospectively) by good fortune!
Akademgorodok is a charming little town built in a forest of white Birch and golden Pine. There are many scientific research centres scattered throughout the tall trees, like secret bases, and although the roads are very straight, the people of Akademgorodok take to cutting underneath the tree canopies making windy, forest strolls a daily occurrence.
6 Months ago, I opened the communal door of my Communist era built block of flats, to be greeted by snow. It’s still here! The snow of England is here today gone tomorrow, thin, white for a blink or two and then, grey and gone. The snow in Siberia is a malleable element, perennial and permeable as mud. Once the snow lands, it simply doesn’t go anywhere; but up, bigger and brighter. This creates a certain change in procession- to say the least! And unlike England, where the country can be called to a halt after an inch or two (a ‘snow day’ here is -35), in Siberia, things must continue, lest the cease altogether. So, how do they do it???
From my observations, the Roads are attended by two road sweepers, with teeth! They continually roam the roads, hoping to beat mother nature in consistency. They don’t. I met these two ‘beasts’ once, while riding my bike, and decided to name them: ‘almost-killed-me-1’ and ‘almost-killed-me-2’. Their attempts at clearing the snow are futile and soon enough the worker men must bring out the big boys. JCB diggers start drilling the roads, dislodging great slabs of compressed snow/ice and lifting them to the sides. No sooner have they mapped the entire town, that they must start again as someone forgot to tell the clouds, at the top, to stop it (a sign of Russian corruption, perhaps?). In fact, a local grumble was that the roads weren’t truly cleared until President Putin came to speak at the ‘house of Scientists’ (even elite power-ticians have to put in the work sometimes!).
Humble pedestrians use communal foot-fall to keep their paths functional. Incidentally, creating looming corridors of snow. This year the walls rose to a grand height of 2.61 feet (measurement by C.G). Picture dwarf toboggan tracks snaking through a marsh mellow landscape and you are near. Stray from these helter-skelter walkways, if you dare, and see your foot descend into the bottomless snow.
One time, while jogging, I went passed an old lady, who stepped to the side of the compressed snow and her leg disappeared! Luckily, I was strong enough to catch her and set her straight. She shook her
head and whimpered words of disbelief as I, a young-puffing-man exclaimed “I’m English” (in Russian) and ran off! Good story?
“when it’s warm, it snows”
– a Russian saying
Paradoxically, this is true. Most of the time, it is simply too cold to snow, and as for rain? Forget about it! The temperature here fluctuates from far to very-far below zero. The sky is usually blue, the air is crisp, and all the insects are long gone. Red squirrels, in their white winter coats, cling upside down to tree trunks and pigeons coo cold words to each other over a feast of hand-outs from the generous forest folk. Once, I even saw an white arctic ferret, with big black eyes, bouncing in and out of the snow and surprisingly, none of the locals have ever seen one- beginners luck!
Inside, everywhere, all the time, it is warm. You can’t mess around with heat here; it is a matter of life and death. So, there is a power station at the edge of town, which pumps hot water through underground pipes into every building (this explains the billowing sewers of steam!). Inside, you can’t choose the heating on or off, up or down; but that’s fine. Pyjamas are of no use here, but are they ever? The communal heating system is a remnant of the Communist era, but it also makes sense, in a place so dependent on fossil fuels (what doesn’t make sense, however, is starting a bid for Utopia by sending business owners, like people who own a cow or two, to Gulags, to suffer and die).
“Man is the King of nature, for as long as the electricity is on”
– a Russian proverb
It’s time to leave your warm, lovely flat. Next to the door is your Siberian suit of armour/fluff. Two pairs of socks, on. Boots with extra fluff in, on. Ski trousers over your normal trousers, on. A coat akin to an astronauts upper-half, on. Scarf over nose and mouth and gloves, on. Special Russian hat, on.
Russians, I’m sure you are well aware, have a well formed stereotype, due, no doubt, to the never ending global conflict in the quote-on-quote ‘Great Game’. And, I would like to add, that they are also really nice, honest and make a great effort with their children (and English teachers for that matter!). But we shouldn’t generalise 😉 There is, however, one stereotype which rings true and that is the hats they wear; known as Shapka Ushankas.
These hats are super functional! Something I never realised, is that they have two modes of being depending on how cold it is. If it’s just a bit cold, like -10, they are worn like in the movies, furry and square, like a Frankenstein with a really good head of hair. But when the temperature drops further, at some time (and every man decides for themselves when this time is) the hat unfolds: furry flaps descend and wrap your head like koala giving you a head-hug. Genius. In fact, a more accurate way to describe them would be, a mink giving you a head-hug, but for some reason the imagery is not right!
Space suit on, you step out of the front door and breathe… If your nose hairs don’t freeze immediately, it’s -15 or so and you can stroll around in sweet wanderlust. But, if on first contact with air, your nose hairs do freeze immediately! It is -30 or so and one must walk with a purpose. Treat your walk like an escape from Alcatraz and get
to where you are going, fast. This is the depth of winter. These days, you wonder how animals do survive (they call a truce and all snuggle together in some tree). At this time, it is so cold that your digital devices freeze in your pocket and must be warmed on a radiator (if you want to send that text, that was literally, impossible to send whilst in-commute). It is so cold that every exhaled breathe looks and feels like the smoke of an expensive Cuban cigar (I imagine- but only way nicer!). And it is so cold that in the night, ghost-like devices, tirelessly, turn the cars on and off, so their engines don’t freeze. It’s eerie. It’s odd. And it’s quite beautiful. One morning, I remember:
“Diamonds in the air
Diamonds in the ground
Diamonds in the trees
Diamonds all around!
That’s how it goes, below zero.”
– a poem by C.G
Children absolutely love this season! Their prams transform into sledges and they glide along the streets like little Santas. In their suits of fluff, they are invulnerable to the snow and dive head first into it. Unfortunately, their parks are submerged in the snowy snow, but winter brings other opportunities: Ice skating, sledging, sliding, snapping, skiing, licking (I was actually, genuinely, warned not to lick anything!) and ice playgrounds; to name but a few.
It’s not a time to be old though. This winter, I have already seen one fallen granddad, caused/caught one grandma and heard of many other slippery stories. To combat the ice paths, the less dextrous
among us, use walking sticks with sharp spikes on the bottom and, we can only hope, after a life time of winters, have a certain sixth sense of where and when to walk. Good luck old people!
And as for people not young and not old, it is a long season. A white season. A cold season. A season to yonder, ponder, wonder as to what Spring may bring. And yeah, sure, a season to get your extreme sports on!!!
To conclude: It is 6 months of snow… 6 months. Of snow. Well, it is Siberia!!!
Now, as I look outside the window of the ‘Travelers’ cafe, I see green returning. It’s the fake Astroturf of the cafes balcony area- but you get my point! Soon, outside will be a place of colour. The snow white canvas is going to get splashed with an array of exciting, hot colours. And hot they will be! South Siberia lays claim to one of the largest ranges in temperature on planet Earth (-40 to +40). Spring will, certainly, bring a new thing and the people of Akademgorodok will have to swap their ski trousers for swimming shorts.
‘A Siberian is not a man who feels not the cold, but a man who wears wisely the clothes.’
– a Russian proverb
If this is true, they must have the biggest wardrobes on planet Earth! So big, in fact, that you can walk right in and discover a real-life Narnia. Frozen streams and overtly drawn landscapes- always in white. Deadly icicles and frozen blobs of snow suspended in time and in trees. Nifty street market people displaying frozen fish in the world’s biggest open air freezer (no plugs attached!). And even a few Polar bears in the City zoo. All this and more, are the manifestations
of an alchemy people, set on raising winter and seeing the summer sunrise again. Viva la Siberia! And let Sludge-Fest 2018 begin!
Check out songs I found here! On my YouTube: Canopy Green channel
I hope you have enjoyed this writing and have the chance to be a Global Stepper. If you have a tale, please add your footprints to this trail of adventurers, and inspire/inform any Global Steppers out there!