End of Winter

Yeltzin is a Zionist and should stand trial before Russian people!
Street graffiti in Novosobirsk.

During the next four years I mostly traveled abroad, occasionally crossing various parts of the former Soviet Union on my way to the border and back. In 1996 I briefly visited Kalmykia to watch mass calving of migrating saiga antelopes. I got an impression that the situation was getting better. There were still problems with transportation, but at least hitchhiking was not totally impossible anymore. In Kalmykia most drivers refused to pick up hitchhikers because they were afraid of the Chechens. So I got all rides from Chechen drivers, who had nobody to be afraid of.

The collapse of industry and agriculture was a glimpse of hope for ailing ecosystems. Some birds and mammals, rare in Soviet era, were becoming more common. And it was still fun to travel around. You never knew what you'd run into. In Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, the thing I liked the most were pay toilets decorated as Buddhist temples.

The problem was, I'd already seen virtually all interesting places in the former USSR, and there was nothing left for me to do. I knew it was time to move on, to get citizenship of some "normal" country, and to find a place where my salary would not be paid in rubles.

It was the year of two great comets. The first one, Comet Hyakutake, had a tail so long that it stretched all the way across the sky (but it was so faint that we had to drive away from Moscow for five hours to see it all). Then Comet Hale-Bopp arrived. Its passage coincided with a total solar eclipse in Eastern Siberia and Mongolia in March 1997. I decided that it was a good moment for a farewell journey to the Far East, the part of the country I liked the most. I posted an announcement on the Internet, offering a trip to BAM for anybody interested. I thought it was the best place to watch the eclipse and the comet because winters were so dry in Eastern Siberia.

The spring was coming. Almost every night I drove out of the city to a remote cemetery which had relatively little light pollution, and watched the comet grow. By mid-February it became clear that most amateur astronomers were too scared of Siberian winter and chose to go to Mongolia instead. Only four people signed up for my trip (barely enough to cover my travel expenses), and less than a hundred went to Siberia with other organized tours or by themselves. Two of my clients were from Hong Kong, and two from Canada. They got tickets to Krasnoyarsk via Beijing.

I took a train from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk. I hated the Transsiberian, particularly its boring western part. There is absolutely nothing to see there except for one small area near Tyumen, where the world's largest owls (West Siberian race of eagle owl) can occasionally be seen. The only source of entertainment was listening to the stories told by fellow passengers."Once I picked up a girl, brought her home. She took off her clothes, and I saw she was all tattooed, head to feet. She said she'd been just released from prison. Boy, was she hot..."

East from Krasnoyarsk it got better. My clients were excited to see frosted fir taiga, broad rivers, and the comet. By that time it was so bright we could see it above station lights. Three of the guys had spent all their savings on that trip, and every small cloud made them nervous. But the weather was mostly good.

I had sent them emails with detailed instructions twice, but they didn't take them seriously. They didn't have enough warm clothes, and not one of them had soap. "We thought if we travel by train, there will be some soap in the shower." I had a small piece of soap, but they used it up in two days, trying to get rid of soot and dirt (the car was heated by coal-burning stove, and, of course, had only cold water). Well, dirty skin is less prone to frostbite.

We turned from the Transsiberian to BAM, and had to ride through a snowstorm for a whole day. In small roadside villages the huts were roof-deep in snow, and utility poles looked like giant mushrooms. But I was almost sure we'd have better weather further east.

The storm was over by the time we got to the western coast of Lake Baikal. We hired a local guy to drive across the frozen lake to see undisturbed old-growth taiga on the eastern shore. Crossing the lake was fun. Blue chunks of ice looked beautiful in bright sunlight. Cute plumpy seals watched us from their water holes. But when we got to the far side and looked back, we saw milky streams flowing down from the mountains in the west. It meant that sarma was coming.

Sarma is the most feared of about fifty named kinds of wind on Baikal. We had to jump in the car and drive back as fast as we could. We were about a kilometer from the village when the lake disappeared in white fog, and a shock wave hit us. It was so hard that the car stopped in its tracks for a moment. We couldn't see a thing because of drifting snow, but when I got on the roof of the car, I found myself surrounded by sunshine: the sea of flying snow was only two meters deep.

Life wasn't bad on Baikal. The stores were full, and prices not as high as in Moscow. A dinner in station restaurant (deer a la Stroganoff, fritters with cranberry, whitefish soup, and Bergenia tea) cost about $2 per person.

We got on a local train east. Other passengers in the car were a young police officer, an army major from a nearby military base, and a doctor from Uoyan village. The police officer was very excited to see foreigners. He went to the train director and radioed the police at the next station. By the time we got there, the local policemen had confiscated two kilograms of whitefish from vendors, and delivered it to the train to give us as a souvenir. After that the officer drank a bottle of vodka and was asleep for the rest of the day. Meanwhile the major was telling me an endless story about the hardships of military service on BAM.

"Soldiers run away almost every day. Yesterday one deserted, but we can't search for him," the major said.
"Why not?"
"It's his third time. If we catch him, we'd have to turn him over to the military police. He'd go to jail, and we'd lose him anyway. We better let him run home."

Then he fell asleep, too, and it was the doctor's turn to talk.

"We have no men left," she said. "They either killed each other, or froze to death while being drunk. In some villages there are three women for each man. So the women have to live with alcoholics. Everybody has syphilis. Almost all kids are retarded. Adults are going crazy from drinking, too. Women are hospitalized every week after they get beaten up, but they can't leave their husbands, because they know they'd never find another one."

I thought she was exaggerating. But then I got a better look at more roadside towns, and it was a grim picture. Only few areas such as Baikal coast were better off. In places like Uoyan and Khani the only source of jobs was railroad maintenance shop. If it got closed there was nothing else to do. Sometimes it looked like a horror movie about vampires or zombies invading a small town. The streets belonged to marauding drunks. If there were some normal people left - teachers, doctors, or geologists - they lived under siege. They couldn't leave homes after sunset, and had to send their children to relatives thousands kilometers away to avoid sending them to local schools.

There were times when local people could survive by hunting and fishing. But now there was little fish in lakes and rivers, and almost no game within fifty kilometers of the road. In 1990 it was not uncommon to see sables, hares, even deer from trains. Foxes were abundant on the outskirts of villages. Now even tracks were difficult to find. We traveled for days, and I saw only a few hare tracks, one track of a weasel, and no fox tracks at all. Musk deer, wild sheep, reindeer, and bear were extinct. "We have a lot of bears here," local hunters told me. "Back in 1995 some guys killed one in the mountains." Uncontrolled hunting was not the only reason for the decline. There was almost no good habitat left in the area. All forests had been either logged or burnt. What remained was an endless peat bog with small larch trees here and there. It looked very depressing in winter, when larches had no needles.

These mountains are collectively known as Stanovoe Nagor'e (Backbone Highlands). The further east you go, the more sunny and cold is the weather. We spotted a small area of good forest near the western entrance of a tunnel connecting two rift valleys, and got off the train to look around. The place was quiet and beautiful. Willow ptarmigans walked between bushes, chickadees called from the trees. We walked through the tunnel to the other side. It was so windy there that we had to stay at the station. Later I discovered that there was no wind just half a kilometer further east, but we had little time left before the next train. The most interesting animals in these valleys are large voles: some species only live in one or two rifts.

We crossed Chara Valley, enjoying the views of Kodar Range to the north. Here we saw the only large animal in the entire trip. A moose watched our train from a river bank. He looked very calm, so he probably wasn't a local resident. I think he came from some remote mountains and was crossing the valley to get someplace else.

We had to wait for the next train at Khani, the most pitiful station of them all. A three-bedroom apartment could be bought there for $300. The canyon was scenic, but the town looked so depressing that my clients asked me to get them out of there as soon as possible. We got on a freight train. It was very slow. We got to Tynda late at night. This place looked much better, and had a nice hotel.

The only tourist attraction in Tynda was a ghetto built for slave loggers brought in from North Korea. So we found an abandoned cabin on a rocky outcrop above Gilyui River ten kilometers to the east. It was a nice place to rest from trains, cities, and frost. Nights were still cold, but by noon it got really warm, just below freezing. Mountain ash groves along the river were full of birds: flocks of redpolls, gray bullfinches, and waxwings were moving north all the time. The slopes were covered with stone pine. It has no trunk, but a crown of horizontal branches. They lay flat on the ground all winter, hiding from cold under snow. But when the winter is over, or a campfire is lit nearby, they spring up like petals of a giant flower. Stone pine thickets were inhabited by white hares and ermines. At night the two-tailed comet was shining in the sky. Wolves could be heard howling somewhere, and owls whistled from trees.

Finally the day of the eclipse came. I'd never seen a total eclipse before, and didn't expect it to be so strikingly beautiful. The weather couldn't be better, the sky was full of stars, and in the middle of it was a narrow golden ring surrounded by strange blue streams of corona. We could enjoy it for three long minutes. The comet was also visible despite some red glow on the horizon. The wildlife was impressed, too. The wolves started howling, a snowy owl glided quietly across the road. As soon as the sun's edge showed up, azure-winged magpies started calling excitedly from the river.

Later we heard that thousands of people who had chosen to go to Mongolia had bad weather there, and didn't see much.

When we got on the plane we discovered that two of my clients got frostbite. The youngest one, from Hong Kong, had it on his nose and cheeks, and was very happy with it. He couldn't wait to tell every girl in town how he got it in Siberian taiga. One of the Canadians got it in a place he couldn't show to girls - he was unlucky to have metallic zipper in his jeans. It was painful for him to walk, and he wasn't happy at all.

The plane was scheduled to land in Evoron, but the landing strip there had been converted into a training area for local driving school. We landed in Komsomolsk instead. I took my friends on a hike to Lake Amut, one of the most scenic places in Amur Basin. The lake is surrounded by very dense fir and spruce forests. It is also the best place I know to see lekking of Siberian grouse.

We traveled by train to Khabarovsk, they got on a plane to Beijing, and I went to Vladivostok. I wanted to see Ussuriland one last time. It looked great: people were leaving forest villages, and wildlife flourished. In Ussuri Reserve the snow was covered by tracks of all creatures imaginable, from deep trenches left by giant Ussurian boars to square prints made by landing flying squirrels. In Kedrovaya Pad' Reserve there was no snow at all, and even more animals around. I had incredible luck in Ussuriland: in just seven nights, I saw a tiger and a leopard. And what nights they were, with the comet in the sky, owls calling all over the forest, yellow-breasted martens playing in the trees...

In Moscow it was still winter, gray and boring. But it was the last Russian winter for me. In my mailbox was a note from American embassy, informing me that I'd been allowed to emigrate to California.

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