“Do you know about the insects at Stolby that can paralyse you if they bite you?” asked Peter, one of the Bunk Brigade on the trip from Tomsk to Krasnoyarsk. Er, no Peter, I didn’t.
I was lucky that Peter was in my section as he had good English and could act as translator between me, Vittorio, Bahar and Tanya, a babushka figure who adopted me and fed me chocolates for the journey.
He referred to tick season in Siberia and the prevalence of encephalitis among the biting population. The disease is incurable and can render you paralysed. I wish I’d known about the inoculation before but I didn’t so I’ll have to take my chances that a) I don’t get bitten and b) if I get bitten it’s by one of the 50% that don’t have the virus. It’s not going to stop me going to the lakes and mountains, that’s for sure.
We had quite a long conversation over the course of our journey. It turned out that he was travelling a long-winded road to get to Krasnoyarsk to study. He has a family at his home in Irkutsk and his wife is expecting their second baby within a month. Russia is one of the few countries in the world with a rapidly declining population – about 600,000 each year – attributed to drug and alcohol abuse and a generally hard life. It’s also the given reason for hot women settling for frankly rotten mingers. Women are hardier than men so it has caused a 60-40 population skew. To try and counter this, Russia’s government has introduced what I will call ‘breeding incentives’. For your second child the government give you $10,000 (not in cash but in investable options for the child’s well-being); for the third they give you a plot of land. He also told me that heart problems are rife in Siberia thanks largely to the enormous 100 degree temperature range. Apparently 40 degrees in the summer and 45 below in the winter isn’t so good for your ticker.
Krasnoyarsk is tagged as a ‘Siberian boom town’ and is certainly a vibrant hub. It has a population of 2.9million and was founded to claim and protect that chunk of Siberia from the natives, but has diversified to become a popular place to send political exiles (in the 1800 and 1900s) and one of the country’s largest producers of aluminium. Being a stop on the Trans-Siberian train also helps with its popularity. For me, it was the place that I began to notice more distinctly Asian influences in more faces. Don’t forget that we’re back in Asia proper now, having crossed the continental line back in Yekaterinburg.
After a morning argument with the dudes at Subway who put ketchup in the disgusting sandwich that they made me and tried to double-charge me for the privilege (yes, I put a complaint in to HQ via the wifi that they kindly provided – look forward to their response), I met Zhenya at the train station, an eager English student and friend of my couch-surfing hosts Misha and another, female Zhenya.
We toured the city in the morning, taking in my favourite Lenin memorabilia, Sovietska architecture, art deco buildings, a toy shop, some statues and a coffee shop. All the tulips and early spring flowers that I saw at home over a month ago are now in bloom here so I feel like I’ve cheated the clock in getting another spring.
At lunchtime we met effervescent Vasilisa and her friend Maks. Vasa is a TV journalist at the local TV station and has just started using couch surfing to practice her already impressive English. Likewise, Maks is a science academic who has spent time in China and the US and so speaks very good English but wants to keep it up and, it seems, to show fervent tourists their city. Upon meeting they whisked us off to the chairlifts at the Bobrovy ski resort for panoramic views over both the city and the taiga forest beyond it. This accompanied by a picnic of sushi, prepared by Vasa’s capable boyfriend, and samogon, a fiery home-brewed vodka flavoured with pine nuts and prepared by her dear father.
It was a beautiful spot from which to take in the cityscape and get your bearings, plus we were lucky enough to see an owl hunting in the grasses below as we sailed overhead.
“Have you ever seen a dacha?” she asked me.
‘What is a dacha?’
Decision made. Remember how I told you that Russian folks tend to live in apartments and covet gardens to such an extent that they keep a patch of land in the country with a little house to stay at in the summer? It turned out that Maks’ family are the proud owner of one and so they duly invited me to go and see it for myself. <Beam.> Imagine an allotment with a substantial wooden house perched on it and you’ve got the idea. Now imagine a patchwork of them crammed into a fecund corner of forest. At this one there are more than 400 dwellings of varying style, size and state of repair.
I’d seen plenty of them as I cruised past on the train but the chance to go and visit one for myself was a joy. They are little village communities that re-establish themselves each year and wind down each winter. For many families it is a tradition to grow a crop of potatoes but others like to just enjoy the tranquillity of the countryside or grow flowers.
On the half hour drive out, we stopped at a roadside stall to pick up some uber-fresh, unpasteurised milk and cream, wild garlic, sausage and bread. This was to be conjured into a magnificent feast upon arrival. Not before an appetite had been worked up by fetching water, Hansel and Gretel style, from the well at the bottom of the hill. We spent several sunny hours exploring the summer village and playing ‘guess the crop’ as the hopeless townies.
The following day was an early start for a trip to the famous Stolby (emphasis on the ‘by’ syllable) national park that abuts Krasnoyarsk. In the 17,000 hectares of taiga forest stand 50 or more rock towers created by ancient volcanic activity and subsequent erosion. I went with Maks and Dominik, a fellow couchsurfer making his way back from two years in Oz via Russia and the Trans-Siberian. After a 7km gentle walk in, it was decided that we should ascend one of the rocks for optimum views. Everyone does it; in summer there is a queue for the most popular rocks. A noble-looking gentleman having his picnic and cuppa tea at the bottom pointed the easiest route out to us.
We began to climb and a scramble up the rocks swift turned into a climb. Fine for the nimble boys but less fine for a wuss like me without being in some way attached to the rock. I squeaked a lot and pulled faces. Ironic really since I was probably wearing the best shoes out of all of us. Luckily we made friends with two young climbing enthusiasts who were climbing the same route. The two undergraduates had bunked off university for the day to head to their favourite rocks for some climbing. One was wearing jeans and converse, the other a vest and some ragged trainers, changed for old-fashioned rubber climbing shoes when he wanted to demonstrate classic technique to us. “He told you that was the easy way?” they laughed. “He must be crazy.” Still, by hook, crook, rope and cajolement they spirited me safely to the top of the rock. And it was worth it for the rousing scene of mile upon mile of rolling Siberian forest. And a nip of home brew for courage.
The way down was way easier, more like my definition of scrambling, and thoroughly enjoyable. So much so that our experts slid down sections of it head-first.
That evening we had local pancakes and beer at Matreshka Cafe back in town. I tell you, the Russian food is surprisingly good and varied. Pastas, salads, meats, delicacies you wouldn’t dream of. This is not just a land of borsch and cabbage. No sir.
On my last day in the city, kindly Zhenya once again acted as my personal tour guide and showed me more of the city, including tea in a yurt and the wild, beautiful Tatyshev park on an island in the river and popular with runners, cyclists, families and the omnipresent roller bladers. I was very sorry to be leaving a friendly and most surprising city, but the train waits for no man.