Saturday, July 24, 2010

sneaky 24 hours in sydney time

Well, I'm back in Sydney time! A lot has happened in the last 48 hours, so
this post will be very dehydrated!

I left Severobaikalsk in Obschiy (unreserved train), in this case an old
kupe carriage, mainly with locals over short distances and railway workers.
Opposite me was a man with an interesting tattoo and large scar on his face
who looked a bit scary, but turned out to be very friendly. I was
microsleeping, so lay in the top bunk to watch Baikal disappear. The train
went up over the mountains and eventually I fell asleep. I awoke twice in
the night - once in the Severomuisk tunnel (a 25 year building project just
finished, 16km tunnel), and once as we passed a large forest fire, visible
for quite some time and very interesting.

The train arrived in Novaya Chara and terminated, I got off. I found the
hotel booked out, so wandered around town in my backpack, sneaking into
half-built apartment buildings populated with broken glass, the abandoned
hospital, and visiting the museum (with exhibitions on animals, including a
deer with fangs, the indigenous people, gulags, BAM construction, what the
town might have looked like, etc). In the street I saw a man amble towards
me, a large (but healing) wound above his right eye. Anatoly was surprised
to hear I was a solo traveller, 22, from Australia, and gave me an apple,
which was pretty good. I later found all the fruit in the shop was black,
so I probably had the best apple in the valley. Thanks Anatoly!

Returning to town I found a new(er) hospital, and had a look around. Their
dental equipment was modern. The main attraction in Chara (and the reason I
stopped there) is a mysterious set of sand dunes about 6km from the station
(built by Kazakhs, incidentally), in the middle of Siberia on 600m of
permafrost. I set off in a westerly direction, but after an hour of walking
on a dirt road in 35 degree heat decided to cut my losses and try a
different route. Walking back to town along the train tracks, I met two
guys in a workers car on a freight train, with whom I had tea and discussed
the merits of Russian women, helped by several large visual aids decorating
their kitchen area.

Back in town I went to the hotel, and found they could find me a room, but
would charge a lot of money. I decided the excess was worth it for a
shower, ditched my bag and dictionary, and caught a cab East to Staraya
Chara, a sleepy town left over from Stalin forced collectivisation. Summer
frosts ruined that plan, but the taxi left me next to a narrow track that
wound SW through swamp, taiga, and across a (crotch - 5cm) deep river,
adorned with frogs, mosquitos and butterflies to the sanddunes. They were
amazing. The view to the kodar mountains (impossibly craggy, like some
non-differentiable functions I have known and loved) was obscured by
bushfire smoke, giving the impression of being in a genuine desert. After a
while I strapped my sandals back on and returned, feeding only about 2L of
my blood to mosquitos who haven't heard that DEET is a neurotoxin for
insects.

I hitched back to Novaya (new) Chara and headed straight for the shop,
availing myself of some liquid diabetes (orange in colour), and surveying
more than a few boxes of unsalable food... back outside I saw a man
swearing in English, who turned out to be a Chilean mining engineer, with
about 7 others (also geologists) developing a copper mine (udokan) in the
region. Including an Australian (Mike). I hung with them for the evening,
which was great fun. They thought I was crazy, probably in general.

I returned to the hotel at about midnight (it was starting to get dark) and
realised for the first time in 35 days I had a room with a door with a
lock, so washed some clothes and had a shower. In this case the hot tap
ran, but hot was purely in the mind. Maybe it was half a degree warmer? Had
a pleasant sleep in a bed (another novelty - I write this at 4am in Tynda
railway station), before waking the next morning and packing. At this point
I realised my migration card was missing. This is unlikely to cause
problems for me until I leave, but cause problems it did for the women at
the counter (who had so gleefully named their price the day before).

Later on the train I unpacked everything and found the wretched postage
stamp sized form, so was the fright worth the inconvenience to some of the
few people I've found willing to enjoy legal robbery? Definitely. Overall,
a killer 24 hours.

I settled in on the train with a railway worker and his 2 year old son (our
Russian skills were roughly comparible... :( ), and at a 45 minute stop in
Khani, ran into another traveller, this time wielding a camera (dead
givaway). Kate was a geologist freshly graduated from Moscow, going to feed
mozzies at a Tungsten/Molybdenum ore site for a month. Bizarrely, we had
several friends in common (dinets.livejournal.com) and spent the better
part of the next 14 hours talking. Right now she's sleeping. I was feeding
mosquitos, so sniffed out some internet instead. Soon I'll explore Tynda
before taking off north into Sakha.

The rest of the train trip was uneventful. For the first time this trip, a
rainy day. Endless forests, rivers, and mountains, spectacular scenery, and
hobbits frolicking to and fro (I hoped...).

When I said the BAM had hundreds of tunnels, I didn't realise the number is
closer to six, though one is a group of 4 closely spaced ones next to
Baikal. A future post will contain a summary with lots of numbers for those
so inclined.

Particular highlights - sand dunes. WTF! Mind blowing. NB: the phrase 'eyes
dropped out' doesn't translate into Russian.

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