Monday, July 26, 2010

Big trucks, the first kitch-hitch, and the worst road in the world.

My last post left me sleepless in Tynda at 5am as the day's first light began to show. I made a brief return to the blue metal chairs to try and sleep, even going so far as to prop my wallet under my ribs for cushioning, thus attempting to sleep on a big pile of cash. Obviously I was too poor, because I didn't sleep at all. I bought a small potato and cabbage pastie from the cafe for breakfast, then packed and prepared to explore the city for a few hours with Katya, the geologist I had met the previous day.
It being 6am I wasn't sure who we would meet. Tynda is a town built on a hill top, in which the usual soviet apartment blocks serve to create wide avenues. Climbing one of these we met two slightly wired people who said 'travellers!' and immidiately offered us a smoke. After a quick chat, we continued past Arbat market (Tynda was built by Moscovites, and if that makes no sense, too bad). Soon we were passed by a slightly tipsy man on a very shiny bicycle, wearing pinstripe suit pants, dress shoes, and carrying a box of cat food. We later had a chat - he was rather friendly. Soon enough we found our objective, a large steel statue of an androgynous rail worker with an enormous sledgehammer. We clambered all over the plinth to get photos in the early morning light, then were greeted by a rather fat man who introduced himself as an ex-journalist. He told us that the foundations of many factories (icecream, amongst other things) could be found in the fields outside town. These green-field sites were abandoned in favour of existing industrial sites in European Russia during perestroika, and the town has shrunk ever since. He wore on his shirt a pin with the face of Kim Il Sung, the deceased but continuing president and great leader of the DPRK. He was an adherent of the slightly zany philosophy of Juche, which stresses self reliance, the ability to control and improve ones destiny through allegiance to the leader, etc. I am no expert.
Returning to the station we found a see-saw disguised as a matroshka doll. The train was late, I finished my nutella, and we said farewell. I took the train to Neryungri, a coal mining town. I slept heavily on the train, then found the next compartment had a french couple (the woman was Russian, but spoke French). My french is pretty aweful, but that didn't stop us from speaking in Frussian for a while. The man bore a passing resemblance to a well known french film director currently 'residing' in Switzerland, though I was not entirely sure why they had travelled from Paris to Neryungri.
I arrived, and with the help of the French couple, found a cheap hotel (the guide being thoroughly out-of-date, then walked around town. At the NW end, I snuck into an apartment block and climbed to the top to get a view over one of the largest coal mines in the world. The open pit mine is up to 300m deep, though there are about 5 peripheral smaller pits and an underground section as well. I took a taxi to the entrance of the mine, darted off to the side, and in rather... functional... russian explained to the guards that I'd come to see the mine truck maintenance shed. After a short wait I was given a red helmet and ushered through the door. They told me that they earned about 1AUD/hour to guard the entrance. Being hot, their shirts were unbuttoned, but that was no concern. Soon I was walking on ground regularly trampled by 200 tonne mining goliaths. The dim of the workshop (about the size of a large aircraft hanger) contrasted with the light outside as several trucks in varying states of disassembly or repair seemed to hunch in the shadows. The mine uses maybe 1000 large vehicles, mainly Russian Belaz, American Drosser, and Japanese Humatshi (?). I climbed all over them, had a good look at the controls, and otherwise fulfilled every last remaining boy-hood fantasy. This was seriously cool. The drive train is actually electric, so they're hybrid cars, which means I get tax breaks if I drive them in California. Hehehehe!
Turns out 'from Australia' is the best free ticket I've ever had.
I hitched back to town (all roads lead there), then made contact with a friend of a friend who lives there. Soon enough I was hungry, and offered to cook him and his family dinner, which I did, thus performing the first kitchen-hitch of this trip, but hopefully not the last. I should learn the Russian for 'I have ingredients, but need a kitchen - do you want dinner?'. I had to rush away to meet the French couple at a club in town, where they helped me crash a wedding going on. Everyone was dressed up and having a good time, this town is one of the most prosperous I have seen so far. The music was loud, but the food was excellent, and soon enough the man took a microphone and crooned several French classics, which was somewhat bizarre. Following more than enough smoked salmon and disco lasers, I departed to the hotel, where I had a bed and a hot shower, but no locking door (cheap!). Some day I'll manage the trifector.
Next morning I woke before six, checked out, and walked to the station. All the taxis were already there waiting for a coming train, so I arrived too late to organise a lift to Yakutsk, and caught a train to Tommot instead. The train was inhabited by a strange old red-headed man (actually very nice), and several insolent screaming children, which put a damper on my plans to sleep some more. They got off at Aldan, so the last 2 hours of the trip, while slow, were at least quiet.
I arrived at Tommot in pouring rain, found a bus going the right way, and got on. The ride from Tommot to Yakutsk is on the M56, a road publicised widely a few years ago as the 'worst road in the world', owing to its unpleasant habit of liquefying in wet conditions and swallowing tens of vehicles without a trace. Aside from a few pinches where the road was being rebuilt, it was one of the best roads I've seen this trip, and certainly the best sealed one. 10 hours of sparse taiga drifted by either window. We stopped in Tommot town for non existent passengers, in Amga for chocolate, in Uluu for borscht (my first, I think, and rather nice), and in Kachikatsy for more passengers before taking the ferry. At the ferry the sun was setting (about 11pm), we were the third last vehicle, so departed rather quickly. I found the Yakut girl who had got on spoke reasonable english, so we chatted about school, uni, and life in the far-east.
At about 1:30 in the morning we arrived in Yakutsk (I thought the driver had said the hour of 9 or 10 (ie pm), but he probably said 9 or 10 hours. The difference is about one letter.). Anya, the CSer, was awake, greeted me, showed me a bed and hot water (no locking door, luckily), and even heated up some dinner for me. I think I landed in heaven!
This morning I awoke to find her mum had cooked me soup for breakfast (yum!). I also found the hatch to the roof open, so climbed onto the top of an unfenced 8 story apartment block to look around. All the buildings in Yakutsk are built on pillars to try and preserve the integrity of the permafrost. It was founded in 1632, so is one of the oldest, largest, and coldest cities I've visited so far. Today it was only 32 degrees!
I wandered around the city, met Anya and some friends for lunch, and then skimmed broken concrete on an industrial tailings pond next to the river. With some success, I might add. Soon, I'll return home to cook dinner. Unfortunately the man in Neryungri knows Anya and warned her about the pasta, so I'll have to cook something else. Oh noes!!!
In the next fews days I'll explore the city, museums, etc, then depart for Oimyakon.

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