Gallery Siberia On Fire

My shadow was a giant of a Muscovite taxi driver, who didn't understand my "NYET!" He chuckled away my foolish attempt at Russian with contempt, adding to my concerns rather than reducing them, and offering me a taxi ride instead.

He did speak dollars fluently, fifty-nine to be exact, to go from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1! Intourist didn't mention any of this when I asked about transfers between terminals. I scanned the kiosks to find some information but he pursued me from one transparent screen to the next. I guess the Russian heaven is full of kiosks with all the heavenly delights behind a screen, or is that hell?

"Leave me alone!" I shouted in vain to my shadow. ... At last, my pursuer dissolved amongst the stolid mass of Russian taxi drivers, not a smile between them, just a snarl of teeth. Welcome to Moscow Airport!
"Leave me alone!" I shouted in vain to my shadow. I imagined he learnt his art as operative in the KGB. He was reduced to hustling foreign tourists I felt strangely re-assured, but not completely. My eyes accustomed to the Roman alphabet began to focus on the Cyrillic, or was it . The bespectacled women seemed to have an answer but no charm, no sweet smile. At last, my pursuer dissolved amongst the stolid mass of Russian taxi drivers, not a smile between them, just a snarl of teeth. Welcome to Moscow Airport!

Preparing for my trip to Siberia I overdid my homework. Distance and largeness were common themes from all the writers on Siberia. You could fit Europe, excluding Russia, the continental USA plus Alaska, into Siberia, and still enough room to swing a cat. No problem. I like to travel light, so I had to admit I had no room in my rucksack to carry any countries, least of all a small continent, and even less room in my head for such concepts. How would I feel this vastness, I feel lost in Hyde Park, a London park, at most 1 or 2 kilometres in any direction? Maybe my mind map needs extension.

Luckily, there was a free bus between the Moscow Terminals. A mystery white bus, it was a ghost bus. I clambered on board with my rucksack dragging behind. It was erringly quiet. After some time on a motorway, I thought my taxi friend was upfront driving, with a glint in his eye. From this bus, the Airport environs were my first and last view of European Russia before my epic flight to Irkutsk, 5,500 kilometres away. Amongst the brutal but functional airport architecture there was an Orthodox Church, an ancient reminder amongst the modern, or was it a leftover from a gigantic childish game. I finally saw the giant letters, TERMINAL 1, my anxiety partially allayed.

... the city had been many things, a gold rush town, a town of exile, a frontier town, a railway town, university town, political town, a city of culture and administration centre of Eastern Siberia.
There were a number of queues I could have joined. So I selected the shortest. However, there was a reason for the shortness. The Russian Army had already staked out there position on my left flank. I had made a blunder of Napoleonic proportions; caught in the doorway; I had to wait whilst the gentlemen of the Russian Army moved everything through the x-ray machine. I mean everything. This included a package so large it must have been a small tank. Too big for the machine they dragged it like a corpse. I missed this island of possessions, so whilst all the much longer parallel queues diminished to nothing, I lingered uncomfortable in between the military and the security. The causal shirted operative faced with this, were just as implacable with these military men as with me. I thought I detected a smile, no, I must be mistaken. I waited for a gap.

On board, my destination was only five and half hours away, in the deepest heart of Siberia. It seemed like another planet. Siberia of legend and tragedy was snow and endless forests, where horrendous crimes could be committed but the cuckoo would still sing. My destination was Irkutsk. It started as a wooden fort by Cossack soldiers in the 17th Century. In the time that stretched between now and then, the city had been many things, a gold rush town, a town of exile, a frontier town, a railway town, university town, political town, a city of culture and administration centre of Eastern Siberia.

The city, which was dubbed by some travellers the Paris of Siberia, was located where the Irkut and Angara Rivers meet, some 60 kilometres from Lake Baikal that is the watery soul of Siberia. Irkutsk was a perfect place for the Cossack to feed on fish and to ride out and collect tax and fur tribute from the local Buryat people. Before the Angara was canalised and dammed, you can imagine the weary Cossack drinking vodka and toasting victories, whilst the trees swayed uneasily outside, snow piled up, bears and wolves patrolled.

GalleryThe plane was Russian built. Its features included those seats that collapsed either way with the slightest knock. I sat on the penultimate row. Next to me sat the modern equivalent of the Cossack, three members of Russian Special Forces, dressed in khaki. They seemed civilised and restrained, not anticipating a fight, I guess. Why are their epaulettes in English as well as Russian? Maybe there is anticipation of joint missions with the English-speaking world. Maybe to intimidate the enemy they shout English slogans.

Chechnya is an ever present fact on Russian TV. There are outrages on both sides but the TV only tells about Chechen terrorists' outrages. If I was a braver soul I could have engaged them in some sort of discussion. If this was fiction there would be a dialogue. The youngest of the three seemed particularly fascinated by the map at the centre of the in-flight magazine. Pouring over the plan like a General planning his manoeuvres, he suddenly decided he would prefer a window seat. After some sign language and confusion I guessed he wanted to swap seats. I left him to stare out into the darkness of the night, whilst my access to toilet was improved.

When at last the plane touched down, I was too far from the window to get much of an impression. Clearly, my military companion was delighted to see the airport. The people behind me applauded so loudly and violently that the seat next to me collapsed as if by sheer nervous exhaustion. Waiting on the tarmac for the airport bus to take me to the terminal building, what I took to be early morning fog I learned later was smoke. In this most forested region of Russia, the trees were burning. Would the charred trees provide the detritus for future saplings or turn all to dust? The forests around Irkutsk were on fire, the smoke filled all the streets of the city, it got so bad that the shroud closed the airport for two days. I would see the blackened silver birches and the smouldering stumps. But now dazed and confused I followed the crowd to the exit gate. My first weary steps onto Siberian soil were into an early morning haze.

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Copyright 2003 by Melvyn Dresner
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