Surgutsky District, Russian Federation
My traveller’s diarrhoea continued but I had a long breakfast at Hotel Ural not just because it was included in my room but because I needed to rest and to not be too far from toilet. I was taking homeopathic arsenicum. And I was taking the long trip north tonight (25 June) on the train. It seemed I was surrounded by conference attendees, the huge Hotel Ural complex being such a venue. I never found out what the conference was about. I spent some time after breakfast making the most of the hotel’s free wi-fi before heading off for a walk around town. But first with my energy levels low I decided I needed a hearty borsch. I bought three postcards from a lady in a street stall and headed into a local bar – the Kama micro brewery – to eat and write. I found the place deserted. It seemed though that it would be happening place when filled. Though I didn’t care much for the multiple tv screens blaring English video dance clips. Not wanting to search further I just stayed and sampled the local brew. Probably not the best for a mild case of diarrhoea but I was wishing it away and was confident it was self limiting. The borsch was delicious as a starter. When the main I’d thought that I’d ordered of bbq fish cooked on skews over coals turned out to be pork chunks cooked the same way I decided to let it go and just deal – I needed the energy. I’d already eaten most of the roast potatoes on the side before I even realised it was pork. Still feeling queasy and low on energy I headed out into the bright light of the mid-afternoon Perm. Happy couples were everywhere walking. Down on the Kama things were relaxed – see ‘Kama River’ entry. I picked up some supplies from a supermarket for the long train trip ahead and headed back to the lobby of the Hotel Ural to collect my pack and mini guitar and book a taxi to the train station for an hour prior to departure. I got some more cash out in case the end of the line in Novy Urengoy proved truly the end of the line. And while I sat in the lobby taking advantage once more of the free wk-fi a whole gaggle of ladies exited what I assumed was the conference to gather right beside me on the semi-circular couch and listen to one of the ladies talk enthusiastically about a new potato peeler cum multi function tool all in one device! Quite humorous! On board the train the very young provodnitsa showed me to my ‘kupe’. Western Siberians Valyera (53), Vera (58) and grandson Ruslan (6) were t my kupe companions. I’m in the top bunk. This is an older edition of these sleeper services probably because we’re going to a lower demographic. I’m in kupe instead of platz as there were no beds left in these platz dorm carriages. My lovely companions Vera and Valyera, are a retired couple from Surgut accompanying their grandson home who’s 6 yrs old. We spoke a little with my stilted Russian and the Russian dictionary app I had on my phone. Vera then said with that spark of life glinting in her eyes, “Chai and bye!”, and we readied for bed. I will try to get to Yamburg! I said to myself. Wish me luck! As I fell asleep. Next morning (26 June) from breakfast onward we spoke a lot. When I explained to them (in the context of answering their questions about my family) that my grandfather had died just weeks before his 100th birthday, they both compared my grandfather’s life span to their cultural context, saying to themselves that he was alive when the October 1917 Revolution happened! I could see that they’d lived some tough lives through the soviet era. Both were retired and seemed happy with their lives. I had a mid morning sleep to catch up on a lack of sleep last night. The pain on my right shoulder kept me awake. And at one point in the dark night – we’d gone south for a bit to Yekatarinaburg so the White Nights was not so pronounced – I sat upright on the top bunk listening to Valyera snoring and grinding his teeth on cyclic turns. After a lunch from the dining carriage was somehow delivered to me – not sure if it was Vera, Valyera’s or mine that came with the ticket but they insisted I eat it – I pulled out the tiny guitar and after eventually getting it into tune as much as possible I sang a few songs. A fellow called Peter came up and listened in the corridor. He spoke good English and so began long jams and information exchanges with him in our kupe. I felt slightly awkward at the start sitting in a small space as I felt a bit uncomfortable that Valyera an Vera weren’t into it as Peter was singing many of his original songs in English. But while their grandson played raucously in the corridor with his new little friends – children of other parents recently boarded – it seemed that at least Vera was enjoying Peter’s songs. I was glad to be able to play some of my songs and cover renditions on a proper guitar. And when it was my turn I used my phone’s tuner app to tune the guitar. I realised then that it was this that had been making me uncomfortable before – the guitar was out of tune. I thought Peter looked a bit netvous to start with but he was obviously happy to have an audience too. And he was quite happy to practice his English as well. At times he’d translate my lyrics for Valyera and Vera. And they’d smile. Vera was a kind woman. And Valyera looked worn with age and smoking despite he being 5 years Vera’s junior. Somewhere into the evening after Tobolsk and before Surgut the vegetation changed slowly from tall dense stands of pines and beeches to shorter and patchy stands amidst mossy flats and low rises. Amazing fresh and apparently clean lakes appeared, glass-like and surrounded by low meadow-like vegetation. After a station break Peter offered me a couple national ‘Baltic’ brand beers and we continued into the late afternoon and evening. His songs were fantastic. They just got better and better. He reminded me a lot of my Guatemalan friend Carlos in Perth. Especially Peter’s song about the memory of the rough unshaven cheek of his deceased father who he sadly lost when he was just six years old. This life context also reminded me of Carlos. I asked Peter why he’d written such a personal song in English and not Russian. He said that it was a private part of him and he felt that it was best kept in English so that not everyone in Russia would find out about it. When Peter found out I was with WWF he was a little alarmed. He’d just been telling me all about his company Novatek, who are the largest independent natural gas producer in Russia. They utilise the fracking services of other companies for the enhancement of their oil and gas production. These fracking processes, which are undertaken deep down at 4km below the northern Siberian landscapes are not causing anything like what was seen in North America vis a vis the Gasland documentary, Peter insisted. They pump in water from the plentiful freshwater lakes and mixed with it a natural biodegradable guar gum from guar beans grown in the US, India, Pakistan etc. These days guar gum used in the food industry is made synthetically – and if you eat highly processed food then there is a high chance that you have eaten it as well. He was adamant that his company and others in these northern extremes of Western Siberia were doing no harm to the surrounding natural environs. We approached Surgut crossing a massive tributary of the Ob River and saw little towns and veggie patches. Oil head platforms started springing up. Peter was at pains to point out their enviromental credentials, emphasising that the environment was still very clean: “See,” finger pointing at the river beside where the oil wells were, “there is no damage.” As we approached Surgut Vera asked us to stop playing guitar so they could pack up prior to alighting. So Peter and I adjourned to his empty kupe. He bought some more beer at Surgut station while I some takeaway pizza and after we left the station we played until another English speaking oil company worker, who I’d talked to on the platform (he’d lived and studied mechanical engineering in NZ and was there during the last earthquake) came and told us to keep it down. I didn’t sleep much at all with the sore right shoulder and the midnight twilight and sunset colours being so tantalising over the taiga. I woke early at 07:00 local time (27 June) to continue to watch the taiga in all it’s variability roll past the window on a now almost empty train (see Taiga Sands).