Gas, Tundra and Videotape

Gas, Tundra and Videotape
Novy Urengoy, International

Novy Urengoy, International

Sun barely setting these days. This morning I woke up in the plush surrounds of my Hotel Yamburg suite in Novy Urengoy, oil and gas capital of Siberia. But something was fishy. I checked my pack. The dried fish I’d bought at the platform stall on the train trip north to Novy Urengoy was smelling strong. But not off. Just that strong dried fish flavour. One of the fish was whole and I’d bought it because it looked so strange. Never seen one like it. Kind of ribbed flat back with a long pointy snout. These are freshwater lake fish I believe caught locally in Siberia and in this case sold to the train passengers.

Last night Aleksander had offered to take me to a local shashlik (a bbq meat traditional to Russia’s Muslim cultures in the very deep south east of Russia). After two days in the fug of the train the shower was welcome and I was ready to meet Aleksander. He was off duty and drove me in his car to the north side of Novy Urengoy to his favourite shashlik bar. I bought dinner. The least I could do after their gestures of kindness. Aleksander, originally from St Petersburg, lived in one of the many apartment blocks in Novy Urengoy. The town was established in 1975 essentially to service the beginnings of the oil and gas industry and received official town status in 1980. The apartment blocks looked newish but worn down and rough. Cables ran from floor to floor along walls and from block to block tens of metres overhead servicing do-it-yourself cable TV or Internet installations and arrangements. I was also amazed at the number of cables swinging down in great concave arcs from individual windows. These explained Aleks were supplying power in winter to the engine block heaters in the occupants’ cars parked below to keep them from freezing. Normal winter temperature here is minus 30 degrees Celsius. Kids go to school still on these days and colder. But if the temperature drops to minus 42 then kids don’t go to school. About five years ago the town recorded a temperature of minus 63 degrees C! People died in their cars during this time – frozen to death!

I noticed some new civic buildings under construction and saw the huge blocks of insulation being attached to the outside of the block construction walls. This particular building was going to be the new births, deaths and marriages office. It seemed Novy Urengoy was planning for many more years of an active living workforce supplying the labour and services to the expanding gas field production across the Siberia tundra.

We walked to the town’s main square and memorial. The Eternal Flame was here like it was in most towns across Russia: a memorial to the heroes of the Second World War 1941-45.

Beside the memorial Aleks pointed out two old men standing beside the flame talking wearing fessed in fatigues, one in airforce blue fatigues and the other in army green fatigues. They were members of the Cossack Army – an unofficial army within Russia. The official police know about them. They undertake voluntary duties like local vigilance making sure say in this case that no one vandalises the Eternal Flame. I’m not exactly sure what they do but it sounds a bit like an association of men in voluntary civil service.

This morning Aleksander from reception called to see if I was ready for the interview. The Gazprom promo unit wanted to do a video interview as I was the first tourist to their facility. Essentially I am officially the first tourist to visit Novy Urengoy. And they want to make a big deal about it!

Young receptionist Julia was brought in from off duty to translate the interviewer’s questions. They asked me about why I had come to Novy Urengoy and what I thought about their oil and gas capital of Siberia. Natasha was standing and watching while we sat outside the front lobby steps in the bright morning summer sun, while the video camera operator moved his tripod into position. They asked that I bring the guitar and sit it on the bench we were seated upon so that it was in view and that I place my camera there too. They wanted to be sure it was clear that I was a tourist!

They got me to sing a song or two at the end of the interview too (I’m travelling with a tiny guitar I picked up in Moscow) – hilarious! Something Australian they said. I gave them Waltzing Matilda. A special request from Natasha was the REM song ‘Talking About the Passion’, which she’d heard me sing at the reception desk the night before. But she just called it the ‘Distraction’ song as that was the only lyric she could pick out. This was all captured on film. And I must say I was feeling very overwhelmed: to go from the invisible traveller to special guest and star performer! Anyway I was happy to indulge. And while it didn’t feel so real to me I truly believe that these people in Novy Urengoy were excited to have such a visit as mine.

(This interview would appear on the weekly Gazprom community TV station viewable only in Novy Urengoy.)

After the interview Natasha asked if I could practice English with her staff as its important for them in their job and they rarely get the chance. I said I was more than happy to oblige.

Now they are organising a BBQ out of town into the tundra this afternoon for me.

Not sure what’s next. But it sounds like they’re doing their best to facilitate my desire of seeing the sea at the Ob Gulf. And Natasha has pulled some strings to get me a seat on the thrice weekly service to the autonomous district’s capital, Salekhard. From there they say I can take a ship to the ocean and also up river to Tobolsk. I’m very grateful for their hospitality.

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