Novy Urengoy, Russian Federation
After the interview I was resting in the room reading a very interesting book on the socio-cultural history of this autonomous district. Sasha (Aleksander) called my room with information that Nicolai had been investigating: there was a boat travelling from Salekhard to the Ob Gulf. I could also take a boat up the Ob to Tobolsk. So if I wanted to go to Salekhard we needed to go now out to the airport to get the ticket. Apparently there had been no seats left on tomorrow’s flight but Natasha had made some calls and had secured me one and at a cheaper rate (at 7250 roubles it was still pricey but this is the norm in the far north). While I was waiting for Sasha to finish duties at the front desk and take me to the airport I was sitting in the empty plaza in front of the Hotel Yamburg. I saw Natasha leaving. It turned out she was traveling to Yamburg herself to go to the hospital there. Apparently there was a Gasprom hospital there only for employees. Sasha said it was better than the hospitals in Novy Urengoy. At the airport they didn’t take credit card and I’d left my extra cash stash with my passport and debit card back at the hotel. So instead of driving back Sasha rang his colleagues to ask them to put the 7250 roubles into his cash card account. And so we waited 15 minutes for this to happen and then Sasha kindly went back in to pay for the ticket. I’d pay him back once back at hotel. All the reception staff with the permission of their boss Natasha were taking the afternoon off to take me on a shashlik (BBQ skewed meat chunks over coals). Sasha, Julia and Vera and I drove out to what turned out to be the edge of the land behind the hotel. Still surrounded by vegetation that was half way between taiga and tundra and right by the ever present lakes and marshes, Nicolai was already there bare-chested preparing his portable BBQ frame. He looked every bit the trim, taut and terrific Russian cool man. Non-hirsute and knife by his side. I quipped he looked like Crocodile Dundee and all the others thought it hilarious. There was beer flowing. And while Julia and Vera washed and prepared the salad (fresh gherkin cucumbers and tomatoes) I played a few songs at their request. It was very pleasant. But I had to stop to apply mosquito repellent – they are huge, ferocious and persisent and in great numbers at all hours of the day as are the big green-eyed horse flies. The Hotel crowd were all great company and a lot of fun. They obviously like working with each other. When Oleg and soon after Ludmila (who was the only one in the Hotel Yamburg crew who didn’t speak any English) arrived the full team was together. They called themselves the Dream Bream Team as a self-deprecating joke. Bream is a type of fish and in Russia you can imply someone is lazy by calling them a ‘bream’. A bit like we use the tern ‘sloth’. Lots of jokes riffing of each other around this. They had a new fellow joining the reception team today and they were all wondering what he’d be like. They were already calling him the ‘sub-bream’. Nicolai cooked another round of pork chunks on the skews. This was prepared meat they’d bought. He spoke about his family’s hunting tradition and how he’d first learnt to shoot a gun in his apartment when he was seven at a target that his mother had drawn on the wall. His mother was a champion sports athlete shooter. He saw a bit of himself in me as he was a traveller too he said. He’d been to the Altai Mountains region in Southern Siberia to mountaineer and compete in orienteering. He was short with a thin athletic build and piercing blue eyes. Julia enjoyed practicing her English. But Vera was much quieter. Julia made the rule that for the rest of the afternoon only English should be spoken. It was fun to hear them reply to Nicolai in English, who was quite the comedian, when he struggled with his own English. “Sorry we don’t understand you’, they would shout back at his long rapid under-the-breath Russian quips that had us all in hysterics. They were all happy to be able to practice their English. Later that day Oleg would quip that I was breaking a mundane routine for them in Novy Urengoy. It was such a pleasure to meet a real traveller from afar. Something that had never happened in their time here. Julia’s boyfriend arrived and we decided to drive to a lake so I could maybe swim at my suggestion. We packed up the BBQ and headed back to the hotel so that Nicolai could take up his shift at the reception desk. At the lake oh of town, surrounds entirely by summer houses, my zeal for swimming when I tested the waters. The wind had picked up and it wasn’t feeling as hot anymore despite the blue sky. In the distant the black black smoke continued unabated. The product of gas flaring from oil wells all around the flat landscape. Sasha invited us all to his place where his 6 month pregnant wife Anna and their 6 year old daughter were. There was prepared all sorts of zakuski including mashed potato with diced anis-smelling parsley on top, fried whole fish caught by Anna’s brother and gerkin cucumbers. We’d bought a big bottle of vodka on the way at the little store in the basement of one of the ever-towering apartment blocks. It was always interesting to see that the biggest section of any of the little stores (magasins) was the liquor section. I also noticed that you could bring you own bottles and have all types of beer filled up from the various draught beer taps in one section of the shop – take away draught beer! Oleg arrived as the vodka shots were picking up pace. Apparently the time between the first shot and the second shouldn’t be long. And I then said does that mean we can take longer between the second and third shots. No came the resounding cry. They just decrease in time between shots. I noticed that Julia’s boyfriend was taking his time and not downing the shots in their entirety. I was happy to continue with Sasha and Oleg though. I knew what my limit was and one bottle between four men was probably it. I noticed that they were also strict in drinking lots of juice between shots. After each one Sasha was liberal with the juice and water he was pouring for me. Sasha’s wife Anna was very sweet. At one point much to Sasha’s embarrassment she recounted how when she’d first him at school when they were 16 that she knew then that he was going to be her husband, “He just didn’t know it yet!”. Anna and Sasha with their daughter lived in a one room flat with small kitchen. They shared this with their weird hairless cat. It freaked me out a bit. Alien-like it was. Extremely warm to touch. Almost as if it had been shorn. But everyone loved it and held it a lot. At one point it stood upright on back legs. Very weird again. Ludmila, Vera, Julia and her boyfriend left and Oleg and I stayed drinking with Sasha. As it got later Sasha suggested we take our party to Anna’s mother’s apartment nearby, so that Anna could get their daughter to bed. The apartment building complexes are extensive. L of them look generally run down. Lacking paint. Paint flaking. Holes in walls. Pipes exposed. And then inside there are graffiti over the walls and in some hundreds and hundreds of telephone numbers written in marker pen over the walls, the doors, the elevator sliding doors and all on the inside of the rickety old lifts. Sasha and Oleg embarrassingly explained that these were sex worker numbers. I didn’t drink too much after we arrived at Sasha’s mother-in-law’s place. Sasha played a bit of piano accordion. It was a wonderful example of the instrument. Oleg and I stayed chatting and laughing while Sasha crashed. Too tied though to continue Oleg helped me get a taxi calls to take me back to Hotel Yamburg. It was 230am and I had to get up at 08:30 to catch the 10:10 flight to Salekhard. Sasha had promised a wake up call.