The Triffid’s ‘Wide Open Road’ could easily be my soundtrack here in Salekhard (Салех 072;рд) right on the Arctic Circle. The land is very flat and covered in the taiga-tundra and the River Ob, which drains all of Western Siberia, meanders through this to its delta at the Ob Gulf. I flew along the Arctic Circle this morning from Novy Urengoy to Salekhard and saw the thousands of lakes and marshes. With the flatness come meanders and with meanders come ox-bow lakes. I saw the Ob Gulf from the plane and the flat expanse around it. The Yamal Peninsular stretched flat and enormous to the north.
Upon arrival in the small Bombardier jet, I was detained by the airport police and their registration process. While he was copying my passport I went for an urgent toilet stop. Because my baggage was doing laps on the conveyor belt and I was nowhere in sight I assume that the airport policeman must have thought I’d gone walkabout. With his all-access key he opened the toilet door on me, which gave me a bit of a shock. He closed it before I could see who it was but I assume it was him. When I got to the baggage collection room he was standing guard by the locked door allowing me access to get my backpack and return my passport and immigration card intact.
I got a taxi to town and thought it best to head straight to river port to see what the options were. I’d found out at airport that there were no seats to Tobolsk until 24 July and none to Novosibirsk until 7 July. I was starting to feel anxious about getting out of the Arctic on time to complete my trip!
At the river port floating office and hotel it was a bit busy with a fast boat about to leave south up river. I waited for a white in the long queue and when I got to the ticket office window the young woman said she spoke a little English. But my questions were too complex for her and so she asked me to wait half an hour until the disembarkation of the incoming boat was over. During this time I continued to notice the prevalence of Inuit-type people in the crowds, which I’d first seen at the airport. High cheek bones and and darker reddish skin.
The ticket office woman took me upstairs to the river boat managers, a couple of boy men from Novosibirsk with some English. With the aid of a big map on the wall I was able to ascertain that the neighbouring boat service (their competition) was slow, took five days to Tobolsk and didn’t leave till the day after next. Whereas I could get to Khanty-Mansiysk (Ханты-&# 1052;ансий ;ск) in two days and take a bus from there to Tobolsk, which was a 7 hour bus ride. I opted for the latter. The two day boat ride was priced at 2618 rubles.
This floating ticket office / waiting room was also a hotel. And so for an extra 800 rubles I got a place to stay without having to go any further.
I went for a walk into town in the mid afternoon and got attacked by the biggest and most ferocious mosquitoes I’ve ever seen!
A man and a woman came up to me asking for money oblivious that I didn’t understand what they were saying. And later a drunk guy approached for the same reasons. I declined their requests.
Part of the town of Salekhard was located on a large rise above the river flats, with good views east. To the west were the Urals way off in the distance – a series of massive ranges in the haze on the horizon.
On this rise above the tributary where the river port was there was a huge wooden church undergoing restoration. Made with he same log cabin construction techniques I found a way in and ended up talking to the crew working n the scaffolding who were all from Armenia. One was eyeing off my possessions around my neck and belt. And at one point asked to use my phone I think. I just feigned I couldn’t understand Russian, which was mostly true all the time. They were interested in my salary and status. They were here because there was little work in Armenia for them. There are many such itinerant workers from the central Asian states and former soviet states. After a while the fellow eyeing off my things made me increasingly nervous and I felt that being inside the forted church grounds with no one else around was too risky, so I said goodbye and left.
I chanced upon a public beach at the base of the rise below the apartment blocks on the edge of the Ob’s braided streams and back lagoons facing the flats. A strange site. It had all the trappings of a regular beach except this was still a way from the ocean of the Ob Gulf and was on the Arctic Circle. Very surreal! And the heat made me even more confused by my surroundings.
I had some shashlyk (pretty much all that I can find on the street) and a beer and watched the Arctic beach goers. I walked back across the beach through the overloaded rubbish bins and past the rank port a loos not emptied for weeks. I had to be back at floating hotel by 22:00 as they told me the gates lock then. I walked back through the towering apartment blocks. So many we ones were going up. There really must be a Siberian gas boom. Sounds like Western Australia. I stopped to get some food for he boat ride and then some cash out but the machine wouldn’t let me take 10,000 rubles in one go. I tried a few times. Finally I worked out how to do it – in two lots but with added Bendigo Bank fees I thought.
The shy young boy managing the floating hotel let me in no worries. The front gate to the ship yard was locked but there was a gap through. I did my washing, drank a beer and felt the rocking of the boat when ever a large vessel steamed by. The shower and tap water was brown river water. And from what I could see of the Ob it had a long history to tell draining as it does from the temperate south to the arctic north across all of Western Siberia.