Salekhard, Russian Federation
Sasha gave me the Wake Up Call as promised promptly at 08:15. I’d last seen him crashed out in his mother-in-law’s flat five hours ago. So I was impressed to hear from him. I took a while to get going myself and get packed and down to the lobby where a tired Nicolai, just coming off a night shift, was ready to drive me to the airport in his flash new VW sedan. I felt incredibly lucky to have stayed in such splendid digs for two nights for free. One of the top Gazprom bosses had been at the reception desk the day before when I was leaving to head out to the BBQ. He was looking at the momento sketch I’d done on their guest book at the staffs’ request. It was of a kangaroo and a stylised representation of Australia and Novy Urengoy. He looked at it with some bemusement. He didn’t seemed bothered I was there. But I don’t know if he knew I was staying there for free. Nicolai kindly insisted on staying till I boarded, despite his obvious need for sleep. He had another night shift tonight and then he had to meet his girlfriend back out at the airport the next day! We sat in the cafeteria and chatted. I was still waking up! At the security gate I bade farewell to Nicolai. Such good people they all were. There were no toilets in the departure lounge at Novy Urengoy. Strange. I asked if I could go back through security. No they said. This was a going to be a problem I thought. But I managed! I think we were late departing. As I traversed the tarmac I took a photo of the Bombardier jet aircraft and had a finger waved at me by a large ear-muffled ground staff. On board I had a window seat. But upon seeing the camera in my lap the air hostess said that photos from the plane window weren’t allowed. I thought it must have some thing to do with this whole autonomous district of the arctic being a ‘closed area’ for gas production. Someone had told me hat Gazprom now owned the north! Anyway, after take off and after she headed up the aisle with the food cart I took lots of photos of the amazing arctic landscape below. And she never seemed to keep a further eye on me. The landscape was flat and covered in lakes, upon lakes, upon lakes. Gas flaring and smoke billowed from a number of sites close to Novy Urengoy and the white and black plumes drifted to the west from their source across the mosaic of taiga and tundra. It was only a one hour flight and I marvelled at the landscape below. We were essentially traversing east to west along the Arctic Circle. While Novy Urengoy is about 70km south of the Arctic Circle, Salekhard is slap bang right on it. I saw the white braided meanderings of many drainage lines and rivers coming out of the low relief of marshes and lakes bounded by small rises of taiga, carrying silt and nutrients in their waters to the Arctic and exposing the white sands they coursed over.These rivers all drained to the north and into the Ob Gulf. I could soon see the waters of the Ob Gulf, shimmering and blue on the horizon, as I twisted my neck to see through the low set perspex windows. Closer to Salekhard the Ob became a huge multi channelled delta of sorts. From what I could work out Salek********** the inside of the bend where the Ob turns east to run its last course to the Ob Gulf. Salek********** the edge of the river where the Ob’s braided streams combine with a tributary entering from the south-east draining out of a sizeable freshwater lake. I don’t think I ever saw Labytnangi which is on the Ob’s north-western shores. However, it may have been the towering port cranes of the Labytnangi Ob-side docks that I saw when the hydrofoil departed from Salekhard’s River Port. The jet swung out and over the town to the other side of the Ob and turned to make its approach. I couldn’t take my eyes off the ever changing and unfamiliar landscape below despite my hangover and lake of sleep.