Handicap Hydrofoil up the Ob

Handicap Hydrofoil up the Ob
Berezovskiy, Russian Federation

Berezovskiy, Russian Federation


Hydrofoil from Salekhard to Berozova to Khanty-Mansiysk. Today I am on the river boat (old hydrofoil) heading south along the giant Ob that empties half of Siberia from the Altai Mountains on Russia’s southern Siberian border north into the Arctic gulf here at Salekhard. It will be two days by boat up the Ob River to Khanty-Mansiysk, that is if the current four hours of broken slow engine and less than half speed pace resolves itself. It will then require a twelve hour bus ride further south to Tobolsk or Tyumen, in order to be back on the main east-west line to then be in a position to be able to head east toward Lake Baikal. Earlier in the morning before the 10:10am hydrofoil departure I played guitar on the floating river port hotel and made friends with the river boat land management crew. The police arrived to check the arriving passengers’ documents and prior to the arrival of the incoming boat they took their uniform hats off and sat down in the upstairs area to listen to the strange ‘strangled sounds of the foreigner’. The disembarkation process was a crush of human flesh made especially excruciating as the police checked everyone’s documents. It seems that in these autonomous districts of northern Russia and with Salekhard being a ‘closed town’ that these checks are obligatory for all incoming passengers. The Berozova hydrofoil, which had seen better years, was almost fully boarded but river port top boss Anton (a young dark-haired lanky man with a leaders aire and an open disposition) asked me to wait another five minutes: he wanted the crew to say goodbye. From inside the boat I realised that my ticket had not been sighted so I proffered it to Sergei (Anton’s newby also from Novosibirsk – capital of Western Siberia way up the Ob in the south), but Anton stepped forward and with a big smile said that I need not show my ticket anymore. “Just play guitar and Russian police will wave you through all the way to Vladivostok!”, he quipped in his heavily accented English. Slitting in front of me were mine workers heading back to home from the underground chromium mines in the still snow-covered Northern Urals, which I could see in the distance to the north-west and west of Salek********e of them, Radik, was very forward. He immediately offered me food and a shot of vodka. Up on the tiny open air observation cockpit, where everyone gathered to smoke (and it seemed like indeed everyone on the boat smoked, much like my impression of all Russia) he’d asked to look through my binoculars and revelled in telling the others of their specifications. Soon he was flicking his throat again with his finger caught behind his thumb in a repeated fashion. This meant vodka shots. I replied in the appropriate manner, adding the Russian colloquial word for ‘just a little’ (chuyt chuyt). Radik and his mine working friends were very friendly. One of them spoke Tartarin. And around me I was noticing Finni-Ugrik people, as well as Yamal and Nenetsy people. And as we went further south, Khanty and Mansi peoples. Their facial features reminded me of Inuit. Some of the older women were in traditional bright floral dresses and scarves. As the day progressed I soon realised that we weren’t going as fast and that the boat wasn’t hydroplaning as hydrofoils should. Turns out there was a breakdown of a key motor. The onboard grease monkeys were onto it and had turned the rear passenger salon into a mechanical workshop with engine parts scattered about on the floor. Meanwhile the boat was on normal stern propellers and going less than half normal top speed. Radik soon turned out to be very manipulative and I started to trust him less despite his largesse with vodka shots and tasty zakuski. He became very possessive trying to not let others talk to me. He started saying that he’d like me to come to his home and stay with him and his wife. And take banya together. The Russian way. Sitting in the cramped seats of the forward salon, he’d slap toilet paper on my knee, put the open can of tinned fish on my leg and shoving a torn off piece of black bread into my hand he’d say ‘Eat!’ And more vodka was poured. It was pleasant and mildly amusing but his pushiness was wearing thin. At one point on the observation cockpit he was saying something to me, which I wasn’t understanding anyway, but to which I was nodding vacantly as I observed through the binoculars the apparent cropping on the fertile plains of alluvial soil above the steep cliffs cut though by the river. Whatever he was saying got the attention though of another man who seemed to tell Radik off and for him to stop hassling the tourist (me). I found this a little awkward but secretly admired the other man for stepping up to it. He was a big fellow from Gorky – a place on the river we’d reach the next day. As Radik shrank away I moved over to talk with my defender, Sasha (Alexander). He was very kind and patient. I’d also met another smaller Sasha, who I had noticed staring at me piercingly while we had waited to board this morning. Initially suspicious of his intense gaze he turned out to be a genuine friend and he and his offsider, a quieter unspoken chap, helped me at a few key points through out the day. Talking with big Sasha I learnt that the crops were potatoes which had a very quick growing period. It continued to be difficult for me to imagine this landscape in freezing sub zero temperatures. With the river freezing over transport actually became less problematic in the long winters as the rivers became ice highways and the land between, now full of summer marshes, bogs and lakes became trafficable by snow-mobiles and the like. Before the onset of winter the river port vessel in Salekhard was towed slowly over five days south to its winter station while the Artic and sub-Arctic rivers froze over. Big Sasha bought me a beer (called Кулер, which is ‘Cooler’ just written in Cyrillic – there’s a lot of this in Russia – English words simply written in Cyrillic) and I returned the favour later, which Radik happened to notice. When I offered to buy him one he waved me off dismissively. He was now hanging out with a young slip of an indigenous woman in her late twenties and seemingly by default a young indigenous boy-man who I thought was the woman’s tag-along brother. It seemed like Radik and her had already been romantically involved or they’d just met, because Radik was all over her and she didn’t seem to mind. The young boy-man was 21 years old with a boyish fuzz over his face and on his upper lip a dark nicotine stain was clearly visible. He was very thin but stood like a sumo wrestler and had the gait of someone trying to appear bigger than he was. His tough guy demeanour was mostly humorous but I learnt of his dangerous side when I asked him what the very obvious indented scar on the back of his head was. It was fresh with scabs still in it and there was hair missing all through it. He shrugged and indicated it was from a fight. With a pretend drinking motion I asked if it was whilst in a drunken state. Everyone around seemed to think so. Anyway, I later learnt that he was just friends with the indigenous woman. He, like Radik started to become a bit annoying too, borrowing my binoculars and handing them freely onto others without asking my permission. I didn’t mind though. There was a feeling on the boat of people looking out for one another. He got a bit too close at times and at one point in his slightly intoxicated state (Note: there’s a lot of constant public drinking in Russia) he fell toward me as the boat took a turn and burnt my upper shoulder and shirt with his lit cigarette tip! The Ob is massive in these lower arctic and sub-arctic reaches. But hard to see it all from the sea level, as it’s braided and multi-branched. The river water column is turbid and full of interlacing plumes of variously brown suspended and dissolved sediments. This continues to be the case all the way up river and I surmise that it’s a mix of perhaps natural and human-induced erosion. After drinking the couple of beers with big Sasha I grabbed the mini guitar and despite it being noisy from the wind and engine sounds on the observation cockpit I sang loud and we had some laughs with the small crowd gathered there. The mechanics pushed through occasionally, opening one door to enter the observation cockpit an exiting through another. Their faces spoke of the continued unsuccessful attempts to fix the motors. The hydrofoil continued with its broken back and we proceeded at less than half pace arriving into rivertown Moozshi (Мужи) at around 20:00 on a hot sunny Saturday evening to await 2.5 hrs for a replacement hydrofoil to come take us to today’s destination of Berozova. Big mozzies and green-eyed horse flies abound in Мужи. Despite the sub-Arctic location it’s hot and hazy. Radik insists I follow him and his girlfriend as we spend time ashore at this languishing riverside town. Despite my desire not to spend time with him I’m intrigued by his character and I find his slip of a girlfriend entertaining. He strips down and takes a dip in the muddy waters of the Ob by the filthy shores. I hand them my mosquito repellent. Pointing at his girlfriend Radik explains that she’s someone he ‘spends time with’ when in these parts away from home and his wife. I wasn’t surprised. She just smiled and pushed him affectionately. Barges of all shapes and sizes are rammed up the muddy banks and to walk them requires stepping over taut steel cable mooring lines. Families sit about on barge decks. Men and boys fish from the jetty or sit on the hauled up boats talking. Occasionally men take off in outboard engine dinghies while others arrive from river parts unknown. The water drifts by with a thick film of oil on the top. As the fish break the surface to snatch the horse flies that the boys catch off each others bodies from the jetty above and toss down, the oil film changes shape and new coloured patterns form. Having been to the shop at the top of the hill, now with big Sasha, to get cold beer and food we returned to the river port jetty. The banks between the footpaths were covered in the lush summer growth of what looked like weeds to me. On the river port jetty I played some more songs as the sun continued low in the sky, never at all looking like it would set. I attracted a sizeable audience and apart from the horse flies and mosquitoes I was a truly enjoying the evening. Sasha and I drank a couple of more beers on the jetty and when the new hydrofoil arrived at 22:30 there was a festive feeling amidst the passengers. The new boat would take us further up river to our scheduled overnight stop at Berozova where we arrived at 01:30 instead of our scheduled 18:00 arrival time. The sun did set eventually for an hour or so. Never far below the horizon the sunset went on for hours before, during and after. And the views from the observation cockpit were incredible. I spent at least an hour just photographing and watching the colours reflected in the river’s meandering channels and through the sparse taiga, which was slowly increasing in size as we coursed the Ob River southwards. Being in the cool of the ‘night’, fog hung low over the grassland depressions and marshes between the taiga. And together with the clouds and colours, an errie atmosphere was created between the trunks of the taiga and the floating plumes and canopies of white mist. At Berosova we were forced off the boat and had to wait the five hours in the floating waiting room by the river’s edge until 06:45. I slept on floor in the space between two back to back rows of chairs. Very uncomfortable but I was exhausted from the previous days’ activities. Being a Saturday night / Sunday morning in Berozova, local revellers were parked at the river’s edge and still partying with their car stereos on loud. Like many of the river towns in the sub-Arctic reaches of the Ob there is no road or rail into Berozova, just the river boat or planes. At six o’clock Radik’s annoying voice woke me up. He was trying to drag me out from under the chairs where I’d crawled during the night. Chris! Chris! was his unending refrain. I was half thankful that he was looking out for me. His pretext was that he didn’t want me to miss the boat. But there was no chance as everyone in the crowded waiting room was waiting for the same boat and I wouldn’t have slept through that racquet. As he tried to push me in front of him to go first when boarding I hung back and gave him a friendly push instead. I then thought I’d better not push my luck with him. Once on the new hydrofoil and zooming at high speed I got some sleep sitting up in the seat despite the hot and sweaty effect of the rear’s sun-room effect and the buzz of a full ship with people sitting amidst motley collections of luggage and talking or listening to loud Russian gangster rap on headphones. This is the second leg – the all-day trip to Khanty-Mansiysk, capital of the autonomous district of the same name. All good except for a bit of a hangover from yesterday’s shena****ns with Radik and friends! All very interesting views and river culture insights with indigenous Khanty and Arctic peoples travelling on board. More frequent now are the river-side villages. Many are only accessed by boat. And along the banks the taiga, now tall enough to be called a forest, was literally falling into the river itself. The hills on the eastern margins, where the Ob’s giant fluvial mechanics were at their greatest potential, were cut through exposing large white sands that stood like unstable eroding cliffs. The beech and pines at the edges were falling down. Campers and picnickers could be seen on the isolated banks, their outboard dinghies and pleasure craft parked up the muddy banks. The hydrofoil zooming by would respond to their waves with a resounding blast from its fog horn. And during the mid-afternoon we passed the point where the giant Western Siberian gas pipelines crossed under the Ob River. I counted at least eight separate pipeline crossings. The crossings showed no signs of the pipes themselves. Just manicured grassy verges and lawns running from between the taiga above to the waters edge. The pipes were buried under here and I assume they were tunnelled beneath the Ob’s bed. They supply all of Europe. I started to get a sense of the magnitude of the resource that was being mined in Siberia. And I had only travelled to just a couple of the resource extraction sites. Mid afternoon we arrived at the floating pontoon for the village of Gorky where big Sasha got off. Next at Priobye little Sasha and his mate were getting off. In town stretching my legs for a moment I found Radik and his mates eating. One last time he insisted I do what he says. This time I obliged as it was a glass of much needed water. In the bright sun of the afternoon I spent most time up on the observation cockpit. My energy was waning. Wind in my hair wasn’t enough to keep me awake and at times I felt like the handicapped one on the River Ob.


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