Circumnavigating the world through Human Power while connecting different societies, civilizations and landscapes.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On "standby" in Evensk…

So, I am now in Evensk, Magadanskaya Oblast waiting for transport to be able to return to my starting point in Paren, Kamchatka Koryak Okrug where I last left off back in May 2010.

This should happen sometimes within the next 2-3 days, as soon as the current storm/purga passes, since Sasha Nabigaï, the mayor of Verniy Paren is currently in town (Evensk!), on his way back home from Magadan.

I was told that I would be able to travel with him in either a Wezdehod (which are not very common in the region) or most likely a mighty Kamaz or Ural truck.

The 280 kms journey from Evensk to Verniy Paren (via Chaibura & Ghiziga) can take anywhere between 2 and 30 days on the zimnik/winter practically non-existent trail, depending on the snow conditions and how hard it is for the trucks to move forward.

Last month, it actually took 30 days for a convoy of Ural trucks to get there!

The last few days, we have had a major storm coming through indeed, moving around a lot of snow, which leads me to believe that the journey might be quite complex this time as well… I could potentially get there faster by foot if I had my sled with me but this of course is not the case, since I last left my sled in Paren back in May...

A few days ago, an Ural truck travelling solo, tried to go to Ghiziga, just 80 kms away, turned around and went back in Paren, unable to overcome the snow barriers coming across its way…

From Verniy Paren, I will proceed down to Paren (also known as Urs Paren, in Magadanskaya Oblast) on Yuri Chansev's snowmobile. And once I get there, I will finally be able to turn around and start my 680kms journey by foot which should take me from Paren to Omsukchan via Verniy Paren, Chaibura, Ghiziga, Evensk, Tavatum and Merenga.

But for the time being, let's travel a little back in time…

After having to struggle somewhat with Muscovite airline cargo staff, badly wishing to get some extra cash on the side and thanks to the kind help of my girlfriend Gulnara, I was finally able to fly smoothly with my 140 kgs of cargo on Feb 4th on Transaero Airlines across 8 Russian time zones to get from Moscow to Magadan.

Upon landing Saturday Feb 5th at Sokol airport, 61 kms North of Magadan, I was greeted by my friend Anatoly and his sidekick Sasha Sokiriaka, a retired helicopter pilot.

From then on, and until I left Magadan 4 days later, I was in the hands of Anatoly's posse, most of them respective members of the North-Trophy club: men and women who enjoy 6*6 motor vehicles expeditions, cross/back country skiing, long distance bike rides, paragliding and delta planes amongst other activities…

At first, Anatoly helped me secure a seat on the fully booked weekly flight Magadan-Evensk and as well as secure enough space for all of my cargo! Needless to say that this process alone took several hours and quite a large amount of paperwork!
In a rigged up Japanese Delica 4*4 van, we then proceed to go to Magadan, stopping on the way at a cold spring which had been recently blessed by the local orthodox baitushka/priest. It was interesting to observe the Ural truck drivers stopping there to fill their large empty jugs with this holly and tasty spring water!

In Magadan, I was quickly able to check in the Hotel Magadan and register with the local police for my stay in Magadan, as it is required for any foreigner staying in Russian cities for more than 3 days at a time.

That same evening, members of the North-Trophy club invited me for diner at a local restaurant. We had a private room which resembled the inside of a new beautifully decorated Russian log cabin. I was able to enjoy the company, welcoming vodka as well as some great Magadan crab and some additional seafood which tasted a lot like a US Northwestern coast geoduck! And I am still trying to understand what I actually did enjoy…

After a great diner, I was taken to a banya in a sports center where I was able to meet a few additional sportsmen, all ready to ask me so many questions… A few of them spoke English, including one who actually fought and lost a lawsuit against a Seattle company in a Washington court!
A few hours of banya (Russian sauna) went by where we socialized, consumed ample amount of beer and numerous types of dried fish & squid, as the tradition commands….
While in the sauna, I had the "pleasure" of being beaten with venik (traditional Russian birch tree branches "whip/bouquet") and poured over buckets of ice cold water by Vova, a geologist who used to work in banyas in Sochi & St Petersburg and definitely still remembers well his old trade!
We finished the night at a local nightclub that members of North-Trophy wanted to show me.

After this full welcoming day, I was finally able to go to bed, struggling with my 8 hrs jet lag, being still somewhat locked on Moscow time…

The next morning, North-Trophy member Philip Kolesnikov, (the owner of a car detailing & painting business) and my friend Anatoly took me to the magnificent "Mask of Sorrow" (Maska Skorbi), an intriguing sculpture, perched high on the Krylaya hill, 200 meters above the sea level and which can be clearly seen from all around the city.

This monument commemorates the location gulag prisoners were deported from to go to multiple gulags in the Kolyma region, forced to work on roads and in mines under atrocious conditions and where so many perished. This 15 meters high monument was built by Ernst Neizveslnyi and therefore pay tributes to all the sorrow and suffering these Stalin-era prisoners had to endure in the gulags. Besides Moscow, Magadan is the Russian city that has put the most efforts into commemorating this difficult past.

Tucked between hills, facing the sea of Okhotsk, Magadan, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, has been and continues to be an important port with two natural well protected bays: Nagaev & Gertner.

Brought in be sea and shipped out of Magadan, large amount of mining equipment depart on the Kolyma highway, which connects a large amount of the gold, silver, mercury, tin mining towns, as well as lead all they way to Yakutsk, Irkutsk and furthermore western Russia. Is it important to notice though that they are however no railroads in this Fareastern remote part of Russia.

Magadan, the de-facto Russian outpost in the Russian Far North East, is the regional administrative center where a large amount of the mining community comes to repair its machines, rest, shop and potentially be hospitalized when the situation arises!

Historically, Magadan also has a large navy and air force base, geopolitically critical during the Cold War, but left to retreat further west and south during the early 1990's Perestroika years.
I was able to witness this militaristic past when I stumbled upon in the middle of town, a children playground filled with tanks, helicopters and even 2 perched MIG jet Russian air force planes!

In front of Magadan, the estuary of Taui is rich in smelt, navaga and capelins which explain the large amount of seagulls that one can see! The Sea of Okhotsk is also a very bountiful but dangerous sea where local fishermen as well as Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Polish trawlers, seiners and other fishing vessels harvest large crabs, salmons, halibuts, hakes and herrings according to respective seasons.

In Nagaev bay, one can see a large amount of lighthouses, ports, moorages and cranes.

Gertner bay is mostly used by recreational fishermen throughout the summer as well as in the winter where I saw hundreds of vehicles parked on the ice, nested together in the middle of the bay and partaking in ice-fishing/socializing… One must say though, as Vova mentioned to me, that apparently very few recreational fishermen were deterred by the same morning radio announcement warning anyone NOT to venture on the ice with any motor vehicle…

I have also heard that apparently every year a few people die drowning in their cars and countless vehicles perish through the melting ice…

Magadan, which appears to be one of the nicest Russian cities I have seen so far, also has some interesting pastel St-Petersburg-like architecture, an intriguing "Eiffel tower" like structure, a large new Orthodox white & gold Kram, a beautiful and well-lit Lenina street and has been designed in such a way that buildings protect each other from wicked Northern winds.

One can also observe, as typical in most of Far Eastern Russian cities and settlements a large amount of decrepitated buildings reflecting a soviet past when a much larger amount of Western Russian brought-in population "crowded" the region, besides of course its gulag population…

After seeing the "Mask of sorrow" and the entire scenic view of the city from one of the surrounding hill, I was invited to go with geologist Vova Vnukov and Kupol gold mining company employee Aksana Chernova to Nagaev bay where I was able to see her and a few other arduous fellows paraglide down the cliff in -25c conditions.
At that time, while walking I noticed a large amount of beautiful large modern wooden homes spreaded around the hill. As I was pondering if they were belonging to local gold or seafood oligarchs and/or politicians, I was told:

"NO, they belong to shopkeepers! If you want to make a fortune in Magadan, the way to go is to open a few shops/stores!"

After a refreshing hike on the hill watching paragliders, I was taken to a town, 13kms North of Magadan, appropriately named "13" because of its mileage post on the Kolyma highway…. There, I could see an older and smaller airport still acting as a smaller active heliport. We crossed the knee-high snowed in somewhat abandoned runway and went to a hanger where I discovered a fleet of handmade "deltalots" (made out of deltaplane wings, car and snowmobile engines).

Excited to discover this fleet, I asked the "captain" what was his maximum flying range to come and rescue a solo trekker in an emergency in the middle of the tundra.
Sooo, as you can clearly see, I am always looking for a potential backup option besides the expensive Russian
МЧС helicopter rescue team.

The captain and I discussed a bit further, exchanged phone numbers and then this is when he asked me if I was interested to go right on the spot on a small ride to experience one of his flying dragonfly!

In the past, I had to pleasure to fly once above Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in a dual deltaplane but never on a motor driven deltaplane!
So, of course despite the -25c temperature, I jumped on the occasion and enjoyed a great 30 minutes ride above the surrounding area!

After this full day, I returned to Hotel Magadan and spent a restful night. The next morning I was greeted by Anatoly and Aleg, an English speaker and car salesman. Aleg imports used 4*4 Japanese cars that are sold for an average of 8,000$s to Magadan inhabitants. Indeed, one can see on the streets of Magadan, a large amount of used Japanese vehicles which are definitely more affordable than Russian cars shipped from western parts of Russia.
All these used Japanese cars have wheel drives mounted on the right side while the Russian Magadan roads are ridden on the right side and therefore making overtaking on the road a somewhat more complicated process, not able to completely see incoming traffic.
In Magadan, besides Japanese cars, one can also see, even more than in other Russian cities, a large amount of foreign products brought in by ship, such as American food products, Korean TVs & radios, Chinese computers and consumer goods.

Aleg, whom I had met at the banya on the Saturday night became my driver/guide/friend for the day!
He helped me finalizing the shopping I needed to do prior to departing for Evensk.
I bought plenty of
козенак , Russian sesame & honey nutritious bars (instead of my usual reliable Larabars which were this year overwhelmingly difficult and expensive to ship to Magadan) as well as additional products which would have been somewhat difficult and/or expensive to purchase once upon landing in Evensk.

One of them was the purchase of a critical piece for a Buran, a Russian made snowmobile. I have promised to bring this piece to Yura, my koryak friend & host in Paren.

While in Magadan, I was also able to meet with my friends Sergey and Irene Rudakov at Kulu Safaris who have continued to show me some great logistic support for Nexus expeditions as they have done in years past!
Aleg also helped me coordinate two fun interviews with two local Russian TV crews at Russia1 and MKV!

I will try to post these latest TV interviews on the website when I can get a copy of them.

At the end of the day, I returned to my hotel and started to look for a place where I could access the internet, which is not always an easy task in Russia, even in such a modern and large city as Magadan. I asked a taxi driver if he could take me to an internet café I have heard about. He mentioned that he did not believe the café still existed but, recognizing me from having seen me at the airport and was offering me to come to his house and use his own internet connection! Of course, I accepted and was whisked away to an old soviet apartment building, where I was taken to a 4th floor komunalkaya. I entered there an eccentric apartment which was decorated with a fireplace (an uncommon site in Russian apartments), a large amount of gold covered tiles, red velvets and a large amount of naked nymphs paintings. There, I met the owner, a chain-smoker aging lawyer, playing solitaire with his computer, who had made his fortunes in the Magadan heydays, and was now living off his somewhat meager retirement funds… Felt like I was walking through an old splendid baroque castle which was falling into decrepitude.

Of course, I was not able to connect to the internet in his splendid abode but quickly was taken away by Vladimir Buronin, a curious inviting neighbor. Buronin's apartment was adequately intriguing, filled with countless souvenirs/medals/trophies from his glorious past as a bush pilot and avid sportsman!
Buronin was inviting me to use the internet in his apartment as well which also failed. However, I was able to enjoy a great evening with Vladimir, whose wife and daughter were away on a trekking trip vacation in Cambodia. As a result, Vladimir was definitely looking forward to some human company that evening!

Vladimir promptly cooked for me a beautiful meal, offering multiple vegetables, potatoes gratin, pork ribs and some of the best tasting halibut I have ever eaten! Vladimir also talked about common friends that we had in Chukotka such as the smoke jumping firemen crew of Nikolai Bogariev, back in Markova, Chukotka. The very same men who had given me in 2008 healthy brown bear fat and oil to bring back home in Seattle for my American friends to enjoy!

Vladimir was also kind enough to give me a very detailed map of the region I was about to trek. This Kamenskoye map had been classified as "secret" during soviet times but has been clearly stamped as "declassified" since then and therefore I was good to go! A true gift that I will cherish on the trail in addition to my GPS and archaic 20+ years old American pilot maps!

So, I had left the hotel in search of an internet connection which I never found but came back definitely well fed and with a detailed map.
! "Destiny", as my Russian friends like to point out!
Bolchoi Spassiba Vladimir and as well as to my other new Magadan friends!

I spent the next few hours in my hotel, sleeping and packing what I was about to leave in Magadan such as additional "city" clothes & shoes, laptop and better prepare what I was about to take on with me for the expedition in Evensk.

A few hours later, early Tuesday Feb 8th, I was picked up at my hotel by Misha Maxime, a friend of Anatoly Subotin.

Misha, a 34 years old manager in a family owned construction company was on his way to Evensk to manage the restoration of an old soviet building into a more modern apartment building.

My friend Anatoly had simply mentioned that no one in Evensk could look after me better than Misha and he was definitely right!
The 1.5 hours flight from Magadan to Evensk was a very smooth ride, where I was able to enjoy a clear view of the southern coast that I am currently planning to trek, once I will have passed my halfway point in Evensk. On the flight, I was also able to meet Oksana Teraya and her small son Aleg glued to the window. Aksana is an Eveni school teacher and valuable contact in the small village of Ghiziga where I am planning to go through on my way from Paren to Evensk.

On a sidenote, let me mention that when I state Even/Eveni natives, I am referring to the local Eveni natives, living in the Kamchatka/Magadanskaya region and not to be mistaken with the Evenki, who are a much larger native population living further west in Northern central Russia.

Once landed in Evensk, I was quickly reminded that I was in deed in Mother Russia, when I was strongly reprimanded for having taken a picture of the plane I flew on and consequently asked to delete the shot.

In Evensk, I was quickly able to meet Pasha Barbanyaga, the main contact for the Tavatum hotspring and with whom I am currently negotiating to transport some of my food cargo by snowmobile, 100 kms west of Evensk during his next foray in the region.

After having retrieved all of my cargo which had miraculously made it from Seattle via Paris, Moscow and Magadan, I went with Misha and his 34 years old engineer Magadan college Kyril to an old small kommunalkaya where I was told this will be my place to stay until I could secure transportation to Verniy Paren. I was graciously offered a bed in a common room that I have now shared for a week with Misha, Kyril and his 8 years old daughter Amalia.

Amalia, visiting from Magadan, is currently "on vacation" with her father, because her own school in Magadan is currently closed/quarantined because of a fever epidemic crisis.

In exchange of a bed, I have offered to buy some of the food and definitely help with some of the cooking and so far it's working out well! I have also been able from time to time to buy meals at the local small cafeteria which serves full healthy meals for the construction workers.

During the week, I have seen countless amounts of evens, koryaks, white Russians and even Uzbeks coming and knocking at the door to request to talk with Kyril in light of potentially securing a construction job under his authority. It has been an interesting experience to say the least to see a large amount of these men begging for needed construction work!

Evensk is a settlement of about 2,500 inhabitants, down from its heydays when it had approximatively 8,000 inhabitants.
In the past, the town was an important port, a geological survey center (where surveyors were searching for gold!) and a bigger airport. It also provided support for the now defunct cold war airport of Chaibura and for the large reindeer brigade center in Ghiziga which has now greatly diminished.

As a result, one can see a large amount of empty buildings including a five floor high abandoned Gastinitsa (hotel).

At the time of its glory, the school also had two shifts (a morning and an evening one) to be able to accommodate all of the students in town as well as the ones in the boarding school coming from the neighboring koryak and even villages.

Evensk is now the regional administrative center for the northeastern coast of magadanskaya oblast, and an important center for the local gold mining towns such as garmanda, located 40kms North.

Over the last few years, the gold mining industry has been resurfacing in the region progressively and companies such as Polymetal have definitely pumped some badly needed cash in the local economy.

According to mayor Mikail Arnazarov, the town now has a ratio of 72% native inhabitants and 28% white Russians. The native inhabitants are comprised of: Eveni, Koryaks and камчадал (which are metisses/racially mixed amongst different native groups and/or with white russian blood).

They are also currently in town 7 Uzbek foreign workers and one odd French-American traveler roaming…

So, over my last week spent in Evensk, I have tried to fully maximize what the town has to offer:

- Met with Sergey Kurichkin, the chief of the local police, to ensure that I was well registered in Evensk, explained my planned route, exchanged phone numbers in case of a potential emergency and clarified one more time that indeed the coastal zone was now open to foreigners without requiring any additional propusk. Indeed, until recently, I would have needed a special permit to come within 1km of the coastline and/or to get on any island in this strategic "border region".
I was also clearly reminded of the dangers that I was about to face and of the disappearance of yakut expeditionist Efremov, the father of the man named Nyurgun Efremov with whom I have trekked from Vayegi, Chukotka to Slautnoye, Kamchatka.

-Met with hunters to clearly review my maps and learn what could be the best alternate route to follow as well as learn where are the potential baloks/cabins to look for along my way, when I will want to take a break from camping in my tent…
One of the hunters named Sanya was particularly eager to share with me the location of the rivers where I will be potentially encountering open water. I clearly understood why when I heard that Sanya has lost all of his toes and noticed his badly scared face as the result of having being exposed to open water and hypothermia. This happened after having been stranded with a broken snowmobile and apparently inadequately prepared to make his way home by foot.

- Did 2 presentations on Nexus expedition at the school in front of fully booked classrooms where I was inundated with questions and requests to sign a large amount of authographs!
I was able to achieve this thanks to the great help of shy English teacher Nadezna (thus far, one of the only two english speakers I have met in town) and Tatiana, a great Koryak school director who loaned me gracefully her notebook for a few nights to write and organize pictures!

- Visited the administration center, where I met with the journalists for the local newspaper named Evenchanka. I also met there Toly, the manager for the region reindeer brigades.
As a result, I learned that this time, reindeer brigades are sadly NOT going to be anywhere near my planned route through the tundra.

- Enjoyed a great day of ice fishing and partridge hunting with my friends Andrei Kushnaro and his son Sasha. Andrei is an engineer at the airport and his son Sasha is studying to become a car mechanic, visiting his family, while on a 2 weeks vacation back home from Magadan where he lives. We came back with no prizes but nevertheless I truly enjoyed that day!

- Spent some time learning further more about the beautiful state of Magadanskaya Oblast while reading Russian and one English (!) picture books at the local library.

-Spent some time at the local orthodox church learning from its keepers about its history, kissed my first icon and learn a few additional characteristics of the orthodox practice. I could not meet the local baitushka who is currently away in Magadan.

-Spent some time at the local banya with my friends Andrei and son Sasha as well as a few locals and employees of the gold company polymetal.
This time, I received a Venik beating simultaneously performed by 2 men three times and even finally learn to be able to reciprocate! Pay back time!

- Spent some time connecting to the slooooow internet thanks to my friends at the post office, such as Vladimir, the general manager, yet another retired helicopter pilot who loves to ask me questions about venturing through the tundra…
I was however able to purchase a local megaphone SIM card from the same local post office which allows me to thankfully being able to talk to my girlfriend Gulnara who is currently in Kazan as well as call anyone I need to in Evensk or elsewhere.

- Spent sometime "exploring" the local bakery which dish out 400 loafs a day as well as all the numerous well-stocked shops in town, thanks in part to an existing winter road which brings Urals from Magadan in 2-3 days. A far cry from what I have seen in equivalent villages in Chukotka and Kamtchaka Koryak where the limited products are brought in by plane or expensive gas-guzzler wezdehods through the winter months.

- Attended 2 parties at the school for alumni where I watched, amused, some of the skits performed.

- Attended a Valentine's ball, where I was able to win in a contest some black shoe polish! Not the most useful prize for the tundra unless of course, as Misha suggested, I plan on painting my face!

- Visited the local small refurbished sports center for the children that had been paid/sponsored by the gold company Polymetal.

And last, but not the least,

Learned some about the colorful past of some of the white Russian men I meet in this part of the world. Some indeed have moved away from western Russia, fleeing a troublesome past to be able to somewhat freely start a new life in this last frontier land…
One of the persons I met shared with me that he had spent time in a notorious jail, sharing a cell with 56 mates, sleeping in shifts and only allowed to shower once every 3 months! Witnessing a large amount of bullet wounds on his leg and stab wounds around his neck and chest, I could only think how lucky he was to still be amongst us! One advice this man gave for future sections through Russia: "Better to be scared 5 minutes and overly cautious than laying 6 feet under…"

I also loved also a Russian poacher's quote I heard: "It's not illegal to hunt and shoot anything when no one sees you…"

And oh, before I forget, I also learned about a Japanese monk that was found dead a few years ago partly eaten by wolves, while trekking between Magadan and Yakutsk. Now, the question still remains whether he was eaten by the wolves once found dead or whether a pack of wolves killed him. The recomforting news that have learned though is that an even hungry, easily scared, pack of wolves do not usually attack human beings unless of course these humans already are in really bad shape…

But, as my Russian friends would say:
Волков бояться - в лес не ходить!
"Don't go in the forest, if you are afraid of the wolf!"

Well, as you can all see, I am fully experiencing what Evensk has to offer while waiting for my Verniy-Paren bound transport… and I am still planning, if time allows, to visit the local museum as well as watch the local Even children practice traditional dance in the "Culture Club" (nothing to do whatsoever with the 80's new wave band…) and wrestle in the sports center!

Now, I just need to cross my fingers to make sure that Sasha, the mayor of Verniy Paren does not vanish in the night in his convoy of Urals and forgets to take me along with him on his way to Verniy Paren…

That's all

Paka, Paka!

Dimitri on standby in Evensk waiting for the call…

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