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Thursday, August 31, 2006

...But Why Are You Here?

Khabarovsk - Komsomolsk

The hydrofoil gently cruises into the river dock of Komsomolsk-na-Amur, five hours after its departure. Our journey across the Amur river was fairly pleasant on the whole. Except that we had to get out of bed at six in the morning to get to the sodding hydrofoil because the President of Belarus was coming over to Khabarovsk and so getting from point A (our comfortable, warm beds) to point B (the hydrofoil at Khabarovsk pier) was done at a frantic pace. And as we finally lurched into the seats of the hydrofoil, exhausted, just about to nod off again....we get told that we were in the wrong goddamn seats. We felt like fools. The cinema patrons from Hell who kick up a fuss about allocated seating ten minutes into the film. And on the boat there was a dive bomb squad of mosquitoes. The constant noise of whap, whap as passengers crushed the mozzies to death on their foreheads was equally as annoying as the blood-sucking insects themselves. So...a relatively pleasant journey. More or less.

After a slight confusion caused by people who forgot to get off the hydrofoil at their destination (again, our fault entirely. We sat in our seats as if in a stupor going, 'Is this it? Is this our stop?') we grab our luggage and fight our way off the hydrofoil. We are greeted by Mihail, a tall, good-natured Russian. His hands are gigantic, like those foam hands you get at sporting arenas. With these hands he begins to shake mine and asks, 'Are you Chris?'
'No, no, no. He's the guy behind me fending off the hoard of people trying to get on the hydrofoil.'
'Ah. Good, good.' He waits for the other two to climb over the mob. When they eventually reach us, breathless, Mihail smiles and says, 'Welcome to Komsomolsk!'
After a slight pause he says, '...er...why are you here?'

Komsomolsk-na-Amur was built over swamp lands in 1932. Some generals over in Moscow were looking for a place in the East to build a training ground for the Young Communist League and pointed on a map saying, 'There. That'll do.' Soon steelworks, an aircraft factory and shipbuilding yards were built and Yury Gagarian came into town to officially open things by cutting ribbons and smashing bottles of champagne over stuff. His statues are everywhere, along with another astronaut who was born in the area.

Mihail is an outdoorsy type. Healthy in the way that gym teachers are healthy. His travel company is geared towards other healthy, outdoorsy people who would like nothing better than to spend a week in the mountains with a compass, some string and a spear. People who get in tune with nature. People who have killed many a four-legged beast and swap stories about fishing while eating reindeer heart over an open fire. To him, we are a bit of a mystery.

He had the foresight of organising a tour of Komsomolsk with a translator, Vera, and her assistant/pupil, Natalya. To them, we were an oddity too. 'Most Australians we have met,' begins Natalya, not quite sure how to proceed, 'are...how you say? Stronger. Better fit than you.' I look at my travelling companions. They are the kind of guys who derive an unnatural amount of pleasure reading maps. Nik has a fear of uncut fruit. Not the mountaineering folk that my country produces. Still, we are here because something drew us here. What ever the heck that was.

Born to Run (very slowly),


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