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Friday, September 01, 2006

Finding the Nanai

Komsomolsk - Verkhnyaya Ekon - train to Tynda

Morning. Our bodies shuffle about like the living dead at a nursing home- slowly and without a specific direction. We pick lint from our bellies. We stare vacantly at Mihail's collection of carnivorous plants. We moan. Hangovers suck.

Mihail is all smiles and energy. He prepares our breakfast at the speed of a TV chef and waits for us to start eating. I'm glad that he's in a good mood. We called him from a bar across the road, obscured from sight by a Lenin statue that's being restored (For this is Russia. Another town, another Lenin statue), at about ten at night bidding him to come over and join us for a drink with our new Russian friends. I remember very little of them except I have several incriminating photos on my digital camera where I have my arms around several girls. My hands are dangerously close to their breasts.

'So,' he begins, 'What would you like to do today. I have three options. We can go sailing down the river. Or we can take you to a village of the Nanai people. Or perhaps you'd like to go hiking?'
'Let's meet the Nanai!' I say, immediately and without consulting the others. I like meeting new people.

The Nanai are one of the early indigenous people of the Far Eastern Siberia. They are known for their extremely versatile usage of fish. They eat 'em (obviously) and make jewellery out of their bones. They even make clothing out of fish. I can imagine a meeting between these gentle tribesmen and I. They'd offer me a smoked salmon or herring like a peace pipe. Come. Join our tribe. Be an honorary member and subscribe to our newsletters. I'd hesitate. The Amur river is still slightly poisonous due to Benzene leaking down from China's Songhua river. Thanks to the corruption in the Jilin province the pollution has spread uncontrolled. Do I eat the fish? Is it sick to the core with Benzene? Am I risking death or at the very least Acute Myeloid Leukemia?'I'll do it!' I'd say and take a bite out of the poisoned fish....

We head off to Verkhnyaya Ekon (pop:400), 10 kilometres upstream of Komsomolsk. As per usual I am expecting to see tents and huts but instead we enter a town that is small yet unprimitive. Mihail drives us to the local school where he introduces us to the principal and town museum curator. 'Hang on. She's the museum curator as well?'

Da. There is an ethnographical museum across the hall from some classrooms. You can walk to the cafeteria in one minute flat. We wander in and look at tribal costumes, shamanistic artifacts, fish necklaces and a piano accordion (?). Yes, but where are the actual Nanai? 'We shall meet them soon,' says Mihail as we walk past three Nanai-looking teachers.

We drive around Verkhnyaya Ekon with the principal in tow. It takes around three minutes. The Nanai are not home so we head back to the school. Apparently the principal/curator is going to her office briefly to pick up some things. In an interesting move Mihail decides to turn the car around in the most dangerous way imaginable. He revs the engine, hangs a left and almost sends the car plunging over the edge of the dirt road that leads to the school. He reverses the car like crazy. We grip hold of seat belts/ each other and feel our breakfast ricochet around internally. But Mihail's fierce determination wins out over gravity and we are once again on the dirt road that heads towards the school. He smiles at us. No problems yes?

After lunch (chef extraordinaire Mihail cooks us up something by sticking carrots, potatoes, beef, mayonnaise in tinfoil and burning it for 45 minutes. It's delicious. Guys like Mihail carry axes in the trunks of their car not to hack limbs off hitchhikers but in order to cut wood anytime, anywhere. He's probably got a dozen recipes that involve cutting up wood, lighting it and throwing something wrapped in tinfoil on it. It'd still come out tasting better than most restaurants) we finally get to meet the Nanai couple. They remind me of Eskimos. Apparently the Nanai lady used to be a doctor but decided that she was going to make clothing out of fish instead. She now gets government grants in preserving the old ways of the Nanai.

There is a train to catch. We bid the Nanai couple adieu. We say goodbye to Mihail and to Komsomolsk. The town does not notice us leave.



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