fatman Find the clues!

Friday, September 29, 2006

Contemplating a U-Turn

The janitor in my head gets up from the hammock he sleeps in, coughs up some phlegm and takes a swig from his hip flask, ready to perform his daily chores. He ambles down the corridors of my mind with a mop and bucket, unhurried. He has the whole day to complete his tasks after all. The janitor sweeps the floor, clearing away junk such as foreign words learnt at a bar, names of people I spoke to for an hour, where I left my keys last night, promises I was never going to keep anyway and a phone number or two. Whistling tunelessly he blows the dust from an embarrassing childhood memory -we´ll keep that for a later date- and tries vainly to put the polish back on to a song I heard on the radio years ago. He then comes across a new object, made of marble. It is a thought that wasn´t there a few days ago. It says: WORK IN AN ESTONIAN BACKPACKERS YOU FOOL!

My body is heading through Latvia but my thoughts are chanting the same things over and over. Go back to Estonia. Go back to Tallinn. Do it. Do it. Do it. Head back now. My eyes aren´t focusing on the landscape at all. Nik and I had managed to hitch a ride with a Polish couple we met a few nights ago. Neither of us can remember their names. Which is a pity because they are very likable but this far into the journey it would be rude to ask them. They are playing a Bollywood soundtrack in the car since they both acted in a Bollywood film when they lived in India. Go back to Estonia. Go back to Tallinn. Turn back. Do it.

We were talking to John the Irish guy in a strange downstairs bar called Juuksur, which means ´hairdresser´ in Estonian, the night before. It is in a cave-like basement and has those 50s era hairdresser chairs and music that costs 50 eek to listen to. ´This isn´t usual lads,´ says John, ´so I´ll buy you the first round of beer.´ Like all foul-mouthed Irish people he is impossible to dislike. At this stage of the night Nik and I were still waiting for the Polish couple to come back on a ferry from Helsinki so we could head to Vilnius. They are half an hour late. Maybe a tidal wave swallowed them?

We talk for some time and say cheers in Estonian a lot. Terribi...something or rather. I feel like I´ve wandered on to the set of a TV show halfway through the third series. All the characters seem well established. We are introduced to a succession of people by John. There´s Ben the eccentric English programmer-type who is working on an internet map. There´s a long-haired Estonian who looks like a drug runner or a grave digger. Maybe both. There is a crazy, wild Swedish guy who is somehow involved in bringing a Japanese all girl punk band to Tallinn. So many characters. So many plots.

The channel suddenly switches and I´m in the car again.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Sign said: Long-haired, Freaky People Might As Well Apply

Our next port of call was Vilnius in Lithuania. We were going there for the same reason that most people go to Vilnius- so we can touch the head of Frank Zappa. The weirdo musician\producer was known for his eccentric songs (i.e. like ´Don´t Eat the Yellow Snow´ which is arguably one of the best advice you could ever receive in song form), his expertise in the synclavier, his brief stint as a cultural attaché for Czechoslovakia and strange taste in the naming of his children (Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan , and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen.) which probably goes to show you shouldn't take acid while your wife gives birth. He was the epitome of the 60s. Although his body resides in an unmarked grave known only to his fans a statue of his head can be found in Vilnius thanks to the Lithuanian Frank Zappa Appreciation Society. Why would a bunch of people erect a statue of a rock star who had never even set foot in Lithuania? When you spend years under a Communist regime anything seems like a good idea I guess. And nothing says "anti-establishment" like Frank Zappa.

We ask Jules, a dreadlocked Maori who was sitting behind the desk in reception, if it was worth it. ´Yeah, it´s well worth having a look at if you go to Vilnius. But its not located in the town square or anything. Its just in a parking lot off a street in the middle of nowhere. Easy to miss.´
´So the statue is just in some parking lot? Wow. I think that´s what that Irish guy was saying.´
´Which Irish guy?´ There were a few Irish people staying at the hostel.
´John I think his name was.´
´Oh him. Yeah he´s the manager here.´
´He´s the manager? I thought he was just a foul-mouthed Irish guy who stood at the front of the building smoking and swearing at tourists.´
´He´s the manager. I manage the other Backpackers. I just came in to chat and the others went off to lunch. Leaving me on my own.´
´So, who actually works here?´ I query.
´Uuuh...there´s Owen the bearded Welsh guy. But he´s leaving tonight. And there´s Jeanine...´
´She´s staff?´
Jules laughs. ´It might not seem it but yeah she´s staff. At least for now. She´s off to Riga. Or supposed to be. She´s missed her bus and so she´s getting another one tonight as well.´
´So no one actually works here.´
´There´s John and Hector. That´s it at the moment. Did you guys want a job? I think they might be looking for people.´

It was certainly tempting. But I had a girlfriend in Australia who was waiting for me. And I could hear Frank Zappa calling my name. It would be Vilnius then. Vilnius would be my destination. At least for now.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Bacon Factor

Tallinn. For a city that has been consistently sacked, razed, pillaged and forced to give its lunch money to its neighbourhood bullies- the Danes and the Russians- it has weathered the beatings surprisingly well. Arguably it is still under siege but this time by tourists who assault the town almost daily. They tromp around alone or in groups while unfolding maps and taking endless amounts of pictures of Gothic buildings. You can tell them apart from the locals since all the Estonian women are blond and beautiful and wear glasses and all the guys look like jeans models.

´We´re not tourists,´says Nik.
´Hate to say it brother but we are,´ I inform him.
´Well then we´re not like the other tourists.´
´We´re just like the other tourists. We walk around, jaws open wide, taking the same stupid photos of the same stupid buildings as everyone else. That´s what a tourist does. We want to come home with mugs and T-shirts of cities we barely know.´
´We´re not tourists,´ continues Nik, ´we are severely lost.´
I guess that´s a healthy way of looking at it.

We return to the hostel after a day of wandering around and I bump into a girl I know from Melbourne. ´Jeanine?´
´I´m sorry. Do I know you?´
I flex my muscles.
´Fatman! I didn´t recognise you without your mask on.´

Even in Estonia it seems somebody knows Fatman. I guess working at a popular bar in Melbourne has significantly increased my Six Degrees factor. I know Jeanine vaguely. She´s a friend of my friend B.J. who used to work for me and now makes more money in a single week than I do in two months.

It seems like a great hostel. The hippie within says that the vibe of the place will draw people to it so they can talk about the weird journeys that lead people here. Jeanine had been here for a few months and used to carry an inflatable sex doll into the city to strike up conversations with strangers. I guess that´s one way to do it...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

First Impressions

'Fuck Riga,' I proclaim. We are walking into the Old Town section of Tallinn. The streets are cobbled and it is dark but already I have begun to fall in love with this place. On the bus from St.Petersburg I couldn't help but notice the changes. Here in Estonia the twilight lasts for hours. On shopfronts the Cyrillic alphabet of Russia had slunk away to the distance and had been replaced by a language that was fond of double letters. Stop signs were now Stopp signs. Hotels were called Hotells. Their vowels had dots above them. It was exciting. I immediately wanted to live here.

'Seriously. Fuck Riga. Fuck Latvia altogether. I don' t care for their constant stag parties or the Tectonic knights...'
'Teutonic knights,' corrects Chris.
I stamp my feet angrily. 'I! Don't! Care!'

Perhaps I was a bit hasty in wanting to live in Tallinn indefinitely. At this stage of the night we had yet to find a place to stay for the evening. We wandered around aimlessly down the myriad streets where music seeped out of various bars that were heavily aimed at tourists. I tried to take pictures to capture the mood of the night- the slight mist, people walking around in twos already indifferent to the town around them, the moon that hung limply in the night sky- but every photo seemed to not do Tallinn justice. They were as two-dimensional as you'd expect.

Eventually, after Nik flicked through the book several times, we found the Old Town Backpackers....which was too full. The girl who was on duty asked us to wait outside while she checked on one of the other hostels. 'It seems you're in luck. Number ten, Lai street,' said she, giving us a small flyer where it had a crudely-drawn map of the hostel on the back.

We staggered through the door of Tallinn Backpackers about ten minutes later. It was around eleven at night. We climbed the stairs up to the reception area where a bearded Welsh guy sat. He peered at us from behind the reception desk. 'Hey guys. Come on in,' he says, 'But do you mind taking off your shoes first?'

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Where, The How, The Why, The When

We ended up in Estonia because of the bus timetables in St.Petersburg. The original plan was to go to Riga (Chris: ´It´s where Albrecht von Buxthoeven established the Livonain Brothers of the Sword, a bunch of German warrior-monks, to force Christianity on to the Eastern Baltic region in the 1200s.´) but the bus heading to Latvia was scheduled so that we´d be leaving Russia two hours after our visas expired. Border guards are a naturally sadistic lot and may have been forced to take a minor donation from our wallets to remedy this problem.

Nik peers at the time tables at the ticket office of the bus terminal. ´We could always go to Tallinn. That would save us the extra cash.´
´What´s that? Talon?` I ask, proud of my ignorance.
´Tee, ei, el, el, eye, en, en. Tallinn. In Estonia.´
´Wait a minute. Isn´t Estonia where that Eli Roth gore fest Hostel takes place? Where horny backpackers are enticed to stay in this hostel where beautiful girls have sex with them and then the backpackers get killed in the most horrific way?´
´The film took place in a Slovakian town. We´re safe,´ says Chris the geography expert.
Nik:´That doesn´t sound too bad. You get to have sex with all these hot women before you get mutilated? What´s the catch?´
Chris and I shudder at the thought, as only people who´ve seen the movie would. So we pay the woman at the ticket office and buy the tickets to Tallinn at twice the price that was mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. We were such chumps.

I know that there is a place called Estonia but that was about it. I knew nothing of it. Their was a blank in my head where knowledge should be. Was I going into a place that was devastated by war, where children had limbs missing and the building were all crumbly due to tank attacks? Or was it fairly well developed? A city where motorists would drink espressos from Styrofoam cups while yelling into their mobiles at their secretaries, their moods unpleasant and their vehicles angry?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Dr Fatman I Presume?

Irkutsk - Listvyanka

Have you ever been in a situation where you've been so sick of the same work environment- talking to the same mundane people day in, day out, having to endure the ignominy of wearing uncomfortable work clothes (a business suit for some, an octopus outfit with a big sign advertising a seafood restaurant for others), laughing at the boss' racist comments because you fear you will be fired if you don't, having to sit through slide presentations explaining why the company stocks are so low that even possessing one of them is now a criminal offence- that you felt there was no way out? And the only avenue left for you was to purchase a powerful rifle and find a tower with a good view so you may lay waste to as many innocent lives as possible until the police eventually manage to get an army helicopter to take you down with extreme prejudice? This is the point when you should take a holiday. Before you become this rifle-wielding maniac.

The best part about going on a trip is that nobody knows you or the murderous impulses that you hide within. You can hang around towns in other countries with unpronounceable names and take photos of war monuments and menus with hilarious English translations so when you come back to the office, unshaved and sunburnt, you can force your colleagues to spend an entire lunch break looking at the pictures and feigning interest. It's almost expected that for up to six months after you return you can work travel stories into every single conversation and say things like, 'Sjfkanja? You've never heard of it? What a pity. Got a mild sexual disease after sleeping with one of the fishmongers there actually. Still, beautiful scenery.'

I think the last thing Evan ever expected was to run into someone he knew is Lisvyanka (Yes, I'm beginning my story now). Listvyanka is a small, seaside town in Siberia with a population of about 2,000. It's the kind of town that is slowly becoming a well-known resort. The kind of place where cows walk down main street. Where people paint their houses in their underwear in broad daylight.

He'd just about sat down for an evening meal with his beautiful girlfriend at an out-of-the-way chalet when he hears a familiar laughter. A real annoying laugh. Where has he heard that before? He turns around and sees a figure he recognises spilling beer on his crotch.
'F...Fatman?' he says, a strange feeling coursing down his spine.
I look up. 'Hey Evan.'
'W..What in heaven's name brought you to Lisvyanka?'
'My health. I came to Listvyanka for the waters.'

Yes folks, I'm kind of like that ghostly bar guy from The Shining. I just turn up sometimes when you least expect.

The rest of the evening was spent drinking many a vodka with Evan, his girlfriend and some Dutch guys. We sat around and listened to music and told filthy jokes that would condemn us all to Hell forever.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Chess Games That Lead To Knife Fights

train to Irkutsk

You know your days may be numbered when your silent cabin mate suddenly decides to pull out a knife and stares at it intently. Chris, Nik and I glance at each other nervously. The blade would have been about 7-inches long. This was not the kind of tool you'd use to cut out coupons from magazines. It was the sort of weapon you'd use to gut elk with. He inspected his blade slowly, wordlessly for hours on end. No one made a sound all night.

The next day our Russian cabin mate came down and barked something at us in his native tongue. We threw our wallets on the table. 'Just take the money pal,' I say as calmly as possible, 'And if anyone comes after you we'll remember nothing about this little exchange.'
He pulls out a plastic bag from his belongings.
'It's probably the heads of his victims,' I explain to my companions.
'I'm too pretty to die!' yells Nik.
The Russian guy looks puzzled at our reactions. He reaches into the bag and....

...pulls out some tomatoes and cucumbers. Ah. It seems he was just trying to be friendly. Offering us breakfast out of the goodness of his...
'He's pulled out his knife!'
The stranger looks at us blankly and cuts some bread.
'?' replies the Stranger.
'Knife bad. Scares the shit out of foreigners,' I try to say.
He smiles. 'Is good knife yes? Belong to father.'

The Knife Man turns out to be a guy named Sasha. After a few more hours of silence he gets off at a station and comes back with a newly bought chess set. 'Play yes?' he asks in a friendly manner. Just for the record, although I have the dazed expression of someone who has been run over by a truck, I can play chess fairly well. I point to Nik. 'He play you. He good.' No need to risk having a 7-inch blade jabbed into MY gut.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

King of the Hallway

Severobaikalsk - train to Irkutsk

It's a postcard scenery. The sky is grey like memory loss. Snow falls to the ground like dandruff off a bus driver. We are trapped in a snow globe far from home.

Rashit's wife has come to our apartment to cook us a three course breakfast for the last time while Nik stares at the window excitedly. He has never seen snow. I think to an outsider who is travelling through town in the Russian autumn snow is a beautiful thing. If you're indoors, rugged up and with a screamingly hot cup of cocoa. It looks the same as when a high school drama production has a snow scene- billions of bits of little paper falling gently to the ground- except in real life the snow melts and doesn't have to be swept up by stage hands.

A few hours later the doorbell rings. It is Leo the neighbourhood thug. With him are two cohorts. One of the little miscreants looks like he is fourteen. But a tough fourteen year old. The kind that carries flick knives and hurts pets. They offer me some warm beer but I decline.

We try to talk. Something something something. Oh, Leo wants me to show the kids some coin tricks. I flick a 5 rouble piece back and forth on the flat of my fist. I make the coin disappear. The kids go- How the f-ck...? Then Leo speaks some Russian to me. Something something something. He wants to exchange....dollars for dollars? What the...? Leo says more things that don't make sense to me. 'You want to swap dollars with me?'
'Da. Yes.' He pulls out a Singaporean $10.
'You little rat bastard! That was from my wallet.'
He grins.
'You want to swap an American $10 for a Singaporean $10 that was mine to begin with in the first place?'

I couldn't be bothered arguing with him anymore so I do so. Then he has the gall to ask me for a 100 roubles. 'You join for piva (beer) yes?'
'Go away.'

I spend the rest of the day walking around Severobaikalsk. Apart from almost walking into a brothel that I presumed was a restaurant the day is fairly uneventful. Which gives me time to think about the whole 'kids in the hallway' situation. The girls were fairly nice. They were probably too young to be interested in guys but maybe in a few years they'd hook up with one of the thugs and have little monsters of their own one day. Lack of choice. It happens. And I don't think the little boys would turn out like Leo but who knows what will happen in the future. I hope for the best. But for now there seems that there's not much to do in apartment blocks in Siberia except swigging home brew vodka and hassling foreigners for loose change.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Stairway to Hell


I wake up from a dream where I find a severed hand and foot in a washing machine. It seems that the mild bit of food poisoning that we got from the bad cheese had leaked into my subconsciousness during the night and had displayed itself in a nightmare theatre involving laundry.

The others were feeling a bit worse. Nik had spent most of the night emptying the contents of his stomach into the toilet bowl. Chris was not too bad but in no mood to be running around. I decide to check my emails at the post office.

Hours later Chris comes to pick me up. 'Anything happening?' he asks.
'Nothing much. There's more news about Steve Irwin. His father doesn't want a state funeral or some such thing.Besides-' I log off the computer, '-I care not. He's getting more recognition than bomb disposal experts who get blown up or rescue workers who fall to their deaths.'

When we get back to the apartment there are about five or six kids who are too young to smoke, smoking. 'He-llo,' says the bravest of them, a girl of about fourteen. 'Privyet,' I say back, the way cool Russians say a casual hello. They are impressed.

Pretty soon there are more of them in the stairway. The leader of the gang is a guy that I'll call Leo purely because I can't remember his name. Being 18 in this apartment block means that he is the king and he rules the others with an iron back hand. But in a friendly way. They like the fact that we are Australians but they don't know where it is.

Nik emerges from his coma to see what all the commotion is on their stairway. He sees Chris and I attempting to communicate with the kids (we taught them how to say 'F-ck off!) and, not to be outdone, grabs the bag full of koala key rings and distributes them to everyone. He's like a Santa Claus that only gives out shitty Korean-made key rings of fat Australian marsupials. One of the kids rips the head off his koala. May I have another? 'Sorry kid. One drunk herbivore per person.'

It's getting dark outside. 'We should grab a drink with them,' I suggest.
'You think it's wise to swig beer with underage children?' ask Chris and Nik, aghast.
'I don't know what the legal age for drinking in Russia is. Well, maybe just with Leo then. Let's get him to show us a bar around here.' We head to a convenience store (I thought we were being led to a bar) and buy some beer. On returning to our apartment and drinking the booze on the stairwell Nik informs us that he is feeling too uncomfortable about the situation and hides in the room. 'Who says I'm comfortable with this either?' I announce, 'It's just that we haven't done enough drinking in days.'
Chris says, 'Let's at least go to that sports bar that has no sports ( he read about this place in the Lonely Planet guide).'
'Leo. Do you know where this bar is?'
'Sports bar? Sports bar-' a whole bunch of Russian words, '-Da?'
Leo makes fist motions to his head.
'Are you trying to say we'll get our asses kicked if we go to the Sports bar?'
He nods his head. He lets loose with more Russian words.
'What. Are. You. Trying. To. Say?'
He repeats the words. Louder.

The story starts getting a little uglier from here. First of all, two of the eight-year olds came with us to the bar. That in itself wasn't a hassle since neither of them were drinking. But a couple of shots of vodka in, Leo decides that he's going to lift one of the kids over his head. He does so, and the kid hits the ceiling. That was in all likelihood an accident. But Leo does it again,knocking the wind out of the brat. The kid starts crying. Who the hell was Leo trying to impress- the 8-year olds or the absolute strangers? He then tries to get 300 roubles out of us for the taxi ride home.

'It was only 50 roubles to get here!' says a very annoyed Chris. Leo makes punching motions with his fists. Was he threatening us? We start to dislike Leo immensely. When we first met him he seemed to be a lovable bully, like Alfalfa from Our Gang, but he was turning into an actual bully- a threatening, tyrannical figure who gets drunk and wants to arm wrestle people. The 8-year olds look at us to see what we'd do.

Eventually we do get a cab together (?) and Chris, unaware that we were just in front of our building, hurls a 100 rouble note to the driver and lunges out of the cab in the opposite direction. We get back to the building, Leo in tow. 'No- we do NOT want to drink with you anymore Leo!' we say and close the door, checking three times that it was locked.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

In The Den of a Siberian Gangster


It's been a day since Steve 'Let's grab it by the tail and see what happens!' Irwin has died. A stingray stung the man in the heart mid-documentary. I suppose they were both doing what they were meant to do. He, making documentaries, and the stingray, stinging things they find threatening or annoying. That he had died was not known to us yet.

We were currently entering the city of Severobaikalsk, northwest of the largest fresh water lake in the world- Lake Baikal. Any chance of being impressed by this was quashed by a mild nausea that was tugging at my belly like a lost child who grips a stranger's skirt at a department store. I wasn't feeling well. Perhaps consuming that cheese for breakfast was not the best idea. Still, it wasn't a full blown stomach bug that treats your intestines like a punching bag, so that was good.

Rashit is on the platform waiting for us. He sits Godfather-like in his wheelchair while a woman (who turned out to be his wife) waves us over to him. There is another guy next to Rashit who whispers into his ear. The side of my brain that is convinced that Rashit is a Siberian gangster screeches 'It's his bodyguard!'. Another part of my brain, the realistic side that has been ignored for such a long time, whispers feebly. Something about the person next to Rashit probably being a driver or something. Stupid brain.

We eventually go over to Rashit's house and have a conversation with him. He tells me several times that he is not the criminal mastermind of Severobaikalsk and please would I stop asking him. He does turn out to be a chess master which is kind of cool. When he laughs he laughs like this: 'Tee-hee-hee.' It's a soft laugh. Maybe he actually isn't a gangster.

After Rashit shoves a handful of business cards my way we head back to our apartment. Apparently the others aren't feeling too well either.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Wear the Fox Hat

Tynda - train to Severobaikalsk

'Severobaikalsk,' says Chris for the fifth time.
'Severobaikalsk,' says Chris, tiredly.

The train passes another rundown train station, the first in about four hours. A couple of kids, brothers perhaps, are watching us as the train goes by. They wave sticks above their heads. One of them salutes us with his middle finger. Up yours train!

'I still don't know where the f-ck that is,' I tell Chris, as if it is somehow his fault that I am completely lost as to where we are. Nick: 'Have you even read the itinerary?'

Back in Australia I have two copies of the Lonely Planet guide to the Trans-Siberian railway (2001 edition). In typical fashion I forgot to bring either of them along. Because I'm the kind of guy who can happily spend a whole day looking out the window of trains with nothing more than the gentle rocking of the carriage, a cup of tea and a liberal dose of sodium pentathol to keep me amused I hadn't needed to know where we are heading. Right now though I feel that I should read up on the next town because I have about 26 hours to kill. I grab Nik's 2006 edition of the Trans-Sib guide which has a Mongolian warlord on the front cover. 'There's a brief mention of our guide in there as well,' says Nik.

Rashit Y____: This experienced full-time travel fixer, guide and ex-BAM worker is quick to reply to emails and always keen to please. He rents a brilliant, central apartment for a negotiable US $15 a night. Since an immobilising stroke he remains disabled and his spoken English can be hard to follow.

'What kind of a name is Rashit?' I ask, mind filled with images of a wheelchair-bound Siberian gangster.
'Dunno. Kazakh?' One of Borat's people.
'The other guy in Severobaikalsk seems kind of fun too. Listen to this. This guy Vladimir is apparently a "proverb-sprouting John Cleese lookalike".'

I'm torn. I want to meet the proverb-sprouting ex-Python as well. The train keeps moving steadily forward.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Chasing Autumn


We catch up to Autumn in Tynda. The train had kept us warm for 36 hours due to a combination of the heater, our body temperatures and constant farting but stepping outside we smack into the bracing Siberian air. Our extremities are numb. A man wearing Cuban heels comes rushing towards us from behind, long strides like that of a stilt walker. He asks us a question that doesn't need to be asked. 'Are you the Australians?'

This man called Alexi is our guide to Tynda. Cut from the same cloth as Mihail, Alexi is an extreme sportsman. It comes as no surprise that the two are good friends. 'We have an envelope for you. From Mihail,' says Chris, words becoming icicles and falling to the ground.
'Mihail?' asks Alexi.
'Mihail. From Komsomolsk.'
'Oh Misha! Misha is my friend.' We hand him the letter.

Perhaps the letter contains sentiments along the lines of:

Dear Alexi,

Hope you are well. It has been too long since last we spoke. My wife sends her best. To the matters at hand. In front of you are three of the most unfit individuals I have met for quite some time.
(Alexi looks up from reading. Nods to himself) I notice them sweating profusely and catching their breaths even when they are virtually immobile. Their motives for being in Siberia are obscure. Unlike the other Australians who have come our way (Remember the guys from Adelaide last winter? Boy those guys were fun! I wonder how they are?) these three seem happy to just look at things. Ordinary things. One of them just took pictures of his own leather jacket. Why would anyone do this?

Your Friend,

This town has the same feel as other decaying, desolate towns. Although it is the closest crossroad town where you can join the Trans-Siberian railway, or head north to the mines (such as the Neryungri coal mines), there doesn't seem to be too much to do- unless you like looking at logs. It seems to be a good enough place for guys like Alexi who derive enjoyment out of climbing vicious mountains where you can plummet to your death but for the non-adventurous it might feel like a life sentence. We see some grubby-nosed kids on the street throw pebbles at cyclists and pick up pigeons with their bare hands and throw them at other pigeons. The trains come to town. The trains leave. Not too many locals seem to leave with them.

We spend most of the day trying not to starve and having a brief conversation with a drunk guy who resembles Robert Patrick. That night we return to Alexi's house and he shows us pictures of his adventures while his wife tucks their kids in. There is a photo of him kayaking down dangerous waterfalls with jagged rocks at the bottom. 'Look, look!' he points excitedly at one photo where his head is submerged in water, 'I'm dying! Ha ha!'

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A Long Way From Home

train to Tynda (36 hours)

Last night I looked out from my bunk and peer at the night sky. I see millions of stars looking back at me, little peep holes thousands of years old. Strange constellations that are supposed to look like animals but don't. Why do I like the night sky but not Planetariums?

We are on a looooooooong train ride to Tynda. The others are sound asleep. Nik will spend most of this train ride commenting on the fact that his facial hair is hairier than his head. He's worried that he reminds people of a fat German tourist. Chris will spend most of this train ride re-reading the Lonely Planet Guide to the Trans-Siberian. He's even read about towns we'll never go to. But for now it's just me listening to their snores and staring at the stars.

Before, when there was thunder and I couldn't see the stars, I'd thought about writing a postcard. I generally like writing about something that has just happened but since I knew I'd write about Mihail and the Nanai at a later date I was stuck for a topic. Do I try to describe the thunder outside? Or perhaps someone we met on the train? The only other person we've had any contact with recently (apart from the guy at the snack bar who asked us where we were from) was the provinitza.

Our provinitza (train lady) was a delightful woman. I'd been dreading our encounters with the provinitzas since I'd first heard about them. Most travellers of the Trans-Siberian (and the BAM) would tell stories of hairy knuckled lesbians who were better suited to be female wrestlers. But our lady was so nice. She loved Australians. She reminded me of a marshmallow. We decided to give her a koala key ring.

I turn over in my bunk, comfortable in my blankets. This trip was still only beginning. I'll write that postcard another day.


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.