Some years ago, I met Johanna, who told me a story about an amazing trip through Siberia. I wondered what was wrong with her and why would anyone choose such vacations? Little did I know then that my urge of getting out of my comfort zone is stronger than me. So, I, born and raised in the area of REST (Rotaract European Sailing Trip), have found myself buying tickets to the area with daily mean temperature of -20 C. Two weeks before the trip, there was -33C. I realised I don’t even have clothes for that adventure, so I got ski trousers from my colleague’s son, borrowed ski gloves from my flatmate, bought my first set of merino wool underwear on “mellandagsrea” (big sales time after Christmas) and ordered no less than 40 heat packs recommended by Swedish hunters.
Of course I am ready for an adventure with 7 unknown “trippers” and god knows how many unknown organizers. It’s Rotaract, what can go wrong?
I meet the first fellow adventurer at Moscow airport. Sophie from Denmark comes in a mink coat and seal gloves. I guess that’s these cultural differences between Sweden and Denmark. We are the first to arrive to Omsk. The whole RAC club is waiting for us at 4am, dressed in traditional boots, with ushankas on their heads and votka in their hands. They also have a giantic fur coat and a traditional scarf, both for heating us and posing. They feed us with pancakes and lard, while we wait for the others.
Impressions from Omsk:
Josip Broz Tito Street? It’s hard to find these even in Croatia. I learned that he had lived there a hundred years ago. “At one point, police searched the train looking for an escaped POW, but were deceived by Broz’s fluent Russian.”, says Wikipedia?
Fluent Russian? From the moment I translated a word for a pine cone from Russian to English, I was considered less or more fluent in Russian. My extensive knowledge of Croatian dialects, general curiosity for other Slavic languages and passion for poetry finally comes to some use. I am not translating, I am solving a logical puzzle.
Grandpa Frost? I see this guy for the first time since 1990. I got a chocolate Santa, not bad.
Pokrovka? Pokrovka is a time machine. When I say “a time machine”, I mean a village nearby, where they sing and dance traditional folk songs, and where there is no Uber, but there is a horse-ridden sleigh!Clubbing? Still tired after a New Year’s party and two long flights, I decided to stay with Omsk girls. One of them is a doctor, bacteriologist, who also works as a masseuse and no less than an ice climbing instructor. While she is telling me that, she is knitting a sweater with a complicated pattern for her friend. She is also the one who cooked delicious soups for us. This reminds me of my Swedish job interviews where they called me restless for having one job and two hobbies. (?!)
Ice climbing? I like heights and I like climbing, but I discovered that I hate ice! I’d rather climb with my own nails than with ice picks! It looked so cool from the ground, but it’s obviously not for me.
But what’s for me? Ex-gulag. Ok, an ex- gulag featuring monastery. Also having hot springs. You just have to get naked on -20C, and getting dressed is even slower, but the part in between is quite nice. Not to mention banya (Russian sauna) afterwards. Nirvana!
Memories from Novosibirsk:
Academic Town: Everyone is equal in communism, except some. That’s why they made Akademgorodok, a priviledged area for scientists. We get to see BINP, Russian equvivalent of CERN. All physicist of the world look the same, or better said, it would be easier for me to guess that our guides are physcists than that they are Russians. They called them capitalists during communism, because they also have commercial products for the world market, and now they call them communist, because the industrial part shares the profit with the scientific part.
Queues: A language teacher in local high school moans after communism, because she got a free education of high quality. But an engineer from the audience does not agree. The education was not so good, and how comes she forgot the queues, he asks. “I spent at least 10 000 hourse queuing!”. I inform him about my favourite board game The Queue, also called “communist monopoly”, produced by a Polish history institute. I found a priceless fact, Russian consumer protection agency tried to forbid The Queue on the market.
Christmas and striptease: Our Christmas Eve is classy, we watch “Sleeping Beauty” in Novosibirsk Ballet Theater. Later we go to a club, where they also have a striptease show, which is not a big deal in Russia. There are more girls than guys in the club. I find the show absolutely hilarious, specially considering it’s Christmas. But it seems no one really cares about Christmas. A church choir where we sneaked in sang like angels, but the church was not that full.
Language reform and Neverland: Russian seems easy to learn, but I don’t get the point of having special characters for -yo, -ya, -ye, and why are there two different Ys? I propose a reform, but Alexandr is equally thrilled as Swedes are thrilled with my proposal for eliminating c, z, x, w and q. Alexandr is from the Far East. The Far East sounds like Peter Pan’s Neverland. Is it even real? When I mention that back in Sweden, it seems that Swedes don’t even know what’s that Fjärran Östern.
Divination: Shadows and wax told me something valuable from my past is coming back. I wonder.
Speechless? Not me. Except when there are Christmas presents waiting for me the under a Christmas tree and there is a Rotaract band singing songs dedicated only to our Siberian adventure and we get all these nice cards and a jar of pine cone marmelade and cookies and tea and all kind of knick-knackery and wait did I say Christmas was not important?
Athmosphere of Kemerovo:
Coal: Kemerovo could also be
called Coal City, or for my South Slavic readers – Ćumurovo. The smallest and the youngest, it has “only” 0,6 million people. Everyone’s father is a coal miner. That’s why we go to an artificial coal mine which is both interesting and sad, because coal mining seems like a horrible job, although much easier and safer today than a hundred years ago, when they used lamps called “May-God-Help-Us” due to their flammable characteristics.
DJ – unlike in snobbish clubs of Stockholm, where DJs behave like the visitors are there to see holy DJs, the DJ in “Huka Haus” adapted his music to the people on the dance floor. From hip-hop to bachata, all of us 8 adventurers from Argentina to Australia seemed to be quite happy.
The snowman, the lynx and the rabbit, or one Rotaractor and her family who got dressed to guide us through our Taiga adventure. All of sudden I play hockey with brooms, I walk on stilts for the first time in my life, and run a sack race! Quite an inspiring family!
Dog sled: Huskies are beautiful, but don’t understand any commands. I just hold on tight and smile for the picture in the end!
Balalaika and wooden spoons: We got an amazing workshop of traditional Russian music. I played two wooden spoons, it was a safe option.
Flavour of Krasnoyarsk:
Nail hammering: We pay 200 rubles to participate in a nail hammering competition. There is a big trunk in the middle of a barber shop feat. a club (it seems that hipsterism is a thing in Russia too). Russians win in all the rounds and also the whole tournament. But we don’t care because all the collected money goes to a transfer home.
Transfer home: It’s a place for minors who just lost their guardians, before they get placed in a foster home, foster family or back to their parents. Now it’s 16 of them, before they used to have over 60. The teachers give us a task to make a story about a sad snowflake, but we make a play on the spot. I’m a sad snowflake, and why am I sad? Because I fell in love with a kangaroo from Australia! The problem is solved when my parents send me to Australia, where I get special cooling in the pocket of my beloved kangaroo. It seems kids liked the story.
Christmas Carols: They call them Kolyade, which reminds me of a Croatian word for slaughtering, but we are in a local library. After someone mentions “kolende”, I can finally translate it to Christmas carols. Who has to sing? Children and “foreigners”! But also dance, play, hop and jump.
Stolby national park: Anatoliy is eager to show us all the beauties of Stolby. That’s why we have to march for 15 kilometers around, freeze and sweat. While I am climbing on all fours to the top, he screams “You can do it, you are a Slav!”. I feel more like a slave, but everything for a cool photo. Later we get tiny “butt-patch” sleds to go back. Seems entertaining, except it’s a natural path full of stones and trees.
Drumming in yurta: Artem takes us to a hippy club in a traditional Mongolian yurt where we sit on cushions and drink tea, but then an eager guy comes to the scene, throws to everyone in the audience some kind of a drum or a rattle, with some weird horns which we mostly don’t know how to blow in. He is a composer and a conductor in one, and we are all drumming, clinging, clapping and rat-a-tating like we were born for this. Some compositions remind me of Kries’ Zumba. I wish to stay forever, but my flight is soon and sadly, I have to leave.
In the airplane, I contemplate about the trip. There are so many souvenirs in my suitcase and so many details I haven’t mention here, doll making, cooking dumplings, drinking sea buckthorn juice, a luge in an ice city, reading my poetry for a local art project and being interviewed by various journalists. Sharing Rotaract experiences, learning about each other’s social projects and me promoting E.R.I.C and our magazine. From delicious soups, to being called a “foreigner” which brings you a privilege of parking in front of theaters and even free souvenirs, over surprising Siberian punctuality and logistics? The air is cold, but the hearts are warm. Maybe because they don’t save on heating?