Long journey into Siberia

[*αν έχει περάσει πολύς καιρός από τότε που πήρατε το προφύσενσυ του Μίσιγκαν, πατήστε εδώ για την ελληνική εκδοχή του κειμένου]

I’m sure some of you have travelled to better places. I’m sure you have better stories to tell. Probably not many of us would think of Siberia as a dream place. Because obviously it is not a dream place. But exactly one year ago, I challenged myself to try it for a couple of months. And this is how it all began… I got an internship offer in Salekhard, the closest town to the Polar Circle. Towards the end of the skype interview with my employer, I dared to ask about the other candidates applying for the job, to check if I had a chance. My future boss simply laughed and said there are no other candidates and that she could barely find me. I was delighted! Going to the middle of nowhere at last!

And that delight lingered on my face as I made the VISA arrangements, bought the tickets and made it through the security check-point at the airport. The security guard smiled back at me and said: “You know, some time ago people went there too. But they weren’t smiling at all”. On the plane I befriended my seat neighbors: a judge and his friend, a policeman. How did I found out their profession without speaking each other’s language? Luckily I had a Russian – Romanian conversation guide on me. I used it only that time, though. But it was useful, as they were very curious about me: what am I doing there without speaking Russian at all? So I pointed out учитель (meaning teacher) in my conversation guide. That calmed them down a bit, but then other questions arose; questions that couldn’t be found in the guide, so we just laughed (probably they asked how was I going to be a teacher with no knowledge of Russian). When we reached Yamal-Nenets district, I looked out the window: ladies and gents, snow-covered lands in September! The fun is about to begin.

At the airport a better version of Liv Tyler was waiting for me in a posh Soviet car, Volga. The copycat Liv Tyler was my boss. We went to “my place” (guess I already had a place in Siberia – a beautiful apartment on the 7th floor) arranged by her. When we got out of the car, I understood what Bono meant with “blown by the wind” sang every time with the notes stretched longer and longer. But I was happy.
The next day I was already on my way to work. It took me 20 minutes to reach the school. In normal conditions, one can do it in 10 minutes, but the powerful wind and the icy roads demanded extra-efforts from my side. My ski equipment wasn’t of much help either in this regard.


Everyone at school was informed of my arrival, so they were all expecting me: the children, the teachers and even the kitchen maids. I haven’t received that much collective love in ages. I felt like being part of a strange religious sect. I was adored. I was given so much love, attention and admiration, that it refilled my needs for a lifetime. And so many gifts. The kids’ questions ranged from typical “How old are you?” and “Do you have a boyfriend?” to “What do you do all day in Salekhard?”. For most of them it was the first time to meet a foreigner. I got free hugs daily from them, from the beginning until the end of my stay. Every other day I was asked for my autograph. When I walked on the school corridors everyone would happily greet me and the small ones would ran to get a never ending hug. I befriended the whole school in no time. It wasn’t hard at all to teach them English without speaking Russian. When I walked into a classroom, their first line was: “Look at my colleague! He’s stupid.” I heard that one so many times, in every class; they were obsessed with it. That’s who I learnt that in every class there was a stupid kid.

Soon I found out other things, such as the gap between rich and poor. Some of them were so rich that they would spend their summer holidays in Cuba, while the others couldn’t even afford leaving the district. When asked about their trips abroad, pupils of the some classroom would say that they never left Russia, while others would simply say “Europe”. (this means every country in Europe – as they clarified it after noticing my bewilderment). There was a one week holiday in November. While I got totally bored waiting for the kids to return to school, the rich ones were visiting Dubai. And that’s how I got some Dubai gifts.


Then I told everyone that I want to drink medovukha. A friend of mine who went to Siberia recently advised me to definitely try it, no matter how hard it is to find it. And indeed it was hard. They say that medovukha was even more famous than vodka at one point, but then the recipe got lost. Then they found it again, to my delight. Because I was lucky enough to drink it; a bottle of medovukha was brought to me (at school) after the parents of a friend of a pupil in my class asked their neighbors for one, because they went to a medovukha festival, so they had some extra bottles.

Before long, Liv Tyler sent the television to school and my silly interview was broadcast on Russia-1, the state-owned television channel. Some of my former Russian friends made fun of me, saying that I’ve become some sort of Russian celebrity. I was also in the local news-papers. Don’t know if you are familiar with Süskind’s Perfume, but the ending of the novel/movie somehow mirrored my situation: everyone loved me for no reason. I think this is what happens when you’re the only foreigner in town. Or in a town where nothing ever happens.


One evening I was on the bus with a friend, speaking English (obviously). Soon the driver and the passengers started talking to one another and laugh (at us, as I found out later). She argued angrily with the driver in Russian, but I didn’t understand what was going on. When we got out she explained the whole situation: they are so unused to foreigners, that they thought we were Russian school girls pretending to be English, so the driver advised us to take more acting classes. Hilarious. Yet, one of my best memories ever (and at the same time one of the worst ones of my friend’s).

As time went by, people on the street began to recognize me, thanks to my ski equipment. Because, ladies and gents, it may seem strange, but I was the only one wearing special clothing. Russian women wore only fur and nylon tights. I was freezing in my ski jacket and pants, yet they were wearing short skirts… at -30˚C. I guess they were hot after all. However, this was not the only thing that surprised me: I saw people skiing on the street (probably this was the Siberian equivalent for rollerblading), I saw children playing with beach toys in the snow and children being torn down by the wind … and I saw the light pillars one night.


Before leaving for Siberia, I checked some obscure blogs on the internet, to learn about the town. The infamous blogger wrote that the Northern Lights can be observed almost every night and they are so famous in Salekhard, that even the cinemas and supermarkets were named after them. I couldn’t believe that I was about the see the Aurora Borealis myself! So there I was, staring at the sky, night after night. As I couldn’t see anything, I turned to one of my friends, Anastasia, to reveal me the mystery. That’s how I found out that the internets lied to me. She felt sorry for me as she explained that she’s only seen the Northern Lights once or twice, as well as her friends. She did confirm that in the past there used to be a cinema bearing that name, though. But one night I suddenly saw something: the light pillars. At first I thought it was the aurora, but the curves were missing. It only lasted for 10 minutes or so, but it was impressive. The next day I checked with my friends, but apparently I was the only one that saw them, so I’m pretty sure that they didn’t believe me.

Days went by and I was more and more satisfied. Couldn’t imagine leaving the place. The only shortcoming that I could think of is the fact that Salekhard doesn’t have any connection with the other cities – no roads, no railways, nothing apart from the airport. I was told that in the past they tried to build railways, but too many people died in the attempt, so they resigned. There was another strange way to travel to the nearest city though: by car, on the river. If the ice layer was tick enough, you could just drive on the river to the next town, if you had the guts. I had the guts, but I didn’t have a car (nor a driving license, but that didn’t matter anyway).


A month after my arrival I found out something interesting: I was invited to have dinner with Anastasia’s family. I didn’t know what to bring, so I went to buy a bottle of wine. At the shop I tried to explain what I want, but to no avail. Luckily, the shop assistant was nice and patient, so she asked me (in Russian) where I am from, after she pointed at herself, saying “Moldova”. When I heard that, I said something in Romanian, to check. Eurika! She replied in “Moldavian”, as she called her native language, an archaic Romanian to me. Sometimes it was hard to follow her. After hearing my story, she finally brought that bottle of wine, but she promised that she would introduce me to a nice Moldavian boy my age, as she can clearly see that I am getting bored here (thinking that I was about to drink the bottle by myself I assume). And indeed the boy called me [Ah, I forgot to mention that the Russian SIM cards don’t fit European cellphones, but the school management took care of that too] and invited me to a spooky car ride around the town at 10 pm. Because he worked until that hour. I argued why we don’t just walk around, he replied than we would freeze within minutes (and I can confirm that). As I didn’t want to invite him upstairs either and I kept hesitating, I remembered that nice middle-aged woman, the shop-assistant. She seemed totally reliable, and I guess so did the boy.

So I got into the car – they would own only four-wheel-drives there, to avoid having their engine frozen overnight – and the boy tries really hard to “impress” me: he was a Moldavian criminal, he almost killed someone in a fight, so he had to flee to Russia, if he ever returns back home he would be charged with murder, he’s not a bad person, but he was defending his friends, he is working from 6 am till 10 pm here, he has a scar, I can clearly see it on his cheek, he considers himself more Russian than Moldavian, he even speaks Russian more fluently, he had a Russian girlfriend here and now he’s taking me to the place where they broke up. As he tells me the story of his life, he is racing like a Formula 1 driver on the icy, everlasting snowy streets of Salekhard. He asks me if I’m scared and assures me that I shouldn’t be scared. I was thinking: “No matter if he’s telling the truth or not, boy is insane and I’m even crazier for having accepted his invitation”. I didn’t even dare to ask why he is taking me to the place where they broke up, but it was outside of town. The airport was somewhere far behind, when I bravely (not!) asked where is this place. He told me again not to be afraid. Finally we reached it. You could get a panoramic view of the town there, indeed. But I just wanted to go back home. Instead we went to an Orthodox church, where he continued the heroic saga of his life. I already knew all of his relatives, his best friends and the most interesting aspects of their lives, his past, his ambitions, what he likes and what he dislikes. It was almost 2 am when he drove me back home and shouted from his car as I entered the building: “But still, you are beautiful!”


My birthday was coming soon, so I threw a party. All of the Russians whom I exchanged more than 5 words were invited. Medium-size party, but awesome. He was invited as well and it was kinda funny to hear English, Russian and Romanian spoken almost at the same time. I got great gifts and around 3 am the last guests have departed (he was amongst them), not before telling me some shit about the so-called “Dyatlov Pass incident”, what happened there and that we’re pretty close to that place. I got extremely scared when they all left and for the rest of the night I feared that some zombies would crawl to my 7th floor window to get in. That’s how I recall my birthday. And of course, the gifts. So many gifts that I had to leave my clothes there in order for the gifts to fit in the luggage. Because I couldn’t bear paying Lufthansa 15 euro/kg.

Everyone back home kept asking me about the cold weather. Indeed it was cold, but I loved it. The howling wind – so horrifying that I was afraid to open the windows at home, the ice and snow covering everything (you didn’t even know exactly where the sidewalk ends and where the streets begins – you had to take a guess), the snow sliding off the roofs, so dangerous that they had to close the street and those small avalanches on the roofs that woke you up during the night with their apocalyptical flop… priceless.


It was also weird to wake up at 8:30, before dawn, to go to school and to return home at dusk, at 15:00. The days grew shorter and shorter, they were just a 6 hour continuum dawn-dusk, and the sun was low all the time. The temperatures went even lower. I left Siberia right on time, before school was closed due to the harsh weather conditions. The temperatures reached -60 ˚C. I returned home like a heroine. As a senior, I was concerned about my 2 month absence from University. Obviously I didn’t notify anyone about my long trip, but it seemed like there was a strange rumor amongst my professors that I had a scholarship there and everything’s alright! I swear I didn’t spread those lies! Everyone expected me to return and to retell my “amazing experience”. There’s that Perfume again! And this time, even more Süskind-ish, because instead of being punished (for my absence), I was (again) adored. Some kind of public person of my town contacted me with an offer to tell my story in a café. So there I was, showing to a bunch of strangers, friends and foes some photos, videos, newspapers and matryoshkas. Next day I was in the newspapers again. The Romanian ones, but still. A little fame never killed nobody.

Now, ladies and gents, what did we learn from this? Want to get famous? Want to be adored by everyone? Oh, and I forgot to mention: want to be paid four times as much as a Romanian teacher is being paid? Go to Siberia! Ladies, don’t forget your nylon tights.


A month ago Anastasia and her family visited me in Spain. It was funny to see them (especially her mother) in tourist/light clothes, after knowing them in the Siberian imposing fur. We were having fun at the sea side, when I suddenly heard someone speaking Russian! I sent Anastasia’s 12 year old sister, Natasha, for confirmation (strange that they haven’t heard their native language first, though), and she said: “Yes, they speak Russian!” That evening we invited the Russian family over for dinner. It turned out that they live in Arkhangelsk, but they haven’t been to Salekhard yet. So I said “I recommend you with all my heart to visit Salekhard!” And they just laughed, and laughed, and laughed.


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Georgi Frunz