Sit Rep. Magadan, Far East Russia. August 12th 2016, 7.30 pm. Yuri Gagarin Street. Temperature 18C, outlook rainy.
A Toyota minivan, missing back window replaced by duct tape and plastic sheeting, literally screeches to a halt. The burly male Russian driver, pumped, as most Russian men are, leaps out, regardless of traffic. He sprints over to the three bemused Ghanaian engineers, visitors from a sister mine, each approximately half his size. Loud laughing, hugs, high fives, backslaps and selfies ensue. Ignoring our glamorous translators, he runs off just as quickly. I ask Johnathon, leader of the pack, who he was. ‘No idea’ he answers, ‘never seen him before’. That is the effect caused by a black face in this remote part of Russia. Welcome to Magadan.
Yes, it’s that time of year again. Demob from the Chukotka tundra wastes, time to draw breath and scribble words, before life moves on and memories become buried by new experiences.
The stars were in alignment this year. No blackfly feasting on my white flesh. No run-ins with bears or wolverines. No quad bike accidents and cracked ribs. Instead, perfect weather, gentle tundra breezes, a comfortable room, helicopter mobilisation in an MI-8, the gentle giant of Russian aviation, and, best of all, exclusive use of the Trek-All. This ‘Top Gear’-style orange fibreglass vehicle with bloated low pressure tyres can cross any obstacle, even lakes. The sea-sickness subsides after a few rides and the gentle rocking motion becomes soporific. That gives time for power naps, very necessary given that the working day starts at 5.30 am and finishes after 9 pm.
Exploring for gold in the far northeast of Russia has never been easier. Mind you, there was the usual crisis; a vehicle missing from the rendezvous point meant an exhausting trek across soggy tundra with sample-laden rucksacks; this at the end of a long, hot foot traverse. This is the first time my shirt has been off in the tundra, not pleasant for my companion, subjected to the vivid contrast between brown face and dazzling white belly. Another day, a 20 km trek across the tundra, hopping from hummock to hummock, probably the equivalent of 35-40 km on the flat, left our gunman, ostensibly there to protect us from grizzly bears, almost blacking out from exhaustion.
The food could have been better. Top marks considering everything is flown in or dragged across ice for about 400 km in winter, but I never want to see another perfect white, almost spherical egg, presumably from some extreme Gulag-like battery farm. Field lunches comprise optimistically named ‘cutlets’ (photo evidence attached) with cracked wheat or rice; cold spaghetti was a special treat. The chemical soft drinks, with flavours like ‘grape’ and ‘berry’, converted me to a water Nazi; now I only drink cold water. Back home I will install a jug in my fridge, so I always have it at hand.
Two things make Chukokta special. Firstly, the air. I have never breathed air, except perhaps in Greenland, that feels as fresh. The daily walk from camp to mine office, before 6 am, is delicious and far preferable to the over-heated, farty, 1 km-long Arctic Corridor, a series of shipping containers placed end-to-end and welded together. Mind you, in winter, with temperatures plunging to -40C, the outside route is not an option.
The second special thing is the people. After 5 years of summer visits, I am getting to know this bunch of characters. I appreciate their genuine warmth, despite our lack of a shared language. A few Russian phrases and sign language seem enough to establish good working relationships. I even managed to learn more Russian than normal, thrown in at the deep end with non-English-speaking colleagues on some days. It reminded me of the mid 1990s in Ecuador, travelling in a beat-up Isuzu Trooper, dictionary on dashboard, pointing at chickens and trying to pronounce ‘pollo’.
People who deserve a mention are smiley Stas, whose resemblance to Mads Mikkelsen is preternaturally disturbing (see photo attached). Student Nikita, with his Bradley Wiggins mutton chop sideburns. Canadian/Ukrainian Andrey, who is now on the post-marriage slide into porkiness. Igor, whose wild grey hair looks like it has never had a professional haircut.
Many of these people have drawn the short straw at some stage, and accompanied me in the field for a couple of days. For some it is a great experience, for others clearly a torture. But there is nothing quite like fieldwork for building friendships. That’s why it is difficult when I try to explain back home that my closest friends are in Canada, Peru, Colombia or Far East Russia.
The wildlife continues to fascinate. A fox appears, in the middle of nowhere. Completely fearless, he/she strolls up to within 5 metres and carefully removes the clingfilm and bread of a proffered sandwich. He delicately gulps the sausage and cheese, ignores the bread, and strolls off. Gophers pop up, stand balanced on their tails, and squeak stridently. Big-eared rodents peer from under rocks. Red weasels dart so quickly over the rocks that they leave only a blurred impression on the eye. Wolverines skulk.
The only thing missing to make the Russia experience complete is a winter visit. Come on guys, invite me please……..