|Siberian women in
In Siberia there is a saying: "100 kilometers
is not a distance, 40 below is not a frost, a half liter of vodka
is not a drink, and 40 years is not a woman." Going out of 1981
towards a new year, from daylight grey to blackness over the Urals,
renowned travel writer Percy Rowe recognized the truth of at least
the first part of the aphorism.
Text and photos by Percy Rowe
I spent the most remarkable, maybe the best, New Year's ever in
Siberia. It didn't start auspiciously. Although Moscow, on a three-day
stopover, was at its best, and the domestic airport from which we
set out for Irkutsk was a horror that could have been etched by
There were 25 of us, all Canadians, on what professed to be the
first package tour by North Americans to Siberia in winter. That's
why I was along, the only newsman, hoping to write about why people
would go deep into this glacial Communist world as much as for what
they might see.
Moscow, stodgy in other seasons, was a wintry aperitif. Each night,
thistledown snow robed the Kremlin. New Year's was coming. Store
windows had cutouts of Russia's symbolic, avuncular, milk-bearded
Father Time and his beautiful, blonde handmaiden. Army officers
in homeward subways, already bunchy, hugged small rolled conifers
to their chests. Some Muscovites smiled. The Bolshoi was performing
the Nutcracker. (But when I asked Vera, our Intourist escort, whether
I could buy tickets, she tersely said there were only five performances
and "they were for the children." I mentioned that in Toronto the
National Ballet performed it for two weeks. She thought that capitalistic
excess, and sniffed.)
The departure airport was afloat with melted snow, jammed with
families and troops trying to get home for the holiday. Some had
been there for hours. An old woman with a wide, filthy mop continuously
swerved around the check-in lineups. Immediately there was a tiny
dry oasis, a family would invade it, proprietarily spreading bags
from which they would disgorge heavy bread, odiferous sausage and
bottles of Kvass.
After an hour, we - the exulted - were whisked through long corridors,
back doors, out on a tarmac, to an Aeroflot Tupulov 154.
In Siberia there is a saying: "100 kilometers is not a distance,
40 below is not a frost, a half liter of vodka is not a drink, and
40 years is not a woman." Going out of 1981 towards a new year,
from daylight grey to blackness over the Urals, I recognized the
truth of at least the first part of the aphorism.
|All Siberia is
not dull. There are many older, painted homes.
It is a seven and half hour flight from Moscow to Irkutsk - and
that is only two-thirds across the girth of Siberia. And Aeroflot,
though the biggest airline in the world, is the most penal. No smoking,
no alcoholic drinks on domestic flights, no soap, usually no toilet
paper, sometimes no water, and, for some reason for which I got
no answer, on our flight hardly any heat. The Russians burrowed
deep in their furs. Cringing, I considered gulags.
On landing at Omsk, I rushed my wife to an airport bar for brandies
- for warmth rather than pleasure. Suddenly the bar was transformed.
Rare oranges had arrived from the Black Sea. Splintered hands savaged
the crates. Soon, strapping men, roues, drunks had juice-doused
It was New Year's Eve, 2.30 in the morning when we landed at Irkutsk,
the trip's nadir. We were put in a beige holding room, rank with
urine. It had no windows. The only reading was a translation of
Brezhnev's last speech to the Praesidium. The temperature outside
was 34 below. Nobody seemed to know what to do with us.
Then all changed. In an hour we were in a modern downtown Intourist
hotel. It was warm. The women on each hotel floor, who serve guests
tea and mail, were not old and snoopy as in Kiev, Leningrad, Sochi.
They were pretty, bilingual, helpful - and young. The radio in our
room wasn't. An earthing wire, patched many times, led to a steaming
rad. Nevertheless, it became a genie. I turned a knob. Out came
At eight I was dragging my wife outside. I was a newspaperman,
wasn't I? I had to get pictures. The light was grunge. Across the
road, a park edged the Angara River. Two women, muffled like logs,
brushed snow from its paths. Bundles of bound twigs lay in one corner,
replacements to be tied to their broomsticks.
We made a city tour. At a war memorial, guards changed every 20
minutes, so scabrous was the cold. Outside the permanent circus
building, I was shooed away by mothers and teachers when I tried
to take photos of crocodiles of zesty kids. In a quarter of 18th
century log-built homes, an ancient woman slithered over ice with
her bucket of water, gained from a street tap. Beside blue and white
onion-dome churches there were graves of exiled Polish nobles. Their
fine villas faced the river.
All were so tired by 4 p.m., everybody went to bed, to sleep for
six hours. That, I believe, is what made the party a blast. We came,
refreshed, at 10, to the hotel's giant dining room. We were at two
long tables. Some Italians had another table, French another. Siberians
had three. Five glasses were placemat sentries, for vodka, wine,
champagne, cognac and water. A good band was playing western music
for dancing. The first of many courses arrived.
Great Patriotic War Tomb in Irkutsk.
But something was wrong. Ray and Eda, the Ukrainian-born promoters
of this trip, were not there. It was a repetition of our Moscow
arrival. Then, we had to wait an hour for them to get through Customs.
They had never said why. But now came, possibly, the explanation.
For here they were with boxes, from which they were passing out
Christmas crackers and sparklers. Perhaps Customs had considered
Certainly they were ice-breakers. At the first cracker pop, the
band stopped, Russians swarmed to our tables. By eleven they were
toasting the Kanadikis. At midnight we were leading them - the Italians
and French too - in a conga line, sparklers aloft, a curving tiara.
A middle-aged man, dressed formally, asked my wife, mainly by sign
language, to dance. She learned he was a Buriyat. In central Siberia,
around Lake Baikal, Buriyats are an indigenous people, traditionally
hunters of sables, so expert they shoot them through the eye so
that the fur is undamaged. But this one, Muriel gathered after a
second dance, was an engineer. By the third she was becoming so
used to his mangled English that she learned he knew of three Canadians:
Pee-Air Troo-doh; Ispee-zito (the hockey player,) and Fah-le Mow-at
(who had been in Siberia to write a book.)
I knew not one Siberian, yet gained a minor victory too. For reciting,
as a somewhat vodka-hazed gesture of international amity, the words
of John Denver's ballad, Annie's Song, I collected a kitschy wooden
The following afternoon, I came upon Michelle, 18,our youngest
traveler. I reported we left the party at 4.30; how about her? With
her response, I said what attention she would get at her first high
school recess, when some would boast of being hotdog skiing at Collingwood,
one or two of going to Florida over the holidays, and she would
trump them all with: " Well, I was still in a disco in Siberia at
7.30 on New Year's morning"
She went back to bed, Muriel went to a children's party, I walked
crisply (one never saunters in Siberia in January) to a park, and
watched eight-year-olds speeding down a luge run.
|A Dr. Zhivago-like
sleigh ride thru the forest.
The other great remembrance was of Dr. Zhivago-like troika rides
through birch forests, the horses' breath like malted milk, and
intermittent warming at huge bonfires, with blintzes and liquor
served by pretty girls in traditional dress covered by the priceless
But, usually, it was a visit to a lumber mill, a creche or the
office of some Soviet poo-bah, Vera prodding us along with " Look
There were human exchanges: A stop sign at the exit from a limnolgical
museum, given by visiting Canadian scientists to the researchers
there into the unique habitat of nearby mile-deep Lake Baikal. And
at Bratsk, a new industrial city, where, we were told: the first
hundreds of young power dam builders learned of a textile town near
Moscow inhabited almost entirely of marriageable women, wrote to
its mayor for help, and ended up with a trainload of spinsters.
But then it was off to the next shirt factory.
Percy Rowe, a newspaperman for 50 years, served as reporter, foreign
editor, news editor, assistant managing editor of metropolitan newspapers
before becoming travel editor of the Toronto Telegram, then the
Toronto Sun. He has traveled in 150 countries, every U.S. state
and, of course, all Canadian provinces. He has had five non-fiction
books published, two of them travel books. Percy Rowe resides in