Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Building up to the Summer

Rest assured that it's not all car smashes and rain in Siberia.

The organisation I'm here with, the Great Baikal Trail, is trying to build a network of trails around lake Baikal, and every summer camps of international volunteers set off into the wilds to extend the paths.

The aims are not only to make it easier for tourists and hikers to get around, but also to promote sustainable tourism for the benefit of local communities in areas which have great potential to attract tourists but currently suffer from high unemployment.

GBT is preparing for the work this summer, which involves going out on the trails with various experts and national park officials. Along the length of the trail problems are noted, such as bridges damaged by the harsh winter or trees which have fallen across the trail. At the end of the trail the next few summers' work is marked out with red ribbons.

I tagged along on an expedition to Tankhoi to check the trail in the Tankhoi nature reserve. Several hours from Irkutsk in an elektrichka we were trundling around the south of the Lake. After a few hours wait at Sludyanka, which gave us the chance to enjoy a bite to eat and admire the almost mirror-like stillness of the lake, we continued to Tankhoi.

Spending the night in the Tankhoi hostel, early the next morning our group set off. After several miles we came to the trail built by GBT. Wide, flat and clear of obstacles the trail clearly marked a route through what would otherwise be thick undergrowth. Generally following the path of the Osinovka, the trail followed a valley path offering fantastic views through breaks in the trees and the odd chance to rest by the river.

The height of the trail and the trees gave us some shade from the sun, and although ticks were present (remember to check every 40 mins), mosquitoes and other annoyances were minimal.

At the end of the trail half the group, armed with rolls of red ribbon, continued on through the undergrowth to plan the summers' work. Vova, Natasha, Stas, Max and Sveta were in constant discussion about the merits of building here or there, up or down, around or through. Learning interesting tidbits of path building info (when building switchbacks keep the eventual destination out of view to discourage people going directly down the mountainside) on the way, I followed the group through the forest.

After several hours of negotiating steep slopes, the group decided enough planning had been done and headed back down to rejoin the rest. From there a relaxing hike back followed, including crossing a fantastic rope bridge from a particuarly impressive rocky outcrop.

Tired but satisfied, a good meal of soup, salad and bread was enjoyed by all and complemented by a couple of bottles of spirits. A good end to a good day.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Driving Round The Bend

I am the first to loathe lazy 'national stereotyping', but I had an interesting experience which perhaps shed some light on the amount of religious iconography present in most public transport.

Going to meet a volunteer early one morning, I was enjoying a near-traffic-free taxi ride to the airport. The rising sun bathed buildings in a rosy light and traffic lights flashed orange to allow drivers the responsibility of crossing junctions. A collection of crosses swung from the rearview mirror as we sped over the rough roads.

At one crossroads two cars were locked together having found each other, glass scattered across the deserted street. Perhaps one of the drivers was drunk, we speculated as we edged past.

We accelerated away from the accident. As we went over the next crossroads I glanced at the speedo. It was touching 100km/h. I fixed my gaze ahead and decided to concentrate on the icons.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Bringing It All Back Home - An Ecotour of Angarsk

On Saturday June 12 a small group of ecological activists and journalists, led by ecologist and ornithologist Vova (right), got the chance to see the hard end of Russian and Soviet environmental attitudes during a tour of the Industrial Zone of Angarsk.

Getting off the elektrichka (suburban train) an hour outside of Irkutsk, a picture-postcard village of wooden houses and allotments was surrounded by long lines of tankers and wagons loaded with timber, chimney stacks silhouetted against the bright summer sky and palls of black smoke rising into the bright blue sky.

Walking out of the village and past squat Soviet blocks, we made our way to the landfill on the edge of town. Although officially not used for several years, several loads of new rubbish and fresh tyre tracks hinted otherwise.

Years of dumping meant the rubbish was several meters deep. Repeated fires had left everything that wouldn't burn covered in a layer of ash, leaving a landscape littered with bottles. Vova explained that although fires might go out on the surface, underneath the rubbish they can smoulder for months before reigniting, sending more smoke and toxins into the atmosphere.

Picking our way over the sometimes lunar landscape it was possible to look back over a small lake at the village we started our journey in, see birds wheeling in the air and people basking in the sun with fishing rods, and almost forget that you were standing on a rubbish dump.

After crossing the landfill, we made our way past gas-towers to the riverbank of the Angara for a lunch of bread, salad and meats. Crossing fields, the lush greenery of the Siberian summer continued to be juxtaposed with heavy industry on the horizon and more evidence of dumping on the side of the road.

Collapsed concrete buildings looked over mounds of waste, which included a bizzare mass of film spools, hardened in the sun. A few cars, and several small vans went past, with most drivers raising eyebrows at a group of hikers in such a place.

Pipes raised on concrete stilts began to flank the roads, getting denser as we approached silver and sparkling refinery buildings. Angarsk has long been a site of heavy industry and refining oil products. The first refinery was established here in the 1950's, and is one of the largest refineries in Russia.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ownership of the refinery has mirrored the changing relationship between politics and business. At one time owned by Mikhail Khordokovsky's Yukos, (now most famous now for being on the wrong end of Kremlin goodwill), it was later aquired by Rosneft whose chairman is a close ally of current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In contrast to the gleaming refinery buildings, shells of former factories stood empty and decaying, their walls greening with moss and windows a checkerboard of cracked and smashed panes.

Soon we were walking along the main roadway. A mass of raised pipes gleamed in the sunlight, affording some respite from the harsh sun. The smell of gas filled the air. Apart from empty minibuses and the occasional taxi, the well maintained road was empty save for our group. The only people who took and interest in us were the local police, who advised us to stop taking photos of 'strategically important' objects.

We continued on in the shade of the huge pipelines that ran alongside the road. Like a James Bond film everything was on a vast scale, the only colour being the green grass and the yellow signs warning pedestrians to not go any further. The quiet was broken only by occasional conversation and hissing from the pipes.

After what seemed like an age, we came to a tramstop. The babushki (grandmothers) waiting were pleasantly surprised to see a large group with some foreigners in tow. After using the opportunity to remember some English over the noise of nearby building work, they recounted how their used to be plenty of work in the area 'but now, it's all off limits and nothing happens anyway!'

Making our way back to the station and getting the elektrichka back, most of the group napped in the train, while others reflected on their experiences.

What did I think about it? Although I was pleased to have seen such unusual sights, it is not necessary to travel to Angarsk to appreciate the problems and contemplate solutions.

A trip into the English countryside without seeing evidence of fly-tipping is rare. A boat trip up the Thames estuary shows acres of landfill covered by seagulls, the combined result of mass consumption, packaging, but changing these requires huge shifts in popular attitudes and political will.

This is even more exacerbated for the refinery. The products from the refinery are exported to 14 countries. Products and fuels from Angarsk could be heating and moving England as you read this.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Progress Comes in a Thousand Tiny Steps - Port Baikal

As part of my placement, other volunteers and I have various 'training' obligations. Led by Natasha, Svetlana, Dmitry, Sara, Olga and myself headed to Port Baikal, at the mouth of the Angara river, the only outlet from lake Baikal.

A minibus ride from Irkutsk to Listvyanka allowed a short stop in the Tal'tsii Museum, with examples of Evenk (indigenous people) tents, food preparation and burial places, with more recent Russian forts and wooden houses, including a bizarre 'iron-mongers-house', complete with iron fish. Odd.

From the museum we headed onto Listvyanka, a busy tourist spot on the Northern side of the mouth of the Angara, with modern hotels, lots of people and the omni-present loudspeakers pumping pop music out onto the street.

From there a short trip on a ferry brought us to Port Baikal on the opposite side of the river mouth. With no major transport links, apart from a recently opened circa-Baikal railway line, the town has not had the influx of cash that has led to Listvyanka's development. Rusting ships lie on the shore, or are moored with seemingly no where to go.

Bashed up cars and motorcycles spewing out white smoke rattled past, picking up some passengers, the rest making their way on foot from the ferry to the town. Staying in a lovely but empty B&B, the owner assured us that in the summer business was booming. Workmen and the stacks of wood in the yard pointed to further development ready to go ahead.

Following the training, we went on a short walk up the train line along the edge of the lake. The calm beauty of the lake, with the mountains on the far side and a squall making its way over the water further south was in contrast to the litter and decaying infrastructure left on the shoreline. Years of uninvestment followed by a mini tourism boom means plastic bags and crisp packets wash up alongside the rotting gangways and rusting sheds.

The following day brought grey skies, rain and wind. Heading back, various items were used as improvised headgear against the rain and the wind. (From left - Sveta, Natasha, Dmitry, Olga)

In addition to the decaying infrastructure, what made the greatest impression was the kids. By day playing in a small playground, when we returned from our walk at night kids looking about 10 years old were hanging around smoking. People loitering and drinking were ever-present, the rain and wind on Sunday being no deterrent. 'What is there to do except drink?' is a frequent refrain. How to improve the situation? These are complex, difficult areas, requiring changes in Russian society and state that could take generations.

There is a lot of work to do here, but how to change it? The GBT run educational groups, trying to raise health and ecological awareness. On our walk a little girl ran up to one of our group, reminiscing about the workshop she had attended. A small success, but vital.

Geting There

Hello! Or in the lingo, Privyet!

I am a 20-something English guy on a 6 month placement with the Great Baikal Trail based around Irkutsk, Siberia. I lived in Moscow for two academic years some time ago and have longed to return to do something a bit different.

This blog will be random updates, musings, photo's and such like when I get the chance.

Seems sensible to start with getting here. Given that my stipend comes via eco-friendly streams, planes were a no-no, meaning a two-and-a-bit-knee-jolting day coach journey from London to Riga. The highlight was taking a boat from Dover to Dunkirk allowing me, in classic fashion, to wave goodbye to the White Cliffs, glowing red through the mist.

A day in Riga allowing an 'alternative' tour of the city preceeded an overnight train to Moscow with interesting companions. Taking an 'Obshche' wagon, it essentially meant sleep where you can, if you can, but the conversation and the excitement of crossing the border canclled out any discomfort.

A night with fantastic friends in Moscow, who not only helped me get the ticket to Irkutsk but fed, watered, and helped me out after HSBC froze my card, preceeded four nights on the train.

I won't bore you with the details of Russian trains, given the acres of coverage you can find elsewhere, suffice to say all the smells and sounds came flooding back - the swaying of the carriage, the endless tea drinking, the clunk-click of the wheels, the stuffy heat of the carriage.

As the train continued deeper in Siberia the smell of smoked fish, bought from platforms en-route became more common, along with the smell of 40+ people with no access to a shower. Conversations were stilted, as people ran out of topics. The 'provodnitsa', who looks after the carriage, kept an eye on events, scolding passengers who got out of line. Most memorably I had the pleasure of meeting Nikolai Nikolaevich (sitting on the left), a geophysist from Novosibirsk. As calm as it is possible for a man to be, he patiently went through various topics including his travels (extensive), his family (scattered) and the nature of the earth's magnetic field (complicated).

Several thousand miles and 8 timezones later I was glad to roll into Irkutsk at the un-Godly hour of 3.30am, to be met by a beaming Sveta from the Great Baikal Trail, who looked and smelt far fresher than me.