Vlad, the Siberian dog who thought he protected us from brigands

This week, WordPress challenges us to tell a story with photos.

In October 2010, I visited Baikal Lake for the first time, and was overwhelmed by its beauty. Settled on Olkhon Island, we rented bicycles to go around and explore.

Just as we left the little village of Khuzhir, we noticed that a dog was following us.

I am always very uneasy with dogs; they terrify me. But it didn’t take long before I realised our dog wasn’t trying to attack me, but rather to protect us.

At the beginning on the road, whenever the occasional car was passing us, the dog was barking at it until it disappeared out of sight, as if it was a real danger for us.

When we left the road, the dog was frolicking in the nature around us. Every time we stopped, it also stopped and was sitting or lying quietly.

We decided to give it a name, and it became Vlad.

I liked to imagine what was going on in this little head; and whether Vlad was picturing he was our protector, keeping us safe from harm and brigands on our long Central Asian voyage.

After a few hours of a wonderful ramble in the Siberian landscapes, we finally got back to the village. I was wondering what would happen with Vlad. Would it beg for food as a tip?


But Vlad was just our friendly companion for the day. As soon as we reached the village, he left us and took another direction, without saying goodbye

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Travel theme: the beauty of the Siberian taiga forests in winter

This week, Ailsa‘s photo challenge theme is Forest.

The bright white colour of the immaculate snow. The delicate patchwork of the birch trees. The light shadows of the winter’s low-angled sun.

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Photo taken in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, in the Russian Far-East (February 2013)

That’s the beauty of the Siberian taiga!

 

Propaganda at its best (9): The posters that remind you who you voted for

Spotted in the streets of Yakutsk in July 2016: posters that remind voters who their member of parliament is, and how much they like him!

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The poster simply says “Our deputy Tumusov” and a Facebook like icon. It is interesting that the photo in the poster’s background is not that of the Parliament, but of the Kremlin. Tumusov is an ambitious man!

Fedot Tumusov’s highly democratic methods work really well by the way, as Fedot’s Facebook page has 909 followers, and on Vkontakte (the Russian social medium) he has exactly 5.

Go Fedot!

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Propaganda at its best (8): The monument celebrating love between the natives and the settlers

In Yakutsk, the largest city built on permafrost, the Abakayade Memorial celebrates the union between the Russians and the natives.

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It represents Semyon Deshnev, great Russian traveller of the 17th century, with his Yakut wife Abakayade and their child, the first child born from the union between the settler and the native.

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The monument was created by Maxim Pavlov, a Russian sculptor awarded the title “People’s Artist of Yakutia” by a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Yakutia in 1990.

It was erected in 2005 and can be found at the intersection of Kirova and Poyarkova streets.

Propaganda at its best (7): The diamond named after the 26th Congress of the Communist Party

In the little diamond mining town of Mirny, somewhere in the East of Siberia, it is customary to give a name to diamonds above a certain number of carats.

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Usually, they’re named “Veronika”, “Pushkin”, or after their discoverer’s name. But this one, a 342.5 carat diamond found in 1980, was named “26th Congress of the Communist Party”, Brejnev’s last congress.

There is no overzealous apparatchik in Soviet Russia!

Travel theme: Sitting on frozen waves

This week, Ailsa‘s photo challenge theme is Waves.

One of the things I like most in cold-countries winter is the frozen water. Frozen lakes, frozen rivers, frozen seas – it’s fascinating.

Some are still, and their icy surface is smooth. And some are wild – then the waves first forms giant icicles before it gets totally frozen.

Look at me, so happy sitting on the frozen Amur river in Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East! (February 2013)

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Travel by train in Russia, level 2: the BAM line

Have you enjoyed travelling on the Transsiberian railway?

Why don’t you consider a follow-up adventure: Transsiberian level 2, a journey on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway.

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Official map from the RZD (Russia’s railway company)’s website. The BAM is the orange line, in the Russian Far-East and more Northern than the Transsiberian here in green.

The BAM line was built under Stalin as a strategic alternative to the Transsiberian Railway, that was considered too dangerously close to the Chinese border.

Whilst travelling by train in Russia requires some degree of familiarity with the codes and rules, I found the experience on the BAM – which I moreover did in the middle of winter just to make the task even more challenging – considerably more special, and here is why:

1. It is one of the craziest civil engineering works and was built by gulag prisoners

Nature is beautiful in the Russian Far-East, but it doesn’t make communication and construction easy. The BAM railway is over 4,000 km long with 21 tunnels and 4,200 bridges, a large part of which built over permafrost.

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Mountains and extreme weather conditions: the Russian Far-East is beautiful but not the ideal environment to build a giant railway line!

Of course, this was all possible only because of forced labour from the gulag prisoners, who did all the work for free during interminable decades – the Bamlag division of the Gulag administration peaked at 201,000 prisoners in 1938 who were working on the railway.

2. An embarrassingly empty train

Don’t get me wrong: less people on the dorm carriage is good news on a long journey. More quiet, less snoring at night, just you in your bubble. But that much less people can be embarrassing, too. At some point, we were just a couple of passengers, highlighting the relative uselessness of this notwithstanding deadly construction.

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Somewhere between Komsomolsk and Tynda. On this 20 hour-long journey, we were only a handful of passengers on board, you can see the empty couches.

3. Even more extreme temperatures contrast

Did you read the joke about the temperature in Russian trains? It is a fact that in my experience, it is always so hot on Russian trains and the BAM was no exception. What was exceptional though, was the incredible contrast with the outside temperature: can you imagine how you feel when you step out of the train and the temperature is more than fifty Celsius degrees lower?!

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Inside the train: 24 degrees Celsius. Cosy!
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Outside the train, here the more extreme I experienced in Tynda: minus 38 degrees Celsius. 24 inside, minus 38 outside? That’s 62 degrees less! Insane.

4. Extreme confusion with the time zones

One day in a small town deep in Siberia, the train stopped and the provodnista told me to go for a walk as the train was going to pause here for a few hours. She stressed I should be back by 1:30 pm.

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On the 4,300 km long BAM railway, many stations have platforms named by their direction: East or West, rather than a number.

The problem: what means 1.30 pm when you are completely lost in the time zones? In Russia, train tickets are edited in Moscow times and so 1.30 pm was Moscow time. When I got on the train the previous evening, I was in a Moscow +6 time zone; when we reached that town it was already the next day and I wasn’t sure in which time zone we were!

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Russian time zones span from UTC +3 to +12, but all train times are expressed in Moscow time, which sounds a bit irrelevant when you are so far away and can be pretty confusion when you don’t really know in which time zone you are.

When I came back to the station, and did not find my train on the platform, my blood boiled. Did I get back at the wrong time? Far from the large railway stations of the Transsiberian route, it wasn’t easy to get the right information with certainty. Luckily, I was too early rather than too late, and the train was yet to return from a technical check!

5. Being a hero to the locals

What betrays I am a foreigner is not so much my appearance but rather my backpack! As a foreigner, on the Transsiberian you are rather a curiosity. On the BAM, as a foreigner you are a hero. Several people called me that word, which I found very amusing.

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Everyone’s reaction to my travel plan amused me and inspired me this little montage in the same fashion as was very popular on social media at the time.

That morning when I arrived in Severobaikalsk, the lady running a tiny guesthouse got so excited about my presence that she called all her friends to tell them she had a “touristka“: I was the first since the past 6 weeks. That sort of hero!