What do you think of when I ask you about Siberia?
There’s a book I’ve kind of been interested in reading recently. It’s some bizarro thing set in Siberia and if you read the reviews a lot of them start something like this; ‘In the frozen hell that is Siberia…‘ or ‘Set against the background of the Siberian hellscape…’. I’m sure you’ve come across similar things when and if you’ve ever heard anything mentioned about Siberia. I remember showing my girlfriend an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D where they were looking for some sort of secret based hidden in the region (‘if you want to build remote, build Siberia’) and the team was shown struggling through the howling snow to infiltrate the base buried in the permafrost. I guess this view comes from the image of Siberia as it was rather than as it is now. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov’s newfound love Sofya shows her dedication and selflessness by exclaiming ‘I will follow you, I will follow you everywhere. Oh, my God! Oh, how miserable I am! […] I’ll follow you to Siberia!’ The most positive thing Chechov could bring himself to say about it was that ‘even in Siberia there is happiness.’
I’ve known for the past few years that, at some point, I’d be heading to Krasnoyasrk (Красноярск) the third largest city in Siberia. I’ve known this since I started seeing my girlfriend who just so happens to be from there. When I recently asked her if I should buy a new coat before going she answered with a curt ‘of course not’ in a tone that both amuses and terrifies at once. This confused me slightly, as I don’t own a coat at all. How was I to survive the frozen hell without one?
So, imagine my surprise when we land in the tiny Krasnoyarsk airport and continue to drive through the flat, green countryside which, believe it or not, reminded me of home. What surprised me more though were the next few days in which we were greeted by bright blue skies, temperatures up to 30 degrees and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in a while.
My journey began in outskirts of the city itself. At first glance this area was almost the way I expected. Slightly rough around the edges. All cracked concrete and battered cars. Being a somewhat slight Englishman I couldn’t help feel intimidated at first, however once we moved towards the city centre this roughness began to seem almost charming. Lovely wooden buildings which range from quaint to impressive line the streets and wherever you go you can find wonderful bronze statues, all representing artists or individuals of particular importance to the city. There’s a sense of rugged pride to be found here.
I remember that during my trip to Moscow several years ago the thing I was the most impressed with were the sculptures and the same can be said for Krasnoyarsk, although the wooden houses are a close second here. In particular there is one sculpture that really set my imagination on fire. Called the ‘Rivers of Siberia’ it portrays the main river, Enisei (Енисей), which flows through the city. Enisei is portrayed as a huge, muscular man behind whom is Angara (Ангара), another (female) river. In legend there is a tragic love story between Enisei and Angara. On both sides of the sculpture stand six more rivers, each portrayed as gorgeous, ethereal Siberian women, which flow into Enisei. It’s a wonderful piece that, even though the water feature wasn’t working, set my mind racing. What’s better is that you can turn around and see Enisei right there in front of you, in all his glory. And he is glorious. A massive body of water which flows right through the city, big enough to house a few small islands, one of which has become a popular meeting place for families and young people. Here, at this time of year, people meet to skate, bike and walk among the comically tame wild gophers. It’s not technically a huge city park, but that is what it felt like.
In one place on the island there is a grand tree with an overhanging branch. Hanging from the branch is a sign that reads Лукоморье (Lukomorye: Blue Bay). It refers to the name of a fictional land in Russian folklore which Pushkin used in one of his fairytales. This tree is referencing a particular passage from his poem Ruslan and Ludmila.
There’s a green oak-tree by the shores
Of the blue bay; on a gold chain,
The cat, learned in the fable stories,
Walks round the tree in ceaseless strain:
Moves to the right – a song it groans,
Moves to the left – it tells a tale.
I was also taken to visit my girlfriend’s family Dacha (дача).
A Dacha is basically a plot of land on which the family grows vegetables. There are also houses on the Dachas, some of which are like modern homes and others glorified sheds. On my girlfriend’s land there is a small wooden shack hand built by her great grand father during the Soviet era.
So that’s the city, now into the hellscape. Krasnoyarsk is one of those cities where an hour bus ride can take you right out into the surrounding nature. During our trip we went to visit a nature park which is home to Stolby (Столбы), large rock pillars that range from being big to absolutely huge. To put into perspective; we climbed up one of the more or less averagely sized ones to eat lunch and found ourselves looking down at the tops of the forest trees. They’re quite magnificent and the fact you can climb them without anyone shouting rules at you feels like a real adventure. Whilst up there, it felt as though we were on top of the world. Siberian forests seem to stretch on for eternity and standing on that rock, looking into the green-clad distance it’s impossible to grasp the scale of the place, especially for a Brit, whose entire county would fit into Siberia multiple times. We spent hours walking through the forest, carefree despite roadside signs informing us (only in Russian of course) what to do if we come across a bear. Fortunately, but also somehow disappointingly, we didn’t see any bears but there are also chipmunks who, like the gophers, are surprisingly tame, so that sort of makes up for it.
But Krasnoyarsk doesn’t only have trees, it also has water, and a lot of it. If you follow Enisei you’ll travel through the countryside and to a huge dam and hydroelectric station which apparently, a local told me, would drown the entire region in 15 minutes were it to stop functioning. Luckily it does function and by doing so it stops the river from freezing during winter and results in some bitterly cold, refreshingly clean tap water. On the other side of the dam is what I heard referred to as the ‘Krasnoyarsk sea’. A huge artificial lake (one of the largest in the world) surrounded by hills and mountains. Needless to say it more than earns its name.
I just spent a week in Krasnoyarsk and I could continue writing for hours. It’s a city that seems to keep on giving. There is beautiful and interesting architecture, a deep sense of history, mountains, lakes, trees, gophers and chipmunks. At once it’s industrial and rural, rough and elegant, harsh and welcoming. Throughout my entire time there I kept thinking it was like a fairy tale. Not that the city itself is particularly fairy tale like, but that there are so many elements to it that could be; the old wooden houses felt as if they had history laced into the grain; the Stolby looked like giant hands reaching up from the mountain when viewed from the city; the Rivers of Siberia and all the other brass sculptures dotted around the place seemed to have secret lives of their own.
It’s a place that has left me wanting more which is fortunate because at some point we will be venturing back so that I can experience the Siberian winter, which some of the locals claim is not actually that cold… Honestly, I’m not sure my delicate English body will agree.
One thing is for sure, I found it to be a tremendously inspiring city. After spending a year in Beijing which I have not, despite its many other merits, found an inspirational place I am returning from Krasnoyarsk, my mind racing and an outline forming for a new novel.