A big benefit of being able to return to the gym after my foot got better was once again spending time reading while working out. One book I’ve been enjoying is Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia.
In a chapter where he visits Siberia via a quick flight from Nome, Alaska, he joins a group of Americans who visit a fish camp and some of the desolate cities like Provideniya, which has been nearly abandoned in the years after the cold war and the USSR ended. There are ramshackle buildings that once held foxes raised for fur, there are empty schools and desolate buildings in the town that once had triple the 5400 souls still living there.
Frazier visits a men’s room in the Omsk airport and nearly faints from the stench and filth. There were no troughs and stools but no partitians, stalls or doors. Everything was done in full view. Later a woman he is traveling with emerges from the women’s room, reeling from her own particular horror show.
It’s clearly not a place for America tourists, who complain to Frazier about what their $3000 fee actually paid for: they’re staying in people’s apartments, the cruise turns out to be a short day trip in an old fishing boat, the food is minimal and the tents are leaky. “Bribes,” he explains. “Most of what you paid for is bribes for the authorities to let you visit.”
Everywhere they go they see inexplicable junk lying around the tundra: the handlebars and front fork of a bike, a pile of heating system radiators, aluminum containers that once held Russian army rations. The all-wheel vehicles they travel in leave tracks that take 25 years to go away.
In the birch trees of the tundra Frazier found one thing in abundance–bolete mushrooms in profusion, some of the biggest edible mushrooms he’d ever seen. Later he presents them to his Russian hosts and is met with a scoff: “Starii!” they told him, which means ‘old.’