At the airport we were met by the broad and rosy Rosa, a Yakutian and the sister of Kolya, the former mayor of the village, Nelemnoye, our final destination. We were taken from the airport to a house ‘to rest after the road’. This was literal. The generously sized Rosa was keen on resting - ideally taking the form of sleep - this was an important activity to be indulged in at any possibility. She was lazy, with a sly look in her eye, and had the entitled air of the sister of a former mayor of a Siberian village.
After a liberal snack of tea and homemade doughy pastries, I was shown to an empty upstairs room and one of the beds lining the walls. These homes were large, spacious, communal - there was enough room after all - but it was a matter of balancing size with the importance of keeping the cold out. And there was a dank smell in the house despite the fact it was summer: in the winter the windows are closed and muffled against draughts at all times - in the summer only one or two will be open, and covered with gauze netting to keep out the clouds of mosquitoes. I had never seen anything like these bare rooms - I was used to ‘interiors’ that had been styled and decorated. My mother was a journalist and wrote about interiors for magazines. My parents’ bedroom had recently been redecorated in yellows for a photo shoot. My mother had coined the phrase ‘shabby chic’ but this didn’t fit into that reference framework. These were simply rooms, whose size were dictated by the size of the kitchen where the stove was, from which everything emanated. There were few walls - personal privacy was not part of life here - people ate together, washed together in the bathhouse, slept in one room, sometimes one bed.
What shaky sense of time had returned to me post jet lag, fell away once more for we had entered the land of eternal sun and the light barely shifted until late at night. I have no idea how long I ‘rested’ on that bed. For all I know I’m still lying on it, a purgatory. The entire materik, is a purgatory, teeming with its own characters, rules and narratives.
The house was next to the infamous Kolyma River itself, home of the Gulag. After an indefinite amount of time had past, we descended with our bulky bulging knapsacks to a tiny tinny open motor boat, that was being tethered to the shore by a twitchy swarthy-faced little man with a crooked nose and shifty eyes. This was Kolya.
Rain was melting from the grey sky: Rosa produced a roll of laminated wallpaper that she tore off and handed to me to cover my knees, (X, as a man, was not given any). Our bulky knapsacks pooled in water at our feet.
Rosa whispered into my ear as we set off up the river ‘Kolya’s in trouble in the village. He sold his car to two different people today and they both are furious.’ I look up in amazement at the wiry man at the rudder - he was ducking and swaying to see over our heads and around the next corner and gave the impression that he wasn’t too clever with the motor. Soon we were lurching against a shore and Kolya was clambering up in order to deposit a cannister behind a tree. Benzin. This and dvigateli (motors for the boats) were in severe shortage that summer. Benzin was rationed - you could not be found with more than a certain amount, so Kolya stashed it up and down the river, leaving marks on trees to indicate where it was hidden. This was my first introduction to the language of the taiga - runes hiding corrupted petrol for knackered old motors.
The landscape unfolded around us. Within minutes of setting off we were alone in wild, unpopulated territory. We met no other boat for the duration of the journey. The shores were steep and covered in scrub and birch forest - the river twisted and turned, tho the water was deep and calm, ruffled only by the rain. My thoughts were focused on what was ahead, my ears full of the sputtering of the motor, my eyes straining ahead, the water seeping through the scraps of wallpaper that were disintegrating over my knees.
After some two hours we turned a corner and saw a few boats lying on a small sandy patch and a group of people huddled on the beach, holding up coats against the rain - a welcoming party. We beached. The rain was heavier now. Leaving the bags to the men, and shouting hellos in Yakutian to the gathered party, Rosa pulled me up the slope and ushered me into the first dwelling we came upon - a small wooden hut. It was dark inside. As my eyes grew accustomed I saw that the hut was full of women - about 5 of them, lying over two beds. A television was on. They looked up at me - I was soaking wet and shivering with cold.
‘Snimite vsyo’ - ‘Take it all off’ - said Rosa. It seemed impolite to refuse and within seconds I was naked before the ladies and being ushered towards a bucket behind a curtain. I crouched over it and peed, trying to divest myself of embarrassment as well as my clothes. My pee made a tinny sound - the first sound they heard out of me even before I said hello. Roza handed me a pair of shiny nylon tracksuit bottoms and a baggy t-shirt and scratchy sweater which I pulled over my still wet, still cold body. Enclosed in these dry clothes I was invited to sit at a small table for tea, bread and moose meat.