Saturday, October 1, 2016

To the Arctic Circle

Day 2: 2016-09-13

We were awakened at 6 AM by an announcement that there were humpback whales all around the ship. We quickly dressed and went out. It was a lovely morning with the mainland in the distance with pinkish gray hills; in appearance they looked like they were sand dunes made out of stone. The light on them was wonderful. And all around were whale spouts. The occasional whale would come up and then breach (with the tail up); but Vic found it very hard to photograph them. You could see the mist of the spouts all around but it was hard to catch the whales coming up. It was a nice morning to be out the air was cold and fresh.

We went back to our room, showered, and got dressed in preparation for a day ashore in Egvekinot, on Kresta Bay, after lunch. It was built by gulag prisoners as a port to supply a tin mine; the prisoners also constructed the road which reaches 200 km inland. There is now being built a new road to Pevek, a gold mine.  

The first activity in the afternoon was being driven to the Arctic Circle marker and walking on the tundra for about an hour. Walking off the ship, the cranes in this port were old Eastern Germany made contraptions that emitted the aura of the Soviet period; old rusted cranes, now in the active process of being painted. Walking to the gate of the port, we arrived at a truck-bus called a Ural (six wheel drive) which can go anywhere; probably necessary in the brutal winters here. We drove through the city and another town which were a depressing combination of old Soviet ruins and new rapidly built homes and apartments, that were the result of the five year governorship from 2000-2005 of Roman Abramovich, an oligarch who was thrown out and lives in London now. The mountains around are spectacular with craggy eroded tops and interestingly skree eroded faces. When we arrived at the Arctic Circle monument, we hiked on the road through the tundra with beautiful fall colors and a few shacks built by the prisoner road workers in the 1940s. The tundra foliage was a beautiful mix of yellow willow, green lichen, some small succulents, red ground plant foliage, and bright red shiny crowberries, all mushy under foot. The weather was cold and mostly clear, but slightly ahead of us were low-lying clouds / fog and a rainbow. The moisture blew on us due to the cold north wind and felt like cold rain.

We drove back to the town and went to the startlingly interesting museum. It was a very well conceived museum, covering the gulag, the lendlease program, and natural history / ethnography, and we had an excellent museum guide, probably the curator. She spoke in Russian, but it turned out her English was very good. She related the gulag story in a frank and objective manner which was surprising to us. Even more surprising was the exhibit and her description of the previously secret transfer of 8000 American aircraft to the Russians during World War II. Russian pilots who came to the US to take the planes (Stalin would not allow American pilots into Russia) flew them to stopover points to the western front; however, the area was not well mapped and many perished in air crashes into mountains that were not well documented. These planes certainly made a difference in the Russian defeat of the Nazis. In the third part of the museum, were geological and taxidermy samples of animals, but more interesting were the Chotki and Eskimo artifacts such as clothing (a waterproof suit made from walrus intestines) and wood and scrimshaw carvings.  

We then walked through Egvekinot, a mix of modern prefab buildings, old ruins and decrepit buildings, a modern gleaming Orthodox church with a shiny gold dome, junkyards of rusted old tanks, snow vehicles, trucks, and buses, wooden fishing shacks, all surrounded by beautiful mountains and sea. We went inside the church to find out that it was started in 2010, and only now consecrated but not quite finished; everything was shiny and new even the iconostasis . We walked to a monument to the gulag road workers, and then proceeded back to the ship for dinner.

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