Reflections on a visit to Siberia, Summer 1998

by James R. Carter

In fall 1997 I was asked by a Russian colleague to help organize the Intercarto 4 Conference in Barnaul, Russia. I agreed and said that I would try to attend the conference in western Siberia, near the junction of Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. As the day approached, I had some trepidation about what I had committed to. Then in late June 1998 I found myself in Siberia viewing scenes that once again opened my eyes to the reality of our world.

I went to Siberia via the Czech Republic where I put on a seminar on "The Many Dimensions of Map Use" as Chair of the Map Use Commission of the International Cartographic Association. A colleague from Germany helped with the seminar and we traveled together to Siberia. In Moscow we were joined by a fellow geographer from The Netherlands. After sitting in the airport for hours, we boarded Aeroflot to Novosibirsk, a city of 2 million. There I was 12 hours out of phase with home.

Sign along a path in Novosibrsk warning about ticks.

The next morning at 4:30 AM we were waiting for luggage in what I would call an old warehouse. It was an auspicious beginning. I had not visited the toilet on the plane knowing that it would be more convenient to visit the restroom in the airport. Ha! It was hours before I had a chance to find relief in a field behind a gas station. I did not see a toilet until we got to the hotel six hours later. There is a lesson here.

We then piled eleven people into a van capable of seating eight and drove through rain as dawn was breaking. We drove over a long dam on the Ob River as we headed south. Soon I was seeing large fields with black soils, like we have in central Illinois. The crops were not as lush but I knew I was in the area of the Chernozem soils. In fact, we were at the eastern edge of the great agriculture belt of Russia. 

We also observed many abandoned mine sites and rows of hovels once used to house the workers. One colleague guessed these were once forced labor camps, like the ones to which his uncle was sent. This was one of many things we saw but did not get good explanations of. Geographers driving together through foreign lands ask many questions of each other and come up with half reasonable answers.

Finally, we arrived in Barnaul and went straight to the Institute of Water and Environmental Problems, the agency which served as the host of Intercarto 4. We persuaded them to let us get to the hotel where we crashed and cleaned up. A few hours later we were back at the Institute planning for the conference to open the next day. We met on the campus of Altai State University, which was next to the hotel.

The conference attendees were mostly Russians, the majority of whom were from Siberia. The Chinese delegation was not able to make it at the last minute, for a reason I did not understand. The session opened with welcoming remarks in Russian and English. We had sketchy translations of some of the papers. The second day I chaired the program with a Russian colleague, and I had to surmise the nature of the papers in Russian, without a translator. Of course, I do not speak Russian. My paper was one of two in the plenary session on the closing day. Like most conferences there were some good papers and some that could have been better.

Above is a group photo of most of us who made up the Program Planning Committee.  Here are colleagues from China, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Russia and two of us from the U.S.A.

Barnaul was not a name I knew. After all, there are only 600,000 people living there. Two weeks before I left, U.S. News had an article on the economy of Siberia, focusing on Barnaul. Suddenly, I was there. It consists mostly of older centrally planned buildings in rather poor condition, but there is the occasional new bank or apartment complex. There are still statues to Lenin and the ever-present WW II memorial with fresh flowers in front of it. Each city and town has such a memorial with fresh flowers. The photo below shows a memorial in a small town in the Altai Mountains.  Losing 20 million persons in the war effort is not easily forgotten.

I avoided the tap water and stuck to that from bottles. The food was different, but quite edible and sometimes quite delightful. I attended a Rotary Club meeting and found a most cheerful group. At the insistence of one of the members, the next day I visited the offices of the largest computer organization in Barnaul. I was impressed at how modern they are, although you will still see abacuses in use in some stores.

I tried to buy souvenirs, but they are not there yet. No sweatshirts of ASU. No airphoto books or even picture books of the city and the countryside. However, in my travel into the mountains I did find places to buy handicrafts and local food, as well as Pepsi.  Note the yoke on the horse in the background.

Most of the people in Barnaul were well dressed and clean, but they have little extra money and some implied they have not been paid for a while. A good indicator of economic conditions is that the public buses costing 1.5 rubles are crowded, although they are dirty and antiquated, while the private buses costing 2 rubles are not very filled. My translator implied she could not afford to ride the more expensive bus. The rate of exchange at that time was six rubles to the dollar.

After the conference six of us westerners took the four-day field trip into the Altai Mountains. This was the extra that attracted us to Siberia. We drove south into the headwaters of the Ob River. We wanted to get all the way to the Mongolian border, but the trip stopped a hundred miles short. The physical environment looked a lot like the mountains of Montana with open parks and forested mountain sides. There are glaciers but we did not get that far into the high country. Scattered throughout the mountains are villages with wooden houses bordered by gardens. 

Potatoes are a mainstay of the gardens, but many other plants were growing there. We were at about 52 of latitude. Cattle rambled through the villages, and I could find no brands or marks on any of them. There seemed to be about an equal mix of Russians and Altai people living in the villages.

I could not figure out how they get electricity. There are no big hydro facilities there that we could see, or no one could tell us about. I suspect they generate some of their electricity from petroleum which is brought in by trucks over less than great roads. The power poles were in two parts--concrete in the ground and wood above ground.  This is probably related to the depth of the frost in the ground in the harsh winters.

We could not figure out how they have a cash economy, but we saw little shops with Heinz catsup and major brands of cereal and cigarettes. Cars are few throughout Russia by American standards. A number of the cars are right-hand drive, because they buy used cars from Japan.

To catch my flight via Aeroflot from Novosibirsk to Moscow and then to Chicago, I had to spend three nights in Novosibirsk.  This city is on an extensive plain with no mountains in sight.  This photo to the east shows a distinct lack of physical relief.

In Novosibrsk I was hosted by Nick, a geology professor who directs a GIS lab at the Institute for Geology and Geophysics. Nick spoke very good English and served as a great host. I stayed in Akademgorodok, the ’Academic Town’ of Novosibrsk. In the late 1950’s, Krushchev set up the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in and around Novosibirsk. Today, more than 100 Institutes are located in Akademgorodok, a ‘premier city’ of 40,000 persons. People live in the ubiquitous tall apartments. The area is forested, and paths have been cut through the wooded areas to link housing and shopping and institutes.

And they walk and walk. I walked a couple of miles to hit the beach on that reservoir on the Ob River. It was crowded with residents soaking up the sun and playing in the comfortably warm water. One would have been hard pressed to distinguish the scenes from those in the U.S.

The Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Chicago was as good as any flight I have taken. Some Russians are learning the meaning of service. I asked one Russian stewardess if we were over Norway. She paused, looked out the window and stated "yes, I can see the words NORWAY right there." A delightful answer from a person who cares. She later confirmed that indeed we had just passed over Norway.

Most of the journey back was over clouds, but for about an hour I had a beautiful view of glaciers moving down into the ocean. I realized we were moving along the southeast coast of Greenland. We continued along this coast for hundreds of miles of cloud free viewing. What a wonderful way to conclude a geographic odyssey.

Earlier in the summer, in Barnaul, they celebrated the 150th anniversary of the visit of Alexander von Humboldt to Siberia. So, I was following in good footsteps by going to Siberia.

Intercarto 5 was held in Yakutsk, a city of 200,000 along the Lena River in 1999.  I was not able to go.  I wanted to see their Permafrost Museum.  Intercarto 6 took place in late August 2000 in Apitaty north of the Arctic Circle near Finland.  The next conference was held on the Kamchatka Peninsula, in far eastern Siberia.  This took place when I was on my way to Hong Kong.  I almost flew over the Peninsula but was not able to attend the conference.

Look for these conferences. You may see me at another one.

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