“Ma-ma, mam, ma-ma…” My youngest daughter, furious at being put to bed for a rest, is practising sounds under the blanket. She can hear the older girls outside, whispering to each other in a carefree way, and is probably cursing grown-ups to herself for regularly and obstinately insisting, nay forcing, little ones to have a rest. They should try it themselves…. Oh, dearest child, if you only knew how wonderful that would be. At the dacha, in the fresh air, where the birds twitter happily and the wine is cool.
The average Russian’s love affair with the dacha goes through several stages during the course of his life. At the beginning you’re not asked if you want to go – you’re just tagged on to the group. At that stage you don’t have anything against it. Then you do, but the adults pay no attention to your despairing protests and drag you along. They’re convinced that without that gulp of fresh air you won’t survive. Or could it be that without your help they won’t manage to dig over those interminable flower and vegetable beds? Then, for some reason, you yourself start planning to go to the dacha at the weekend. The last stage is when in early spring you take all your worldly goods, up sticks and off to your country villa with its 500 sq.m. This is proof to the whole world that you have no need of the Canaries and there can be no better possible holiday that the endless ploughing-sowing-weeding of cucumbers-tomatoes-courgettes and peppers.
These assertions are based on scientific evidence. The Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion has published data proving that in 2010 20% of Russians plan to spend their holidays at the dacha. 55% are going to spend them at home. Only 1 in 20 people intend to go abroad, and 1 in 10 plans to go to the Black Sea. People are prepared to spend on average 16,000 roubles on their holiday. Not very realistic for the provinces, I can tell you.
The other day my colleague had a call from her sister in Petersburg. They haven’t met for a long time and are missing each other. The sister suggested they go on holiday together in Europe, as the Petersburg airline has a sale on so a return ticket only costs 200-300 USD. My colleague refused. Not because she doesn’t want to see her sister or has already criss-crossed Europe and seen everything. No. It’s just that for the provinces this kind of money is unrealistic. Regional carriers have no competition, so for us a one-way ticket to Petersburg costs minimum 200 USD.
The same colleague is now trying to arrange her summer break by the sea. On the internet she found an acceptable hotel in Anapa for 1,500 roubles (approx. 50 USD) a day, all mod cons, 100 m. from the sea. But the problem is getting there. Two days in a stuffy train compartment with a 2-year old would be hard work. The 90-minute flight from Orenburg to Anapa costs 7000 roubles (230 USD) with a discount for the child. So 25,000 roubles (821 USD) for the two of them – and that’s only the travel.
The travel agency is offering a holiday costing from 12,000 roubles (394 USD) (including the flight) on the same Black Sea, but in Turkey. People in the know maintain that this year Turkey will beat all the records for the number of tourists from Russia. We have no fear of terrorism, road accidents, pouring rain (this kind of trifle we don’t even notice). Crimea could compete by offering Black Sea holidays, but the service there is still Soviet – though the beauty of the landscape and Crimean wines might help one to overlook such nuances. But here too the outlay is pretty scary for an ordinary provincial would-be tourist.
However, we Orenburgers are lucky. We can be restored to health without even leaving the region. 75 km from Orenburg we have our own spa, Sol-Iletsk [sol is Russian for salt ed]. Well, calling it a spa is perhaps a bit over the top: it’s more like a hamlet or a small, extremely dusty and dirty little town. It’s on the border with Kazakhstan and its main selling point are the salt and mud lakes, rather like the Dead Sea in Israel. The best known is Razval Lake, 6.8 ha with a maximum depth of up to 22m and a steep cliff on one side, more than half made up of rock salt. The water in the lake is a powerful saline solution: the salt content is more than 200g per litre of water. Razval doesn’t freeze over, even in the hardest frosts, and from a depth of 2-3 metres down to the bottom the water temperature is below 0°. The region of the Iletsk saline dome has another 6 lakes (Dunino, Tuzuluchnoe, Novoe etc) which have reserves of therapeutic mud. In the summer months these lakes have countless hordes of a small reddish brine shrimps Artemia Salina.
The salt water and mud are very effective treatment for people with skin diseases and joint pain. But the service holidaymakers get in Sol-Iletsk leaves a lot to be desired. People are specially outraged by the fact that for the last 7 years they have had to pay up to 200 roubles (approx. 6.5 USD) per person for access to the lake, with only minimal services on offer. The toilets are terrible, there are queues for the showers, the beach is not very clean and there's a battle every morning for the deckchairs. The local authorities have leased out the whole territory for 30 years to private companies, who are pumping money out of people while they can. The population of Sol-Iletsk is slightly more than 20,000, but during the season there are up to 2.5 times that number of visitors. So you can do the sums.
This year the local procurator's office has suddenly spoken up, after a 7-year silence. First the law enforcers went to court over illegal charges for people wishing to bathe in these unique lakes. They «unexpectedly» remembered that under Russian law all lakes are classed as natural features under regional management, so they have to be accessible to everyone. The court verdict was that entry should be free. The companies complained. The matter has not been solved, but the spa season has already begun. For the moment the price is half what it was last year.
The procurator's office has suddenly woken up and handed down another decision: the spa is life-threatening for tourists. The problem is an enormous rock slip which has appeared extremely near Razval Lake. This was supposed to have been filled in at the beginning of the spring, but after the procurator's intervention it emerged that, in spite of instructions from the spa's director, the 10m-crater is still there. «Sinkholes are quite common», we are assured by those for whom the bathers (which is the name the locals give to the holidaymakers) represent purses for them to extract as much money as possible from during the season ……and everything else can go to hell.
The region has so far had its fair share of problems this season, because the current heatwave has been going on for more than month. Today the temperature is 36° and forecasters are saying that the day after tomorrow it'll be 42°. The sowing season is over, but in some parts of the region lack of rain meant they had to stop sowing spring crops. For our agricultural region, where 40% of the population live by farming, this situation is near fatal. One longs to shelter in the shade by an expanse of water, but each year there are fewer and fewer such places.
My husband is a passionate fisherman. He's not a poacher. At spawning time he fishes with only a hook. Yesterday he came back from his latest outing very depressed. There are gobies and minnows in the Ural River now, which means the water is cleaner. But it's a shame that only our cat would be satisfied with the size of the fish. Kuzya was purring happily and smiling, but might it not be that even this happy little animal will quite soon have nothing to catch?
The Ural River is 2428 km long (1164 km run through our Orenburg Region), which makes it the third longest European river after the Volga and the Danube. The volume of water in the Ural also puts it among the thirty biggest European rivers – but it's getting shallower. Quite recently this massive artery was almost without fish. At the end of the 1970s the Ural produced 33% of the world's sturgeon, and 40% of its black caviar. Over the last twenty years the fish population has shrunk by more than 30 times. Or so the biologists tell us. I'm nearly 40 and have never heard any tales about sturgeon: fishermen are delighted to talk about their catches, but I've only heard about a 2kg Caspian asp (Aspius rapax) and a catfish that was 2m long.
We are all to blame for this. We're interested in grabbing as much as we can and only the best bits. 15-20 years ago there were about 2000 small rivers and lakes along the length of the Ural River. During the spring floods the river used to overflow its banks and the lakes would fill up. Now they've dried up completely and even the Ural doesn't have much water. This is why there are fewer varieties of animals living here. Last weekend, though, we were 40 km from Orenburg and we saw eagles, herons, marmots, beavers, ground squirrels and apparently roedeer have been seen there too. But the little lake so beloved by our family, Zmeinoe [Snake Lake], is obviously just going to turn into a bog. It's only 50m from the Ural River, but no water has flowed into it for several years.
Tomorrow we are told it will be 42°. These kinds of temperatures scare me. Last week almost all the woodland around Orenburg went up in flames because of the heat and a strong wind. There was a strong smell of burning in the city. The next day one of my friends went past the site and said it looked as though it had been bombed. It started just because someone was driving past and threw a cigarette butt out of the window. Or someone thought it might be interesting to see if the poplar seed tufts would burn. Or someone decided to tidy up all the rubbish in the forest area in one go. So….not even grass grows there any more now.
But it's growing at my dacha – unfortunately! I pull it up all the time, but it's like Sivka-Burka [a Russian fairytale horse which springs up out of the earth ed], but it goes on coming up. You know what? I'll plant lots of it in front of the house, my husband will fill the pool under the apple tree with water and the girls and I will pick strawberries. It's not for nothing that our fellow citizens like holidays at the dacha. It's quiet and peaceful. There might even be nightingales singing……