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On the river: a Russian holiday diary

Holidays by the sea in Turkey or Egypt are beginning to lose their appeal to ordinary Russians, and they’re no longer that cheap either. This summer, Elena Strelnikova joined many of her compatriots in looking nearer to home for rest and relaxation.

‘I should’ve brought my laptop,’ I say to my husband as we board the train to Nizhny Tagil. He asked me why (men don’t always understand female logic straightaway). I could have been working on an article, I explained. ‘Well, you’d have worked for 2 hours and then we’d have had to lug the laptop with us, worrying that something might happen to it!’

Lugging. This is an essential part of a holidaymaker’s vocabulary. First you schlepp a long way, be it by train, bus or by water, then there you have to lug your backpack (which gets strangely heavier by the day, even though it should be getting lighter as you eat your way through the provisions). 

We once did an expedition in the Altai and the Sayan mountains, where we walked about 60km uphill to the pass, before travelling a further 100km by water.  The men in the party had to lug backpacks weighing 30kg; we lugged 20kg. So you can imagine our surprise when, at the end of the walk, some tinfoil, wrapped in clean socks, fell out of one of our friend's backpack.  What did he need it for? For baking fish, apparently. Not that we caught much at all in those two weeks... 

I agonise over every gramme I pack, but one thing I do always include is a pad and a pen.  Essential items for the holiday chronicler. 

Take your litter with you! 

Our destination is the Chusovaya river, which is where we are to board a catamaran.  The first moments are the most interesting because everything is new and interesting, though sometimes shocking too.  We embark at Ust-Utka, a small village which we had approached on a surprisingly good asphalt road (thanks, apparently, to a local oligarch). All the houses that matter to us have green fences in front of them: this is where the old ladies live who will always sell us tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and milk with smetana.  There's a modern well (press the button and hold it for 20 seconds to get delicious well water); there are crowds of children running around, but the school is about to be closed because it has only 17 pupils.

A stone outside the Sergei Yesenin museum in Ust-Utka, complete with an engraving of the poet's work: 'Oh, accordion, poision death / know thenceforth for while you play / not one single daring conquest / has, in vain, disappeared away'

At the end of the village there are two surprises that await tourists.  The first is not indicated in any of the guidebooks, but is especially significant for the holidaymaker.  It's a cri de coeur from the villagers of Ust-Utka (and perhaps everyone living near water):  on the fence, painted in big letters, is written:  'Don't leave your litter – take it with you!' 

The second surprise was nicer: a Yesenin museum set up by a local craftsman, Timofey Kozhevnikov. He has carved excerpts from the works of the great poet on stones, some of them poems about village life in far-away parts of Russia.  There are about 10 or 15 stones and Timofey has clearly worked hard: they are dated 2003, 2004 and 2008, so he spent several years carving away just so that we holidaymakers could stop, read, quote the poet and recognise the work he, Timofey, had put into his work.

Independent tourism in the Urals

The smell of fir trees is wonderful and we inhale it as we sail through the frequent wide stretches of the Chusovaya river. We row slowly and fall into a reverie. 

Holidays involving tents, campfires and backpacks are become more and more popular in Russia these days.  Lyudmila, with us in the boat, told us that at one point things had gone a bit quiet, but 'during the last 2 years we've seen more people who want to sail or canoe, even along our steppe rivers, such as the Ural and the Sakmara. People have had enough of  the sea in Turkey and Egypt, and European holidays are expensive.  My niece has plenty of money: she goes to ski resorts, but when I asked her what ski-ing was like, she said she herself had never skied.  She only goes to these places because it was the thing to do!  But tastes are changing and people want some variety.'

We like so-called 'extreme tourism' and always have.  It's a pity that there aren't more rivers in Orenburg, so we have to go further afield.  The Chusovaya is in the northern Urals and is both easy to navigate and beautiful to look at. Some people think it very odd that we are content to manage without home comforts for a week or two, but we love it.

Travelling with us are Anya and her husband Rustam. He's the helmsman and Anya reads to us from the guidebook about local points of interest. 'There's a church up there in the forest,' says Anya. 'You can't see it from the water, but shall we go and have a look?'  We didn't actually find the church, but we found a village called Khoryonki, where the quay was paved and there was a notice saying 'No mooring!'  This obviously doesn't apply to everyone, because it's a kind of estate, cottages for the Sverdlovsk elite including, apparently, the former regional governor,  Eduard Rossel. 

On the island opposite the quay stands a monument to the well-known industrialist Afanasy Demidov (though for some reason it actually looks more like Rossel)  with the inscription 'From your grateful heirs.'  That would the local fat cats and the officials, we are told by Valentina, one of the group.  'Here,' she points to the cottages, 'everything is clean and orderly.  Who wouldn't want to spend his retirement by a beautiful river with a view of his own monument?  But over there, ' pointing to the area outside the cottages, which is under the care of the aforementioned officials, 'everything's a mess.'  There's a footbridge to the monument, but it's closed. You wouldn't want the voters coming anywhere near.  The less fancy houses belong to the deputies – no one from Khoryonki could afford a house here. We conclude that the idea of patronage has disappeared in Russia, so the rich don't know what to do with their money.

To be on holiday is to relax. You're far from home, without any responsibilities, though you do have to remember to pay attention when you're in a boat. But this doesn't interfere with one's thought processes.  There's much laughter and story-telling.  We see herons and sometimes eagles, soaring majestically above us and looking down on us holidaymakers below. 

Rules of the water

We sail on down the river, looking for somewhere to stop, but we can't find anywhere because here holidaymakers have left their rubbish all over the banks.  On the whole, though, the Chusovaya river is quite clean and there are people who make sure it stays that way. We started our journey in the Sverdlovsk oblast, then went through the Perm krai [territory], before making a loop and coming back into the Sverdlovsk oblast.  The banks are all clean: no bottles, plastic bags or tins, and this is thanks to the forest wardens, the tour companies and the tourists themselves.  

At one of our stops we talk to Nikolai, a forest warden.  He tells us that things have got better over the last 2 years; this year there has even been money allocated from the regional budget to improve the moorings. Little tables and sunshades have been put up and the places look better than they have done for many years. When we were sailing along, we had noticed people tidying up before they set up their tents.  We thought they were volunteers, but they were actually people from the nearby town of Lysva some 80kms to the east of Perm. They wanted to ensure that the close encounters between river and people should not be disadvantageous to either.

Not far from Lysva we spent a night in a very clean and tidy place by the river. That evening, Anya and the other girls in the group sang for us.  She is the lead singer of Aquarelle, the Orenburg amateur singing group, so there was a singsong every evening.  The next morning the locals listened to our expressions of gratitude for our night-time camping place, then they asked if we would sing for them.  The girls were delighted to do so and even earned themselves a glass of wine each and 2 tins of meat. 

River holidays are becoming increasingly attractive for tourists from both Russia and further afield. The country's rivers, lakes and forests are also popular among moneyed elites, who frequently, illegally cordon off public land for their own private use. 

What do holidaymakers eat when they're on the move? When they stop for the night, they eat tinned meat, condensed milk with porridge, packet soups and crackers.  On the boat they chew seeds (an old Russian habit) and sweets. Now people drink pure spirit (diluted, of course). In deference to the old traditions, we all had a drink from the bottle when we tied up for the evening, then had a little more round the campfire.  We don't have too much, because we’re looking after ourselves.  We also made stewed fruit compote from dried fruits and drank amazing herb teas: mint, marjoram, thyme and even ground ivy, which is very good for one in small quantities. We even got used to drinking spirit and I found myself wondering how I would emerge from my spirit-induced coma when I get home!

‘The children are cheerfully splashing about in the water nearby.  'I've caught some weeds!' 'I've got some mud, ' and 'I've got both!'’

There are plenty of tourists on the Chusovaya, making their way on all sorts of vessels: catamarans, canoes, inflatable boats, rafts, and sometimes a mixture of several types. People come from all over Russia to do this, and from abroad too.  There's a big campsite nearby.  'Where are you from?' a lad calls to us from the bank. We tell him we're from Orenburg.  'We've just had Australians here. They only left a day or two ago and they were delighted with their holiday.'

There's no age limit.  We didn't bring our children, because the journey to get here was too long, but we saw a family in catamarans with 4 children aged between 3 and 5. We asked them if the children were playing up.  'Not at all, they're used to it. The main thing is not to forget the lifejackets and to make sure to put them on, because when they fall into the water they're scared and flail about. We fish them out, but they fall in again.  We're having a ball!'  A couple of kilometres further on, they set up camp on the bank; the children still have their lifejackets on and are cheerfully splashing about in the water nearby.  'I've caught some weeds!' 'I've got some mud, ' and 'I've got both!'   That's childhood for you – no question of dropping the muddy weeds in disgust, just bodies browned by the sun and the pleasure of draping oneself in weeds!

We encountered two teeshirted ladies of 50+ in a catamaran. They rowed fast and well, made campfires and caught fish. But they had so many things!  We were 7 in our catamaran; there was only two of them, but there wasn't a centimetre of free space and at the end they had to have a minibus to get home.  

No fish in this river... 

I mentioned fish earlier on and I must say a bit more on this wondrous subject.  Wondrous because there are hardly fish in the Chusovaya.  Plenty of fishermen along the banks, but no fish, or only very little. However, there are plenty of flies of various sizes and all of us made great efforts to catch them along the way so that we could use them for fishing.  We even caught a couple of grasshoppers. 

The funniest thing was that my husband had actually brought worms with him all the way from home!  He gave them fresh air, put them in the shade, fed them, and then tried to use them to lure the Chusovaya fish.  Almost no result. He did catch 4 chub, so we cooked them on the fire. We ate them almost without noticing. 

We finished our holiday in a village called Nizhnyaya Oslanka, which had 100 houses and 3 shops. All had the same goods, but at difference prices. However, that's not the point.  We were in a shop and witnessed the following exchange:

Shopper (lady, about 55): Do you have any fish?

Shop assistant: We do. Hake, plaice and pollock.

Me (unable to contain myself): But they're all sea fish.  Why do you have to buy fish if you live on a river?

The shopper and the assistant answered in unison: 'There's no fish in the Chusovaya, especially in this heat.  It's been 30° for a month now. The river is shallower with each year.  In Demidov's time the barges would sail up and down, now it's just the tourists who are the main source of income.

Home again

We returned from the Chusovaya rested and inspired, with our faith in nature restored and our minds a bit less dissatisfied with city life. In the train we fantasised about soft beds and deliciously unhealthy food.  Our bodies had de-toxed over the week and were now demanding chemicals: ketchup, mayonnaise, crisps and even Coca Cola!  'To independent tourism!' was the first toast, as we sat down to our pelmeni [dumplings] and a glass of vodka. 'And to more of them!' – the toasts went on all evening……

About the author

Elena Strelnikova is a journalist based in Orenburg (Southern Russia)


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