Written by Callie
Temperatures were registering -30°C in the afternoons, and we aren’t totally sure how cold it got during the night. However, I think, due to the extreme cold, we were using much more fuel than I had anticipated! We were going through our 0.5 liter bottles in less than two days, which is more fuel than I had previously used even at 17,000 ft on Denali. At this rate of fuel consumption, we would have 18 days worth of fuel, which, combined with not getting a lift north, would not be enough to complete the first leg.
Needless to say, it was still a hard decision to turn back so quickly after setting out, but we had an entire day of sitting out a severe whiteout to discuss it. So, here we are: leisurely re-grouping at a Soviet-era gastinitsa (guest house) in Vorkuta. However, this stay in Vorkuta has proved very lucky! We met a woman named Nadia, who owns a camping/fishing/outdoor store in Vorkuta. She speaks English, and even named her shop “Alaska”, which she visited twenty or so years ago, and fell in love with. She has been an incredible resource in translation, helping us source gear, and even – finding us a ride up to the coast! Her friend, Slava, has agreed to drive us north in a souped-up snow tractor/tank vehicle. He does some kind of trading business with the Nenets, the indigenous people of the Russian Arctic, bringing them supplies and bringing back dried fish. The idea of visiting an indigenous settlement is really exciting, but there seem to be government restrictions in the area due to its location on the coast. Most likely, we won’t get permission to visit the settlement, Ust-Kara, but instead will be dropped at the top of the mountain range.
Meanwhile, we’ve been practicing Russian with the ladies (all ladies for some reason!) staying and working at our guesthouse. They all seem to prefer to talk with Charlie, must be his British charm… or perhaps that he knows much more Russian than I do. Every time I want to say the complicated greeting “Zdravstvujtye”, I seem to come out with “Nazdroveya” (which means “cheers”!) or good-bye, or something else that doesn’t make sense.
We spent Friday and Saturday night drinking the only locally-brewed beer in town at the pub that our new friend Nadia also owns. We seem to be the only tourists that have ever been there, and everyone is very friendly and wants to say hello, take pictures with us, and herd us into the back room for illicit shots of whiskey.
Vorkuta is probably a difficult place to live; it’s extremely remote, there are no roads in or out, and it can only be accessed from Moscow via a 45-hour long train ride. Most people here work in the mining industry, and our friends told us that last year, a local mine exploded, killing thirty-six people, and resulting in about 1,000 jobs lost. Vorkuta was initially settled as a Stalinist-era gulag, which means that ‘political enemies’ were forcibly relocated here to serve out sentences of slave labor. In fact, one resident told us that the only foreigners he’d ever heard of in Vorkuta were Germans visiting their ex-POW grandparents who never made it home after being released, often many years after the armistice.
Before arriving, we found an article describing present day Vorkuta as an “economic gulag”, because people cannot afford to leave. I don’t know how much of this is true, but the city center at least is bustling with well-stocked shops and is livelier than I expected. It’s hard to get a real feel for a place in such a short time.