Siberia

Posted by Ellen

This just in: Leonardo DiCaprio has won the first and only Northeastern Siberian Academy Award for best friend of Russia and especially Russia's far northern peoples. His film The Revenant, about survival and revenge in a snowy wilderness, struck a chord with audiences in Yakutia, the Sakha Republic, "the largest and most northern region in the Russian Federation," where admirers contributed their own family silver and gold to honor DiCaprio. They want him to come to Siberia and accept their Oscar statuette in person.

The Yakutian statuette, which is two centimeters shorter than the Hollywood version, is cast of silver and gold melted down from jewelry donated by Siberian DiCaprio fans. The face of the statue has pronounced Asiatic features, in acknowledgment of Siberia's indigeous peoples; when DiCaprio accepted his 2016 Golden Globe award, he dedicated it to First Nations peoples and indigenous communities–"that is, to us, the people of the Far North of Russia," says Tatiana Egarova, who organized the campaign.

According to Egarova, more than 100 Yakutian women donated their jewelry for the statuette; some of them, she said, broke off pieces from what they donated so they could hold onto keepsakes reminding them of DiCaprio. There is a bit of evidence that the warm feelings may extend both ways: in 2010, DiCaprio met with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg at a conference on the endangered Siberian tiger, and in 2012, he wrote an appreciation of his Russian grandmother, Yelena Smirnova, who came from the Urals city of Perm. "To me," he said, "she was the embodiment of inner strength and integrity."

The Siberian Oscar figurine is holding a gold choron, a Yakutian ritual cup signifying peace, harmony, spiritual unity, and good intentions.

Posted by Ellen

This time of year, alas, our thoughts turn to Siberia, or to the Ice Ages, or even to Siberia during the Ice Ages, when woolly mammoths were walking tall and cave lions commanded the countryside.

Last summer, two men digging for mammoth tusks along a riverbank in Yakutia, eastern Siberia, came across a couple of brown and furry-looking chunks of ice about the size of household cats. Not sure what they were but hoping they might be worth something to somebody, the men kept the things from thawing out by reburying them deep in the permafrost. In September, they returned with scientists from the institute in Yakutsk and learned that they'd found the corpses of two baby cave lions.

Cave lions are an extinct subspecies of lion that ranged across all of Eurasia, from Spain to Siberia, and crossed the land bridge to North America during the Ice Ages. They've been extinct for 12,000 years or more, but they are well known to us through the work of numerous prehistoric artists who featured them in paintings on the walls of caves.

Cave lions did not themselves live in caves, but of course their babies stayed in dens when they were small, and these particular cubs were still very young when, it is theorized, their den caved in on them, perhaps in connection with a landslide. Buried deep in rubble, the cubs probably died from lack of oxygen, which also helped preserve their corpses so well for thousands of years.

The top photo is an artist's rendering of a snowy landscape with mammoths, cave lions, a woolly rhinoceros, and other Ice Age critters; the scene is said to be set in northern Spain. 

Below that is one of the Siberian cave lion cubs, resting on a block of ice.

In the photo at the bottom of this post, a scientist takes off one of his gloves and sticks his finger in the cub's mouth. His actions may strike us as a bit casual and unscientific, though there is some research happening here: by feeling for the nubs of baby teeth in the cub's gums, he was able to estimate its age as approximately two weeks. These same scientists have announced their intention to clone these cubs, in hopes of bringing back the extinct species. We'll keep you posted.

Posted by Ellen

Climate change–both the literal thaw in the Siberian permafrost and the political thaw in the Cold War militarization that long controlled life in the Soviet Arctic–is currently exposing long-frozen tusks of ancient wooly mammoths to the light of day and the vicissitudes of the global economy.

Until the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago, woolly mammoths ranged the grasslands of eastern Siberia. As the icecaps melted and sea level rose, the grasslands became forest or were submerged in the Arctic Ocean, until hungry mammoths were eventually crowded together on isolated islands in the eastern Arctic. The last of them died there about 3,500 years ago.

A mammoth tusk like this one, which weighs 150 pounds, can sell for $60,000 in the Siberian town of Yakutsk, and it may fetch $200,000 or more in the ivory markets of China.

Each summer, thawing permafrost exposes more tusks in gravelly riverbanks and seaside bluffs, especially on remote, uninhabited islands north of easternmost Siberia. Each spring, Yakut tusk-hunters cross the frozen sea to begin searching for the new "crop" of ivory; they work alone or in small crews, living on scant rations in rough huts, until late-summer snowstorms once again hide their quarry.

The unlucky ones leave then, returning home emptyhanded in small boats in rough waters. The lucky ones hang on for a few more weeks, however, till the ocean freezes again and they can transport their tusks much more easily in sledges hauled by snowmobiles. 

Posted by Ellen

Grand prize winner from the 2012 international SkyscraperCity photo competition.

Meanwhile, here in Pennsylvania, Punxatawney Phil saw his shadow, foreshadowing an early spring, and the winter weather continues to compare favorably to the conditions suggested in the photo.

Posted by Ellen

A photo shoot at the mall in the city of Barnaul, Siberia.

Posted by Ellen

The satellite view of Philadelphia in infrared, from a few days ago, led some people to ask for more false-color imagery of our planet. Here we've got a river delta in the tundra of eastern Siberia, where the River Lena empties into the Arctic Ocean. The image is from mid-summer, when the plants of the tundra were bursting with new growth, thanks to twenty-four hours a day of sunlight. The color scheme here is different from that of the Philadelphia scene but still not closely related to the colors a human eye would detect. The data displayed comes from three sensors on the Landsat satellite: one that detects infrared energy, another that detects near-infrared energy, which is very sensitive to the chemicals associated with growing vegetation, and a third sensor that picks up a part of the visible spectrum. Vegetation is green, exposed rock or soil is pink, wet soil (mud) is purple, and ice is blue.

Even in mid-summer, the sea ice floats close to shore. It will take another month or two for most of the ice to melt and/or wash out to sea, but as soon as it does freezing temperatures will return and ice formation will begin again.

The innumerable ponds and distributary streams are typical of flat places throughout the Arctic tundra, where permafrost just below the surface impairs drainage. Meltwater and rainwater sit on top of the permafrost all summer long, breeding mosquitoes...... which don't show up in the satellite imagery.

Posted by Ellen

Where in the world?

This is Barnaul, a city of 800,000 in Siberia, located deep in the heart of central Asia, near the mountain range where Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China come together.

Barnaul grew large and relatively wealthy because of its double-edged location: close to the Altai Mountains, with their riches of silver, copper, and other minerals, but far from the rest of the world. During World War II, the Soviet Union relocated many of its munitions industries to Barnaul, safely distant from the front but close to major railroads that had been built for ore transport. Russia's largest ammunition plant, one of the largest in the world, still operates today in Barnaul.

The downtown area of the city doesn't look like this; it was modeled after Saint Petersburg and is known for handsome classical architecture, a sampling of which I will try to post here soon. But around the edges of town, in amongst the old silver-smelting factories and the ore-loading facilities, what we see here is what we get in twenty-first-century Barnaul.

Posted by Ellen

The hand-held GPS unit hasn't really revolutionized twenty-first-century life, but the combination of GPS and internet has definitely generated some new recreational obsessions. There is geocaching, for example, in which people search for hidden treasure boxes using geographical coordinates they've downloaded from websites. And on a larger scale, there's confluence-bagging.

 A confluence is a point where whole-number coordinates of latitude and longitude intersect--for example, 40 degrees north latitude at 75 degrees west longitude, the closest confluence to where I live. You bag a confluence by visiting it precisely, taking a picture of the numbers displayed on your GPS unit to prove you were really there. After a visit, if you upload the documentation to the confluence.org website--including a narrative describing your trip and photos of the confluence site, of views in every direction from the point, and of interesting sights nearby--then the ether-world will have a digital record of your achievement. As of today, 11,782 visits to 5,957 confluence points have been documented in the website.
 
The confluence near my house--40 north, 75 west--is on a golf course fairway in New Jersey; it's easy to find and easy to get to, if the golf course people don't chase you away. Some confluences are more challenging to bag, especially in rough, remote, uninhabited country and in relatively roadless, high-conflict regions, such as East Timor. 
 
Last summer, a team of three Russian confluence-baggers, who have documented visits to some 29 confluence points, devoted their vacation to bagging a few more in Siberia, near Lake Baikal. They visited two watery confluences on the lake itself, traveling 200 nautical miles by boat. Then they got back in their car and sought out the confluence at 52 north 108 east, in logged-over hills east of the lake, in the Siberian republic of Buryatia.
 
"Having reached the side road to Onokhoy-Shibir," they wrote, "we turned left and drove onto a dirt road headed to our goal.
 
"We passed a village and reached some road furcation. Guided by GPS arrow, we chose the left road along a creek. Soon the road turned into a clearing for the cable. We slowly dragged our wheels along it until we hit to a high fence." Time to park the car and start walking.
 
"We were unaware of the existence of a sports training camp, Druzhba (Friendship). The place where a stream flowed under a fence was a secret path on which the 'young pioneers' ran AWOL. We used the hospitality provided by the hole in the fence and got into the camp."
 
The precise confluence point, it turned out, was near the camp entrance, pictured here, easily accessible by road had they only chosen the correct fork. But by driving directly to the confluence instead of sneaking in like young pioneers returning from some unofficial adventure, "we would have lost the opportunity to plunge into the 1970s and 1980s and feel as the pioneers of those years."
Posted by Ellen

Our Mongol Rally teams--"just call us Mongoleers"--have been making good progress on the drive from England to Mongolia, except for the guy who got threatened with arrest at the Ukrainian border and decided to retreat to Prague.

Those who took the northern route through Russia are now deep into Siberia, approaching Irkutsk or partying there. Except for those who had car trouble or who had to detour around Belarus, which closed its border this year to Mongoleers, without notice, they've been making good time.

The teams taking a more direct route, through Kazakhstan, report pleasant people--not even a little like Borat--but extreme heat and frequent police stops. The police want USD, it seems--U.S. dollars. We're told that 20 USD is the going rate per car per stop, but fast talkers can sometimes make 20 USD cover a whole convoy of Mongoleers.

Those attempting a more southerly route, through Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekhistan, and other countries unknown to Americans report astonishing sights, including a marble city ("slippery when wet"). They like the people and the food but say the roads are narrow and winding and confusing and slow.

The southern route through Iran proved open this year, contrary to predictions, and Mongoleers there report excellent highways and no problems.

Where are our folks? Well the boys from Detroit are pretty much worthless--as of a couple days ago, they were still in Germany. They had a lot of friends to visit along the route.

Captain Subprime and his Spanish buddies? They're spending the night at the Uzbekh border, waiting for the guards to show up in the morning and let them into the country.

And Yippo, our Dutch couple? They have crossed Iran without incident and are now in Turkmenistan, eating lunch.