So—there’s been a bit of negative feedback on the Travel section of this blog, from those who know us. Apparently everything so far has been a little bit tame by the standard that people have come to expect from our previous travel destinations.
So this one should redress the balance a little. We’ve just returned from the Chukchi Peninsula, in the extreme east of Siberia—so far east it’s west, in fact; it protrudes east of 180º longitude, forcing the International Date Line to make a bend around it so that it can pass cleanly through the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska. Why we went there is the subject for a later post—just getting there is enough of a story for this one.
We were travelling to join a ship at the Siberian port of Anadyr, a town of about 15,000 people on the Bering Sea. Anadyr lies just south of the Arctic Circle, at 64º44´N, and just west of 180º longitude, at 177º31´E. That puts it almost precisely on the opposite meridian from our home town, Dundee—the shortest line from Dundee to Anadyr goes almost straight over the north pole, passing just a few kilometres from the pole itself.
But, of course, there are no direct flights. The choice is between going west-about or east-about. Heading east requires a trip south from Scotland to some large European city (London, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels), to pick up a flight to Moscow and then a connection to Anadyr. Going west takes you to Keflavik in Iceland, on to Anchorage and then Nome in Alaska, and then by charter flight to Anadyr. Because the western route avoids a southerly excursion, it turns out to be slightly shorter. It has other things to commend it, too—the comforts of Icelandair contrasted with those of a Russian budget airline; the fact that the journey could be broken for a few days in Alaska, to acclimatize to an initial nine-time-zone transition, before heading on to Anadyr; and the fact we’d get to see the legendary gold-rush town of Nome, which isn’t really on the way to many other places.
So west it was. After a short hop from Glasgow to Iceland, we decided to overnight in the little port of Keflavik, right next to the airport, instead of travelling back and forth to Reykjavik. Keflavik airport has certainly come a long way since we were first there in the early 1980s, when it was essentially a large NATO military airfield, cluttered with AWACS planes, at the side of which huddled a sort of glorified shed that housed the civil terminal. Luggage was offloaded on to a single roller ramp, and if you weren’t quick enough to grab your suitcase it would shoot off the end and fall on the floor. Nowadays there’s a big, shiny, sprawling terminal building named after Leif Erikson.
Keflavik is a pretty little place, with a small boat harbour, a few small comfortable hotels and pleasant restaurants, and the usual Icelandic selection of interesting public sculpture. Being there on a bright late-summer day certainly helped, too.
The following afternoon, we flew across Greenland and Arctic Canada to Anchorage. There was the usual delay finding a taxi at the North Terminal—they mostly sit outside the South Terminal, and the occasional influx of international passengers at the North seems to catch them on the hop every single time.
A couple of days in Anchorage let us do our favourite stuff—wander along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail as far as Westchester Lagoon, to watch the ducks and kingfishers; pay Captain Cook a visit at Resolution Park and look out for beluga whales in the Knik Arm (no luck, again); and eat at the Snow Goose Restaurant (which has morphed into the 49th State Brewing Company since our last visit).
Then on to Nome (population 4,000), in an Alaska Airlines plane that had no seats forward of row 18—just a blank bulkhead with cargo space beyond. The Alaska terminal in Nome was reminiscent of 1980s Keflavik—a large shed in which luggage thudded on to a sloping rack after having been pushed through a sort of glorified catflap from the outside world. The car-park was unsurfaced, the taxi was a dusty old people-mover, and the driver steered with one hand while sipping from a coffee mug held in the other. On a hill behind the town languish the remains of the Anvil Mountain White Alice Communications System, a Cold-War era Distant Early Warning installation.
You can’t get to Nome by road—its road network peters out in the wilderness of the Seward Peninsula. You fly in, or you arrive by ship, or (in the winter) you come in by dog sled. The Iditarod Trail sled dog race ends here, 1000 miles from its starting point in Anchorage. The dog teams sweep in off the sea ice, and then along Front Street to the finishing line.
Apart from the Iditarod, Nome is famous for its 1899 gold rush, when gold was discovered mingled with the sand on its Bering Sea beaches. The town is still cluttered with gold-rush memories—the local newspaper is the Nome Nugget, there are statues of gold panners dotted around the town, and old dredge buckets have been repurposed as flower pots in the public spaces.
After a day in Nome, we presented ourselves at the Bering Air terminal for our flight to Anadyr. All our fellow passengers were bound for the same ship we were joining. We were weighed along with our luggage, and then we sat about in the hangar telling travel stories while we waited for news that the runway in Anadyr was clear of fog. When the news came, we piled into a nineteen-seater twin-engine Beechcraft 1900, and set off. Two hours later we touched down in Anadyr, and wound our watches forward by twenty hours—there can’t be many two-hour flights in the world that shift you by four time zones and take you across the Date Line.
I took an hour to get into Russia. Travel into Chukotka requires not just a visa but an invitation from a Russian organization—we had a piece of text in Cyrillic to show the border guards, but that precipitated a Great Vanishing from the passport control area while they went off to check that it was all true. Then our luggage was weighed (I have no idea why) and we walked out into Anadyr.
Or rather, we didn’t. Anadyr stands on the west side of the estuary of the Anadyr River, and the airport is on the east side. In the summer, a ferry crosses the estuary; in the winter, an ice road; and in spring and autumn, when the ice is thawing or freezing, the airport is just plain tricky to get to. Like Nome, Anadyr’s road system peters out in the back country—you can’t drive there from the rest of Russia.
Our Russian minders drove us down to the ferry, in a vehicle with a dashboard video screen that was blasting out music videos. We joined the alarming crowds on the ferry deck, and twenty minutes later we walked off in Anadyr. Our luggage had disappeared in a truck, but we were given to understand that our ship was not ready to receive us, so we were going to take a walking tour of Anadyr to keep us occupied for a couple of hours.
There may well be enough to see and do in Anadyr to distract a visitor for two hours, but our guide, Alexei, didn’t seem to know about it. We visited a very beautiful wooden church, the Trinity Cathedral, that stands on high ground above the estuary, and a huge statue of St Nicholas issuing a blessing to the Anadyr waterfront. Above the docks, there’s a lonely and atmospheric memorial to Anadyr’s First Revolutionary Committee—a larger-than-life sculpture of a little huddle of men with Chukchi faces, standing together anxiously but defiantly, as if they were about to be shot for their deeply held beliefs. Which is exactly what happened to them.
But otherwise we mainly marched up and down streets of brightly painted flat blocks, being intermittently knifed on the street corners by the Siberian wind. (There seems to be a general rule that, the farther north the town, the more brightly painted will be its buildings. Drab little Nome is an unfortunate exception.)
Finally, Alexei announced that everything was now ready for us to be ferried to our ship, the Professor Khromov, which was at anchor in the estuary. We were led to a shingle beach, and introduced to the good ship Neva—something that appeared to be the hellish offspring of an assault landing craft and a car ferry.
Thirteen of us piled inauspiciously into its capacious open hold, and we set off. Once out of the shelter of the harbour, we ran into a choppy sea and biting wind, forcing us to cling to the rails and lean against the chilly metal walls to keep our balance. After quarter of an hour, we came alongside the Khromov. With the choppy sea conditions, there was—ahem—a bit of mutual movement between the two vessels. They pitched up and down relative to each other by more than a metre, and once they were drawn together by ropes the occasional roll brought them into contact with a clanging impact that set the Neva ringing like a gong, and took chunks of paintwork out of the Khromov’s sides. The Khromov tried to create a bit of a calm lee using its side thrusters, but to no avail. After a couple of attempts to come together safely, punctuated by multiple mutual impacts, the Neva turned around and headed back towards the shore.
We staggered out (with some relief) on to the Anadyr shingle, to be met by a fleet of taxis that whisked us off to the reception area of a local hotel. What now? Well, the same thing again, as it turned out. We’d sat and speculated for no more than ten minutes before Alexei returned and announced that “we” (not including him, by the way) were all going to try it again. (He said this as if it was a Good Thing.)
As it turned out, it all made sense. An onshore wind and ebbing tide had created the chop in the estuary, and with the tide now slack the sea conditions were hugely better for our rendezvous. The Neva tied alongside the Khromov with minimal mutual movement this time, and we simply climbed a ladder and stepped across on to the deck of the Khromov.
We had arrived. The adventure could now begin. More on that in another post.