Coal from Kemerovo

Many of you out there are hoping I’ll write more about Tomsk, and in time, I surely will. But one aspect of this trip that certainly overwhelms and makes it impossible to write much is the fact that I am nonstop on my way somewhere.  A factor that I’m extremely thankful to great friends for keeping it that way.  I suppose I’ll have plenty of time for writing and navel gazing once I get on the Trans-Siberian in the coming week.

I left Tomsk reluctantly as the more days I was there, the more interesting things kept happening. Yet it is good to stick with the plan and not overstay one’s welcome, so I hit the road via relatively modern bus en route to Kemerovo (pop. 485,000). Amazingly Kemerovo was no where on my list of places to go on this trip, but thanks to the magic of the internets, I received a warm invite from a Kemerovienne who heard I was in the region, had lived in the United States for a time, and suggested I come see this bustling city.  And so like any good traveling journalist and curious mind, I said yes.

Kemerovo isn’t only an industrial town, but you wouldn’t know it as the bus crosses the bridge over the river Tom and directly in front of you three huge smokestacks from the coal powerplant pump out some dark smoke.  Looking further up the river the power plant has plenty of friends, with different kinds of factories and smokestacks dotting the landscape as far as the eye can say.  The industrial photographer in me says “this is heaven”, if heaven were a cold, grey, collection of old industrial buildings.

Coincidentally, with all the news over the past few weeks about the mining disaster in the US, Kemerovo is a coal mining city. When I heard this I asked if we could visit any type of mining shrine or museum, and to my great pleasure my wonderful hostess said “Of course!” – and off we went.

It is an odd reality in an era of so much talk about the need for energy alternatives and green technology, and all the possibilities that exist, coming to Kemerovo is a reminder that while green is good and green is needed, coal is still king for a huge part of the world.  As the bus pulls past the coal plant, my eyes are fixed on the sagging tunnels and the never ending system of pipes. A giant poster on the side of the building features an image of a smiling toddler, although its in Russian, I know what the poster says – “making a clean world for your healthy children!”

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Secret Cities

Old TomskAs we stroll through the snow-ice-slush filled streets of Tomsk, my new friends here have come to understand my penchant for abandoned places and forgotten history. It just so happens that Siberia has plenty of forgotten history and strange stories that could keep a citizen reporter like me busy for a long time. The trick is getting access when you’re an outsider and you don’t speak the language.

My favorite story so far is about a place only 7 kilometers outside of Tomsk, a town by the name of Seversk. Some may remember it from when it was called Tomsk-7, the town where 3 important nuclear reactors were located. What makes this town stand out more than the already impressive number of nuclear facilities it houses, is that during the Soviet Union the government decided for security purposes, the existence of these towns should be kept a secret, and access to these towns would be restricted. How do you restrict access to a town? They took a page from the medieval days of kings and kingdoms, they built a wall around it. To get in one must have official permission, or be a resident, and surely NOT be a foreigner.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in the beginning of the 1990’s, it was decided that these towns (most at least) should be able to choose if they want to stay closed off by walls and armed guards. Amazingly, many voted to stay that way. Why? Perhaps it was fear of the outside world. Fear that their lives would change in a way they never wanted. Whatever the reason, it is amazing to think that 7 km from where I sit at this very moment, there is a massive wall that surrounds a town of 100,000 people who in order to go to work in the morning, must show papers to military personnel at a checkpoint.

Take this already interesting situation and add the facts that 1 – Through nuclear disarmament deals between the US and Russia, 2 of Seversk’s reactors have been shut down, and 2 – in 1993 there was an explosion at one the facilities resulting in a radio active cloud – what you get is a very confusing and difficult situation within the walls of Seversk.  Or at least, that’s what I think when I consider potentially large unemployment plus an extreme environmental hazard, bottled up in one town.

Coming up next A podcast about Seversk and life in a secret city. I can’t get inside, but I’m hoping to speak with someone who comes outside on a regular basis, maybe I’ll even get to go to the wall just to see it first-hand.

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Siberia is Below

TomskIt is 5:08am in Tomsk, Russia; 2:08am in Moscow, Midnight in Amsterdam, 6pm back in New Jersey, and 3pm in LA. I didn’t have to come to Siberia to give you a run down of time zones, but after taking off and landing a couple of times today, I feel like I’m really living in all of these. As I look down to see scattered lights of unknown Siberian towns, I’m like an astronaut looking down at earth, watching land masses go by and fairly often; in awe of it’s vastness.

Beautiful girl next to me has a book. It’s probably nothing special as far as books go, but looking over at it’s pages spilling over with Cyrillic text, in my eyes it is some ancient text drafted by a highly advanced society. The girl herself- a beautiful scholar with the wisdom to understand it all and dare I think it- to explain it all to me during the next four hours aboard Siberian Airlines flight bla bla with nonstop service to Tomsk. “angleski?” I ask in my makeshift Russian dilect I create on the spot. “very bad” she responds. We smile at each other….

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