Sunday, 20 January 2013

Siberia is so bracing! Russian falls out of the back of a train and runs 7km in T-shirt and slippers

When I was nineteen I found myself sat on a Russian train deep in Siberia along that eponymous railway. I was bored, the journeys are long and when you’ve seen snow and trees siding past for days a walk through the carriages can come to seem a merry little adventure. At the end of each carriage I opened the heavy metal door into the vestibule, two more doors over the wagon coupling and another into the next carriage. On I went until suddenly I opened another metal door to….wide open snow and train tracks. I hung, teetering for a second before pulling myself back in shock. No one had locked the last door on the train! I nearly fell out of the back!

While my experience was surprising, that of Valery Malkov was a lot more so. His train was clickety-clacking through the night and the forests of the Amur region in Russia’s far east. The forty two year old haulage driver went for a cigarette in the vestibule at the carriage end, through that heavy metal door where Russian train smokers go to shiver and puff for a few minutes. However, as he puts it, when he went to head back to his compartment he opened the wrong door. The door was, like mine, at the back of the train and Valery did fall out, onto the tracks, in the middle of the forest.

He tried to run back and catch the train, no use. He kept running though as he rapidly realised he was running for his life. It was -40 Celsius and poor Valery, having just got out of bed, was wearing slippers, jogging bottoms and a T-shirt. By pure luck the next station was seven kilometres away. When staff their saw a scantily clad man running towards them, Valery says, “their eyes nearly popped out. But they quickly gave me tea and warmed me up.”

Valery had fallen out of the back of train. He was, understandably, a little embarrassed. “I didn’t tell anyone. My wife only found out after journalists rang her up.” We don’t know what the next conversation between Valery and his wife would have been like, but I suspect it may have been an interesting one. Valery is ok. No injuries or hypothermia. He’s back at work and probably spinning a few yarns now with his colleagues on the haulage lorries he drives.

An investigation has been started into whether the train guard left the back door of the train unlocked, which would as we can see, have been quite an oversight. As I’ve recently reported Siberia and the Russian Far East are having quite a few problems with packs of ravenous wolves, providing another incentive to keep him running fast. Last suggestion, with the Sochi winter Olympics approaching perhaps a new event is now beckoning, a Trans-Siberian railway run? Perhaps 7km is quite enough at -40 but competitors would have to jump out of the back of a train in T-shirts and slippers and run as fast as they could along the tracks while being chased by packs of starving wolves. Only the Russians could invent a sport like that. Perhaps that’s what he was TRAINing for? Sorry. I'm sure there would have been some finger wagon from his wife. I'll stop now.   

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

No Blizzard Wizard as Ice Queen descends on drivers

Snow has brought the capital to a standstill, with accidents and tailbacks dotting the main roads around the centre. Where might this be? London? Paris? No in fact it’s Moscow. Yes it happens here too.

It’s not all the Moscow authorities fault. There has been a lot of snow over the day with more to follow. November is usually a snowy month in Russia. They’ve received half as much as that in the past 48 hours. However Russia’s meteorological service can’t even provide an estimate of how much snow has fallen! They say they only provide figures every morning and wouldn’t even try to predict how much might have fallen by then.

The authorites have only just got round it seems, after all these years, to testing the cocktail of chemicals they spray to de-ice the roads. Some of the chemicals may be dangerous. However the tests will only be conducted after the contracts to supply them have been concluded, according to a report from Russian newspaper Isvestia. Some experts think that the tests themselves aren’t the problem but instead the low standards for safety of chemicals with the result that 300 tonnes of harmful pollutants may be being spread on Moscow’s roads.

The accidents include a car that lost control and hit a bus stop wounding four. Accidents have reportedly increased by 20% and despite 12,000 snowplows (they’re not totally unprepared) trying to clear the roads traffic police are advising Muscovites to stay away from the city centre.

The temperatures are just right for large scale snowfall at about -8 celcius. Although they're dropping by the weekend which should stop it the worst day is predicted for Thursday 17th of January. Freezing rain and forming ice are predicted to make both pavements and roads dangerous.

Spare a thought for Kamchatka in Russia’s Far East though as a Pacific cyclone is bearing down threatening huge snowfall on land and storms at sea.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Winter of the wolf in Siberia

Wolves, creatures of legend, and creatures creating a headache for the people of Yakutia, and Khakassia in Siberia. Driven by hunger from the lack this year of their usual food, reportedly mostly mountain hares, they’re searching out the reindeer herded there. 16,000 reindeer were reportedly killed last year and hundreds of horses, says the Russian region of Yakutia’s president, Yegor Borisov. They are estimated to have caused $5 million dollars worth of damage, valuing a reindeer at 10,000 roubles ($330)

Borisov has called for a three month cull of the wolves. His office says there are 3500 wolves in Yakutia and those numbers should be reduced to 500. He’s offering rewards for wolves killed and six figure rouble sums to the top hunter.

However there are doubts over the numbers cited by Borisov and about the chances of killing 3000 wolves. I spoke to Vladimir Krever from the World Wildlife Fund Russia’s biodiversity program. He cites a Ministry of Natural Resources report from last year which says there are 6-8000 wolves in Yakutia. As he points out, “it’s a huge territory, the largest in Russia, with very few people. It’s very hard to estimate the numbers of wolves accurately but it’s definitely more than 3500. 6000 wolves in Yakutia is a normal amount.” That means that Yakutia’s government may also be way off when it says it wants to reduce the wolf population to a ‘normal 500’ by killing 3000 wolves.

However Krever thinks that killing wolves is the right policy. It’s just going to be impossible to do. “When wolves start killing livestock  they have to be killed. Even if 3000 could be killed the population would recover quickly. Normally around 600 wolves are killed in Yakutia each year. If you really stretched it with expensive spotting planes and helicopters you could maybe double that figure. But 3000, no chance.”