Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 7

How to get to Chemal: First, fly to the opposite side of Earth – Novosibirsk; then, get in a car and drive south all day, through Barnaul, Biysk, Gorno-Altaysk, following the Katun River toward the border with China. You reach the village of Chemal after the road turns to a rutted muddy track. It seems as far away as you can go without leaving the planet, an it is a place of astounding beauty and simplicity.
That is where I met Edvard and Nadejda Schmals, in April 1999. Then, and on another visit 13 months later, I spent several nights in their home and learned just a little about what life is like in rural Siberia.

Edvard and Nadejda live outside the village, along the dirt road that beyond their house gets narrower as it courses through the forest until it reaches the end of Russia. Across the road is a wide stream, a tributary of the Katun, that in the spring roars with the rush of snow melt. Along the boulder-strewn bank is a deep pool in which the couple bathe every day. Beside it, leaning against a tree is a heavy iron bar with which they use to break the ice in winter.
Every day, Edvard insists, regardless of the cold. It is the secret of their health, he says. He is a strong, broad-shouldered man with ruddy cheeks and hard, calloused hands. I went with Nadejda one day for a dip. I measured the temperature of the water at 42 degrees F. I could get into the water no farther than my knees, my bones ached so badly. She submerged, then shot up from the bottom, laughing hard at my timidity.

My hosts are the same age as my wife and I; their son and daughter are the same ages as ours. But oh, how different our lives are. Although they have electricity, their home has no running water. Well water is poured into buckets suspended above the sinks; push up on a plunger in the bottom of the bucket and water comes out. There is an outhouse beyond the extensive vegetable garden, and a banya, which Edvard fires up for weekly baths, and a cow barn.
A massive stove made of brick and rounded with stucco sits in the middle of the house and warms all the rooms. I can't imagine leaving that cozy warmth in winter, when it can reach 45 below zero, for a trip to the privy.
At that time, Russia's economy was in chaos, and there was no money in Chemal. Nadejda worked in the village museum and Edvard as a road supervisor - both government jobs - but neither had received pay for almost a year. They survived as did everyone - by bartering, and by taking firewood and wild mushrooms to Gorno-Altysk to sell on the street. Edvard owned a Jeep-like car, because of his work. Many others in the village got around on horseback or in carts pulled by horses or livestock. Life in Chemal was more like it was 100 years ago than the final moments of the 20th century.

But as hard as life was for them, it was simple, uncomplicated, pure. We have the clean water from the mountains, we grow our own vegetables, we milk our own cow and raise our own animals, Nadejda explained. This is why we are healthy, and it is why, when times are so difficult, that we are so happy, she told me.

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