A trip to the Russian Far Eastern Siberia in 2005 was one of the most exhilarating, thrilling, beautiful, educational, and amazing adventures I have ever experienced in travel. But a prelude event on the second day of the trip set in motion a myriad of unsettling emotions.
In the first town we visited (Ossoro) we were to be entertained by some "small numbered peoples" as the Russians call their native tribes. While we waited for the performance to begin, we explored the monotone gray Soviet-era concrete town with its neglected apartment buildings, gravel gray beach, and dour-faced citizens all under a uniformly overcast sky with no hint of sunshine. Only 35% of the population are European Russians – the rest are indigenous peoples.
As we stood on shore, our own expectations drooping under the low clouds, a group of four teenage Russian girls came sauntering out among us. They were dressed in bright colored clothing like teens anywhere—jeans with pullovers or skirts with halter type tops with flashy running shoes. Their colors were standouts against the overall grays everywhere else. They clearly wanted to practice their budding English language skills on these rarely seen foreigners.
The town had not been visited by tourists in the past ten years. Although they weren't fluent and spoke with heavy accents, their English was more than adequate to hold conversation.
We started with what the girls' ambitions were and we quailed at their ideas: one dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, another a pharmacist, the third a physician, and the smallest and shyest, an actress. How could they ever hope to get the training, education, and skills for such jobs in this totally forsaken part of Russia some 4000 mile east of Moscow?
Most of their parents hadn't been paid in months and almost the whole population of Ossoro had been reduced to subsistence living occupied with hunting, fishing, and growing vegetables in the short arctic summer. An occasional Russian supply ship visited them but so sporadically that there was no posted schedule. However, the girls did reveal that their vivid clothing had been made in China; some ships must get through occasionally.
Then the girls asked where we were from. Several of us were from Florida and we then learned that the town's seeming total isolation was not complete. They knew about Disney and Mickey Mouse.
We were telling them about Disney World when one of the girls laughed ironically and interjected that she lived in "Nothing World." There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, no real hope for any change unless her father (the town physician) could finally get a transfer back to the east.
One doesn't just pick up and move in the Russian Federation. She also laughed at her own ambition to become a fashion designer - not a real possibility she knew in this, her "Nothing World."
Soon the performers clad in reindeer hide cassocks and boots with bright embroidery and beadwork began to sing and dance to skin-drum rhythms. We noted that almost the entire town had turned out to watch the dances which imitated animal movements, hunting techniques, courting traditions.
During the remainder of the trip, those words "Nothing World" stayed with me as I experienced the beauty of the contrasting colors from gray, black and white scenery with the flamboyant and riotously colorful flowers and birds, the sad and almost empty "ghost towns" with dispirited inhabitants beset by alcoholism, held precariously against the vibrant greens in the vegetation and the silvery weathered wood of derelict buildings.
Many wonderful treks gave special opportunities to see the spectacular wildlife: beluga whales, gray whales, great brown bears, walrus, arctic fox, Steller's Sea Eagles and dazzling snowy owls.
Yet of course I knew that I was experiencing all this in such a different way from those hopeful girls in Ossoro who were dreaming of a way to escape. I would be returning home to my comfortable life with all sorts of possibilities open to me while taking memories of this starkly beautiful land with its abundant wildlife and unspoiled landscapes. Their "nothing world" was a momentously "glorious world" to me.