Since there was no meal service on board the aircraft, we stopped for dinner at Lensk. Lensk looked no different than any of the small places enroute where the plane sometimes stopped long enough for us to get off and get warmed up. We needed these stops for more than one reason. Rostislav was one of them. In this pioneering land, people were still beautifully human, with a practical, down to earth touch that was reflected in their ability to get the plane's heating system repaired. The food was also down to earth, honest and simple. No junk food could be found, but hot steaming sausages, cabbage, potatoes, with milk to drink, or coffee, even beer. Everyone we met was friendly. One of the pilots approached us and asked if we would like to join the crew at their table. Anton said yes. She introduced us, and then chatted and joked with them. It was a time for laughter. Since my cover was that I was an American tourist, Anton did her best to translate everything that was being said, except not everything was translatable when it came to the jokes. The subtlety of humor is so easily lost in translation. Still, she did her best as far as I could tell.
An hour later, the bell rang. It was time to get rolling again. Nicely warmed up now, the belly satisfied, and the soul filled with laughter, we ventured back out into the icy world. There remained only a faint hue now on the horizon where the sun had set. In the dark, the frost crusted entrance of the terminal building had all the appearance of an ice tunnel leading out of an igloo, while we looked more like Eskimos than city dwellers. The only one who stood out as a misfit was Rostislav. His fancy uniform was woefully inadequate for the extreme cold. The night was clear. Minute fragments of ice crystals shimmered in the bitter cold, reflecting the light from the terminal building. It was -70'F. The rapidly falling temperature, after the sun had set, was freezing the last bit of moisture from the air, creating dazzling displays of ice fog. I felt rather sorry for Rostislav.
"He is a man of principle!" Anton whispered.
"Yes, but in a dangerous way," I whispered back. "His obedience will kill him some day if he doesn't watch out."
The girls that followed him out of the terminal building looked at him and started to giggle. Embarrassed, one of the pilots stopped them.
We didn't talk much after the engines started to roll again. The heating system, now repaired, brought a touch of warmth to the cabin. Comfortable and rested, engulfed by the noise of many vibrations and the unending drone of the turbo-props, we dozed off. I had strange dreams about this epic land of ice and snow, mixed with dreams about our days in Caracas. I saw the golden glow of the mountainsides that I had admired each evening at sunset.
At one evening in Caracas, our friend Augustin had invited us to the top of the IBM tower from where we had watched the air traffic going in and out of the city airport, which handled everything from small aircraft to sleek personal jets. They came in flying along the slopes of the valley, then turned quickly and landed. Others took off. Afterwards, all seven of us had gone to 'Mr. Ribs' for dinner, a fast food place that served giant steaks, ribs and beer. To get there, required a lengthy excursion across an ocean of cars parked on sidewalks, and dodging motorcycles that used the sidewalks whenever possible.
I remembered fondly that most of the restaurants were open to the outside, and that the air had always been moist and wonderfully warm. Also, there had always been music and laughter wherever we went. The steaks at Mr. Ribs had been as big as the plate they came on, and with dessert and beer included, they barely cost the equivalent of what would have been four dollars. This price had even included entertainment, except there was no room for dancing provided. But then, who expects to go dancing at a fast food restaurant?
We arrived in the black of night in Yaktusk. I awoke when the turbo-props grew silent. According to a sign on the wall of the terminal building, we had landed in Yaktusk all right. The temperature had dropped to eighty-three below zero according to the official thermometer. Rostislav had a taxi waiting for us at the terminal. It was shaped more like an armored truck than a taxi. It was equipped with a flat, double-pane windshield that constantly froze up. The rest of the vehicle was crusted over. The ice must have been an inch thick. I had to laugh when the taxi driver made some remark that it was cold that night. He couldn't get his cargo hatch to open.
"...it's because of the wind," he added.
I didn't figure out what he meant by that. I was too amazed that there was someone in this remote wilderness that spoke English.
The hotel, for its part, tried to make up for the bitter cold. Behind triple pane windows and double storm doors, the radiators vibrated with steam. I couldn't remember ever being as hot in Caracas as I was that night in the hotel at Yaktusk, two floors above the permafrost in the coldest parts of all of Russia. I wondered if Anton managed all right, in her separate room.
The night was short, though. The wake-up call was arranged for seven. It consisted of someone knocking the door down. Breakfast wasn't at all like in Caracas. I looked out the window. The world was still dark, milky with fog surrounding the lanterns; the cars that drove by had their headlights on. A street-sweeping machine came with special equipment to claw up the ice. Only one type of breakfast was served, consisting of freshly baked bread with butter and preserves, and real coffee. No eggs.
The breakfast was barely over when we were hurried back into the taxi that returned us to the airport to board another plane. During the drive I noticed bricklayers at work with steaming mortar. Most people were walking to work, regardless of the cold, wrapped in heavy coats, their heads hidden under large fur-lined hats that come all the way down over the ears and neck.
"Life goes on!" commented the taxi driver as I mentioned the bricklayers. It was the same driver who had picked us up the night before. "Life must to go on," he added. "Yakutia is a rich land," he said proudly. "Our products are needed. We have immense deposits of iron ore and coal, and natural gas..."
"...and diamonds," said Anton in English.
"Ah, you know your country well," the driver grinned at her.
Moments later he pointed to a woman on the sidewalk selling frozen milk in open containers that had wooden sticks frozen in them to serve as a handles. He honked three times and waved. The woman waved back to us.
"You didn't know about this one, I bet," he said to Anton.
Rostislav didn't realize that this interesting tourist adventure was building upon what we had created before, that bought us still closer to one another, and this with nothing more than just looks and smiles and simple words, like: "See here! Look there!"
The Yaktusk airport was slightly larger than all the others we had seen enroute, but it was still just an open field of hard-packed snow. I soon realized the advantage in this. Our next plane was an old Antonov-12, mounted on skis, and outfitted for supply runs into remote areas.
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