Scotland, but with tigers

29th August 2003 at 01:00
Simon Chapman sees himself in a Clint Eastwood role as the man with no name enters a village with no future

Siberia is rather like Scotland. For most of the past week it has seemed like that. Canoeing down a wilderness river, we have rain, we have drizzle, we have midges in their thousands. Even the birds - the dippers and grey wagtails, the mergansers that scoot off each time we pass - are Scottish.

We wake up every morning to the sound of crows cawing in the treetops.

It is August and already the leaves are turning yellow. Without the Gulf Stream to regulate the temperature, this place will be freezing by late October, under two metres of snow by December. Even the daily weather shows an almost absurd variation. We spent an autumnal second week sheltering for whole days from driving rain under a blue plastic tarpaulin. Now, at the end of the trip, it's scorchingly Mediterranean. We eventually reach "civilisation", where the forest peels back from the riverbanks to reveal lush pastures and a scattering of timber houses. But the village of Dersu (named after the native trapper, whose story we are following) is largely empty, all but deserted since the fall of communism, and, walking up its dusty tracks, I feel like "the man with no name" from a Clint Eastwood movie. Dersu used to be a large and successful collective farm but now, with no central leadership or sense of direction, everything has collapsed.

Its 20 or so inhabitants are "old believers", bearded members of the Orthodox Church who are largely self- sufficient - and aged. The only young people here are three or four teenagers from elsewhere who appear to have been left in a rented house by their parents, who have gone off on a fishing trip.

There are telegraph poles here but no phones or electricity, which means that since running out of power for the satellite phone 10 days ago, we still have no way of sending our messages to Knowsley summer schools.

And so on to Dalniy-Kut, the next settlement, another island of humanity in the Taiga, much the same as Dersu; still no telephone, but with electricity (occasionally). We are able to crank up the phone and call up Vladivostok for a lift to get us out.

Siberia is hard to classify, a mixture of Scotland and the wild frontier of old cowboy films. But, judging from a solitary paw-print, the size of my hand, that I found close to our camp six days ago, there is one major difference. If Siberia is like Scotland, then Scotland has tigers.

Simon Chapman is head of physics at Morecambe high school, Lancashire, and author of The Monster of the Madidi (Aurum Press) and Explorers Wanted! series for children (Egmont). He has been videoconferencing fromSiberia with summer schools in Knowsley at www.kirkbyclc.org.ukexplorers

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