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Field Notes: Naryan-Mar

Waterfront at midnight in Naryan-Mar, 24 June 2010

The town of Naryan-Mar sits at the apex of the Pechora River delta in the Russian European Arctic. It is the capital of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO), a Florida-sized region of tundra and taiga at 69° N.

Pechora River Basin. The Pechora flows north into the Barents Sea. Its watershed extends east to the Ural Mountains (bottom right)

In late June, I attended the Arctic Perspectives XXI conference in Naryan-Mar along with participants from Russia, Finland, Canada, and the U.S. We represented many fields: history, geography, anthropology, medicine, and Arctic studies.

Flying into Naryan Mar reminded me of flying into Barrow Alaska at 71° N: both are set in flat landscapes, surrounded by green, marshy tundra that extends to the horizon. Thousands of lakes and ponds mark both regions, and in Naryan-Mar, the Pechora River and its tributaries coil and swirl their way north,  like some vast design from the Book of Kells.

Pechora River near the northern delta, 68 N latitude.

Pechora River near the northern delta, 68 N latitude.

Once on the ground, though, it was easy to see the differences between the two towns. The population of Naryan Mar is three times larger than Barrow (which is just over 5,000). Naryan Mar has trees, albeit small ones, while Barrow — at least the Barrow I remember visiting in 2004 – has few life forms apart from dogs, residents, and tundra.

Both cities have benefited from the oil economy of the Arctic, but Naryan-Mar shows the flush of oil money: a new civic center, flat-screen public displays, a new cultural center, and a significant port center.

Downtown Naryan Mar at 1 am

Naryan-Mar also feels more European. While 61% of Barrow residents are Inupiat, only 11% of the NAO are Nenets, the reindeer-herding people who have inhabited this region since the 12th century.  (I could not find any demographics for Naryan-Mar itself, but it seemed to follow this ratio). 67% of Naryan-Mar residents are Caucasian.

The conference sessions presented some terrific work — on polar medicine, energy competition and independence, Arctic nationalism, ecology, and history —  yet the differences among the papers made it difficult to find threads strong enough to hold them all together thematically.

Lassi Heininen (University of Lapland) giving lecture translated by Olga Zhitova

Ultimately, though, the conference succeeded less as a place to exposit work than to explore ideas.  I offered an paper on the methodology of studying Arctic exploration (which I will present in a later post), a subject that may have been relevant to — at most — one or two other participants. And I did not hear any papers that had a direct bearing on my current work.

Victor Dmitriev (Arctic and Antarctic Institute, St Petersburg) giving a toast.

But the papers – and especially the participants – made a deep impression on me. The feeling of otherness that I described in my last post on Moscow seemed to be reversed in Naryan-Mar. I was surrounded by scholars who love the Arctic, who come to it from different countries and different perspectives, and who desired to communicate their work (and something of themselves) to their peers.

Nenets elder welcomes us to Bugrino settlement, Kolguev Island

Leaving Kolguev Island, Barents Sea, 71 degrees N. latitude

I will never forget it.

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Field Notes: Moscow

In the Moscow Metro

As someone who studies travel, and loves to travel, it still makes me feel self-conscious at times to BE a traveler. This is because the experience of travel rarely feels purely experiential to me: sensations of places, people, and things are always mediated by ideas of travel, by my awareness of the histories of exploration, contact, and encounter. In short, I rarely seem to find the “raw feed” of the travel experience. When it arrives, there is always a news ticker scrolling somewhere at the bottom of the screen.

I imagine that psychologists go through something like this when talking to their therapists. Does the shrink-on-the-couch recall her experiences as pure sensory feed, a chronicle of acts and feelings that follow in easy succession? I doubt it. She must be analyzing these acts as she recalls them, “shrinking” her own actions as she relates them to her therapist.

Chris McCandless

This is not unique. One does not have to be a historian of exploration or therapist to weave third-person narratives out of one’s first-person encounters. Chris McCandless, idealistic explorer of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, writes a journal about his travels as if they were happening to someone else, an else that McCandless even gives a name “Alex Supertramp.”

In this conscious creation of an alternate self, McCandless is tipping his hand: travel is not really the subject of his drama; it is merely the stage for self-discovery, a platform upon which he (Chris/Alex) acts the part of heroic protagonist and omniscient narrator. Not all travelers are so dramatically inclined, but it does lead us to a broader question: can we ever experience the journey as  raw feed of new experience? Is it ever possible to turn the news ticker off really?

And if travel experiences are unavoidably hybrid and impure, jumbled together with  ideas about places and our ideas about ourselves, why do they still manage to affect us so deeply? These were the questions that took hold of me in Moscow as I prepared for my journey to  Naryan-Mar, a small Arctic city near the Barents Sea in a region known as the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO). I was heading there for the Arctic Perspectives XXI Conference, an international, interdisciplinary gathering of scholars talking about about circumpolar issues in the far north.

By any literary measure, my 48 hours in Moscow were uneventful. I did not get arrested. I wasn’t poisoned or ransomed. I did not suffer from a temporary bout of amnesia. Nor did Moscow resemble the exotic communist fantasy of the Western imagination. The Moscow of 2010 is not Stalin’s Moscow or Gorbachev’s or even Yeltsin’s. It is a modern European capital ablaze with neon, populated by chic clubs and fast food restaurants.

House of the Embankment (Dom Naberezhnoy) during rush hour

And yet I found it amazingly, frighteningly, marvelously other. It was most dramatically other in language. I do not speak more than 50 words of Russian and can only slowly decipher Cyrillic script. But the experience of foreignness went deeper, attaching itself to little things rather than big ones.  Circular outlets. Underground crosswalks. Conventions of dress. Codes of conduct in the metro. On the train. In the airport. In the cafe. These are the quotidian marvels that every traveler experiences, the state of being a stranger in a strange land.

Outlet in my hostel room

Yet however small, they are pervasive and all-encompassing.  At one level, the traveler sees Moscow as the Muscovite sees it:  a landscape of imperial edifices and perpetual motion. Yet for me, it was a landscape of little differences, some of them comprehensible, others not.  Yet more affecting was the sense that these surface differences – in language, brand names, architectural style – were the thinnest film over a great well of difference lurking beyond the visible.  Who do Russians watch at 11:30pm while Americans are watching the Late Show? When do they file their taxes? What are the Russian equivalents of the televangelist, the road trip, the visit to Burning Man? And if there are no equivalents, what are the Russian customs which defy cultural translation? What are the rhymes that parents sing to their children at night?

How can any traveler fathom the depths of such difference? How many years in Moscow would be required to apprehend it from the inside? And in this feeling of profound otherness,  I suspect there is an answer – a partial answer at least – to the question of why we travel even as we are constantly trying to analyze and box what we experience. We adopt these analytical modes — seeing oneself as a character, comparing experiences with other events, recalling background literature — because the experience of difference would otherwise overwhelm us.  They give some order – a shabby, imperfect order – to the flood of unfamiliar sights and sounds.

Even those of us who enjoy the vertigo of travel – this feeling of incomprehensible otherness – still need this crutch I think, a way of organizing what we see so we are capable of functioning. And perhaps it is more than just a crutch too. Because in rendering it in familiar terms, the travel experience becomes integrated into the world back home, a part of us despite its unfathomable nature.

Next post: Field Notes: Naryan-Mar


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