A Well for Uganda
A project that promises to help people and push me to my limits. A reality between moments of lethargy and the pressure to perform. Steven Hille travels to Africa to build a well.
The two women at the end of the video are Marina and Yuliya, and they picked me up at the strangest airport I’ve ever landed at. Strange not because it was an incredibly foggy day, on which the evening sun shimmered orange through the yellow dust. Nor were the five enormous decommissioned Tupolev planes, monstrous relics of the Soviet era, the reason why I’ll never forget this landing.
The reason is the huge hole in the ground right next to the airport. A gigantic crater, 500 metres deep and 1,200 metres wide, looking like a grey, dusty portal to Hell. As soon as I’ve picked up my luggage from the carousel, Marina and Yuliya take me to a Lada Priora. The driver introduces himself as Igor, studying mining, and soon we’re rushing across the dusty tarmac towards the crater at 70 km/h.
The air smells of sulphur and burning wood, and the setting sun hangs low in the sky, bathing the grimy mist around us in a reddish light. All the romance of a sunset, apocalypse-style. A couple of metal steps lead up to a viewing platform, which is mounted on an amphibious excavator from the Soviet era. From the railings hang love locks bearing the names of married couples. Yuliya and Sascha. Schenia and Sveta. Viatcheslav and Maria. A lifetime bond sealed on the edge of the abyss, an oath of fidelity made at one of the planet’s most absurd tourist attractions.
Where the hell am I?
Wikipedia answers: Mirny, the Republic of Yakutia, the far east of Russia, 37,188 inhabitants according to the 2010 census. Mayor Sergei Alexandrov. Postcodes 678.170 to 678.175 and 678.179.
Google Maps answers: between Chernyshevsky, Almazny, Tas-Yuryakh, Chamcha, Lensk, Suntar, Sheya Malykay, Nyurba, Verkhnevilyuysk, Nakanno, Olyokminsk and Morkoka. The term ‘neighbouring towns’ would be misleading, however – they’re scattered around Mirny within a radius of 400 kilometres.
There is no entry for Mirny in the guidebook. For the Lonely Planet Guide, Mirny is a bit too lonely.
And my answer? Exactly where I want to be.
With the hosts I found via the website couchsurfing.com, at a place that’s breathtakingly unusual but also too far away to be discovered by mass tourism. For ten weeks I’m travelling around for my book project, Couchsurfing in Russia, heading clear across the country to find such places.
I’ve seen enough beauty on my travels, and now I’m ready for the other extreme. Not the ugliness of a medium-sized cockroach on the kitchen floor or a blown-out car tyre at the side of the road. Peanuts. I’m talking anti-aesthetics on a dizzying scale. Travel as a horror movie or a thriller, David Fincher instead of Rosamunde Pilcher. Ugliness with wow factor. Ugliness with history.
Only the baseline is boring. At the extreme ends of the aesthetic scale – that’s when things get interesting.
It’s all a question of perception, of what criteria you use to pick a destination.
In the background are houses: in Mirny, in deepest Siberia, people live right next to an enormous crater.
Igor, Marina and Yuliya, my reception committee: you often meet especially hospitable people in these very remote places. That’s been true of my Russian journey.
At Mirny Airport, decommissioned Tupolev planes are lying around.
The diamond mine was closed some years ago. Now young people use the heavy machinery for gymnastics.
Yet mining continues to be the most important industry here. Alrosa, a major corporation, has its offices here, and they still search for precious stones below ground.
The author and sculptures: the geologist who discovered the diamond deposits with the help of a local reindeer shepherd has been given a memorial.
More than 35,000 people live in Mirny, defying extreme winters and coping with the isolation of the town. The next big city is 700 kilometres away.
Signs of a bygone age: communism doesn’t seem as distant here as in Moscow or St Petersburg. In the town centre, there’s even a bust of Stalin.
Olga and Sergei, two schoolchildren: both are very pleased to meet a foreigner, so they can practise their English.
An apocalyptic atmosphere: When I arrive in Mirny it’s foggy, and the air smells like sulphur.
‘Welcome to the arsehole of the world,’ said Marina, then we take a few selfies above the abyss.
Although the local nickname might imply otherwise, we’re standing in front of a masterpiece of engineering. Decades of work and clever structural calculations. It’s the second largest facility of its kind in the world. And there’s hidden treasure, too. For decades, diamonds were dug up from the open mines of Mirny, a few grams of precious stones for every ton of earth. Glittering riches concealed somewhere in the morass.
Sloping walls of grey soil lead downwards, and a few rusty pipes still remain from the conveyors. On the opposite edge of the crater, the eight-storey apartment blocks of the small city – built only because of the diamond deposits – look as though they’re made of Lego.
Places like this are why I’m here. I’m on a journey across Russia, trying to get to know the country through its local people. I live in their homes, share their everyday lives, let them show me their world. And I feel very welcome here, in a country that doesn’t always get a good press these days. I feel welcome in the arsehole of the world.
Everyday life is normally the opposite of a holiday. But not for me. My holidays take place in the everyday lives of others. I visit pubs with my hosts, look at photos of their latest trips, hear about their stressful day at the office or a spat between best friends. Within two or three days, I learn some of the life stories of people who were previously total strangers.
I’m always so curious about new encounters that I’ve never felt homesick in my life. Why would I? It’s simply too much fun finding out who’s behind the next front door. To paraphrase Forrest Gump: Couchsurfing is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
For a coffee in the apartment of some Parisian students I’d gladly disregard the Eiffel Tower. An evening cooking with a hippie family can be a far richer experience than five courses at a Michelin-starred restaurant. And while others are into the adrenalin kick of bungee jumping off a bridge, I picture myself sitting on a public bus in some gloomy suburban street, wondering whether I’m going to end up with a serial killer this time – if I’m going to be met with a polished axe and a waiting bath of acid. You do get people like that on the internet, as you know.
This kind of tourism is significantly more effort, of course, than an all-inclusive trip to Hurghada or a Mediterranean cruise. Yet this isn’t about a product you can buy. It’s not about travel as a consumer good, where you can ask whether you ‘got your money’s worth’ in terms of fun, photos, sun and relaxation.
My encounters are real. There’s no staging. They’re a mutual exchange of time and curiosity.
And that’s worth more than anything else.
* * *
Makhachkala in the Republic of Dagestan in the Caucasus doesn’t appear on most tourists’ maps either. My host is called Renat. He’s an IT expert, 37, and has had his driving licence for three months. He’s looking forward to getting lots of practice when we set off on a jaunt the next day in his black Lada Granta.
Makhachkala is a sprawling shambles, a chaos of shawarma kiosks and kvass stalls, wedding-dress shops and mosques, a crazy pandemonium of colourful advertising posters. Only a few metres separate the dreariness of grey Soviet blocks from a colourful beachfront on the Caspian Sea, with volleyball players, picnickers, bathers and muscle-bound wrestlers working on their training.
Officially the city has 600,000 inhabitants, but unofficial estimates put it at twice as many. They’ve more or less lost count.
Young men on the beach: on the Caspian Sea, every day is exhibition day. © gullivertheis.de
The beach also functions as an open-air gym. © gullivertheis.de
… and as a wrestling arena. © gullivertheis.de
Officially, this city on the Caspian Sea has 600,000 inhabitants. Tourism is virtually non-existent – the foreign offices of most Western nations advise against visiting, because Dagestan is considered a hotbed of terrorism. © gullivertheis.de
On the beach, at least, the inhabitants can forget their everyday worries. © gullivertheis.de
My host, Renat, lived near Düsseldorf for three years. Sometimes he speaks a very charming mixture of English and German. © gullivertheis.de
Renat’s guest room takes a bit of getting used to, furnishings-wise. © gullivertheis.de
He, on the other hand, turns out to be a wonderful host, telling me all sorts of things about life in Dagestan. © gullivertheis.de
We head south. The countryside grows greener at first, then increasingly mountainous. At the edge of the road is a police box. ‘Shit, they’re definitely going to pull us over,’ says Renat. ‘Then that’s the whole day gone. They’ll ask for all our papers, our contacts, what we’re doing here. They won’t believe a word, no matter what we say. Pure harassment.’ They don’t pull us over.
Renat has grizzled hair, brown eyes and a tanned complexion. For three years he lived in Langenfeld, in an asylum centre in an old military barracks. In those days lots of refugees came to Germany from Dagestan, because the region was badly affected by the Chechen War. ‘I learned German from Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were so patient. And from WDR 4. “I lost my heart in Heidelberg” and songs like that, because the sentences aren’t so complicated.’ A pragmatic man.
He has very positive memories of Germany. Of the jogging path round the lake, the au pair girls from the language course, the propriety of the officials, the freedom outside family rules. ‘Parents in Dagestan try to control you until you die. They’re afraid to just let their children be, even when they’re fifty or sixty.’
His application for asylum was turned down, and he abandoned his dreams of making a fresh start in Europe. Now he hopes that tensions with Moscow won’t intensify. ‘The situation in Ukraine is more critical right now – that’s better for us, because we’re not the main enemy.’ Five or six years ago it was much worse, he says. Every crime a person from the Caucasus was involved in turned into a political issue.
We’re now driving along a gravel track between steep cliff walls, rising up from the grassy fields like oversized fins. The edge of the road is decorated with incredibly variegated flowery meadows; the air smells of citrus fruits and the mud of cow dung. A huge eagle circles above us. Renat puts the car through its paces, driving through deep muddy puddles and slaloming around large rocks.
We’re constantly assuming that beyond the next serpentine curve, we won’t get any further without four-wheel-drive. Yet somehow we make it to Balkhar. This mountain town boasts a spectacular cliffside location and decorative old men in hats, sitting on a bench in the main square. Tiny, hunched babushkas are coming back from the fields, carrying wooden baskets full of tea leaves. On the stone walls of the houses, smelly cowpats are stuck to dry, later to be used as fuel. Donkeys, chickens and cats roam around, and the muezzin calls the town to prayer.
I find it all magical, although Renat is less keen. ‘I don’t understand why people live in such remote places in this day and age,’ he says. This is all part and parcel of couchsurfing: the locals often take a much more sober view of what travellers find romantic and authentic.
Men in the town centre: in Balkhar, in the mountains south of Makhachkala, time seems to stand still. © gullivertheis.de
The area, like the region as a whole, is majority Muslim. © gullivertheis.de
Cowpats dry on the walls, later to be used as fuel. © gullivertheis.de
My host, Renat, doesn’t understand why people still live in such conditions in this day and age. © gullivertheis.de
On the setting, however, we’re agreed: the countryside around the town is absolutely spectacular. © gullivertheis.de
On the journey there, the towns became increasingly old-fashioned. Here the shopping options are relatively modern. © gullivertheis.de
The Caucasus region could attract significantly more tourists if travelling here weren’t considered dangerous. © gullivertheis.de
Stalin in the town centre: an hour’s drive from Balkhar is Shukti, a town where a millionaire built 200 luxury houses. Yet he died before they could be completed – the buildings were never finished. © gullivertheis.de
One week later, a night train takes me to Volgograd, where my hosts are Sergei, Krisia and Grischa, 55, 37 and three years old. In his couchsurfing profile, Sergei quotes a saying of his mother’s that I liked: ‘One percent of people, at most, are absolutely brilliant and perfect, and one percent are completely bad. The other 98 percent are a complex mixture of good and bad. In your life you mostly meet people who are neither angels nor devils, but a cocktail of them both. If you want to live among angels, you’ve got to prompt the people around you into showing only their good side.’
I’ve come to a similar conclusion on my travels. It’s in the countries that get the worst press that I often have the most wonderful experiences with quite ordinary folk, who don’t seem to fit its bad image.
I find the statistic thoroughly convincing, including at the bottom end: about one percent of Russians are absolute dipshits. And one percent of Austrians, one percent of Muslims, one percent of Americans, one percent of Germans, one percent of Christians, one percent of Nigerians, one percent of refugees, one percent of people from Cologne, one percent of women, one percent of the left-handed.
Sadly this one percent gets the most attention.
Their numbers may be few, but with 7.4 billion citizens of the world, that makes 74 million idiots. Enough to mess things up.
* * *
Sergei is a historian really, but he works as a taxi driver. He has a moustache, lots of laugh lines and radiates a down-to-earth warmth that makes him instantly sympathetic. If Russia were a funfair, he’d be the beloved organ grinder at one remove from the hurly-burly.
At home he likes to reveal his not-inconsiderable belly by mostly wearing swimming trunks. Krisia has a belly too, but for a different reason. ‘It wasn’t planned. I already have two kids – Sergei and Grischa,’ she jokes.
‘Hey, could you look after the kid for fifteen minutes? We want to visit the neighbours.’
Sure, no problem. But hardly has the door closed before the absence of his mother seems to provoke a certain agitation in little Grischa. First he checks how often you can hurl a toy car onto the floor before all the wheels come off (turns out: thirteen times). Then he begins to pull individual CDs off a plastic spindle, testing their suitability as Frisbees in various rooms.
I attempt a diversionary manoeuvre with a foam ball, and he allows himself to be distracted from the glittery discs. He puts the ball in his mouth and, apparently suicidal, tries to crawl into a large plastic bag.
After I stop him, the little lemming crawls into the kitchen and climbs onto the sill of the open window. He starts trying to shake the wooden security grille – outside it’s a four-storey drop. Fifteen minutes could be an eternity.
‘Was Grischa good?’ asks Krisia when she gets back.
‘Yes, he’s an exceptional child,’ I respond.
The plan for the rest of the day is quickly established: buy beer and fish, then watch a film. We fill up several one-and-a-half-litre bottles with ‘Bavaria’ beer in a small shop, and buy hot smoked milkfish and cold smoked bream. Russian off-licences often have a large fish counter. They smell like it, too. Back home, everything is laid out on newspaper.
Another overnight guest rings the bell, a bushy-bearded New Zealander called David, who’s on a world tour. He sits down in the kitchen, admiring the thank-you notes and epigraphs on the wall, which previous visitors have etched in Sharpie. Sergei asks me if I’d like to write something too. ‘But in German, please,’ he says.
Why does he like having guests so much? ‘I’m a hunter, a fisherman, and you are my victims. You end up in my net, and I drink your blood.’ Then he raises his glass. ‘To fishing!’ The victims from New Zealand and Germany gaze at him, a little confused in their thermal underwear. ‘What I mean,’ says Sergei, ‘is it’s guaranteed you’ll be more interesting people than my neighbours, for instance. If you were normal, you wouldn’t travel here. Cheers!’ Well, that sounds a bit better.
Then he takes out his guitar and sings me a few Russian songs. We eat and drink and sing, and the longer we drink and sing the weirder the performance becomes. At some point, somewhere between the third and fourth errant note in the guitar solo of the song ‘Solnetschnij Djen’ (‘Sunny Day’), a thought pops into my head:
Now I really have arrived in Russia.
* * *
With photos by Gulliver Theis.