This is the second installment in my riveting Great Siberian Adventure. In this episode, my colleague A. and I make it from the train station in Abakan to our final destination in downtown Kyzyl.
When we got off the train at the crack of dawn the next morning, Andrei the lawyer helped get us into a marshrutka taxi. It was a Toyota minivan, a very nice car apart from the sturdy crack across the lower half of the windshield. The driver, as I said under my breath to A., “looks like someone’s uncle at the Country Club.” He wore a white baseball cap, a grey polo shirt with a little Russian flag on the sleeve, and tidily creased beige trousers. He moved with great purpose.
When A. told him we needed receipts, he produced two different kinds. “Do you need it as a bus or as a taxi?” And when I said, “What’s important is that the numbers are there, how much we paid,” he answered helpfully, “Oh, you can fill that in. Just write it there, and ‘Abakan – Kyzyl,’ and sign it.”
Then, we waited fully two hours while he collected more passengers from other, later trains to fill all six seats of the minivan. In total our traveling party consisted of: The driver (sitting on the right side in his Japanese-imported car). A Russian man in the front seat who looked like he’d stepped out of a Soviet comedy, with his mushy face and straw-colored hair and blue eyes. A little baby girl named Doluma and her mother, who’d ridden in our train compartment. A middle-aged Tuvan woman with bright pink lipstick who spoke not a word the whole drive. A Tuvan woman in a sweater with reindeer on it, and her son, around 10 years old, by my guess. And us, the two Americans, in the back. For 1500 rubles apiece, we would arrive in Kyzyl by early afternoon.
We finally left around 8 am and drove at a breakneck speed the whole way, stopping only once for gas and once for a snack at a roadside shashlyk shish-kebab place where the bathroom was a hole in the floor of a wooden shack. I ordered blini with sour cream and tea with lemon. A bald Tuvan [or perhaps Khakas] man quickly overheard that A. and I were foreigners, and asked “Who are you?” and then advised us on a vacation spot nearby we should go to.
In the beginning of the drive, some ominous storm clouds made the right half of the sky epic slate blue, making the bright new green leaves of trees stand out clearer against it; while the left half of the sky was cheerful blue with fluffy white clouds. The small, Pennsylvania-sized mountains were black-green pine streaked with veins of that particular bright innocent green of young deciduous trees.
And later, rolling hills with tall bright grass and dense birch trees zebra-striping the sky below another layer of green. Short-grassed slopes with sparse brushy bushes and surprise creeks cut into them.
And later, as we climbed into the mountains, there was a range of peaks like no other mountains I’ve ever seen. They were sharp and tall and skinny, like a child’s drawing of a mountain range. Dark blue and imposing and pointy like mountains where the evil witch lives. The taxi driver briefly slowed from his 140 km/h [that’s almost 90 mph] pace to point out the peaks and yell their names back to us. I didn’t quite catch what he said, but I think one of the ridges was called Gorky Drakon– Bitter Dragon– and I’m going to choose to believe that.
And the music! The driver had some CD that sounded as if he’d downloaded a bunch of ringtones of pop songs, because each song cut off about 1/3 or 1/2 way through and then skipped to the next song. After the rest stop, somehow we switched to a disc that sounded like [what I assumed was] traditional Tuvan music, but with techno beats overlaid.
We arrived in Kyzyl around 12:30. In the last 20 minutes of the drive, I got moved into the front seat of the van, ostensibly to help give directions, even though this was my first time on this continent, much less in this town. In those 20 minutes, however, I learned that the driver’s name was Alexander, and was regaled with tales of his and his wife’s trips to Spain and France. By my calculations, based on what he charged for the trip and what he paid for gas, Alexander makes more in one day than the average monthly salary for Khakassia, according to Andrei the lawyer. Alexander dropped us off at the university dormitory, giving me his card and telling me to call him when we were going back to Abakan.