Mammmoth Ahoy!

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I wake up late, feeling particularly calm and relaxed.  The day has other ideas for me that it lets me in on when I try to have a shower.  There is no sign of hot water.  I think that maybe the heater might need to refresh after Alisha’s shower and wait for a while.  Still no sign of hot water.  I wonder what’s going on and send a message to Alisha asking her if she knows.  Apparently I’m now enjoying one of the privileges of living in Russian apartments.  They use hydronic heating, which pumps hot water throughout the building, this same hot water is the supply for all the showers and kitchens.  During summer they turn the system off for weeks at a time and claim to perform some kind of maintenance on it.  Alisha thinks they just do it for the hell of it since it can happen in winter as well.
“So what do you normally do?” I ask, unfamiliar with the experience.
“Boil a kettle of water, pour it in the broad plastic container you’ll find in the bathroom and use that with the hand towel to wash yourself. You get used to it.”
“Does this happen often?”, I puzzle aloud.
“Every year, all the time.  This is very normal for Russians”, she explains in a resigned tone.
”You should be happy to have the real Russian lifestyle experience”, she chides with an impish giggle in her voice. 
I smile to myself and put the kettle on.

I think I could sit at the window all day doing nothing but absorbing this ever-changing view.  It’s a meditation on the ephemeral nature of existence and I enjoy it immensely.  I finish the Nasi Goreng (Indonesian fried rice) I’d made for us the night before and decide that since I find myself in one of the most famous cities in the world; I had better get outside and see it.  On my way out of the building I notice a sign in Russian that declares the hot water will be turned off for three weeks from today.  I don’t remember seeing it before.  During the marshrutka ride a beautiful, young Russian woman gets on and demands to exchange a thousand rouble note for all the driver’s small change.  He resists and a few people support him, I don’t understand her answer; but he does eventually give in.  I suppose that’s another way to get small change in Russia, but the rules change everywhere for beautiful women.  On the train I spend some time thumbing through my guide and eventually resolve to check out some of St Pete’s Metro stations before heading for the Zoological museum to get amongst the mammoth collection.  Mammoths have always fascinated me, so the chance to see a whole collection of them can’t be missed.

Pushkin in Pushkinskaya metro

The St Petersburg Metro stations are all deeper than the Moscow versions; you stand on the escalators for over a minute heading down.  Apparently this is partly to get the subway lines far enough under the river and partly to serve as bomb shelters.  Whilst sporting some fine statues and marble walls, I never found one as purely excessive as those in Moscow.  The mammoth museum I’m heading for is positioned on the strelka, ‘spit’ of Vasilevskiy Island just next to the Naval museum and very close to the giant rostral columns in front of that.  The columns were originally lighthouses used to guide shipping through St Petersburg’s busy port.  They stand about thirty two metres high, are painted coral pink and have the prows of boats protruding from them – just like the one underneath the giant statue of Peter the Great in Moscow.  Apparently each boat represents a naval victory, but there’s no simple way to tell exactly which victories these might be.  Probably not the under 20s kayak championship.  Maybe more like something involving warships firing cannons at each other and perhaps the occasional skirmish of men with swords swinging onto the decks of an opposing boat yelling ‘Arrrrrgghhh’.  In any case, at their base are four sculptures representing four great rivers of Russia; the Vodka, Beer, Urine and, of course, the Big Vodka.  Well, I’m sure that’s not entirely true, but the Russians I meet on the train later think it’s probably more accurate.

The zoological museum is a lot larger than I expect and contains a vast array of stuffed and preserved animals.  The horse that Peter the Great rode in the battle of Poltava in 1709 is stuffed and mounted in the entry stairway.  I briefly wonder if horses ever think to do the same for their humans, before realising they have no opposable digits and wouldn’t really be that good at taxidermy. 
“You’ll do better next time Ned… I know it’s hard to hold the knife in your hoof”
“Mbruuuuuha.”

On reflection, I suppose language would help them learn more too. After that introduction the museum has everything from mammals to birds and reptiles, whale skeletons to mounted dioramas of Rockhopper penguins.  Okay, so I love penguins and I often use a photo of this particular kind of penguin as my avatar on the internet.  Imagine my joy and surprise at finding a whole family of them mounted in a rocky landscape inside a glass case in the middle of St Petersburg.  I then stumble across a glass cabinet filled with albino animals, including a peacock and, unbelievably, an albino emperor penguin.  My penguin fetish well and truly satisfied by this completely white version of one of my favourite animals, I look harder for some hot mammoth action.

I’m delayed by a display of Australian birds and pause to check the labels, all written in Russian.  I’m dismayed to find a few of them are incorrect, but not entirely surprised.  I’m not entirely sure how good Russian-Australian scientific relations are, but if what I hear from other disciplines about how carefully the Russian government prevents scientists from sharing data, then I’d be more amazed if the labels were correct.  Just when I thought I was at the mammoth section, buried deep inside the building, I come across a stuffed angler fish.  These denizens of very deep ocean have a bioluminescent globe suspended in front of their mouth on a long antennae-like stalk; just like a fishing rod.  Scientists are divided on whether this is just to attract food or their mates, but the reality is any light in the absolute darkness probably does both.  I think they actually run deep ocean nightclubs with tiny shrimps acting as DJs inside their mouths; they turn the light on and off rapidly to create crazy effects for the tiny dancing fish. I also begin to suspect that cold showers do strange things to my thought processes.  My arrival at the mammoth section comes suddenly and with a strange feeling.

They have preserved baby mammoths that had been trapped under the Siberian ice for about 40,000 years.  This is a strange idea for me.  Mammoths have always been gigantic, hairy elephants with excessive tusks.  This diminutive version is the size of a large dog.  I am caught by this anomalous entity for quite a while before finally noticing the array of full sized mammoths beyond it.  I hope some scientist somewhere is working on bringing the world a tiny mammoth through the wonders of genetic engineering; mostly so I can have a little one at home.  I already know that scientists have already isolated the genes that control size, so you can make animals eight times bigger or smaller than they normally are.  So imagine a one foot tall mammoth running through your house to meet you as you arrive home from work.  Your young children could ride it around for fun as it sprays them with water from its trunk.  This thought keeps me distracted for the remainder of my visit as I wonder how you would order a mammoth around and what language would be best suited to the task.  As I leave the museum I’m picturing myself and a group of friends, each astride an adult mammoth charging through the Siberian tundra – yelling commands in Russian.  I just think Russian would be the best language to order around mammoths.

Ya Mammoth!!
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