The Endless Summer Day

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Hot Yulia Action

Hot Yulia Action

 My couchsurfing host Elven Nastya receives another message on her phone and herds us all downstairs where we are briefly introduced to a large group of people, fourteen in all, who will be spread across three cars.  And so it is that three Australians, an American guy, Mehmet, an English girl, Natasha, and nine Russians begin the endless summer day.  I’m put in the front seat of a car with our driver, Igor, and three sisters; Yulia, Irina and Yana fill the back seat.  Yulia’s rounded face holds one of the warmest and most welcoming smiles I’ve ever had the fortune to witness.  With cheeky soft eyes that glint with fire, short dark hair rounding off a petite, but softly curved face and her wonderfully proportioned figure; she is a genuinely beautiful woman.  Her two sisters are actually twins, but not identical.  Irina, the princess, has the most striking face with dark eyes holding the kind of passionate intensity I’m more used to seeing in Arabic women.  She is very thin in accordance with the current crazy media trend of half starved women, which I’m guessing makes her model material across the world.  Yana is the most laid back of the sisters, generally quieter, more thoughtful and observant; leaving the show to Irina and leadership to Yulia.  She’s more like Yulia than Irina, with a small, curvaceous figure, but shares the same dark eyes filled with the promise of fire.  They say it’s always the quiet ones.

Irina then asks me pointedly which of them is the most beautiful and bats her eyelids at me.  After thinking carefully for a moment I say,
“I couldn’t possibly decide. I will have to marry all of you.”
They all burst out laughing as Yulia translates for Igor.  Igor wants to know if I’m already married,
“Of course not, I’ve been waiting to meet my wives here in Siberia!” I exclaim.  Yulia laughs and then looks concerned,
“This isn’t Siberia, this is the Urals.”
“Okay, I stand corrected”, I say, making a point of remembering.
I’d read before about the distinction between Siberia and the Russian Far East that no foreigner ever makes, but this one was new to me. People from this part of Russia call themselves Uralski, so this is Uralski Yulia.  Igor gestures to the road and asks me how much I like the glorious Russian highways.  I look outside the car at the series of potholes, ditches and depressions all over the road, then ask,
“There’s a highway here? Where do you keep it?”
He bursts out laughing while nodding and smiling.

Yana, Irina and Yulia.  My three russian wives...

Yana, Irina and Yulia. My three russian wives...

 

'...three thousand green bottles making up a wall..'

'...four thousand green bottles making up a wall..'

 

It’s only nine in the morning when we arrive at the place on the side of the highway about forty kilometres outside Yekaterinburg that marks the line where Europe and Asia meet.  There is a sculpted marker here just off the highway itself that makes a lovely photo opportunity.  However, the size and presence of the marker itself is completely overwhelmed by the enormous wall of champagne bottles running at ninety degrees to the road.  It is about two metres tall and over twenty metres long.  A quick averaging count tells me there are over four thousand bottles stacked here.  There are at least another few hundred bottles in a big pile next to the wall waiting for someone to continue the apparently endless work.

Serious Cock Action

Serious Cock Action

 

Europe and Asia

Asia and Europe

This is one of the primary locations that couples in the area come on their wedding day to take photographs and this particular spot is also dedicated for drinking a bottle of champagne and spilling some on the marker.  There are also vast numbers of small pieces of material tied to trees as wishes made on the wedding day. The overall effect is a riot of colour set against a calm temperate forest.  Apparently all of it is about wishes for fertility; the marker is just a cool spot in some lovely forest by the highway.  But, I digress; I was talking about a photo opportunity.

I never thought I would say this, but there are a people who take more photos than the Japanese.  I know, I know, this just doesn’t seem possible.  After all, we’ve all seen how photo and video happy the Japanese are.  There isn’t a second that remains uncaptured in some way, preferably on video and in still pictures as well to make sure.  Every moment in all its blissful mundaneity is recorded to bore the crap out of unfortunate relatives later.  In any case, the Japanese are rank amateurs.

Perhaps they learned it from the Russians somehow, but I would wager that for every 1000 photos on a Japanese camera, there will be 1500-2000 on the Russian camera next to them.  On this glorious single endless day of summer, one of our friends managed to take well over 1000 photos.  These were largely in big blocks of essentially the same picture.  Now, to some degree, this is just part of the digital revolution.  Many people take a number of the same picture and then delete the ones that don’t quite work out.  But no, all of these will be kept for you to choose your personal favourite of the 30 almost identical shots.  This was not a one off accident of youthful exuberance either.  At every place we visited that was also full of Russian tourists, the story was the same.

Now the other curious thing about the Russian obsession with photography is all about women.  If you would like a Russian woman to pose salaciously; just point a camera at her.  Even the shyest girl, who you would swear had never even heard about this thing called sex, will suddenly become a vixen in an instantaneous transition….and then a siren calling you to your doom…and then a cheeky schoolgirl…and then a supermodel.  Every one of them has a set of poses they seem to constantly practise by themselves and with friends.  They will compare and copy good poses to help each other develop there portfolio.  I routinely watched pairs of women disappear to have a photo shoot, because every Russian woman has a portfolio of her favourite poses taken in a number of different places with a variety of clothing.  However, be warned!  If you should take a shot that she doesn’t deem to be a perfect capturing of her beauty, she will demand that you delete it.  It may range from self deprecating pleas to her simply grabbing the camera from your hands and deleting any offending pictures.  It is fortunate the average Russian woman is disturbingly beautiful, which goes some way, in my mind, to justifying this rampant narcissism.  Keep your camera close; when you see the woman of your dreams, she will show you her fantasies.

Another photosession...

Another photosession...

 

Iset river, now with added  forest view

Iset river, now with added forest view

We arrive at the Deer Streams park and Elven Nastya walks off determinedly to register our names with the rangers at the entrance to the park.  We divide everything that has to be carried between us all and Elven Nastya leads us down a dirt track leading into the forest.

The walk takes about three quarters of an hour, with the trail leading us past stunning views of the river Iset passing through the valley.  On one side of the river is a high cliff that we are walking along.  On the other side, pine forests spread out covering gently rolling hills.  At many parts of the riverbank there are coarse sand beaches leading to beds of smooth river rocks.  We come to a clear area at the top of the cliff and Uralski Yulia tells us about this statue of an angel that is perched on top of the cliff looking out across the open forests.  It was placed there in 2005 by some Swedish people as part of the Unite Hope Project; a global initiative to place the statues in as many countries and places as they can to promote hope, love and compassion around the world.  We discover that there is already one in Australia, in Victoria on Mount Buffalo.  This becomes, of course, a particularly intensive photo opportunity; the highlight being Sasha sitting in a meditative position right on a small outcropping of the cliff face.  If he leaned back slightly he probably would have fallen the thirty metres onto rocks, there is something about the edge of a cliff that does push a man to try his courage.

We trek across timber bridges and down narrow dirt pathways winding along the edge of the valley.  The forest is lush with the verdant bloom of summer at its peak.  Beneath the rich canopy are an endless array of flowers and blossoms providing a constant flow of colourful shapes and patterns as we follow the track into the wilderness.  I stop for a moment to find small bees wafting lazily between the blooming flowers.  They’re invisible while I’m moving, but, once I’m still, the movement feels like a gentle massage for your eyes.  It’s a perfect scene of white noise for all your senses; the waving flower stalks, scents gently tickling your nose, floating, humming bees and the flicker of the sun on the waves and eddies of the river flowing below us.  I reach out to touch the leaves as we pass, to feel the soft flower petals and become immersed in the timeless life of a Russian summer morning.

We zig-zag down the dirt track to finally find ourselves on the riverbank.  Elven Nastya points out a huge rock that looks like the head of a horse drinking from the water.  I wonder for a moment if the landscape has some empathy with its wildlife.
“Why is this place called ‘Deer Streams’ exactly?” I ask her.
“There are some cave paintings in the area of deer.”
So some ancient denizens of this country have left their mark here as in so many other countries.  I remember seeing the map back in the city and I’m just starting to realise just how vast this parkland is, you could spend days wandering in every direction. Elven Nastya has certainly done exactly that many times before, this place is special to her; a kind of sacred site.

Drinking horse action...

Drinking horse action...

 

The drunken robot walk...

The drunken robot walk...

We round another few corners following the track along the meandering river to reach a wide bend where we apparently need to cross.  Everyone takes off their shoes and then adopts an astonishingly pained and awkward gait crossing on the stony river floor.  We all look like drunken robots.  Between grimaces we are laughing at each other’s crazed walking styles and head for the shade of a huge tree by the riverside.  It has been a hot walk and immediately everyone strips down to have a swim.  The Russian girls all have slick bikinis, but the Russian guys simply use their underpants…so practical.

I worry that I probably shouldn’t be swimming with my head underwater like this in a foreign country, but the goggles I borrowed from Lari are doing a good job.  I emerge from the water near Yulia’s best friend, who is also called Nastya, so I will call her Supermodel Nastya; for reasons that will become obvious.  Her long blonde hair frames a sweet, attractive face with eyes that seem far too big to be real.  They show a deep intelligence, the kind that keeps you awake at night pondering all manner of problems in the universe and how you can address them.  She complains she often thinks too much and is often paralysed into inaction by it.  I know the feeling very well and we share a long, warm smile of shared understanding as we stroll up the beach to the group.

All the Russians are laid out like sardines.  They are determined to catch as much sun as possible.  We three Australians do attempt to explain something about sun cancer, sunscreen, melanoma and how dangerous what they are doing can be.  They continue unabated.  I suppose the difference is Australia has harsh sunlight for most of the year, with a short winter for a couple of months.  Russia has a harsh winter most of the year with a short summer during which the locals need to absorb as much heat and light as possible to get through the rest of the year.  Regardless of this, we three cover ourselves and sit in the shade nearby and watch as Pasha and Igor prepare the equipment to cook shashlik.

Sardines anyone?

Sardines anyone?

 

Shashlik is men's work...

Shashlik is men's work...

 

Supermodel Nastya

Supermodel Nastya

Essentially this is a metal tray on legs that contains hot coals over which they will place a lot of chicken pieces that are sandwiched between two pieces of metal mesh.  The chicken is held very tightly and simply turning over the grilling kit cooks it evenly and well.  This kind of cooking is men’s work and Igor and Pasha throw themselves into the process of heating the coals enthusiastically.  We look across the river to find a beautiful red headed women wearing a flowing white dress with absolutely nothing on underneath it standing in the shallow water as a man with a professional camera photographs her.  All the men with us are suddenly extremely interested in the artistic expression photography allows and wonder if she’s going to dive in the water to show us all how beautiful she is through that thin white material.  There is a small pile of equipment on the riverbank the photographer keeps looking at and then looking around.  He calls out to Supermodel Nastya, who is standing in the water again.  She goes over to hold a reflector for.  In a moment the three Russian guys with us begin calling out to her in Russian.  I can’t follow what they say and turn to Uralski Yulia for help, and between giggling she says,
“They ask her why she is so far away with this strange man and if she will have her picture taken as well”.  Supermodel Nastya is looking very shy and embarrassed with all the sudden attention, but does her job admirably.

In the meantime Don has produced the vodka the two of us procured and proceeds to pour some for everyone.  I remember I have my portable speakers and mp3 player with me and setup a good Australian music playlist to share it with everyone.  Soon a few of the girls are up and dancing.  We laugh and joke for a while until the shashlik is ready.  We attack the meat, wrap it in bread rolls with tomato, cucumber and mayonnaise and devour it quickly.  It really is damn good and I use some of the wondrous adzhika spicy sauce as well.  We run out of orange juice for the vodka fairly early in the day, but Igor steps in to solve the problem as the second batch of chicken is cooking.  He dives into the forest and returns a minute later with handfuls of flowers and leaves from different plants.  He puts them all into a large pot filled with hot water and lets it boil.  Soon enough he is pouring the tea for everyone and it is very good, it doesn’t need anything else; it is sweet and tasty just as it is.  I am amazed he just knows what to use, so I ask if it’s common to make it.  This bush tea is indeed well known, everyone has a preferred blend.  I ponder for a minute and decide that despite a long history of camping in Australia, I wouldn’t be able to match this trick.

Russian bush tea

Russian bush tea

 

Bridge posing for my Russian models...

Bridge posing for my Russian models...

We enjoy the sun for a while longer as the food settles and then Elven Nastya starts getting everyone moving to go for a walk to see more of the park and some caves.  Pasha, Uralski Yulia and Masha stay behind to mind the camp area and the rest of us form a moving mess of people following the pathway down the side of the river.  We soon come to a suspension bridge spanning the river and the people at the front start crossing it.  Irina the princess of Yekaterinburg is behind me and I turn to take a picture of her crossing the bridge, she immediately pauses and poses salaciously.  I look at the picture and notice Supermodel Nastya is at the start of the bridge behind her posing as well.  I smile to myself and then raise the camera again and both of them immediately pose again slightly differently.  We reach the other end of the bridge before noticing Elven Nastya animatedly gesturing at us telling us to come back.  We return and follow the narrowing track.  I can’t see the group anymore as there is only space for one person at a time to go through a huge field of six foot tall grass in flower.

The land curves up gently away from the river and we follow it as the terrain changes to a thick temperate forest.  With the trees shading us, the temperature must be just over twenty degrees and I am in paradise.  The lush green undergrowth is a completely untamed natural world.  Spider webs glisten with faint dew drops and seem to breathe with the gentle breeze.  Someone begins to sing and I join in with them, soon there are a few of us singing our way up the gentle hills through the forest.  We can see the course of the river winding through the valley below us into the distance and there is only more forest and gentle hills on either side of the river to the horizon. I have no idea how far we have walked already, but Elven Nastya suddenly announces we have arrived at the cave.  We descend a long staircase into the entrance and Sasha and Igor hand out some torches and headlamps they have brought along.  The temperature drops suddenly in the mouth of the cave and soon our breath is making clouds in the crisp, damp air.  We wind through a broad tunnel and soon the walls and ceiling are covered in ice.  Mehmet and Natasha race ahead through the cave system to come first to the deep sinkhole that blocks our path; you would need ropes to continue the exploration.  I turn off my torch and surprise half our group with a photograph flashing in the darkness.  Sasha is caught looking like the proverbial stunned mullet, but Irina still somehow manages to pose in the darkness.  I think she has an extra sense for detecting cameras.

We emerge, blinking and disoriented, back into the light and climb the stairs again.  At the top I notice red welts on the backs of all the girls who are still only wearing bikinis.  I ask what they’re from and they point at one of the enormous flies that is currently sitting on my leg.  It is almost two centimetres long, shaped like a fly and as I regard it, it jabs a sharp, painful proboscis into my leg.  It feels worse than a hypodermic needle and I move to slap it, expecting it to fly away.  It doesn’t move at all and rolls dead to the ground.  For the rest of the forest walk I think I kill one of these behemoth flies every ten minutes, wondering what cool diseases I can catch from them.

Irina: Nature's Model, Sasha: Nature's Mullet

Irina: Nature's Model, Sasha: Nature's Mullet

 

Russian Summer Action

Russian Summer Action

 

Foody Goodness

Foody Goodness

After hours of what feels like random wandering in the forest we turn back towards the camp.  Most of this time we have no real idea where we are or what’s going on exactly, apart from being in the middle of a national park somewhere in Russia.  There are moments when I realise I probably wouldn’t know what path to take to get back and I make sure I’m near the group.  We arrive back at the camp exhausted.  I have no idea what the plan for the day is, but Lari and I could go home and sleep anytime.  We have more shashlik and tea and lie back in the late afternoon sun as different smaller groups head off to explore more parts of this incredible park.  I think I fall asleep for a while and awake feeling more relaxed and content than I’ve felt in a long time.

Sasha pulls out his guitar and starts singing some Russian songs and then one of his own compositions for us all.  Sitting by the river with his soft voice matching the simple guitar melody I drift into a state of deep relaxation.  I become aware of my surroundings again as the guitar is passed and Elven Nastya wants us all to sing something international we all know.  This turns out to be the Beatles and the impromptu choir forms around the chorus since we strain to remember the verses.  Everyone lies back to enjoy the last of the summer day’s light and my trance resumes.

I look up after a while to find Elven Nastya has taken the guitar by the river and is singing by herself now.  I can hear snatches of the tune and there is a haunting quality to her voice that I want to hear more closely.  I manage to slowly stand and walk over to sit next to her on the log facing the river.  She smiles and starts a new song calmly and soulfully in her smooth Russian voice.  I ask her what it’s about and she says it’s a traditional folk song about lost love.  She sings another song and then asks me for one.  I think for a minute and then sing a lullaby I’ve known since primary school.  The sound of the melody drifting across the lake suits my trance-like mood perfectly and when I finish there is silence again for a while.

The river camp with cooking fires buring..

The river camp with cooking fires buring..

 

With the group all back together and the time approaching nine o’clock we decide to head out of the park.  On the way back we are walking quite quickly and take turns in leading the group through the changing terrain.  The sun is low in the sky and the trees cast long shadows across the grassland that glows with a soft golden light.  I feel like I’m inside a film, some kind of Russian fantasy world.  The relaxed contentedness has given way to a kind of energetic happiness that infects us all.  A section of the pathway is paved with round wooden sections cut from the trunk of a tree and everyone jumps, skips and cavorts along it, putting their feet on each slice of log.  When we arrive at a huge suspension bridge, the group slows down to cross it sensibly.  I can’t hold the energy inside any longer and bound my way across it, causing the whole thing to ripple and wave, throwing everyone into disarray.  Some people grab the side supports and others laugh and join the mad rampage.  Suddenly I’m running down the pathway, feeling the random exuberance of childhood once again, lost in this moment of pleasure and utterly unaware of the world outside.

We make it back to the carpark, breathless, happy and joyful and thank our new Russian friends.  As we top a hill that shows us a glimpse of the city at night, we notice a spray of fireworks above it.  The show continues for several minutes and I think Yekaterinburg is putting on one awesome finale for the endless summer day.

Curious flower..shaped like..ummm

Curious flower..shaped like..ummm

 

Sleepytime...

Sleepytime...

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