With the changing tilt of the Earth’s axis and midsummer meandering from the south towards the north, Siberia’s melting snow gushes into thousands of tributaries and rivers while fields of orchards and flowers open their petals and attract the songs of butterfly moths and bumble bees. Edible pine mushrooms swell across coniferous forest floors as chipmunks drop pinecones from above. Pines, spruces and larches form the single largest continuous coniferous forest known as the taiga, connecting this part of Asia with Europe and the Far East. Forest slopes lower into green valley basins and these valleys join onto steppes where plodding longhaired yaks sheepishly graze on lush grasslands. Local Siberian nomads take their horses to graze on subalpine meadows while, higher up, on rocky slopes, adorable rodent-like pikas playfully dart across scree. Higher still, endangered droves of wild argali sheep and ibex roam the steep mountain hills and even higher, and most exciting of all, earth’s most elusive mammal, the snow leopard, stalks secretively along steep and remote alpine ridges. That was the Siberia I had fallen in love with; a land of lush abundance teeming with life.
When I returned the second time, it was the end of spring and winter had barely let go of its grip. I drove into a cold, grey dusty city called Novosibirsk. It was the capital of Siberia but its listless greys and juxtaposed architecture revealed neglected pride of a forgotten place. Vehicles on the road splattered mud and sported layers of deeply set grime, matching the soot that draped the city. Old soviet buildings lay abandoned, choking in the air. Arbitrary modern buildings shot up from naked concrete. Unfinished, demolished, forgotten, abandoned, the city had no grids, no plans, and no shape.
The greening of grass, and budding of trees that I associated with spring was not there. Birches and larches were shed of life; their branches hunched over and naked, weeping in browns and greys from the harrowing winter. The air had a sharp bite. Despite the morning and afternoon temperatures rising from and falling back to just above zero, Russian women persevered in showing their legs through sheer pantyhose underneath layers of fur coats and jackets but their unsmiling faces and frozen lips spoke of another clime. I couldn’t wait to get out of Novosibirsk.
On the bus, I travelled down to the Altai Republic in the deep south of Siberia, bordering with Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. The bus slowly left the deciduous trunks standing naked in the biting wind and entered sloped evergreen forests of fur and cedar that had filled my imagination from my last trip. As the road went further south, frozen rivers showed signs of trickling life again, greening valleys unfolded in the moving landscape and snow-capped mountains waited patiently in the distance. As I approached nearer to those white flanks and high ridges, my heart sang once more.
The forest roads were buried under thick blankets of snow. With snow chains on wheels and great effort, I arrived at my high-altitude mountaineering base camp. From there, I began my daily expeditions into the snow. I would wake up to the silent falling of snow slowly gathering on twigs of slender needles of pine. The snow would increasingly gather on the stalks until it fell under its own weight causing the tussles of pine to bend and drop and bounce back in renewed weightlessness. The whole process would start again.
I would notice the intricate shapes of snowflakes gently landing on my skin, each shape unique and never repeating. Each crystal would tumble through the clouds and fall from the sky thousands of meters high above. It would land with its geometric perfection; a six-folded symmetry with all its arms, having experienced ever changing temperatures and humidity in synchronicity through the sky, landed on my skin. And then another, and another, and another. And these other snow crystals each followed a slightly different path through the clouds and down towards earth, and so, they each went through an ever so slightly different experience, resulting in different flakes. As no snow crystal follow the same path, no snowflakes are ever alike. At that moment of observation, the natural world seemed ever more magical. And the spring of Siberia became, in my mind, equally as glorious as its summer transformation.
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, once said “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”