Sasha cuttin’ rail with a diamond bladed saw. I waited four nights to get this shot!
Between cigarettes, these boys bulldog steel!
Sparks turn Lyoha and Seryoga contemplative in the ambient glow of Uncle Vanya’s cutting torch.
Opportunity knocked this fall. Actually, she bucked. Like an unbroke ten ton bronc, she rudely threw me about the cabin of the Ulan-Ude city tram, which is why I had taken to calling the tram lines in our region of the city “Rodeo Drive”. Accent on the first o. The steel rails climbing Bald Hill in Shishkovka, our gritty part of the city, humped and divoted their way up to our tram stop where we deposited ourselves; stumblers on solid pavement, eyes all a spin. Now I didn’t pay it no mind, riding roughshod up and down, back and forth between the city center. My gallop called forth the west where hard grinnin’ men lose their hats and seats on busting out beasts. I could feel the fairgrounds dust grit between my pearlies.
I failed to recognize that ride as opportunity, that is until the day I saw the iron vaqueros in their wheeled excavators, track loaders, and cranes converging like jaw licking wolves on a horse with a bum leg. The rails were about to make their exit, under cover of the Siberian night. Lacerating steel with blades and torches, men doing heavy work, that friends, is opportunity knocking to a fella bent on shooting his camera.
Uncle Vanya has got a fiery glint in his eye. Bolt cuttin’ like nobody’s business
With bated breath, I slapped together my gear, slid into my long johns, and went to scout up the boss. The boys were cutting that steel, kicking hot sparks like meteors into the dark. That is what I wanted to capture. But permission from the headman would put me in everyone’s good graces. Who wants to agitate gents who fling rails like they were toothpicks, right?
Clearing the ties of extra weight. Each span of rail was approximately twenty yards in length.
Hammerin’ spikes home like it ain’t no thang.
The boss, Alexander, was pleased to make my acquaintance, in part because we were тёзки (tyozki) which means we have the same name. Alexander in Russia is as common as Jason in the States. I meet a passel of “samely named” hombres out here on the steppe, and it’s always a pleasure. Really. When a stern faced Russian breaks into full grin while bestowing a hearty handshake proclaiming “We are tyozki!”, you find yourself in friendly territory. Play your hand right, and you will win a new friend. In Siberia, finding a friend is better than finding Kolchack’s lost treasure.
I told Alexander what was on my mind, and he gave me free-reign to the work-site. He told me his crew would be rustling old track to lay down new from 8 pm to 6 am the next four days. Siberian Jackpot! Four glorious nights of dusty, diesel fueled steel wranglin’, amen.
It was time to meet the bread and butter of Ulan-Ude, a salty group no doubt, friendly, funny, and ready to share what they do with someone genuinely interested. Each night when I showed up out of the gloom to shoot more images, they met me with a grin. They were glad to have the American around, to joke with, ask questions of, and maybe show off just a bit to. If they were showing off, it was their skills, slangin’ sledges and rails like they were first graders visiting kindergarten again.
The Iron Vaqueros of Siberia. L-R Munkho, Lyoha, ?, Sasha “Handmade”, Andrusha, and Seryoga
Uncle Vanya, and Sasha whose last name literally means “hand made” were cutting bolts. Down the hill another fella operated a pavement saw, built by the hand of Sasha “Handmade” with miscellaneous parts found at the shop. Now that is Russian ingenuity! I clicked, clicked, and clicked torches and saws spitting flaming steel for the stars. When I showed Yulia, (my wife), a few images, she immediately suggested that the boys should be wearing protective masks. I queried Uncle Vanya on that very point, my answer coming in the form of an uninterested shrug. Around here, protective gear is for softies. About the only thing Uncle Vanya needed was a lit cigarette. If he had a smoke in his snout, his torch cut like butter. Now, when Uncle Vanya and I breached the subject of pike fishing, well . . . his eyes lit up like two cancer sticks burning bright, in the forests of the night. In heaven I know where I’ll find Uncle Vanya. He’ll be snaggin’ great pikes near the banks of the River of Life!
Uncle Vanya has a magic torch. And he thinks protective gear is for sissies.
Uncle Vanya shows his golden tail.
Sasha, Andrei, Munkho, Lyoha and Sergei are bruisers. It was something watching the boys set upon new rail, line it up, ram it flush, bolt it in and spike it home. Real steel wranglers. It’s a manly pleasure, using combustion, pneumatic pressure, and torque to put tons of steel were you damn well please. When their minds were set, they became like a single being willing the steel to do their bidding. Each knew the other so well that barely a word bawled over the wail of steel rail under sledge hammer. Business. Got. Done.
Munkho, ready to dig to . . . hmm, China isn’t that far . . . Oh, I know! He’s ready to tunnel to Puerto Natales, Chile. It is the anitpode of Ulan-Ude. Antipode? Antipodes are two spots directly opposite one another on the globe.
Munkho takes a breather, looking all stoic Greek philosopher-poet. He was full of funny stories and quick retorts.
While the boys waited for the Alexander the crane operator to lasso the next span of rail into place, or the excavator to tear up the old rail bed, we shot the breeze. Subjects for confab included river spearfishing, ale, the Ukraine, English study, profanity and other Russian language specifics, the fairer sex, similarities and differences between Siberia and Montana/USA and of course vodka. I find myself satisfying similar questions time and again, but I don’t sweat it. Them questions are expected. I am the lone ‘Merican they have chanced upon. I answer those questions faster than I can bulldog a steer, granted, I ain’t never bulldogged no steer!
This is another Alexander, crane operator. He could lay thirty tons neatly on your head. He fulfilled every boys dream when he let me climb on his crane!
Alexander, patron saint of heavy construction and steel workers. He’s got a halo and everything.
I hung out with those boys for hours. I enjoy immensely the opportunity to kick it with Siberians, it’s a pleasure. Recording authentic people in their element is how you get to know a place. Politicians, oligarchs, and movie stars? Reckon I’d rather you pluck my teeth with pliers! Give me the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker every time. Now them are people!
I called her an evening, and ambled into the homestead just as wife was pulling piping banana bread out the caboose. She said, “You wanna treat the boys?” First and only time those fellas get hot from the oven, home made and hand delivered sweet bread from an American in Siberia. I’d stake my life on that. The boys offered thanks, demolished aforementioned bread and got straight back to business.
Four hours and several spans later, with all new track laid, Rodeo drive was transformed. I thank those boys every time I take a smooth tram ride home. After five nights of slavin’ in rain and snow, they stretched their weary bones, rubbed their sleepy peepers and packed it in. With only one thing on their mind, they mounted their diesel equines, and road off into the . . . *ahem* sunrise, lookin’ for a bed to bunk in.
Ridin’ bolts of Rodeo drive. (The streets is really called Young Communist St.)
Seryoga has a knack for whackin’ track into place. He patiently answered all my questions, and seemed to quietly will the tracks into their bed. Andrusha, right, gifted me whole bag of home roasted pine nuts. Thank you, Andrusha!
Sasha “Handmade” was a master with many tools, and wasn’t too shy to pick up a shovel.
The ghost of Uncle Vanya appears and vanishes into the dark Siberian night.
Adventure? New experiences with new faces is a rousing form of social adventure. You mightn’t have the coin, occasion, or inclination for transcontinental jet-setting, but that’s OK. A someone adventure can’t be more than a few doors down from your familial stomping grounds. Going new places is grand. Learning new folks grander yet. World exploration by befriending her people in your own back yard has never been easier. Travel the world you might, but you will never know a place, if you don’t engage her people. So engage people, people!