We painted lipstick on our lips and watched businessmen in suits flip open Die Welt, grazing the top of the newspaper with their line of sight, conspicuously shy in their observations of two foreign frauen. The train shot into Berlin’s Hauptbanhof with succinct precision, confirming one of our German stereotypes: 7.00pm exactly on Dec 31st, 2003, and not a minute late. My friend and I hoisted backpacks and flowed out of the central station and into a city that was eagerly, furiously rebuilding, was humming with energy, and was dusty and heterogeneous and still could not quite figure out how to contain itself. 2004 seemed like an inauspicious year to welcome.
I hadn’t come to Mongolia seeking an education in the politics of development, but the signs of rapid, double-edged growth were everywhere. In Bayan-Olgii, the westernmost city, a huge entourage of Western foreigners driving foreign vehicles tore into the yurt camp where I stayed one night. They shook the felt walls of the camp with their shouting and drinking and ramen noodle-making, and the next morning did burn outs in the gravel driveway and honked as they left, showering pebbles over the camp owners’ barelegged children.
Around the town of Bayan-Ollgi sat multitudes of great, hulking tourist vehicles, resting at roadsides like over-fed weight lifters. They were protected by new, fat tires, for the sand, and strapped to their roofs and sides were shiny water and petrol cans, spare tires, tool kits, maps and jacks – all the accouterments of a military reconnaissance mission. I had the strong impression of being in an invaded country, watching a civilian-clothed army loot stores for bread and toilet paper.
Many Anglo-Westerners think of Siberia in terms of its weather (freezing), its animals (tigers and woolly dogs), its history (gruesome and gulag-filled), or the distances it encompasses (gargantuan). In their conceptions of Russia’s east, twenty-first century writers don’t stray from received stereotypes. Siberia is described in one piece in The Rumpus as the junk drawer below the kitchen radio to which you send unwanted things; in another recent selection of writings “on the near and far,” Siberia is the “far” place, down from which cold winds slither.