The taxi was old, battered, gave off an aroma of garlic sausage. It was too small for the four revellers. Their bulky clothing made matters more cramped. The windows of the old Volga were closely shut and only the stumps of winding handles remained. The breath of the revellers merged into a white alcoholic mist. The tepid heat emanating from the grill did little to ease the bitter cold.
The driver was Caucasian, a cross hanging from the windscreen mirror attested to his being a Christian. Like all drivers in the city, he was adept at driving on the ice-surfaced roads. He skidded leisurely, his grip on the wheel did not strain to regain control.
View from the Road
We passed grim multi-story housing units, most with ill-fitting windows and chunks of dislodging masonry, traditional lop-sided Siberian timber houses, many with beautifully painted shutters. Occasionally we saw the odd circular ger, beloved of nomads. From the centre of the ger, roof metal chimneys puffed out smoke, implying cosiness within. Large raised pipes ran unevenly at street level carrying heating to apartment blocks. At junctions the pipes were formed into large inverted U shapes, so as to traverse side streets. Where the tatty insulation had become detached, street children stretched out their hands and gathered warmth. Their destination made itself known by the flashing of gaudy neon strip lighting – Nikita’s Place. The k had fallen slightly and its light was quenched.
The taxi pulled in. The doors creaked open and the passengers seemed to expand as they freed themselves from its confines. A short discussion ensued, roubles were gathered and given to the driver. He drove off skidding his erratic way back to the town centre.
Where the gloom began on the periphery of the illuminated parking area, drunken young men and women lurked, lurching unsteadily with half empty Gengis vodka bottles in hand. Formidable black leather-coated bouncers huddled by the door. Their white breaths conjoined with cigarette smoke in a swirling rising vortex. Their faces were masked with a cold disinterested hardness.
We travellers were directed with the smallest nod towards the entrance hall. It had the barren look of a taxicab waiting area, badly lit by a single under-sized off-white neon light. As was the custom, our coats were taken and exchanged for grubby re-usable and frayed cardboard vouchers. Within the cloakroom were lines of stored fur coats and hats. The one touch of opulence in the desolate town were the skins of beaver, mink or sable that graced the bodies and heads of its unfortunate inhabitants.
A gaunt, beautiful Russian girl took the entrance fee. Just as we were about to enter the inner sanctum of the nightclub, the girl followed us, demanding more roubles for the "live act". Inside the hall pumping Russian pop music was discharged by banks of massive speakers. A tarnished silver pole stood unused, awaiting the arrival of the "live act". No DJ could be seen.
The dancers and drinkers were divided unevenly between native Buryats and Russian-speaking Caucasians. The floor was wet with spilled drink. Many people were smoking filterless cigarettes, acrid smoke swirled in the beams of the flashing disco lights. Soiled wooden-topped tables were strewn with leftovers of zakuski on crumbled paper plates, with empty beer and vodka bottles, and with the heads of passed-out drinkers.
Sweat and breadth moisture dripped down the damp cold walls and merged with the shallow sea of spilled alcohol. Instinctively, we, the strangers, stayed close to each other. We exchanged wary glances but disguised our inner anxiety with masks of bravado. Some of us regretted our decision to come to this place. We found a free table, swept its contents to the floor and sat on opposing benches.
We purchased a half-litre of vodka and a carton of orange juice. We poured the vodka into four glasses. One of the revellers gave an unusually brief toast that garnered a subdued response from his companions. Heads were thrown back and the vodkas were downed in one go. The four glasses were then filled with orange juice. As the vodka warmed us, we relaxed somewhat and observed the inhabitants of this dank world.
The Russians were the possible offspring of the gulags – sons and daughters of men toughened by their brutal experience. The Buryats were two generations away from their shamanic grandmothers. Both races intermixed with apparent ease.
The dancers were poorly dressed. If the city had been nearer the Pacific, the males would have been taken as sailors, newly landed from a long voyage. Many had their shirts open to the waist despite the cold. A minority of the dancers had some basic rhythm, their bodies related to the beat of the music. Others just lurched and staggered about the dance floor, lost in their internal drink-sodden world. On the dance floor an occasional hand was slid under the dishevelled clothing of a dancing partner. There was no intimacy about the genital fumbling.
A sweating Russian in his early twenties approached the table, with a surprising grace asked one of the female travellers to dance. Out of fear, or courtesy, she accepted. They danced without words. After some minutes, he abruptly left her and made his way to the bar.
Later on in the night a waitress approached our table. In the palm of her hand she held a white serviette. The serviette contained a single papirosa Belomorkanal cigarette, recognisable by its cardboard tubing. Beside it lay a Buddhist prayer coin, small and hexagonal. Its centre had been removed and a red ribbon was attached to it. The characters upon the face of the coin were in an exotic Eastern script. Initially we thought the two items were being offered for sale. We refused them.
The waitress gestured toward a nearby table where six Buryats sat, faces Eskimo-like. One was gaunt, his prominent cheekbones formed a triangle, pointing downwards like a diviner's stick. The others had moon-shaped, jolly faces. They gestured for us to accept their gifts. We did so, pleasing the native Siberians. They shyly beckoned us to join them, emboldened by their consumption of a third half-litre of vodka. With a minimum of shared vocabulary, we exchanged stories.
The Buryats were warm and welcoming. They rarely met strangers. Much to our surprise, they claimed to be opera singers. They demonstrated their professional abilities. The gauntest one emitted a low bass drone and then, with the deepest of profundo voices, sang a piece from Rigoletto. He was followed by the plum-faced who sang in an extraordinary alto voice, choosing to sing in Buryat.
The Buryats insisted on buying another bottle of vodka and another carton of orange juice. This was shared out, loquacious toasts were made and responded to. A feeling of approaching dawn and the imminent collapse of our local companions caused us to suggest that an end be brought to the evening. Our new friends insisted on walking with us to our hotel, unsteadily ten abreast on the icy street, forming a merry phalanx with arms interlinked. Black ice crunched underfoot and echoed in the silent dawn. On the steps of the grim soviet-style hotel, pictures were taken, email addresses exchanged. The new-found friends bade each other dasveedahnya, goodnight.