The sleeping land

9 08 2013

Believe it or not, but this is my fourth visit to Siberia, in the last five years. Every visit has uncovered a new layer of history, culture, food, language and economic realities.   Before I met Tatiana, Siberia meant harsh cold, home for the Siberian cranes; more recently, in the climate debate, it was the place which was losing its permafrost.  If I still open my geography book of school, it would show an eskimo with an igloo, living in this part of the world.

Getting to know Russia was quite a journey, a journey which started in a complicated visa process, flying with Aeroflot  where being a vegetarian was not an option; it was a new planet with a new language, with a script that I had never seen (Cyrillic). I still remember my first trip, when the immigration officer asked me questions in Russian, about my fat passport and young looking photo on it, and my lack of comprehension made him detain me for a few hours, before he understood my sign language and body language.

Siberia as a region covers most of the country’s land, however it is treated as a dominion by Moscow rather than an independent economy. According to Wikipedia,’ the territory of Siberia extends eastward from the Ural Mountains to the watershed between the Pacific and Arctic drainage basins. Siberia stretches southward from the Arctic Ocean to the hills of north-central Kazakhstan, then to the national borders of Mongolia andChina. Siberia makes up about 77% of Russia’s territory (13.1 million square kilometres), but is home to only 28% (40 million people) of Russia’s population’.

Even  though the word Sibir or Siberia, would mean sleeping land in Turkic languages, Siberia is home to some of the most amazing wildlife, with some of the most breathtaking landscapes on earth.

Being a punjabi, Indian, an ardent lover of food, I like to discover  the culture of a place through its local gastronomy. My time in Novosbirsk is highlighted with some of the most delicious foods, a  breakfast with nutritious oatmeal, or buckwheat, accompanied by berries  and fruits like blueberries, raspberries, wild strawberries.  The other meals could be various soups like borsch, okroshka, fish soups, and salads of all kinds.

In between meals sometimes is even more important, where I have got to enjoy smetana, local cheese or tworog, kefir and different pickles.  Since I have a sweet tooth, I am amazed at the number of pies, tarts, pastries and konfety (sweets), chocolates, and my favourite cirok (a small chocolate with a filling of soft cottage cheese). Meals in  Russia are critical, similar to India, France, Italy and many other cultures, family and friends cook together and eat together, we eat for hours and hours.

In our family  its not only the food which is important, but also how the food is laid and in what crockery we eat.  There is a lot more to the culture, than just food, life  here has also been about nature and your summer house or dacha, where Siberians grow their own food and berries.  This culture of food, running the house and the summer house is predominantly female-driven, the males in Russia seem to have taken the back seat, most of them are either busy drinking or are comfortable being house husbands, while the women run the show.

Even  though I have experienced a little more of Siberia than in the past, I am still struggling to see a very neat distinction between Siberian and Russian culture, what happens in most of Siberia seem to  have similarities with the rest of Russia.  However Siberia is a vast land,  and before the Russian invasion, this land had various populations. It was the Soviet union and the Transsiberian express way which  tried to create a thread to bind this region together.

Today Siberians feel shackled by the reigns in Moscow, which is draining all its wealth without doing much for the region, and it needs a collective voice to stand up and awaken the sleeping land for its identity, its forests, and cultures.