National Geographic : 1990 Mar
Oh yes-a few days after I left Neryungri, Nikolai and the other coal-mine drivers went on strike again, complaining of muddy roads. SOMEDAY locomotives on the Little BAM may toot in the city of Yakutsk, 500 miles farther north. The route would pass through goldfields and to the east of diamond mines; the Yakut Autonomous Republic is rich. "But Moscow never gives us a drop of anything in return," said one more angry man, a Yakut journalist. So the territory has remained largely empty, its capital city a backwater. Its lifeline is the 2,653-mile-long Arctic-bound Lena River. Late into a summer night I watched small ships unloading cement and other freight at Yakutsk; come October, ice halts cargoes, and Yakutsk goes into prolonged hibernation in some of Siberia's coldest weather, with tem peratures dropping to minus 83 0 F. On a snowy October evening I reached Norilsk, 1,250 miles northwest of Yakutsk. Before passengers left the wide-body Ilyushin jet, guards boarded to check identity cards and travel documents. Norilsk was still a closed city; even Soviet citizens needed special per mission to visit. I'm told I was the first West ern journalist to set foot in this infamous ex-gulag site above the Arctic Circle. As winter sets in, the tundra's vivid green fades to white on gray. Norilsk itself offers lit tle visual cheer. Its core of Stalin-era buildings with their wedding-cake embellishment rise not from lawn but from asphalt. Gardening is hopeless; if frigid temperatures don't kill your roses, sulfur will. It comes from three smelters processing ores containing nickel, cobalt, cop per, and other metals. Norilsk welcomed me hospitably, with memorable feasts, as if there'd never been a Cold War-and as if Norilsk was not a source of militarily strategic metals. I found people invariably proud that they'd accommodated to the hostile environment. Many have lived here a dozen years or more. Yelena Kalinin skaya, for one. Tough, enterprising Yelena Stolid apartment houses tower over a tradi tional wooden home fallen into disrepair in Yakutsk, capital of an autonomous republic the size of India. Because of the city's perma frost, earlier high rises shifted and cracked several times before builders devised a more stable construction method.