Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Not your mother's permafrost conference

I'm at the Tenth International Conference on Permafrost in Salekhard in western Siberia. The science talks are just starting this morning but the cultural discoveries have already filled my notebook.
I stayed at the hotel Sputnik in Moscow on the way to Salekhard. I arrived alone at 9pm but miraculously found the hotel without much wandering. 
You can see Yuri Gagarin from the hotel (you can tell he's a spaceman by his frilly shirt).

J.J. Frost gave me a tour of Moscow. 

Workers of the world unite. 
I missed the airport train but this "common taxi" driver from Tajikistan gave me a 125 km/hour roller coaster ride to the airport. 1500 RUR.
There were 150 young researchers (80 from Russia 70 from the rest of the world) who participated in the Permafrost Young Researchers Network pre-conference workshop. The steward scolded me after taking this picture. The three meal options were chicken, beef, or crackers. The rules are communicated with severity and then only weakly implemented. After landing one of the local conference organizers got on the intercom and announced, "Registration ends at 7:30. It is impossible to participate in this conference without registering. You must surrender your poster or slides at the time of registration." I did register (you got a tiny mammoth sculpture and an embossed compass) but I haven't surrendered my presentation yet.
Salekhard is located right on the Arctic Circle and is home to 40,000. It is the capitol of the Yamal-Nenets autonomous district and is the source of 80% of Russia's natural gas. They also supply most of western Europe with natural gas. They had a jaw-harp and skin drum program ready for us on our way from the airport. 
 Our rooms have hand-sewn polyester sheets that cover 3/4 of the tiny Russian beds. I've been using my t-shirt as a towel the last few days but just found my towel in the bottom of my sheet cover this morning.
 The first night they took us to a teepee village where we touched the blue wizard's anti-mosquito staff, hurled traditional axes, and watched the famous soccer-playing reindeer.
 The next day they took us to a cultural program put on by the local boys and girls club. The theater group dressed us up and we all role-played.
Nothing says I love this land like releasing 150 plastic ballons.
 Sunday night we went over to the city hall for the "solemn opening ceremony". The 600 conference attendees were all expecting a home-grown drum circle and Russian dance.
 It quickly became clear that this was more than a ward talent show.
 It was like if Las Vegas were located in Siberia and was run by a junior-high school art teacher. I just kept thinking, "What do they do the other 364 days?" I guess the gas and oil money is pretty concentrated in Salekhard.
It was an incredibly polished and well executed variety show. There was no costume or music separation between Russian and indigenous performers. Notice the jaw-harp hanging from her arctic fox sash. The performance started and ended with the same phrase, "I hope you have nothing but the best impressions of our legendary land."
There was a caviar and eggplant buffet after the solemn ceremony. So far I have nothing but the best impressions of this legendary land.


  1. That was one awesome travelogue! I kind of want to go now.

  2. all that for scientists? I'm so glad our taxes pay for flying you over there.

    1. Actually there's been a really interesting dialogue about the opulence of the conference. It's all paid by the Yamal oil and gas companies and there is definitely a "can I say that" undercurrent to some of the sessions. Last night at the third welcoming reception with pate and walnut palm trees on every plate Charlie looked over at me and said, "I feel a little dirty right now." It was a totally Faustian moment of temptation.

      On the other hand, the science has been really active and worthwhile.

      A final correction--my participation was funded with Permafrost Association funds and by the government of Yamal, not with tax monies.

    2. I'm glad you're a scientist and I know you will influence the science world for good. :)

  3. what an adventure!

    you been trying out your russian, tovarich?

    1. Lots of only Russian speaking participants so lots of chances to practice! The most valuable part of the conference has definitely been making Russian friends. Alexy told me yesterday, "The two problems with Russia are: idiots and bad roads."

    2. Well, Dostoevsky did write a novel called The Idiot. And perhaps Tolstoy left an unpublished manuscript called Roads and Roadies.