The horse whimperer

I’m not going to lie, I’ve spent most of my time in Russia pretty convinced that I’m about to die.

Departing Edinburgh mere weeks after Channel 4 first aired The Plane Crash, I spent all three flights reading and re-reading the on-board safety information as I tried to weigh up the pros and cons of assuming the brace position: life-long paralysis vs. near-certain death.

Since my arrival in Syktyvkar, I have treated the tap water like sulphuric acid, panicking after every mouthful of shower-water and begrudging every piece of juicy fruit. I’ve drank more Irn Bru here than I ever did in Scotland, simply because I know that it at least is supposed to be orange.

I have been variously convinced that I have insomnia, pneumonia, frost bite, that one from Contagion and — after cutting myself on a bread knife — tetanus. Of course, such blatant hypochondria is completely ridiculous. I have sustained much nastier injuries during my life and, so far at least, the weather has never dropped below that of the most wintry evenings in Dundee high street. I just can’t help Googling every single ache or pain.

However, after what might well be considered the perfect Saturday — a leisurely stroll around a local museum, a viewing of Cloud Atlas and a Parisian coffee at the top of Syktyvkar’s tallest building — I had somehow managed to lull myself into a false sense of security, one that could never possibly have seen Sunday coming.

Picked up in the morning from the sad soldier statue at the bottom of my road, I was taken to a disused airport a few miles out of the city to get a better look at rural Russia. Along the way, I was taught the local geography and entertained with a superstition that saw all four seats outfitted with safety-pins to ward off bad luck. A few villages, petrol stations and cold-looking camels later, we came to an airfield, located in the middle of nowhere, built but never used by the USSR.

Arriving to find what can only be described as a group of big Russian men unloading assault rifles, I checked my phone to find that I of course had no signal and began scouting mentally for defensive weaponry. It was the plot of a horror movie, and I was not exactly the up-and-coming starlet assured a free pass to the end credits. I was just about to ask what they were doing, when I thought better than to advertising my nationality. I’d seen Hostel, after all.

A short walk from what had once been designed to be the car park, we came across a very large building that looked as though it had been abandoned at literally a moment’s notice. The rooms had been largely gutted, but paper files, shoes and cracked bottles of vodka still littered the frozen floor, while the walls were still adorned with posters giving various safety information. Gathering together some of this debris, we lit a fire.

With the entryway providing some basic ventilation, we built the flame up to a usable size and started cooking sausages over the hearth. While I picked gingerly at the burnt bits, my companions wolfed down the rest of the supplies and set about exploring the rest of the building. It was the strangest thing I think I’ve ever seen.

After a look around some of the neighbouring buildings, including one that had been weathered away to a mere shell, we returned to the car and to the city for a slightly more substantial lunch. All ready to order pizza or another sausage — one that had been cooked by professionals over an actual grill — I instead wound up with a plate of raw meat and three enormous mushrooms.

I only ate about half of it, as my stomach cottoned on to what exactly was happening up top and quickly launched into some sort of gastro-intestinal evasive manoeuvre. I tried to quiet the part of my brain that was shouting incomprehensibly about tapeworms and food poisoning with the observation that I was not the only person eating it. I seem to remember reading something about there being safety in numbers.

From there, we travelled once again to the countryside beyond the city limits, this time to a remote farm where we would apparently be riding horses. I have never ridden a horse before. I had sat on one briefly in my youth, but that was when there were adults present who spoke more English than my ride. Or Australian English, at the very least. And when it wasn’t sundown and winter in the Arctic circle. I honestly thought about taking my safety pin with me.

Mounting my steed with what can only be described as a look of absolute horror — think the young babysitter at the beginning of Ringu — I realised just how little I could remember from The Horse Whisperer, beyond Scarlett Johansson’s life-changing accident, or common sense in general. It was dark. Very dark. And nobody had told me the Russian word for “HELP”.

Mercifully, just under an hour later, I was back on solid ground (if not particularly solid legs), alive and well. Having just witnessed the entirety of my life flash before my eyes, however I was just about able to reappraise the last seven hours. I had had a great time, an action-packed day and a whole host of new experiences that I would not soon forget. And, really, that’s what this trip was all about.


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