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Yakutsk through eyes of foreign visitors

Mark Wooley 1

The editors of "Yakutia Today Magazine" are interested in what expats living in Yakutsk think of the city and its people, its strong and weak points, as well as what could be improved. A foreign specialist told us about his initial experiences, and shared what travelers visiting Yakutia should look for. The following is an interview with Mark Wooley.

- You arrived in Yakutsk not so long time ago. So what’s your first impression?

- Initially I wanted to come to Yakutia because I’ve always been interested in Geography. Number one. When one is interested in Geography, he finds certain areas that he wants to visit more than others. The principal reason that I came to Yakutia was to see Eastern Siberia which I think is still the most pristine part of Siberia. I wanted to experience the cold and my first impressions when I arrived, were not too far removed from what I had in my imagination. But one of the impressions that I didn’t expect was (and this is important – Is Yakutia going to feel more Slavic Russian or Sakha or equally Sakha and European Russian? which one is going to give you that principal cultural feeling?) I had read in many books and guides that it’s equally divided between the ethnic Russians and the Sakha.  My impressions, and I observe these things (they are not done interestedly; I do them with a very keen sense of what I am looking at and looking for). I found that the culture in the Sakha Republic is most definitely Asiatic.  And thus, it is predominantly Yakut, much more than European Russian. It felt like almost the completely different country in that regard. I had been in European Russia so I know a little bit about it, not for a long time, but I also noticed the customs, the language and the people who were extremely warm toward me, hospitable toward me more so even than in western part of Russia. So that gave me a very positive impression of Yakutia. And I haven’t been here really long enough, only two months, to make a real analysis of the differences. But that was the principal difference and (not to mention the great wonderful scenery especially at Lena Pillars) the fact that this is a Yakutian region and the people and the culture are quite different from that of the western part of Russia. This is principal.

- What can you say about Yakutsk as a city? Some specific  things?

- Very specific moment – it’s the largest city of over 100.000 people that is on permafrost. And it’s the coldest winter city of over 100.00 people in the world. And those two things are superlatives. I haven’t really experienced winter here yet, I got here in the very early March but I’m very eager to find out just what it’s like… I want to see -50. I want to experience -50. I want to throw a glass of water into the air and see it come down as ice. I think, there are two kinds of people in the world, it’s not a national issue, it’s a people issue worldwide, people who grow up in small areas, villages, towns and those who grow up in cities. I grew up in a village of two thousand people. So people when I arrived kept telling me Yakutsk is not a large city. But for me it seems like a city. It doesn’t seem like a town.  The things I’ve noticed about the city – perhaps it’s nowhere in the world – in so far as how cars yield to pedestrians all the time and I think, this must be, because there is ice in the winter time and maybe it is considered that the car has more control and, thus, should give way to the pedestrian. I’ve seen many of such specific moments like that. Also I decided after the snow and the ice began to melt - I’m going to need some very good boots. I went to the Chinese market because I have never been to a place where mostly in the month of April you have alternate thawing and freezing.  Freezing in the night and morning and thawing in the afternoon. So this is something that people have to be aware of in the evening, at night - be cautious…  Other than that the peculiarities of the city… I think cities once they reach about a 100 thousand of population or 150 thousand they take on a kind of homogeneity, they are kind of all the same. But the one thing is how polite the drivers are in terms of pedestrians, in terms of the people, how they give way, I‘ve never seen it anywhere as strongly as I had it in Yakutsk.

- Really?!

- Nowhere. Certainly nowhere in the US. Perhaps, in Los Angeles because the fines are very severe… Even if the pedestrian is not crossing in the proper space the cars still have to stop.

- What made you come here?

- I have to go back to a very early interest in Siberia. Before being a teacher I was in the petroleum industry, I was a geophysicist, a geologist. I worked with Russian people from Murmansk.  When I was a petroleum geologist I got to see a lot of the world, I was always interested in extremes and not only is the extreme weather here, that is to say, the coldest inhabited region of the world because in Arctic is obviously colder but it doesn’t really count because people don’t live there, they can’t. So I realized that the Republic of Sakha was the largest administrative region of any nation on Earth. It’s larger than Western Australia, which is huge, it’s almost two times a size of Alaska, it’s larger than North-west territories of Canada, it’s even larger than Greenland. So I was interested in going to the largest administrative region of the largest nation on Earth, the Russian Federation. So that attracted me too, as well. And I was always interested in the lifestyle of the Yakut people because it seemed to me quite exotic.  Stroganina, Indigirka, all of these things were very positive experiences for me. The first time I tried Indigirka I thought: “Where have you been all my life?”

-  Please tell about your childhood.

- I am 63. I was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota. My father died when I was 1-year old. He died of poliomyelitis. It was before they had the vaccination. And my mother was from Oklahoma. Minnesota is in the North, it’s very cold, the accents are different, the food is different, and the culture is different than where her people came from, Oklahoma. So she decided after one year to move back to Oklahoma with myself and older brother who was four years old. I grew up in Oklahoma, in a small town of 2 000 people. I had a very good childhood because in those of 1950s and 1960s until the end on 1960s when things became politically more doubtful. We had a very slow pace of life, relaxed pace of life, there was no technology; there were no computers, of course. You just had the one telephone only to answer and three channels on your television. I remember even the color television coming in 1962 when I was 10 years old. And of course, those were the days of the Cold War, so we were wondering:”Are we going to race the Soviets to the Moon? And who’s going to get there first? Are we going to have a bad war?” We were concerned about things like that but not concerned like an everyday situation. We weren’t obsessed with it. It was something that was THERE. Over there. In those days it seemed that there were no things like drugs in the society, there were in the cities but not in the small towns. There are now, unfortunately. There were just some few alcoholics, that’s all there were. So we had a more stable life, we were poor, we didn’t have as much money as most Americans do now. But we had a lot more social stability, very few marriages ended in divorce. And the main thing is corporate America big corporations, big stores, they didn’t exist, just a few. We had to go to the city. You could do all your shopping in the little town. There were eight little supermarkets, six barbers.  It was very quiet; it was like a big family. And I stayed there, there 41 people in my graduating class, that’s all. At the age of 18 I left it all and went off to the University. That was the end of my childhood. And I only ever came back to visit this little town.

- Would you like to go and visit this town?

- 18 years of your life. I you have grown up in one culture, this culture will define you. Not any other. Any other culture that might exist even in the US.  In another state or another place, I won’t fully understand it because I haven’t lived there. I don’t know what’s it like and we have many different sub-cultures in US. So I will always love this place because I had very positive childhood there and I like having grown up in such a small place with very kind people, really just people for the most part. I would like to go back and see if something has changed, I have a feeling that the big corporations now that exist everywhere and can give you the lower price will cause the downtown, the business area to die, it’s pretty much dead. But to live there for the rest of my life after I retire, I think it might be that I still find I want to travel because more than anything in my life I’ve always been a traveler, a gypsy. So if I go back it maybe for a year. I might even stay two years but I really don’t see myself staying there for the rest of my life. I want to go back and visit my old friends, see what it was like and then - bye-bye again, dosvidania!

- What are your hobbies except traveling?

- When I was younger I did diving. But then I got an infection in my left ear from coming up too fast. So they advised me not to do that anymore. That was one of my hobbies.  I like some sports, I like to play tennis, I like bowling. My favorite is swimming. I really enjoy swimming since I was a university student.  It was really always something that made me feel good. Another one is fishing. I would like to go fishing this summer in Yakutia if the mosquitoes don’t kill me.  And I read a lot. Mostly history.

- Have you heard the Sakha people speak?

- I was blessed by a shaman. So I needed a translator. A very nice sound, it sounds a little bit like Turkish, Kazakh or Kirghiz.  Maybe there are some relationships between them. Has a very pleasant sound. I think, all many languages are difficult to learn. I always remember when I was in Finland. I said I understand Finnish as a very difficult language to learn and she looked at me and said to me:”Do you know any easy one?”  In other words, all languages are hard to learn. The Sakha language resembles American Indian. Oklahoma has over 70 different ethnic tribes. The Government from 20s-40s forced them to speak English. Some of the languages have died. There are some that are still spoken by older people. They just started to bring their culture back.

- As an English teacher what can you say about peculiar features of learning English as a foreign language?

-I’ve taught in Mongolia, China, and Thailand. And now I’m in Russia, the Sakha republic. You find always that the mistakes the students make or the things they find the most difficult to learn are grammatical constructions that don’t exist in their language. They try to say like “how you know it is correct?”, “why is he say that?”, if there’s not to be verb used there is. Sometimes they leave out is.  Students will say “I’m study”.  But it’s hard to use this participle, you have to say “I am studying”.  –ing. It’s a very important sound -ing because there are certain grammatical mistakes you can get away with. You can fail to use correctly and it doesn’t sound so bad.  But there are some like “I am study”. That sounds in English really bad. This is why I tell my students you must never say this. Of course, the one very difficult sound in English for all speakers (not just Russians) is voiceless th (like in “three”) and th with voice, with sound. That’s trivial. It’s not really important to me. The main function of language is communication.

- Please your advice to parents who want their children to learn English? 

- I think  when they are very young learners they must because their parents probably will be English speakers, their parents will need to send them to a school/ private academies like ISE. We have a very good program for young learners, probably it’s best in Yakutsk maybe I have prejudice because I work here or , I have noticed this on the Internet because I subscribe to different teacher groups, as English moves to the world as the world’s second language.  Many of the countries are looking to teach their citizens at the younger and younger age. This is very wise and clever.  Because a younger child starts to learn, as you know, faster. It’s in inverse proportion the younger you learn - the faster you learn. As you get older – the slower. Because your computer has been programmed when you are old, but when you are a young person, you are absorbing information very quickly. So now China, Japan, and countries in Europe – Norway, Holland and places like that,  they start learning English at about 6-8.  Because the world now is so small, it needs a common language. And this important to remember – there’s only one reason to learn English in the case of Russia or whatever country – you can communicate with non-Russian people.  You can communicate with someone who is not from your country. This is the only reason. It’s not going to replace any languages, any cultures, and any nations. That’s not the point of learning English. When you are not in your own country or when somebody’s visiting your country and they are not your own nationality you can communicate in the common language.

- How to get rid of typical mistakes?

- If you are learning about before 8-12 years, if you are learning English at that age you won’t have an accent in this case it will be a Russian accent. When they learn from very young age they don’t develop accents. But after what we call puberty when they start to learn, then they will always have an accent.  Many times you cannot erase this; it’s going to be there for the rest of their lives.  If I were, and I am, to learn Russian now, you will hear me and immediately say:”He is a foreigner, he is not a Russian”, but if it’s a little child and they’ve been learning since age 6, 7… I have a student, he has a little 11-year-old daughter, when she speaks – it could be a little American girl. No accent.  “Getting rid” implies that you had had something, so when a little child begins to learn, it does not mean “getting rid of something”, an accent or whatever, it’s never developing one. So you give all the sounds, that’s why it’s important to start a child learning early.  We are creatures of habits, so we tend to make the same mistakes according to our psychology. The only way to correct the mistakes when you are older is to be around a native speaker and practice, practice, practice or listen to something on the Internet, take a course and keep on practicing. And then the teacher kindly, not aggressively, points out. If my students make mispronunciation or a bad grammar I usually repeat it correctly. Enormous amount of practice will help.

- What would you advise foreign tourists to see in Yakutsk and Yakutia? Must-see in Yakutsk and Yakutia?

- First of all, this relates to the question, not a direct answer. For tourism sector to develop – there is a great possibility for that to happen. The first thing that must happen – the flights from the western part of the US. There should be easier connections to Yakutia. I think, there used to be a flight from Anchorage, Alaska, to Vladivostok? It’s not so close but it’s closer than Beijing. There are two flights a week. The first thing you would have to have is the air infrastructure to get the people here. And then people from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles would start coming to Yakutia as tourists.  There is a kind of, how can I say this diplomatically, pretension among some Americans who have good income, the world is so small now, you see people in Mount Everest and remote jungles in latest gear, traveling everywhere. So people want to go to a place that is not highly traveled. And Yakutia still would fall into that category of not a highly traveled area. One million people in the area the size of India, so it makes for a difficult infrastructure. But that’s what people want now. They want to come here.  You have the World Heritage Site – the Lena Pillars, the Lena River, you have the Poles of Cold. I look at them on my Weather App on my iPhone and I think there are just about the same – Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon. There are both Poles of Cold, in other words, the coldest towns on Earth in the winter. People want to see those things. People want to see the eating of the reindeer meat or the eating of the … er… whatever… intestines… Some people do, not everybody. They want to try exotic things. If I were telling someone, and I’m going to write this when I’m back to the US,  the most alluring thing about Yakutia is that it is so far from cities that it is insulated and at the same time there are places where the tourists can feel relaxed, modern hotels. There are many things to see here. Mostly it’s the Sakha culture. That’s very intriguing to a lot of people. But there are people who want to go hunting and fishing and they can do all those things in a very pristine environment. Right here in Yakutia. It has great potential for tourism.

- Thank you very much! Good luck and success!

Tuyara Mikhailova

Alexander Pakhomov