Zygmunt Frankel

SIBERIAN DIARY


ARRIVAL

Zhengistovo, in Kazakhstan, where the train pulled up on the First of May, a warm sunny morning, seemed to be the last station on that branch of the line, and we already knew from the guards that that was where we were going to disembark. It was a small station and, except for a slogan painted in white letters on a long strip of red fabric, there were no particular signs that this was the First of May; perhaps we have arrived too early in the morning and the celebrations have not started yet. A long line of lorries waited along the platform, and beyond them stretched the Kazakhstan steppe; stony and seemingly endless but not quite flat, with some low hills in the distance.

Disembarkment was slow and leisurely, almost festive, and our guards were relaxed and helpful; they had shared this long train journey with us and now there was no further need to guard us; nobody was going to start escaping, at least not right away, from this station thousands of kilometres from home. The First of May may also have added to the friendly mood.

With our luggage on the platform, we were taken in charge by a number of civilian officials, some of them with Mongol faces with slanting eyes. Lists were handed over and identities checked. Then money was distributed, two and a half roubles per person. (A kilo of bread cost about half a rouble.) Finally we piled up onto the open lorries, each family seated as comfortably as it could on its luggage, and we set out, in a long convoy, the heavily loaded lorries bumping slowly over a dirt road across the steppe.

We were now out in the fresh air which grew warmer as the day progressed, and only spoiled by the dust raised by the slow-moving lorries. The steppe was monotonous, with some greenery on the low hills and in the ravines. We crossed a large plain which was being ploughed up by an already familiar type of tractor with the long steel spikes on the rear wheels. Late in the afternoon we reached Perevalki, a Russian village with low mudbrick houses, and were put up for the night most of us sleeping on the earthen floor. (The Russian, or rather Ukrainian, villages, we were told, had been there only for the past ten years or so, since the mass deportations of the more prosperous peasants.) Everyone was tired by the long day on the wobbling lorries and the heat and the dust. Zygmunt Halpern and I, having rested and washed our faces, made a round of the village and surveyed the surrounding steppe from the low hill on which the village stood while the daylight lasted.

The next morning some of the lorries were gone, but there was a lot of long open wooden carts with a pair of oxen getting yoked to each by Kazakh drivers with three-flapped fur hats, the third flap at the back covering the nape of the neck. Our large group of deportees was now going to be split into smaller caravans, to be dispersed among several villages in the steppe. Our own caravan consisted of a dozen carts with only two Kazakh drivers.The authorities obviously saw no further need for armed escort. One of the drivers did have a double-barrelled shotgun but obviously not for guarding us because the shotgun lay at the bottom of the cart together with his wadded coat and a small bundle. Noticing me looking at the gun, he pointed to the sky, flapped his hands, imitated a duck's quack, mimed eating a drumstick, licked his lips, and stroke his belly. Then he took the gun out to show me. My mother came up, worried. The driver said something reassuring and, pushing aside a lever behind the hammers, broke the gun open and showed her the empty chambers. Then he closed the gun again, cocked the hammers, and let me have it. It was very long and heavy. I pointed it at the sky over the empty steppe and pulled the triggers, one after the other. The hammers fell with a dry click. My mother was still worried so after a while I gave it back to the driver, feeling very proud about having held and aimed a real gun.

We now set out into the steppe, with a couple of small families or a single large one to each cart, and our two Kazakh drivers. Most of the carts were thus driverless, but the oxen pulled steadily, following the cart in front. The travel was slower than by lorry, but there was also less pitching and dust, and the creaking of the carts' wheels was more friendly than the noise of engines. For those of us who were raised on Karl May this was real adventure; we almost regretted there were no mustang-mounted Indians suddenly charging the convoy with blood-curling yells. We had observed with interest the simple wooden yokes on the shafts of the carts: a top and bottom bar, recessed and rounded to fit the animal's neck, and an iron rod with a loop at the top dropped into a couple of holes at the end of the bars to lock the animal in. Along some stretches of the trail the steppe would gleam with mica, and we would jump off the carts to collect lumps of the shiny mineral which could be peeled into brittle though slightly flexible paper-thin layers.

The steppe we were crossing was predominantly flat, but occasionally the ground rose for a while at a gentle angle and then descended again, in undulations which did not quite qualify as hills, although a line or two of those could be seen in the distance. The trail led between them, over the easier ground. As we had started out rather late in the morning, the drivers kept going for most of the day, sometimes jumping off the carts and walking to stretch their legs. We had some bread and conserves with us, and bottles of milk bought at the village the night before, and ate a little on the way.

Late in the afternoon, we came to a darker winding line of bushes; it was a sluggish narrow stream flowing in the direction of a small overgrown lake in the distance, and we stopped there for the night. First of all the drivers unyoked the oxen, hamstrung them, and released them to graze on the steppe grass. Then my friend the hunter took his gun and went off in the direction of the lake. I wanted to go with him but mother wouldn't let me. The other driver filled a bucket with water from the stream to make tea for everyone, and asked us to get kizyak. Nobody knew what kizyak was, and the driver spoke as little Russian as we did. To show us, he walked out into the steppe looking for something, and finally picked a round cake of dry cow dung and brought it to us, saying "Kizyak". We understood that this was to be the fuel for our fire, and wondered off into the steppe to get some more. Someone said that we looked like mushroom gatherers.

The dry cakes of cow dung were not repulsive to handle. To start with, back in Zawadow, I had come to like the smells of the farm, including that of fresh cow dung, which had nothing in common with the nasty stink of human or dog excrement. Dried by the sun, it became a light and odourless flat pie of shreds of vegetation, and I found and brought back four of them, two under each arm. Their presence in the area must have been due to the stream crossing being used as a regular stopover - our own oxen now planting future kizyaks as they grazed - and perhaps herds of cattle were also occasionally brought here to graze, with grass and water in close proximity. We were told in Perevalkino that the Kazakhs only wintered in their villages of mud huts; during the summer they roamed the steppe with their families and cattle, living in large round felt tents called yourts. But some agriculture was also being practiced, mainly growing wheat and mowing large areas of the steppe grass with tractors and combines for cattle fodder in winter; and indeed, there was a row of haystacks near the place where we stopped.

The Kazakh driver built a fire and stood the bucket of water over it on three stones. We heard a couple of shots from the direction of the lake. The water took a long time to boil; when it did, the driver unwrapped some small reddish-brown brick, approximately two centimetres thick, ten centimetres wide and twice as long, and crumbled some of it into the boiling water. "Chai", he said. Some of us knew knew that "chai" was "tea", both in Chinese and Russian The stuff itself puzzled us, and one of the men asked for a crumb and inspected and then tasted it.

"Seems to be mostly dried fruit," he said, "plums and the like, with some tea added as well." The stuff gave the water the proper reddish-brown tint. We unpacked whatever food we had with us, and filled our cups with the unfamiliar but quite drinkable tea. The driver also opened a small canvas sack and offered us elongated bite-sized pieces of dried white cheese, salty and hard, which he called "Kurt". This seemed to be staple Kazakh food, and we took a few pieces each, not knowing whether he was given the stuff to feed us on the way or being generous with his own supply.

The other driver came back with his boots and trousers muddy, his gun over his shoulder, and carrying a real wild duck! A proper big mallard with a green head, white collar, brown chest, and upcurled tail feathers! A few people applauded, and we closed in to see it.

The driver sat down by the stream to clean the duck. Without plucking it, he split open the belly, took out the innards, cut open and cleaned the muscular stomach, then put the stomach and the liver back in and closed the belly with a few thorns. Then he scooped up some clay from the bank, plastered the duck with it until it looked like a pumpkin, buried the whole thing under the pile of kizyak coals, and only then settled down to his tea and kurt.

An hour later he rolled the duck out of the coals with a stick. The clay was charred and cracked. He broke it open; most of the feathers came off with the clay, and the duck lay there plucked, half-steamed and half-broiled. We got a small piece each and it was delicious. The other Zygmunt, also raised on Karl May, and I were deeply thrilled; this was second best to buffalo steaks; we were crossing Asia with the descendants of Genghis Khan and living off the land.

We were now going to spend the night in the open, and the drivers taught us the warmest way to do it: you dug out a tunnel at the base of a haystack deep enough for the top part of your body to go in - if you made it much deeper it might collapse - with only your legs protruding. The night was quite cold, and in spite of the hay and the blankets, Stella and a couple of other children caught cold during the night.

The next morning, after another bucket of tea, we set out across the steppe again. I was on the lookout for another lake, hoping that perhaps this time mother will let me go duck hunting with the driver, but there weren't any more. In the afternoon, we reached a small Kazakh village of five long low mudbrick houses - the drivers said it was called Kairan - and stopped there for the night. There was a man and a couple of women in the village, but otherwise it seemed empty. An hour later a tall Kazakh with a drooping moustache and the three-flap fur hat rode into the village on a horse and was introduced to us as the Brigadir. This, it transpired, was the title of the manager of the local cattle-raising and agricultural "brigade". We were put up for the night in the houses, on the earthen floors. The village was empty because the inhabitants were away in the steppe, tending their cattle and horses, and cultivating the wheat fields. There was no furniture or any other stuff in the houses, and nobody was guarding the village. The man and two women who had come out to meet us were members of the brigade who had arrived earlier with large metal canisters of milk on an ox cart. Another kizyak fire was built and another bucket of tea brewed. Then we all sat in the square sipping it and talking to the Brigadir who knew some Russian.

He told us that our destination was a large Russian village about two days away, where a lot of Poles have already arrived, but a few families could stay right here in Kairan if they so wished, at least until the autumn when the Kazakhs would return from the steppe and need the place for themselves. What was the nearest settlement to Kairan, we asked. Rudnik Buko, he said, ("Rudnik", it transpired, was a quarry in Russian, gold in this case), about eight kilometres away, across that ridge. Were there any Poles living there as well? Yes, but earlier ones; they have been there since the beginning of the year, and have settled down by now.

My mother and four or five other women got into a huddle. Most families wanted to go on to the final destination of our caravan. Mother's group thought that life in a large place with a lot of deportees crowded together might be more difficult than in this small quiet village. They were also very tired by the two weeks on the train and the trek across the steppe, and two more days of it were very unattractive. What's more, Stella and another child or two were running a temperature and coughing; we had aspirin, but they also needed a rest in bed. Finally five families told the Brigadir that they were staying. He said "Khorosho" ("Good" or "All right"), and allotted us two fairly large rooms. The next morning we said goodbye to the rest of our caravan and watched them move slowly across the steppe and finally disappear behind a ridge.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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