Russia (Part 4)

We went to lunch and then caught another long train to Apatity.

 It was fun and irresistible to just stand at the windows and watch the villages go by, and sometimes we’d have a stop of decent length and get out to stretch our legs and buy piroshkis and tarts from wandering babushkas. When we reached Polyarsky Circle town, it was pretty cool. (also, a big debate started, where a few know-it-alls started declaring, “No, this is the POLAR Circle, we haven’t gotten to the Arctic Circle yet.” It was pretty funny, they even denied we had reached the Arctic Circle when we were in Apatity, I don’t know why. Polar denial or something.) We got to Apatity in time to have dinner, a shower, and wander around in the cold dark gulag camp we had been stationed in. Seriously, the hotel we stayed in (more like a summer camp cabin, with one communal shower for all and four beds that felt like you were sleeping on a slinky in each room, and a communal kitchen for cooking) was a converted gulag barracks, it was kind of creepy. And the mountains all around us weren’t huge by Sierra 
standards, but they were really close all around us, and looked very imposing.

Then next day we woke up to the unusually late first snows of Apatity, and had snowball fights and played around, then we headed to some tours of the apatite mines and processing plants for which we had supposedly come to this godforsaken place. We took a bus to the top of a mountain where the apatite was mined, basically just scooped up out of the ground by big machines, and it was hard to see anything except two headlights waaaaay down in the white hole of the artificial crater. We also saw some big trucks and machines and tires that impressed the pants off a lot of the city folks, who apparently had never been five years old and climbed around on their grandpa’s tractor. 😉 Of course, these machines were absolute monsters, their tires being about 12 feet in diameter.
Then we went to the processing plant, first some factory room where spare parts were kept (and Metallica was spraypainted on one of the high walls), then the plant that crunched up the rocks, which was pretty impressive in itself, rocks went down the chute, and no matter how big they were, the machine at the bottom would reduce them to coarse grained sand, it was hypnotic to watch, and sparks were often created. The beat of the machinery made me think of the song “Allentown.” Then we went to the plant that takes the sludge and mixes it around with some other chemicals and then the runoff goes to another plant, where it’s bubbled up and then the bubbles are swept out by paddles, it was like Charlie and the Chocolate factory, except gray sludge instead of chocolate. The final stage was the drying place, where these huge wheels would spin ever so slowly, collecting the sludge, and then drying it, and then blowing it out into the collecting bin, where it was reaped and used to make fertilizer, explosives, and Fanta soft drinks.  It was like a magical world that worked on its own, only needing to be watched and repaired (and often whole sections just weren’t working, and inappropriate things spilled out to the next stage). Also, although I know that every component of the processed things I use and eat and drink originally comes from some factory like that, it was hard to imagine this godforsaken mine in this godforsaken place was necessary to make the Fanta I occasionally drink so thoughtlessly. I’m in line with some of the Mensheviks, in that I think every politician should be an ordinary worker at least part of his life, then maybe he’d see more of what the world is really like.
And the most depressing part was the tailing ponds (when our guide told us where we were going, I originally thought she said “killing ponds” and it turns out I wasn’t far off base). Out of every ton of apatite harvested, 400 tons of leftovers, or tailings, are produced, and they have to go somewhere. So they dammed off a lake and piped all those countless thousands of leftovers over the years, which contain poisonous heavy metals and who knows what else, into this pond. They claim it doesn’t get into the groundwater too much, because they use deeper wells for groundwater that are supposedly clean, but they also admitted the water was only “about 70% safe” whatever that means. I’m not even going to start on the ecological effects.
Since it got really dark and really cold really early, there wasn’t much to do except (a) get drunk or (b) have snowball fights. So we did both. We played quarters until we were all warm and fuzzy, then we went out and wrestled in the snow and threw snowballs at each other and built a huge snowman, which took a ramp made out of railroad ties to get the second tier on, and the third tier was just kind of lobbed up there by someone on someone else’s shoulders. It was pretty fun. Then we went in and talked and went to bed.

A truce was formed later, however, when Ilya, a Stanford student who lived in Russia the first 9 years of his life, offered to buy the kids ice cream if they would attack this tall lawyer guy named Garth who came along with us on the trip. It was smoove. (And it was fine for Garth to come, except that none of our directors EVER reprimanded us for any of our behaviour, which was never inappropriate for a self-respecting college student… for the most part. Basically they give us a lot of leeway, and we respect it in the most important ways. But this Garth guy, out of no where, starts lecturing us, it was really weird! He had absolutely no authority over us, and understandably ruffled a few feathers. Garth was a good sport and just laughed about the surprise attack, which wasn’t vicious or anything.)

We went to their “department store” which didn’t have much terribly  interesting, certainly nothing within 20 years of fashionable, but I got a couple of 20-ruble (75 cent) pirated British cassettes to go with my Sonashi walkman.