An excerpt from ‘The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria: A Memoir’, translated from the Gujarati by Murali Ranganathan.
Article in Scroll India
From Manchuria station, a separate line goes towards Mongolia and Inner Manchuria, but we have nothing to do with it. We are going to board the train to Siberia, which leaves at nine in the morning. We are finally going to enter Siberia.
I was rather excited about visiting Siberia; it is not something one does every day. I kept looking at my watch often, waiting for six o’clock in the evening when we were scheduled to reach Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia. Finally at 6.35, I could spot Irkutsk station as we edged towards it. Wow! But there was nothing I could see except a small structure in a dilapidated condition.
But what is this? I could hear voices floating in from all directions though I could not see anyone. I went towards the little building, trying to figure out what it was. Imagine my surprise when I entered it. This was the portal to enter the station that had been built underground. As one descended the fifty-odd steps, it was like entering a fish market. People were running hither-thither with their bundles and bags.
What looked like a small place from the outside turned out to be quite an impressive railway station once you entered it. There were all kinds of facilities underground, including the ticket office, telegraph office, waiting rooms and a refreshment room. There was even a tunnel to cross over from one platform to another.
I was feeling hungry once again as I had not had anything except for cups of tea since we left Manchuria. “It would be memorable to have a meal in the capital of Siberia,” I thought, and walked into the refreshment room. As soon as I sat down, a waiter approached me to take down my order. I pondered over the menu card but could not make any sense of it. Everything looked just the same.
I told him to get me something to eat but he could not comprehend what I was saying. When I tried to mime it by bringing my hand close to my mouth, the waiter seemed to understand. He went and got me a box of cigarettes. It would have been funny if the joke was not on me. Finally, I had to make do with a cup of tea and a slice of cake.
Land of ice and snow
Now that we were in Siberia, do I even need to mention the cold? And if you are hungry, the cold does weird things to you. It seemed like a world gone mad on ice and snow! Wherever you looked, you could see mountains of snow. Not a speck of land which was not covered by snow. It was as if a white carpet had been laid out on the roads.
The snow was two to three feet deep. If you tried to walk on it, you would sink to your knees. None of the trees had even a single leaf on them. On the other hand, snow was hanging from the branches, which made the trees seem like they were made of snow. Wherever you went, all you could see was snow, snow on roofs, snow on the roads, snow in houses, snow everywhere! All this was too tiresome for words. It was cold enough to freeze your bones. You would go so numb that it felt like your ears and nose had been chopped off.
I spent a most miserable night which I will never forget. Just imagine if one has to spend a whole winter here. Forget using a light blanket to cover oneself at night; instead, one would need a heavy rug, weighing a couple of tons. Even during the day, one cannot do without a heavy woollen overcoat lined on the inside with a thick layer of fur. A fur lining on the inside makes a big difference when compared to a coat without it.
These overcoats are not a mere article of fashion to be flaunted. They could be the difference between life and death in this weather. Additionally, one has to wear headgear made from similar material, which covers practically the entire head and face. The outfit would not be complete without a pair of heavy boots that are also lined with fur on the inside. Having donned this attire, one can hardly walk or bend. But if one does not wear all this protective gear, one might end up dead and buried under those mountains of snow.
During the months of December and January, the temperature drops to 40 degrees below zero. Where is one to get water to drink under these circumstances? But instead of water, one can get milk everywhere; and it is very cheap and extremely fresh. And our dear Siberians even wash their faces with milk during the harsh winters. If you wash your face with cold water, it might crack the skin.
There is no question of taking a bath during winter. What is one to do if there is no water in the pipes? It just freezes up inside. In the morning, they wrap the pipe with straw and burn it. As the pipe heats up, small bits of ice first emerge from it before water starts flowing. Why bother with so much hassle?
How is one to go around in this cold weather? No motor cars or carriages with wheels are in sight during winter since such vehicles with wheels cannot move on snow. They have therefore fashioned sledges with iron springs, each of which can seat two people. A few sledges are designed to seat four people on seats that face each other. Instead of wheels, these vehicles have two iron runners that slide smoothly on the snow. They can be very easily hauled by horses.
Since they do not have wheels, these sledges are rather low-slung like those little wooden carts on which children drag each other around in Navsari. But it is rather fun to ride these sledges. You just put your hand out and scoop up the snow. And one thing leads to another and we have a snowball fight! Strangely, during the summers, the snow and ice seem like a blessing.
The summers are so harsh in Siberia that it becomes a different kind of hell. To escape the heat, the Siberians prefer to burrow themselves in ice houses that are specially constructed during the winters by digging underground chambers whose walls are lined with ice. Indeed, the world is full of strange things!
Fox hunting in the snow mountains
The land of snow has got its own exclusive attractions. A roving sportsman could certainly have a good time. One of the more popular sports is the hunting of the Siberian fox. In our country, many hunters think no end of themselves after hiding up a tree and shooting down a passing tiger. They would be unable to shoot down a single fox.
Fox hunting is a long-standing and well-known sport in the northern stretches of Siberia. The fur of the fox is much valued across Europe and fetches high prices. Its fur is considered to generate the most warmth and ladies across Europe feel rather chuffed when they wrap it around their necks.
The Siberian fox is hunted only during the winter season when its fur is most developed. At the same time, the heavy snow prevents the fox from running at top speed. It makes the job of the hunter much easier. After having surveyed the area in the morning and having determined that there are a lot of foxes around, the hunting team stakes the area and surrounds it with a thick rope from which red flags are hung at intervals.
They fire a few rounds in the air to startle the foxes, which emerge from their hideouts and try to run away. But when they see the rope and the red flags, they get terrified. They keep running around in circles and stop only when they tire out. They are shot dead in that instant with a bullet aimed at either the forehead or the neck. If the bullet misses its mark, the fox runs away or tries to hide in the snow, making it difficult for the hunters to shoot it.
Excerpted with permission from The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria: A Memoir, Translated from the Gujarati by Murali Ranganathan, With a Foreword by Amitav Ghosh, HarperCollins India.