Poles apart: to the (other) end of the Earth
Just about one week prior to leaving for my current assignment in Antarctica I was in Yakutia, Russia. For those of you unfamiliar with the various regions of Russia, Yakutia is located in Siberia, very near a point that is the antipode to Bellingshausen Station on King George Island, which is where I am stationed now. That is to say if you were able to draw a straight line from this point in Yakutia directly through the center of the Earth to the opposite side, you would find me sitting here typing away at my computer. The fact that in such a short time my job has brought me actually to the opposite end of the world, in itself is a noteworthy experience, but to save time and keep things focused, I will narrow my writing to the topic of Antarctica and my experiences down at the bottom of the planet.
Getting here was no easy task; in fact I daresay it was an exercise in human endurance and stamina. On the 16th of January, my cameraman extraordinaire, Stan Mandryka, left the RT studios for Domodedovo Airport in Moscow. Thirty-six hours later — by way of Madrid, Santiago, Chile, and Puerto Monde — we found ourselves in Punta Arenas, Chile, at the southern tip of South America. This was the launching point for our adventure. Our time in Punta Arenas was short, but not uneventful. Truckers, dock workers and union members had brought the region to a stand-still, with massive demonstrations against a proposed government increase in gasoline prices. Actually, the airport itself had been blocked off and the only access to the city itself was by hiking the 23 kilometers through a series of checkpoints created and manned by protestors. Stan and I were able to find a way through the mess by actually covering the story!
Punta Arenas was the perfect last-minute staging ground for the next leg of our journey. It was here we met the dive team from the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as a documentary film-maker who was returning to Bellingshausen after having spent a full winter living at the base. We were all considered part of the summer crew and have been officially registered as members of the Russian Antarctic Expedition. Now that the group had assembled, it was time to hitch a ride with the Uruguayan Air Force and hop over to the next continent… ANTARCTICA!!!
We were transported to the Chilean Air Force’s Eduardo Frei Base by way of a large, military, C-130 aircraft. Coming in to land in Antarctica, the plane broke through a low and misty cloud cover to reveal an icy and rocky landscape down below. It truly seemed like a scene out of a Star Trek episode, as an “away team” left the main starship and was descending on to a strange and unknown planet. You could tell from the approach and from the angry waters below that it was very windy outside — an element that added to the excitement of it all.
The plane crabbed into the wind, with the pilot correcting just before a jarring landing on small gravel strip, and with that we were on King George Island. A crew from the Russian Base was at the airport waiting for us in order to get us quickly settled into our quarters before starting our day and having lunch.
King George Island is the home to several stations and bases in Antarctica and so it has a very international feel. The Russian Bellingshausen Station is located on the shores of Maxwell Bay, right next to a collective of Chilean Bases. Chile has a large presence in Antarctica, especially on the peninsula, as the country has a territorial boundary claim on the continent. While the Antarctic treaty establishes the area as an international zone of scientific research and doesn’t recognize any country’s territory, Chile has positioned itself to reassert that claim when the treaty expires. Near to the Russian and Chilean instillations in one direction is the Chinese “Great Wall” station, while a trip the other way will get you to Uruguay and Brazil. Across the bay, just a short ride in a zodiac, you will also find a Korean Station, where I am told they have an amazing karaoke system to keep their crew entertained through the long winters. In essence it is a very global presence concentrated into one small area, and all of these stations work closely together to make sure their individual operations are successful.
In terms of life around the base, things here are pretty simple. There are officially 44 people living and working at Bellingshausen. Right now is an interesting time to be here because there is a diverse mix of crew. Typically, between only 16 and 17 folks winter through and stay an entire year, but as this is summer season, the exiting crew is still on duty, certain members of the next full-time group are starting to arrive, and then there are the “Syezonniki” [seasonals –ed.] like me, who are here to work and do research during the summer. All of us are technically a part of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, and all are given extra responsibilities above and beyond our regular work. (For example, on Saturdays we all participate in a group clean-up of the base, and people here take turns in helping the cook in the kitchen during and after meals.)
Living in my building are a group of German ornithologists who are counting and studying penguins, the next chief of the station, Bulat (he studies glaciers), Marina the ancient pollen expert, Olga the documentary-maker, and a smattering of others who have wintered over.
Water is pumped in from a small well created by melting snow, and in the living areas there is no hot water. In fact, bathing is something that happens only once a week and during an assigned time. This is something that takes some getting used to, but the reasons make sense…water is somewhat sacred in this environment. In fact, the Uruguayan station has a sign posted in Spanish, “Please conserve our water as it is very difficult to acquire.” While we do not have an equivalent to that sign posted here at Bellingshausen, the idea is understood around the base. For those of you who have just wrinkled your nose in disgust and disbelief, everyone here has ways of freshening up and staying hygienic, just the concept of an outright shower or bath are out of the question.
Now I should point out that this is in fact a Russian base and, as such, it is very easy to tell where priorities are from a cultural standpoint. The day that is assigned for all the members of the base to get clean is also the official banya day. That’s right… there is an official and traditional RUSSIAN BANYA on location. You are to use your assigned time in the banya to also get clean during that time. While it may seem strange, it certainly feels wonderful after a week of working in the cold to be able to relax for a couple of hours in the banya. But the idea of simply sitting in a hot wooden room, beating yourself with birch bark isn’t where our banya in Antarctica stops…oh no…the chief of the station actually rations out one can of beer and juice each week, so that participants can get the true Russian cultural experience as well.
Russia has been exploring the Polar Regions longer than almost any other country. In fact, Bellingshausen Station is named after the admiral in Russian service who actually discovered the continent. The Russian tradition of working in, researching and exploring Antarctica is a long and celebrated one. I know I am in great hands and look forward to the all of the adventures that this land has to offer. I also look forward to recording those adventures here…so stay tuned!
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.