Spring in Barnaul

It’s early Monday morning on the 21st for me — I’m taking advantage of slight jet lag to get up by 5:30 or 6 and work during what are my most productive hours of the day, were I generally able to get up this early. I arrived here in Barnaul (capital of the Altai Krai, located in the “deep south” of central Siberia—look for it between Lake Baikal on the right and Novosibirsk on the left) on last Thursday morning, the 17th after 2 long long days of travel. I had planned and packed for “dead of winter” weather, but was instead greeted by a spring warming trend. Most days seem to hover at just above freezing, creating an icky slushy, slippery concoction of melting snow, dog detritus, and mud. NOT my favorite kind of weather — I’d prefer a good cold snap to this.

I’m being put up at the bachelor pad apartment again this time, right downtown. Barnaul is making steady progress, economically. There are more and more “Western-style” stores here, full of clothes, shoes, groceries, etc. Used to be this time of year in Russia (in the early 90s for me), that there were no fresh vegetables or fruit to be had except cabbage, tomatoes, and cukes “imported” from the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia, etc.) and the odd shipment of bananas or shriveled apples. Now, IF you can afford it, you can choose from 4-5 different kinds of apples, shipped in from South America or Southeast Asia. Since I’m on my own, I am dining on copious amounts of tvorog (crumbly, rich, unsalted curds), smetana (sour cream, which you can buy at multiple RICH milkfat levels), honey, tvorog dumplings with raisins, and tea. Yeah, I know, not exactly a “square” diet.

I’m visiting Barnaul for a couple of reasons. Southeast of Barnaul, the Republic of Altai (capital Gorno-Altaisk) contains 2 very important nature reserves (closed to the general public), severe climate alpine/high elevation steppe lands (over 10,000 feet peaks), nestled next to a uniquely warm/sheltered river valley (Katun River, tributary to the Ob’ River), stone age burial sites, petroglyphs, and sculptures. Oh, and some of the last remaining Snow Leopards in the world. Various Turkic, Kazakh, and Mongol indigenous groups here—when you are in the southernmost village of Belyashi, you are just a 60km HIKE (there are no roads) to the borders of China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. Sort of like the “4 Corners” in the US, but a bit more exotic.

So, back to the reasons for my visit. Some idiot Moscow investors have decided that they want to build a large dam (between 50-150 meters in height—they’re being a “bit” squirrely with the details) on the Katun River. There are a zillion reasons why this is a bad idea, not the least of which, the only real hope for economic development in the Republic is tourism, not a big ugly dam in a pristine valley, generating energy that goes straight to an ore processing facility over the ridge, from whence profits are shipped back to Moscow-based operators. I am indirectly campaigning with local partners against this dam by giving a presentation at a 2-day seminar for Republic government officials on the economic inadequacies of large hydroelectric dams, as well a global trends on the development of renewable energy (solar, wind, “micro-hydro”, cogeneration, and even GASP! increasing efficiency of existing infrastructure). The internet is an AMAZING thing, I’ve been able to find all sorts of great data on the subject; now I just have to figure out how to say it in Russian.

On the third day of this event, I get to hop a minivan with a pack of renewable energy experts and government officials for a 6 hour road trip to the town of Ust’-Koksa (“Ust’” means “mouth of the river”), to check out opportunities for implementing renewables there. The Republic is surprisingly supportive of renewables, mainly because the entire Republic has a population of 202,000, 75% of it spread sparsely in isolated towns and villages across 93K square kilometers. It is actually cheaper, simpler, and more efficient to develop localized power infrastructure than it is to maintain a big centralized power grid.

Today, I’m going to take a bus to Novosibirsk for a quick overnight trip to meet with partner organizations there. Novosibirsk, the “capital” of Siberia, is a comfortable 3-4 hour drive from Barnaul and is home to the Novosibirsk State University housed in its own academic city of Akademgorodok (gorodok=little city). I think I’ve written about it before—it’s more of a forest, interspersed by buildings, than a small city full of trees. It’s got this great academic atmosphere too.

Okay, I’ll stop here and pick up again in a few days. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get a dial tone right now, so I’ll have to send this later. At least I have electricity and heat…