Jan. 19th, 2010

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• In a way, the ten-hour flight from Osaka to Helsinki on a Finnair A330 is just a bus trip. People keep the window shades down, watch the seatback TV. In another way, it's extraordinary, an elastic day that streches lunchtime from East Asia to Europe, a jet that hangs under the sun and travels for five or six hours across the world's largest continuous landmass, containing some of the most freezing, gorgeous, mysterious landscapes on the planet. If this were a bus, your trip from Scunthorpe to Sunderland would go via Saturn. I don't understand people who aren't fascinated. I can gaze down on Siberia for hours.

• Vladivostok, Yakutsk, Novosibirsk. The names pop up on the route map amongst huge areas of empty space. Not many people live in this vast, icy waste that sometimes looks like craters and lunar ice, and sometimes like green plains curling with rivers. Well, I say not many, but Wikipedia corrects me: not many for its size. This enormous part of Northern Asia constitutes 77% of Russia's territory, but contains 25% of its population (36 million people). I wonder if more will move here if global warming continues? Already the winters are less cold:

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• Europeans flying to Japan see this otherness (an otherness far more vast than anything that awaits them in Japan) below them for hours and hours. For the nervous flyer, it's hard not to associate it with death. I remember Mike Alway reporting to me, after the el Records Japan trip in 1987, "Siberia is like the surface of the moon. You're very aware that if the plane went down there'd be just nothing." It is, after all, minus 50c down there. You'd die within hours.

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• Gazing down at Siberia on an almost-annual basis since the early 90s, I've found the place occupying my imagination, linking the idea of death with the idea of beauty. I wrote Trans-Siberian Express in 1992, a poem which asks you to "abandon this world for the next, cross the great plain of forgetfulness". The lyrics are here and the song itself is here.

• As a teenager I read Solzenitzen's accounts of the Siberian gulags, and revisited them a few years later in the form of Nadezhda Mandelstam's account of the exile to Vladivostok of her husband, Osip, the poet who died in a camp for comparing Stalin's fingers to stubby worms.

• "He knelt closer to the kotatsu table. There were a couple of drawings on tracing paper, and a map of the settlements of forgotten Siberian tribes living around the Sea of Okhotsk: Nao had been studying the disappearing culture of the Evenki and Eveny peoples; the Negidals, Oroks and Koryaks." From The Book of Jokes.

* Siberia (and other cold places) have also cropped up on Click Opera quite a bit: In Båtsfjord on the Barents Sea and Call this cold? This is nothing!, for instance, which is set in the Siberian city of Yakutsk (the one the girl in the video above says is getting warmer).

• It was lunchtime when we left Japan, and it was still lunchtime when we crossed the Ural Mountains, milky, jagged and orange -- the dividing line between European Russia and Asian Siberia. I remembered how I'd played a concert here in 2004, and planned to make an album called Tatartronic.

• Turning away from the window, I started watching the screen between the seats in front of me. There was a film showing the brilliant whites of wintry wastes, the bright oranges of padded boiler suits, and the stark environment of a research station. This turned out to be the 2007 Japanese film Nankyoku Ryorinin, or Chef of the South Polar.

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• Typically Japanese, the film was a harmless, quirky and likeable comedy centred on teamwork and cuisine. Big questions of death and sex were eschewed in favour of winning little anecdotal moments: the team pelt the chef with peanuts for the setsubun festival, steal ramen, pose naked in front of a sign declaring the temperature to be minus 60c.

• The chef's tale is based on two novels by Jun Nishimura, who really was a chef with a Japense research team in the Antarctic. But a rather more interesting account (in the way that imagination often has the edge on reality) may be from a man who's never been there. Vito Acconci contributed a piece called Halley II Research Station: First Impressions & the Beginnings of a Conceptual Approach to a show last year I was also in, as it happens: A Spoken Word Exhibition at the Baltic Mill in Gateshead.

• Acconci's spoken text describes an unbuilt architectural proposal for a research station in the Antarctic. Above is the one that was built, which is called Halley VI Research Station.

* When I announced the end of Click Opera three months ago, I happened to run a picture showing an Antarctic passenger vehicle called a Delta, a big red bus with tires five feet tall. Amazingly enough, one of my readers (someone called Mananath) was reading Click Opera from the McMurdo Staion in Antarctica and responded by telling me he was about to drive a similar vehicle out to the airport. Its name? Ivan the Terrabus.

• And -- to bring us full circle -- it was Ivan the Terrible who conquered Siberia for Russia.


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