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'Russian efficiency regarding train arrival and departure times is astonishing.'
Jon Pearson (Telegraph Online)

'Who are you, a Korean or a Russian?' I ask a taxi driver

10 April 2015

'We're Russian Koreans,' comes the reply.

'It’s something in Koreans’ blood, you need to work hard to survive. Not simply work, but work hard.' Picture: Tatyana Kumykova

Mirnyi 

We are in Russia's diamond capital, Mirnyi. Today every fourth diamond in the world is from Yakutia. We visit the natural park Live Diamonds of Yakutia where they breed musk-ox, a very particular animal with sad eyes. 

We also visit the closed down diamond well Mir which operated for 44 years. The huge grey crater over a kilometre deep looks gloomy, and now it’s a tourist attraction. Married couples go there on a wedding day, most of them wear rings decorated with diamonds. 

Water is scarce here so they use it carefully. Shop windows with vegetables and fruit are almost empty because of the shipment expenses as they are delivered with helicopters. That's another side of living in beautiful surroundings. 

Kisoon is teaching me to use the camera and speaks a lot about his life. He says that once he beat off 1,000 applicants for a job position in a big company. During his interview he was asked about his position among the world photographers. Kisoon replied he was the first. He clarifies to me that every artist is unique, one and only. 

Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia

We are in Russia's diamond capital, Mirnyi. Today every fourth diamond in the world is from Yakutia. Pictures: Tatyana Kumykova

At the time he refused to cut off his hair and follow the dress code. He still stands out of the crowd, and people are surprised to find out his age, although Kisoon is in his fifties, he looks much younger. On top of that, he dresses up quite brightly and always hangs a camera on his neck. He can suddenly stop and take a photo when we're rushing to catch a train. 

Today we’re shooting indigenous Yakuts in their villages. We leave early in the morning, and go to three villages - all of them empty. We get tired and hungry, and it would be good to go back home, but the bus we get on takes a longer route.

The landscapes outside are stunning and we get off at Staraya Tabarga village. A quarter a century ago there was a post office here. The locals tell us to go two-kilometres from where we are now, so we do with heavy backpacks.

There we meet a 78-year-old Yakut woman Okulina Danilovna Fedotova. She picks mushrooms and berries, looks after her land, and spends winter with her cat Murka.

When she finds out who we are, she shows how Yakuts peel fish. She nails a fish to a board to clean it off the scales, and fries it for us. She’s very hospitable, open and helpful. 

Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia

She shows how Yakuts peel fish. She nails a fish to a board to clean it off the scales, and fries it for us. She’s very hospitable, open and helpful. Pictures: Tatyana Kumykova

I start learning Korean but it’s challenging without a dictionary, and I can't find one in the local stores. To understand each other we use gestures or draw. It's very frustrating not to be able to speak properly. Kisoon says he feels the same. 

I’m also fed up with wearing the same jeans, red jacket and white hat. But it’s a must - it’s cold and windy, and we shoot outside a lot. Kisoon works a lot. Imagine a typical workaholic and multiply it by two. We start very early and get back at between 9pm and 10pm.

Mum is always asking me if I regret going. I don’t. It's a school of life for me and a big responsibility and I'm helping to sort out all the problems: fixing the shoots, buying tickets, thinking of the logistics, and interviewing politicians, businessmen, children and teachers. The latter comes easy as I have experience working for radio. When I have free time, I take photos. 

Aldan

We arrive into Aldan at night. It's unusual to find yourself in winter, with the snow 20cm deep. Locals say it's unusual, as normally there is so much snow no sooner than in mid-October. It feels we’re in a time machine. This year I didn’t even see the leaves turning yellow. When I left my hometown, Kemerovo, the leaves were green, in the east the leaves were yellow. Now we’re in snow. It doesn’t feel right. 

Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia

Mum is always asking me if I regret going. I don’t. It's a school of life for me and a big responsibility. Pictures: Tatyana Kumykova

I meet a Catholic pastor from Aldan, Joseph Tot, on the train. He's from Slovakia, but has been living and working in Russia for the past 24 years. He speaks with an accent.

Joseph grew up in communist times. He secretly decided to become a pastor and even his parents didn't know about his decision. When the freedom of religion arrived, Joseph's father told him that when he was born, Joseph's mother prayed for the boy's health and promised him to the church. 

He says: '’I’ve been a pastor for a while, father. It was my own decision’, I told him. You should have seen his eyes!'

Vladivostok

The last time I visited Vladivostok was five years ago when I was a student doing my internship. My recollections about the place were about hills, colourful trams, the never-ending ocean and Chinese corn-flavoured candies. 

Today I leave my jacket, hat and boots in the hotel room - it's summer. It's interesting why some people are freezing in Aldan and some are splashing in blue waters? Russia is a very diverse country. 

There are a lot of people in Vladivostok. Couples are walking on the seafront, pensioners are swimming and sunbathing, babushkas are eating ice-cream, and the fishermen are meditating. Everyone looks relaxed.

Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia

There are a lot of cars, buses with Chinese tourists, traffic jams at 3pm, and everyone is rushing somewhere. Pictures: Tatyana Kumykova

It feels like we’re somewhere in Italy, with the sea, sun, warm wind, beautiful architecture, smiles and laughter. I’d like to say that people in the Far East are more relaxed and calm, but Vladivostok is certainly an exception. There are a lot of cars, buses with Chinese tourists, traffic jams at 3pm, and everyone is rushing somewhere.

Actually, there are quite a few foreigners in the streets with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese restaurants, and quite a few Russian cafes. The passers-by are friendly, helpful and good-looking.

Then there's the cats! It seems that cats in stores is a Vladivostok brand. Some sleep in doorsteps, another one lives in a pharmacy and watches birds. Unfortunately, the hotel where we stay (for 3,700 roubles a night) has roach issues. 

Ussuryisk

The trees are unbelievably beautiful in the East. It’s +20C today and the leaves are slowly fading away. Today we take a local bus.

There is also a Korean Cultural Centre in Ussuryisk, which has choreography classes, a language school, a drummers' band, a newspaper and a museum. The centre welcomes 3,000 foreign visitors a year. 

A couple of days earlier we had a meal at a local Korean cafe. When a man at a nearby table heard us speaking Korean, he turned to us and offered to 'organize a dog'. Kisoon didn't like it as he's an animal lover. He prefers hot meals, and the first thing he usually asks for is mustard. 

Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia

There is also a Korean Cultural Centre in Ussuryisk, which has choreography classes, a language school, a drummers' band, a newspaper and a museum. The centre welcomes 3,000 foreign visitors a year. Pictures: Tatyana Kumykova

In Ussuryisk we're shooting images of local businessman Valentin Ten, who seems a kind man. I find it interesting how he managed to create one of the biggest taxi companies in Far East. He was one of seven children in the family, the middle one, and his father taught him to be responsible. 

Valentin’s relatives were among the Koreans repressed in Stalin times. His grandparents had 10 minutes to get ready to leave late at night, before being sent to Uzbekistan in a cargo train and ending up growing rice for the government.

The family had four children. Valentin’s mother was struggling to look after the younger kids. She got up early, cooked something and went to work. For the rest of the day the children were eating anything they could find - a carrot, radish, grass. Those were hard times. In post-war times, when the family returned to Primorye, Valentin’s grandma was mixing rice with millet, so that it’d take longer. 

Thirteen years ago Valentin got an idea he shared with his wife: “Let’s get a phone, get a girl to answer the phone calls, hire a driver and make money.” Actually, Valentin and his family were only putting their money, time and effort in the new business. 

Today Vostok taxi is the most popular and successful taxi company in the city. They have about 1,000 cars. You give them a call, go downstairs, and the cab is already waiting for you. 

Valentin explains: 'It’s very difficult to get a job with us. First of all, all the drivers get checked for drugs. Then they learn how to work with clients. I tell my employees. ‘Look at me, I’m a peasant, all of my ancestors were peasants’.

Korean in Siberia


Kisoon Choi

'It’s always interesting here. I can always find a moment to switch the camera on.' Pictures: Tatyana Kumykova

'It means that if you do nothing, you get no results. It’s something in Koreans’ blood, you need to work hard to survive. Not simply work, but work hard. We have to be among the best, if not the best.'

Hardworking Koreans are happy about their life in Russia.

'Who are you, a Korean or a Russian?' I ask a taxi driver. 'We’re Russian Koreans,' comes the reply.

By the time the journey is over, I am beginning to look at Russia from a different point of view. It’s a vast territory, a never-ending taiga, with moody people, moody shop assistants, sad passengers and waiters. Russians almost don’t smile. Why?

Then there’s the rubbish that’s everywhere. Paper, plastic and ashes in Russia’s cities and villages, and a lot of stray dogs. But Kisoon loves Russia. If he's not there for a while, he starts missing it.

'What do you like about it? You keep saying it's hard to work,' I ask. 'It’s always interesting here. I can always find a moment to switch the camera on,' he says.

Comments (1)

All Russians have the same rights and obligation regardless of their ethnicity, language or religion (or non religion, atheists and agnostic)
Enrique, Spain
12/04/2015 09:13
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