Ludya is one of the unofficial mayors of the settlement of Tavatuy on a lake outside Yekaterinburg.
The energetic 80-year-old is picked up from her cottage by our driver Irina and our guide Olga. She immediately gets in the front seat and on to her red mobile phone to organise visits to other villagers.
We start in the second floor of a grey soviet-era “slum” building housing immigrants from the “‘Stans”; Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and so on. Not quite what you’d expect in a scenic tour of a picturesque lake village but obviously we’re interested. The residents, if they are employed, work in the homes of local Russians, as housekeepers and builders. We put blue plastic bags over our shoes to enter a small flat that has been turned into a museum to showcase the life of the village from its 17th century beginnings to the mid-20th. An elderly woman in headscarf passionately describes the minutae of the lives of the people who lived there, most escaping persecution of some kind, many of them members of an old orthodox order. I’m pleased there are plans to record her telling these stories.
A short muddy walk takes us to the lakeside. The large lake is frozen but starting to melt making stepping on it hazardous. Olga shakes her head at the number of cars and black dots of people fishing through holes in the ice. “Idiots.”
Ludya then takes us to meet a positive life force of a woman called Lubov (Love) who makes exquisite garments from felt. Lubov says she has been using New Zealand merino for the last eight years because of its quality. She is also a magpie collecting fungi and herbs and foliage to dry and hang as decoration. “I can’t help it,” she says.
We look around two mansions being built for “well-off” people to show how the village is changing. Within a few years this isolated hamlet of 300 people living in traditional wood huts has become a holiday retreat for the wealthy, now easily accessible from Yekaterinburg just an hour away.
There are no laws protecting the old houses or any plans to restore them. The other unofficial mayor, Alexander, who has tagged along with us, sighs and frowns as there’s nothing the villagers can do. “We go to meetings and have strong opinions,” Olga translates. Ludya dismisses the real Mayor with a strongly worded insult that Olga doesn’t hesitate in sharing with us.
One of the mansions we’re shown is a giant loghouse, the main centrepiece trunk being 270 years old. A special feature of the house is displaying the polished root systems of some of the logs. The builder, a Russian, shows us before and after photos of the felled pines. He has been to New Zealand; his sister lives outside Kaikoura.
We drive around the village to see other mansions hidden behind fences. Ludya seems particularly irritated by three neighbouring homes owned by a cheese manufacturer. Cheese cannot be imported into Russia, so he is rich, says Olga.
We arrive at Ludya’s cottage. Lunch is laid out on the kitchen table. Pickles, cured meat, buttery potato, brown bread and cherry brandy. Her husband Yuri joins us from the bedroom. He was once a successful footballer but at 81 years, he is unwell with a painful bad knee.
We’re shown a certificate signed by Stalin rewarding Yuri’s scientist father for his work in the aluminium industry. Olga’s not sure they share her opinion that Stalin was a monster. We hear of Ludya’s father, a school principal, who treated every child equally so that even his own could not weasel extra sweets from the hidden stash. Their own son died young, Ludya says with sudden tears, but their grandson and one-year-old grandchild stay in the summer. Ludya explains three framed Egyptian pictures as momentoes from her 16-season stint as a tour guide to Egypt. This career followed her success as an engineer specialising in heavy excavation machinery.
The lunch visit is warm and friendly and we’re sorry we have to leave. While the day trip is a paid extra on our Transiberian tour, we feel very lucky at being hosted in such a way, being welcomed so openly into people’s lives and homes. Ludya and Alexander, the two unofficial mayors, wave us off, telling us to come back, bring friends.
Later that evening a big bear of a Siberian man buys us a jam tart as a gift at a health food shop as we’re standing in line at the counter. Our hearts just keep melting.