Doncaster's Irina Corcoran meets up with school pals 25 years after leaving her town in Russia

25 years on old school pals meet in Sangar, Russia
25 years on old school pals meet in Sangar, Russia

The idea for a 25th anniversary reunion grew from a small group of friends, who have stayed in touch with each other ever since leaving school in June 1993. 

Even though we are spread far and wide, we still maintain contact through the power of social media.

Posing for a new photograph of old school friends from Sangar, Russia, 25 years on

Posing for a new photograph of old school friends from Sangar, Russia, 25 years on

We grew up and went to school in the small mining town of Sangar, which lies on the banks of River Lena, some 150 miles from Yakutsk. East of the Ural Mountains and close to the Arctic Circle, it is only accessible by river or by air.

Sadly, the mines are all closed and most people, including my parents and some of our friends have had to move away to find work in other parts.

In 2018 it was also our favourite teacher’s 70th birthday, who although retired, was still willing to make the long journey from Smolensk.

The date was set for July 21, the plan was to meet up in Yakutsk and take the five hour long Hydrofoil service, which runs twice a week, up to Sangar together.

A roll call of teachers and students from Sangar 25 years ago

A roll call of teachers and students from Sangar 25 years ago

We stayed over-night at a local hotel and arrived at Manchester airport at 4.15am to catch the 7.10am Ryanair flight to Riga. The Terminal building was absolute mayhem.

What would normally take 40 minutes to get to the departure lounge, took over two and a half hours, we followed a ‘runner’ who got us to the gate and we boarded at 6.55am and then we waited and waited, the stress levels went up another notch as we had follow-on flights from Riga to Moscow and Moscow to Yakutsk.

Eventually we cleared the gate some 50 mins late, but still had time for a cup of coffee in Riga, lunch in Moscow with another member of the group and arriving in Yakutsk at 6.35am the following morning, just in time for breakfast.

We grabbed a few hours sleep and arranged to meet more of the group for lunch at a restaurant serving traditional Yakutian food. So far we had travelled some 4,850 miles and only had another 150 miles to go.

Old school pals enjoying each others company 25 years since going their separate ways

Old school pals enjoying each others company 25 years since going their separate ways

The following day we assembled at the Ferry terminal to have our bags weighed and checked in for the ‘flight’.

The five hours passed quickly, as we ate, drank and chatted our way ‘down river’ through wilderness which stretched as far as the eye could see, with plumes of smoke rising from the scrub and forest fires dotted across the horizon and the smell of burnt Pine on the air, the hot weather makes the undergrowth tinder dry, with temperatures regularly reaching the mid 30’s in Summer, but the mid minus 50’s in Winter.

We reached Sangar mid-afternoon, to a very warm welcome from the rest of the group, with traditional Yakutian pancakes, we popped some Champaign, shed a few tears and toasted every-ones safe arrival.

The first thing to sort out was the sleeping, the choices were, everyone spread around the town or all together, we chose ‘all together’.

We set off towards the once busy airfield, to the first of three houses we stayed in, diverting on nostalgic little tours on the way, to places where we lived and played, some still pretty and relatively well looked after and some not so pretty and less cared for. All of us racked with mixed emotions at every turn in the road.

My home had gone, the ground still scared from where the house once stood, remnants scattered about as testament to the sad truth, that wooden buildings don’t fair too well, in this harsh/unforgiving weather/wilderness and it had eventually succumbed to the 25 years of neglect.

We found the first house, it had character and fell in to the latter type, some internal doors wouldn’t fully open, some wouldn’t fully close, but it was warm, and dry, and a place to rest, we talked until it was light.

The ‘Party’ was set for the following day, in the village hall. Every community has a village hall and Sangar is no exception, the table was arranged in a big square and brimming with plates, full of tasty snacks that the girls must have spent hours preparing. Everyone joined in with the party games, the singing and the dancing.

Our school was still standing, although no longer used. Just an abandoned shell, a place fit only for the old desks and chairs, but we were 16 again, revisiting old memories, as we again plied the corridors to the rooms we once had lessons in.  The Hall was full of boxes stacked in awkward piles, full of paper and old Form Registers, my form registers and inside was my name and attendance.  Along with Alex’s, Roma’s and Coley’s, we saved them for prosperity.

The rest of the week was spent visiting friends, with pop-up diner parties and chatting til the small hours, drinking the Whiskies we had taken as gifts and the obligatory Vodka, or evening fishing trips along the 10 Km wide River Lena for Bass and Pike, to be cooked the following day, on an open charcoal fire, at some other impromptu event.

Making time for relatives, some frail but still with us and some no-longer here. Taking flowers and out of respect, we cleared what we could, to make their place tidier and look cared for, this was a quiet and peaceful place, overlooking the river and the wilderness beyond, the tranquillity left us with the feeling ‘we would be back’… one day.

The next morning the whole group met at the Port and under clear blue skies and a slight but warm summer breeze, we popped some Champaign, shed a few tears and toasted every-ones safe return home. Waiting for the inevitable seemed like an eternity, then we ‘cast off’ and slowly made our way out to the channel, as we accelerated away and came up on the Foil, the Port quickly grew smaller, our friends still waving as we disappeared from view.

The five hours south to Yakutsk passed quickly, Yakutsk marked the start of the long goodbyes.

One by one we said goodbye to those we had met only 10 days earlier, first to those from Yakutsk, then to those from further afield, from Mirny and from Smolensk, then it was our turn.

Déjà vu quickly set in, when the departure board showed our flight was delayed. We took off an hour late and again a quick calculation showed it was going to be ‘tight’ at Moscow. Domestic to International is never a quick process, especially when both Passport booths were closed and un-manned, rattling the doors and the CCTV seemed to work, then it was a 300 yards sprint to the Gate, showed our boarding pass, only to be met with, ‘If this lady can’t show me any proof of a follow-on ticket, she is not boarding this plane’, What ?, frantically searching the paperwork for our proof of purchase and a quick smart phone picture seemed to be enough.

We boarded the flight, sat down and buckled up as the plane was being pushed back. Coffee in Riga then Wizz Air into Doncaster.

The end of the 10,000 mile round trip, but the start of some very pleasant memories.