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A Summer Trip to Siberia

Float through the World’s Largest Forest

Dmitry Yakimov, a veteran of wars in Chechnya and Kyrgystan who now battles the mafia for the Russian police, warmly recommended traveling the Lena River. “River travel is relaxing. The wind and water is good for the soul.” A man with a life story like Dmitry’s can’t live long without knowing something about relaxation. After a long Siberian winter and a frantic working spring, I was ready for a few lazy summer weeks floating on a river. I took his advice.

The Lena River is long—over 2,000 miles long. Of the 10 largest rivers in the world, it is the only one to freeze over its entire length each winter. Only in July did the ice clear enough that I could begin my expedition.

The trip along the Lena River is a voyage through a forgotten land. The great Russian taiga, the largest forest in the world, stretches on for days. The Soviet Union tried to conquer it, sending wave after wave of settlers into the wilderness. Nonetheless, of the few villages and homesteads along the banks, most are now abandoned. I felt like an explorer in the ruins of a civilization. Even the ships themselves are monuments to another time. Now the cabins are mostly empty. “This ship used to carry 500 people. Passengers slept wherever they could find room. Entire Gypsy troops used to travel with us,” said Radik, a navigator for the Krasnoyarsk.

The empty, abandoned countryside contrasts with the vibrancy of the company on the boat. There are few stores in northern Siberia and the boat is littered with boxes of produce, furniture, floor tiles, and every other conceivable manner of merchandise which the chattering passengers are bringing home. Every port is a flurry with passengers lowering their goods and themselves into waiting canoes. Between stops the passengers and crew drink, talk, and play cards, watching the Lena’s great vistas drift past.

The further north we went, the fewer the passengers who were ethnically Russian; more were Siberian. The outside world, especially the West, tends to forget that Siberia is only recently Russian. North of Yakutsk, a few of the crew and I were just about the only people of European descent left on board or on the shore.

Most of the Siberians I met were Yakuts, distant cousins of Mongols, as could be seen from their continued love of fermented mare’s milk. They live a life far removed from anything I can imagine. In the winter ice turns the rivers into highways on which they drive. During the brief summer, they leave the villages to hunt and fish. One new friend from Tiksi gave me his address in case I ever visit again, but he reminded me that he won’t be there in the summer. Villages are for winter.

The passengers were as fascinated with me as I was with them. I could not step outside my cabin without attracting attention and being quizzed on American life. For them, the rare foreigner is their only link to the world outside.

There are a few tourist attractions. There is the Lena Pillars, stunning rock formations carved on the bank by rain over the millennia. Yakutsk has some of Russia’s best museums. Then there is the Arctic Ocean itself.

More than anything, however, what I remember is what Dmitry had advertised: the grassy hills and water-worn cliffs, the wide river so still you can’t see it flowing, the long polar sunsets that meld into sunrises. … If I ever need to escape from the pressures of the world, I know the place farthest removed.

Traveling the Lena River in Siberia

The Lena River flows from south to north; the southernmost port is Ust’-Kut, a small city on the Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad (the northern branch of the Trans-Siberian). The fast route to Ust’-Kut is to fly from Moscow to Irkutsk, and then either fly from Irkutsk to Severobaikalsk or take the hydrofoil (safer, more fun, and less likely to be canceled). From Severobaikalsk it is a few hours by train to Ust’-Kut.

The scenic route is to take the Trans-Siberian directly from Moscow, which takes about three days. The train is cheap, and even the flights are cheap by U.S. standards.

From approximately June through October a ship leaves from Ust’-Kut every week or so bound for Yakutsk (approx. five days there, seven back). Tickets may be purchased only onboard. First class singles and doubles run under $200 per person. The cafeteria is cheap and reasonably good by Russian standards, but most passengers bring their own food. If you are lucky, other passengers will share their freshly caught fish.

From Yakutsk, the Mechanic Kulibin steams to the Arctic Ocean (three days there, five back) every nine days starting in late July and ending around October. First class doubles run about $200 per person, which does not include food. A luxury cruise is also occasionally available for about $1,700 per person. Tickets can be bought in Yakutsk (Local tel. 42-40-03).

Schedules change regularly, so check with www.yakutiatravel.com for up-to-date information. Yakutia Travel’s English-speaking staff can help you purchase tickets and obtain necessary documents.

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