This Side of Ultima Thule

A dispatch from eastern Siberia, a realm of steel-shattering cold, nullifying vastness, and withered hopes, which is sometimes called "the white hell." 

FROM atop the rickety steel bridge over the railroad tracks, I could see Chernyshevsk spread out before me. Pockmarked concrete apartment blocks sat in fields of dun-colored earth studded with rusting fenders, tire rims, and axles. Across the way dark-brown wooden huts brooded behind larch fences, and past the edge of town a barren steppe extended toward Mongolia. From this steppe's most distant reaches came a majestic wind driving clouds of dust that one minute took the shape of galloping dragons, the next disintegrated into rolling swells as on an angry sea, but ever swept over the town and into the twilight emptiness that lay beyond. And yet what was beyond from here? It seemed that I was standing in the outer reaches of beyond -- that Chernyshevsk was lost in it, hunkered down against plangent gales blowing from nowhere to nowhere.

Journey's start: Magadan

Given that it stretches almost halfway around the Northern Hemisphere, it is odd that Siberia should remain so unacknowledged. Even non-Siberian Russians know relatively little about it, though it makes up more than three quarters of their homeland. Dubbed in prison songs bely ad ("the white hell"), Siberia remains for many former Soviets a place of exile, personal knowledge of which they have not cared to acquire. Historically, however, it was once a Klondike of hope, where the fetters of society could be shed and riches hewn out of the frozen taiga.

To gather material for a book, I was traveling from one end of Russia to the other, and thus crossed Siberia -- no mean feat, given that much of its territory has no real roads, no rail lines. By way of zimniki&nbsp-- tracks negotiable by vehicle only when frozen&nbsp-- I trucked my way more than 1,800 miles west and south from Magadan, on Russia's eastern coast, through Kolyma and Yakutia until I hit the town of Tynda. From there I caught the train to Chernyshevsk, a blight of a settlement 180 miles north of Mongolia, six time zones east of Moscow, and as close to nowhere as one can get this side of Ultima Thule.

That evening I wanted to find a truck heading for Chita, renowned for its high radiation and ICBM silos ("All our missiles there were pointed at your homeland!" a Russian woman had informed me with a smile), but a clerk in the train station told me that for this "only Solovyov can help you -- in the morning." I'd have to spend the night in Chernyshevsk.

Rest Stop

I asked the station manager where there was a hotel in town.

"A hotel? You are in Chernyshevsk! Why risk it? You can stay right here on the second floor." I paid him 200 rubles (about fifty cents) and went upstairs to the key lady. Why the grave tone, the urgency?

Everything about Siberia defeats attempts at intimate understanding. No one can come to know or even effectively conceive of its 5.3 million square miles of territory (larger than the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, by more than a million square miles), inhabited by a mere 25 million people. Little else about Siberia lends itself to handy comparisons. The greatest known temperature variations occur in Verkhoyansk, where Soviet meteorologists have recorded both -90° and 98°. About 400 miles to the southeast lies the coldest inhabited place on the planet&nbsp-- the former Stalinist gulag and mining settlement of Oymyakon, where -95.8° is the official record; under pressure steel shatters like fine French crystal in such gelidity. Elsewhere in Siberia -- in Yakutsk, for example -- January temperatures can average a balmy -58°. Such temperatures would jell the mercury in almost any thermometer sold in the United States. Siberians recognize them by shopot zvyozd, the "whispering of the stars" that occurs when human breath freezes upon exhalation and drops to the ground with a barely audible tinkling -- an ethereal experience.

intruck picture

But Siberia is anything but ethereal. It is perhaps the dreariest, most nullifying place on earth. Stretching from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, from China and the deserts of Central Asia almost to the top of the world, its expanses show little variation across their 4,000 miles east to west or nearly 2,000 miles north to south. Siberia is flat, flat, flat -- with the exception of low hills, called sopki, in its eastern regions, and remote mountains, such as the Suntar Khayata, so far north that few Siberians have ever seen them. Broad rivers -- the Ob', the Irtysh, the Yenisey, and the Lena,  for example -- wend their way across the tundra toward the Arctic Ocean, but by October they freeze over so thickly that they can be used as truckways until spring. There are huge expanses of taiga, and permafrost covers more than half the land, reaching deeper than 4,200 feet into the earth in the north. The few native Siberians (Evenks, Yakuts, Tuvins, Buryats, and Khakases, among others), once disparagingly termed inorodtsy ("those born of another stock") by the Russians, and natsmeny ("national minorities") by the Bolsheviks, have effectively been disenfranchised by their Slavic neighbors-turnedconquerors. The Soviets forced most of them to forsake their traditional nomadic ways for the settled life of reindeer kolkhozes (collective farms)and similar absurdities. Today many simply drink themselves to death on cheap Russian vodka.

In Chernyshevsk, however, not a reindeer or a Khakas was to be seen. An old Russian lady bundled in a sheepskin shuba tottered along the station platform, bleating a ditty about her only ware, a bottle of sour milk. On the dusty street a youth with a bloodied eye lurched about in a funk of booze, surrounded by a circle of taunting urchins who pelted him with stones. Across the lot two drunks, alike in their floppyeared fur hats and trousers stained with crescents of urine, staggered and swayed in odd harmony amid whirlwinds of dust, as if performing a final pas de deux before the onset of a nuclear winter.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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