White Nights in Siberia

By local ferry down the Lena, one of Russia's great waterways

SINCE my teen years I have been enthralled by Russia -- by its literature and language, its history and geography. I have devoted the past eight years of my life to the country, living in it, journeying across it, even writing a book about it. The region of Russia that has intrigued me most of all is Siberia. And within Siberia, I have longed to travel a particular river: the Lena. When I first saw the Lena River, in April of 1993, it was under the wheels of the truck that was taking me across Siberia, covered by an eight-foot-thick layer of ice. But the ice was almost as blue as the sky, and I conceived a desire to take a ferry down the Lena when it would be bare and beautiful, bathed in light that would show it at its best -- the soft and delicate light of summer's white nights. I knew that two of the Russian hinterland's main problems, alcoholism and poverty, would make such a cruise less than tranquil -- but then, tranquillity is not one of Russia's virtues. This year I flew from Moscow to Siberia and set out to realize my dream.

I boarded the steamship Blagoveshchensk, in Ust' Kut, a Siberian settlement that sits astride the banks of the Lena, on a morning that fell less than a week before the longest day of this past year. At Ust' Kut's latitude that is long indeed: the sun sinks below the horizon for only four to five hours. The breeze, though doused in sunlight, carried what felt like an autumnal freshness, blowing through the surrounding forest and delivering to the dock the scent of spruce groves and birch sap. Here the river is a quarter of a mile wide and flows northeast, mirroring a shifting tableau of tufted clouds and lapis-lazuli sky. On the opposite shore cows grazed in lank grass, and chimneys trailing plumes of smoke rose above houses of storm-scarred larch.

Photograph by Jeffrey TaylerGradually other people arrived at the river station, to board the ship or to see travelers off. Finally a prolonged blast of the ship's horn followed by three toots signaled that we were about to pull out. In front of me people were hugging and saying good-bye, and hurrying clankety-clank across the bouncing gangway. I was conspicuous by my solitude. The captain appeared on the bridge, huffed puff-puff into his microphone, and ordered "Mashina! Mashina gotova!" ("Engine! Engine ready!") The horn sounded again, and the boat shuddered to life with the first belabored and sloshy rotations of the paddle wheels hidden under its hull. Crew members hoisted the gangway aboard; an orange-vested boatswain on shore unlooped the mooring ropes from the cement piles and tossed them onto the deck. Within minutes we were pulling out, Ust' Kut's dusty gray assemblage of stone and concrete houses receding from our stern. Our destination was the city of Yakutsk, 1,242 miles and five days' travel away.

Winding from just west of Lake Baikal toward the Laptev Sea, on the Arctic Ocean, through vast stretches of tundra and taiga (boggy coniferous forest), the 2,734-mile Lena River has for almost 400 years served as one of the great nautical highways of Siberia. In the early seventeenth century Cossack explorers first reached the banks of the Lena and established the ostrog, or stockade town, of Ust' Kut, whence they made a trip downstream into eastern Siberia, on log rafts, and built another ostrog at Yakutsk. They found the water rich in sturgeon and salmon-like omul, the earth loaded with silver and gold, the taiga teeming with lustrously pelted sable and ermine. Later, using Ust' Kut and Yakutsk as supply bases, the Cossacks traveled along the Lena's tributaries, exploring and subduing the rest of eastern Siberia for the Czar of Muscovy and their own lucrative fur trade. It was the acquisition of Siberia, with its minerals, fossil fuels, and timber, that eventually turned Russia from a poor European country of middling size into a major Eurasian superpower. This primeval terrain contains the world's largest forest, which covers more than three million square miles.

In many ways Siberia has changed little since Cossack days. But before I boarded the Blagoveshchensk, a visit to the museum near the river station and a glance at the rusted leg irons preserved under glass there had reminded me of the tragedy and grief Ust' Kut witnessed once the era of exploration was over. This was long one of the places where the prison Siberia began. In later czarist decades intractable dissidents were shackled and marched thousands of miles from European Russia to Ust' Kut, where they were herded aboard barges for the journey to Yakutsk, to serve sentences of hard labor in its mines. In Soviet times Stalin built a railroad to Ust' Kut and converted the ostrog into a staging post for the exploitation of Siberia's wealth by gulag prisoners. Many of those who survived stayed on after their release; to understand why, one need only gaze at the taiga in which they toiled, and breathe its spruce-scented air.

I left my rucksack in my cabin, a single-berth room in first class, and went to the bow. The quickening breeze was stirring the Lena's silky blue into pools of rippling silver. White-boled birches covered the hills; along the ridges shaggy spruces and spindly larches stood crooked against the sky. The other passengers left the deck to settle in, and I found myself alone again, listening to the croaks of ravens, the screams of russet hawks, and the steady chop-chop-chop of our paddle wheels.

ONE of the two steamships that regularly sail the Lena, the 187-bunk Blagoveshchensk (named, curiously, after a city on the Amur River, a thousand miles to the southeast of Ust' Kut) has not missed a season since it was lowered into the water, in 1961. On the upper deck dwell first- and second-class passengers in one- to four-berth cabins; below them, at water level, third-class passengers bunk in cubbyholes, and those with fourth-class tickets sleep in the corridors of third class. The ship has a common restaurant, a buffet, and a lounge with a VCR.

We left Ust' Kut with only about sixty passengers aboard. The company included young soldiers going home to Yakutsk after their tours of duty, families headed downriver to visit relatives, and an assortment of Ukrainian drifters, Russian traders, and economic migrants from as far away as Tajikistan who hoped to find seasonal work in Siberia's gold and diamond mines. They had no choice but to make their journey on the Blagoveshchensk: beyond a beat-up track of asphalt and dirt that snakes northeast through the taiga from the town of Bratsk to Ust' Kut, no roads reach the settlements along the Lena's banks.

As I stood by a window on the lower deck taking in the view, one of the Tajiks introduced himself. He was painfully deferential, and he told me that I was the first foreigner he had ever met. We talked until the ship pulled into our first port, Kirensk, to dock under the pale-gray sky of midnight. Wishing me good dreams, the man lay down atop a sack of onions, positioned his shoes beneath his head, and fell asleep, facing the wall.

We lingered long into the next day in Kirensk, a flat town of collapsing wood houses that were decorated with intricately carved windowsills and doorways, all painted turquoise and green in traditional Siberian style. Seed puffs drifted through oblique shafts of light falling between poplars. On the river, tugboats pushing barges honked and sidled up to our port side; tattooed stevedores transferred sacks of sugar and grain, crates of beer, boxes of clothes -- more hard bedding for my Tajik friend -- to the corridors in the ship's lower deck. By noon the loading was finished and we went on our way.

The sky soon grew overcast, the clouds hanging low like upside-down mountains of pewter, and the air cooled. Without any explanation from anyone in authority we cast anchor beneath a piney bluff. Russians in transit spend much of their time asleep. Now drowsy passengers, dressed in track suits and flip-flops, their hair mussed into rabbit ears and bird wings, their faces wrinkled with pillow lines, shuffled out on deck to see why we had stopped. Our captain, I noticed, was standing on the bridge. The air was utterly still, imbued with suspense.

Minutes later the other Lena ferry, the Krasnoyarsk, chugged around a bend, heading toward Ust' Kut, and pulled up to our starboard side. Collectively, its passengers might have been the twins of our own: they sported the same track suits and pillow lines and flip-flops, the same rabbit-eared hair. Across the divide between the two ships people began waving and shouting greetings, exchanging news ("How is Sergei?" "Where is Ira?" "Sergei is sleeping off his hangover!" "Ira's coming next week!").

Bridge paralleled bridge, and our captain shook the hand of their captain. Then our horns were sounded simultaneously, the anchors were raised, and the two craft pulled apart.

THE next day, having feasted on a lunch of black caviar on buttered white bread, and Siberian pel'meni (dumplings) in sour cream, the tastiest two of the four or five mediocre dishes offered by the restaurant, I settled myself on the bow bench and gazed into the taiga, looking for signs of life. We rounded bend after bend, floating beneath ancient hills and walls of slumbering forest. Sleeping land, I thought, recalling the meaning of the name Sibir' (Siberia) in the Mongolian-Altaic language from which the Russians acquired the word, sleeping land. I dozed off, slumped on the bench.

I awoke to the sight of tiny white-felt boots. An old lady had sat down next to me.

"I'm homesick -- yes, I am homesick," she was saying, snuggling deep into her baby-blue parka as the breeze blew cool and fresh off the taiga. (Even in summer the weather along the Lena only occasionally warms up enough that travelers can do without some sort of jacket.)

I straightened up. "Excuse me?"

"Homesickness brings me back to the northland. I worked twenty-eight years of my life up here, my entire youth. I married a Yakut and bore my daughter here. I've returned three times since we moved to Leningrad. I just can't stay away." She paused. Her voice broke. "My husband has died, you see. My dog, Belka, left for the other world too, and my daughter's married now. I'm all alone, and I just want to see the north once more. I'm seventy-four, and I won't live to make another trip."

My mind still fuddled with sleep, I tried to think of something appropriate to say. I could only come up with "How was living in Yakutsk?"

"I bet you think it was cold. Oh, I was never cold, even when it was sixty below! I had my family, my dog, and my youth, and they kept me warm. Life was good. But I'm old now, and the years are going to take their due. I just want to see Yakutsk one more time."

AS we sailed north, the trees, mostly firs and larches, started shrinking; yellow-green lichen began mottling the increasingly barren hills; and the settlements grew dark and weathered and low, as if hunkering down to resist the arctic assault of snow and rain that battered them eight months of the year. Our ship was now filled with Yakuts -- Turkic people with Asiatic features from the north of China, originally shamanists but mostly converted to Russian Orthodoxy by the Cossacks and the priests who followed them. They, along with an ethnic group called Evenks, are the original inhabitants of this part of Siberia.

Newly arriving passengers were ferried out to us in cutters from villages too small to have docks; this saved us time, and the shortening nights granted us more hours of travel; the ship's pace increased. Many of the newcomers, who had been snowbound all winter, saw the commencement of their annual voyage downriver as cause to celebrate in the traditional Russian manner -- by drinking vodka straight. Soon the atmosphere on deck shifted from sleepy to rowdy, from tranquil to bawdy. Throaty laughs of women resounded among the oaths of drunken men, folk dances were performed on wobbly legs, and tussles erupted as we floated along the ever-widening river.

At one point a boozed-up and scrawny Yakut youth of fifteen or so grew abusive toward other passengers, and when he lowered his trousers to relieve himself on someone's suitcase, two of the ship's mates had had enough. They seized him, wrenched his arms behind his back, and hustled him up the ladder to the bridge. Hollering in a drunken rage, he fought back, biting and kicking, but within minutes they had roped him to metal pipes beneath the bridge cabin, and there he rode, like a twitching human bow ornament, until he sobered up, a few hours later.

Near midnight we approached Olekminsk, where miniature Yakutian horses, piebald and shaggy-maned, grazed on shore. The sun was burning just below the horizon, inflaming the western sky with hues of molten red and lurid orange that melted into pink above us, and turned lavender in the east. Crowds thronged the floating river station as we drew near. Slava, the chief navigator, took up position on the bridge, shouting orders ("Samyi malyi! Nazad!" -- "Slow! Back!") to the crew through his microphone. The powerful current deflected us as we reached the station; our bow struck the pontoons, rocking the building and eliciting cries and gasps from the bouncing crowd. On our third try we managed to dock, and we remained tethered to the station for the brief and luminous night.

Photograph by Jeffrey Tayler

By three in the morning we were on our way again. I could not sleep, disoriented by the endless light, disturbed by the ongoing fête. The newer passengers, chewing pungent strips of salted fish and guzzling vodka, were now far too numerous to be accommodated in cabins and had to settle for fourth-class tickets; warned to keep out of first class, they slumped in the common areas and in the aisles of second and third class amid their suitcases, absorbing diatribe after diatribe from our attendant: "Straighten up those boxes!" "Don't sleep with your legs sticking out in the middle of the corridor!" "Keep those children quiet!" Villages proliferated, but there were few docks: people wanting to board clustered on the bank and waved to attract the attention of our captain, who would swing around and draw near so that a lifeboat could be lowered. For a few rubles, husky men in hip-high boots carried the travelers piggyback to the lifeboat and dropped them in.

On our last evening I watched the bare banks draw higher and higher and redden, as if with clay. The decks were busy with flirting teens and rambunctious soldiers. We were now so far north that darkness never came. In the hours after midnight the sky was a phosphorescent gray-blue scrim lit from below by a hidden sun, and then a brightening canopy of daylight. We sailed into morning without stopping.

I AWOKE to a landscape of flat Yakutian bog -- terrain that once finished off most of the gulag prisoners, with its bloodsucking midges and clouds of mosquitoes or its -60° frosts and week-long blizzards, depending on the season. But northern Yakutia is more than a devouring swamp -- it is also a realm of aurora borealis and lumbering elk, of wolf packs and brown bear and herds of reindeer. Soon, 300 miles from the Arctic Circle, a scene appeared that the earliest Cossack explorers would never have imagined: the dock cranes, concrete apartment blocks, and bland municipal buildings of Yakutsk. Our journey down the timeless, pristine Lena was about to end in an exhaust-clogged city of some 200,000 people.

The passengers, for the most part subdued by hangovers, some green and others pale and staggering, filed down into the landing corridor with their bags and patiently awaited arrival. We coursed between narrowing banks of reedy bog into the very center of town, watching trucks rattle beside us and pedestrians traipse down dirt roads overhung by the yard-wide steel pipes that carry water and heat above the permafrost-afflicted land.

We swung around toward a berth barely long enough for our ship. Mooring was accomplished by a sidling maneuver, and finished with a bounce against tire cushions hung along the dock. On shore a crowd was waiting -- excited people who had long anticipated the arrival of their relatives and friends. Behind them were taxis and trucks for hire, and stray dogs, and white-smocked vendors of meat pies and ice cream. I was suddenly very eager to get off the boat.

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Tips for Traveling the Lena

Those wishing to travel the Lena by ferry should make plans well in advance, and depart for Siberia with a spirit of adventure. From late May through September roughly one ferry per week travels between Ust' Kut and Yakutsk and back again. Departure times may be confirmed by having a Russian-speaker call the river station information desk in Ust' Kut (telephone 011-7-3956-52-639); no reservations are accepted. Serviceable double cabins (with a sink but no toilet; showers are in the hall) in first class cost about $120; there are four singles available for half that.

You can reach Ust' Kut by air from Irkutsk, or by taxi or train (a six- to eight-hour ride) from Bratsk; both Irkutsk and Bratsk have airfields served by flights from Moscow. Confusingly, Ust' Kut has two other names: in honor of the sturgeon, or osetr, abounding in the Lena's waters, the river station is named Osetrovo, and the railway station is called Lena. These are designations you will need to cite when buying ferry and train tickets. The one place to stay in Ust' Kut, the Hotel Lena (telephone 011-7-3956-2-15-07, fax 011-7-3956-2-07-29), offers "luxury" suites (decent two-room apartments) for about $20 a night. In Yakutsk the Hotel Sterkh (phone 011-7-4112-24-27-01) is a reliable, if poorly maintained, establishment where double rooms cost about $20. No railroads or proper roads connect the city with the outside world, so from Yakutsk you may either fly to Moscow (fly with Aeroflot, not the local Sakha Avia, if you have a choice) or reboard the ferry for the trip back to Ust' Kut. It is best to bring funds in cash dollars -- travelers checks may be impossible to cash, and credit cards are not accepted anywhere along the river. A good basic guidebook is Lonely Planet's Russia, Ukraine & Belarus.

At present, to visit Yakutsk, or at least to check into a hotel there, you need an invitation from a company in or the government of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). You may be able to receive one in advance by getting in touch with Vyacheslav Ipat'yev at the travel agency TurServic Tsentr (011-7-4112-25-11-44, fax 25-08-97). Alternatively, you can just show up at the Ministry of External Relations in Yakutsk and drop in on Nikolay Dyakonov (011-7-4112-24-28-55 or 24-04-06), the director of the Passport and Visa Department, in room 428. Dyakonov's department will be happy to sell you an invitation for around $20 worth of rubles.

Jeffrey Tayler is the author of (1999) and (2000). Articles he wrote for The Atlantic are included in Houghton Mifflin's (2000).

Photographs by Jeffrey Tayler.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; White Nights in Siberia - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 36-40.