MIR client Bruce Malashevich convinced a few intrepid travelers to join him on a cruise to the Arctic Circle on Russia’s mighty Lena River.
Here is his engaging account:
Several years ago I dreamed of a journey down the River Lena into northeastern Siberia from Yakutsk, literally the coldest city on earth in the winter months and capital of the “Sakha” (“Yakutia” in Russian) Republic of the Russian Federation. I was inspired by explorer C.W. Guseville’s book, Great Current Running. Guseville made the excursion in the late l980s, after the Soviet authorities opened what had been an “off-limits zone” for tourists since the 1920s. With the river Lena and its shores now open to the world, I decided to repeat the journey on the contemporary river boat, the Mikhail Svetlov. For readers who yearn for exotic travel and pristine scenery without personal danger or extreme discomfort, this should be your next trip.
Although I am comfortable in Russian, I did not want to go alone. My family politely refused me, as did almost all of my friends, but I found two who were game (my age, 50+) along with their respective 20-something sons. I have been to Russia many times in various capacities. It was a new experience for my sputniki (“travel companions” in Russian), however, and I was anxious for them to share my fascination with the country. Our journey turned out to be a magical tour for all concerned.
We flew non-stop from Washington-Dulles to Moscow via United Airlines. During our brief stopover in Russia’s capital, we toured Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral. We experienced a traditional Russian Orthodox vespers service, explored the Kremlin, saw Peter the Great’s self-made boots and the extraordinary crown jewels, and had a look at Lenin, whose body remains preserved under glass. We then retired to the five-star National Hotel, from which Lenin proclaimed the founding of the Soviet Union in 1918. Judging by today’s rates, he lived well.
North to Yakutsk & Banya Time
The following evening we flew overnight to Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha Republic, through which the River Lena flows. Our flight on the new S7 (Siberian) Airline was crowded but smooth.
Yakutsk, founded by Russian Cossacks in the early 17th century, has developed into an industrial city shaped by the local mining and oil/gas industries. It is not aesthetically pleasing to the Western eye; former President Yelstin once called it the “inside out” city because the piping and utilities are elevated above ground. That method developed in response to the cold (as much as 60 degrees centigrade below zero) and limitations posed by the permafrost. Virtually all new buildings are constructed on top of steel-reinforced concrete pillars, which are drilled to about 50 meters below the ground, because they would otherwise shift as the permafrost thaws and refreezes. Although the growing influence of globalization is modernizing the architecture–a source of local pride–it sadly is causing the destruction of older structures originally built from wood in a fashion that had withstood the harsh winters.
In Yakutsk, courtesy of our tour operator, I introduced my sputniki to a Russian banya. To the uninitiated, a banya is basically a Swedish sauna with Russian characteristics. You sweat yourself in the sauna, a good friend flagellates you with birch branches to increase the therapeutic blood flow, and then you strut outside naked and throw a bucket of ice water over your body. Ideally you repeat the process multiple times. I lasted three. My sputniki, who at first were very skeptical, went back for a total of six. While there are commercial banyas, our tour operator had managed to arrange our private banya at a friend’s house. Our host was such a banya devotee that when he built his current house, he finished the banya first, much to his wife’s chagrin. Following our banya, he invited us to a traditional feast of black bread, herring, sausage and ample quantities of vodka. Needless to say, we slept well.
The Sakha Republic
From Yakutsk, we embarked on a 15-day cruise down and back on the River Lena. The river originates just north of Lake Baikal and flows roughly 3,000 miles, through Yakutsk, emptying into the Artic Sea. The surrounding Sakha Republic, five thousand miles east of Moscow, stretches across three time zones. It comprises 20 percent of the land mass of the Russian Federation, but less than one percent (900,000+) of the population. Native Sakhas comprise the largest single share of the population (46 %). Russians make up 41%, with Ukrainians and native Evenks and Evens comprising the balance. The ethnic groups appear to live harmoniously, with inter-marriage not unusual. The native languages, as well as Russian, are widely spoken. The native Sakha, Evenks and Evens follow animist religious beliefs originating thousands of years ago in what is now Mongolia and constitute what is probably one of the largest animistic cultures remaining in the world.
Lena Cruise & "Den Mother"
The duration of our cruise was a full 15 days. Staterooms were cramped, but we spent very little time there, and in general the “feel” of the boat’s accommodations was equivalent to a three-star hotel. The food and service on the boat were excellent, consisting of a full buffet breakfast, and a served lunch and dinner. Among a total passenger list of about 105, our “American” group numbered only 5. Russians comprised nearly 50 percent, the Germans slightly less. A sprinkling of Czechs, Romanians, and French/Spanish joined with us in the “English-speaking group,” which we (quietly) called the “NATO Group.” Groups were formed only because the relevant language-speaking guides led each group, and from the outset the boat’s staff organized a variety of activities to encourage intermingling.
One of the first events was a singing contest, held in the native language of the passenger groups. Although we Americans were initially clueless, the 20-something guys came up with the “Lion King” song from the 1950s, which our Czech and Romanian friends (and our Yakut guide) could join in on. Our polyglot group was hilarious and won the contest hands-down. Consequently, we became immediately friendly with the ship’s staff, who maintained a very lively and current gossip column about who was doing and saying what to whom; they loved us Americans.
The camaraderie among the passengers increased over time so as to be wonderful, admittedly fueled by the official hours of the ship’s bar, which opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 5 a.m. The German people were very pleasant, but kept to themselves, with a few notable exceptions. They were mostly pensioners and had arrived as a group. The Russian guests were very different and, like our group, had booked individually. All of them were younger, very well educated and economically successful in the “New Russia.” Most spoke at least functional, if not perfect, English, and were very patient with my Russian. On day three, they were kind enough to invite us to a vyecherinka (a traditional Russian evening party) on the ship’s sundeck to socialize. During the summer, the sun never really sets, so the sundeck became the de facto party space. This vyecherinka took very basic forms, including multiple toasts of vodka to health and friendship, and one even to somebody’s deceased grandmother. “Bootleg” black caviar (officially banned, but with the effectiveness of the U.S. ban on marijuana) was amply supplied.
We all fell in love with our guide, “Yulia,” an extraordinarily beautiful woman with high cheek bones, raven-black hair and a very broad and friendly smile — especially when she laughed. She is an ethnic Sakha who is a brilliant university professor in the German language, but elected to guide us in perfect English. In the beginning she appeared in Soviet dress and demeanor, hair in a bun, glasses, blouse buttoned up to the neck, and a long blue skirt below the knees. She gave my sputniki Russian language lessons every day, which they relished. We were rowdy in a friendly way, and about halfway into our voyage she warned us that we might be the first people in Russian history to be exiled from Siberia on account of our behavior!
So we called her “den mother” and explained the term in the context of the American Cub Scouts. To our astonishment, overnight she somehow managed to produce a T-shirt with our names and other trip insignia on it. She appeared in that shirt, in jeans, and with a new name tag reading, “Den Mother.” We were quite touched by her efforts, and have continued to correspond with her via e-mail. Her contributions to this article were critical.
Shore Leave & Arctic Storm
The boat stopped occasionally onshore to allow passengers to fish and swim. The river water was unbelievably warm -70 degrees Fahrenheit and very clean. Although we had packed for temperatures ranging from 40-60 degrees Fahrenheit, on most days the temperature approached 80 degrees, demanding swim suits and T-shirts even north of the Arctic Circle. Opportunities were created to explore the shoreline, which in places was almost impassably dense with forest. Most other activities were otherwise informative, or just plain, clean fun. One of our fellow passengers was a former cosmonaut, Valery Ryumin, who gave a talk about his space travels. The first officer gave us a tour of the engine room and bridge. We Americans initially rolled our eyes at some activities evocative of a low-rent Caribbean cruise ship. We were dead wrong. Each was great fun and had the effect of bringing complete strangers together.
The scenery on the river was stark in its beauty. As we moved north the scenery changed from dense forest, to small conifers (taiga), and then to arctic tundra, which was particularly dramatic. The boat stopped periodically at islands (the river at that point was 12-15 miles wide) for swimming and interacting with local Sakha or Evenk villagers. They see only a few boats in any given season, and they and their shaman welcomed us with spiritual offerings for good luck and safety. Their graciousness was particularly touching because life there is so bleak. Most people subsist on hunting and fishing. Housing consists of small wooden shacks along a dirt road. But in the town of Zhigansk (about 2000 souls), there is a beautiful wooden church and an excellent small museum.
One particular anecdote illustrates why I came away with such a strong, wonderful impression of the local culture. At the local museum in remote and tiny Zhigansk I bought necklaces as gifts for my family made of stones found only in Sakha. I accidentally left the packages outside an outhouse and went to rejoin the boat, which was waiting to depart. Yulia quickly arranged a ride back to the outhouse, but the package was gone. Saddened, I returned to the boat and was about to embark when I noticed two young girls waving to me and holding my package. They had hiked all the way to ensure they wouldn’t miss whomever had left the package.
Our only problem on the boat involved the unpredictable weather of the Arctic Sea. Our original, northernmost destination was Tiksi, which in Soviet days was a major seaport and military base. Today it is largely abandoned but retains a romantic reputation because of its location. As we approached within about 50 miles of the town, gale-force winds of nearly 75 miles per hour hit the river and our boat. There were 2-3- foot whitecaps on the river, and the wind was so fierce it looked as though the entire river was boiling. Under captain’s orders, all of us were “locked down” inside the boat.
The Spirit of Siberia
The final evening of our cruise was extraordinarily poignant. We went ashore and enjoyed a feast of barbecued shashlik, accompanied by the usual vodka and condiments. Our boat’s shaman-in-residence constructed and lit a symbolic “fire of friendship” on the beach as the sun slowly set. Unlike our welcoming fire, which was small and designed simply to produce ashes for our blessing, this more closely resembled a tall bonfire. Our shaman then danced and sang so as to wish us safe travel and everlasting friendship. By tradition, the festivities ended only after the fire had burned to the ground, bringing closure to the entire adventure.
So, what did we learn? Lots. In my search for sputniki for this trip I had invited many well-traveled, highly educated friends and acquaintances in the D.C. metro region and beyond to join me. None had ever heard of Sakha and the River Lena; their eyes glazed over when I mentioned Siberia. Their mistake. This beautiful, remote and pristine region and its friendly, fascinating people have much to teach us about the world and the spirit of life itself.
Logistics & Final Note
I suggest no more than a day or two in the city of Yakutsk. There are theaters and museums and a reconstructed “old town” area with shops and eateries on the banks of the river. A banya is highly recommended if you can find one. Otherwise, the cruise determines the itinerary for the voyage and this can vary over time. The most comfortable hotel in Yakutsk is the “Polar Star,” but there are others.
This is not a trip for backpackers or those with a thin wallet. Our trip cost a little more than $13,000 per person. However, we elected to fly business class between D.C. and Moscow, and the total cost included four days of touring in Moscow and several nights in the National Hotel. We flew coach class overnight from Moscow to Yakutsk on the “S7” Russian airline (regarded as the fashionable equivalent of Virgin Atlantic) for a little over $1,000. The cost of the cruise alone was about USD $5,500 per person, and we had two-person rooms on the middle deck. The top deck offered more costly suites, while the lower deck had quad rooms which reduced the cost of the cruise to about $4,000 per person. All meals on board were included. So there is room for substantial economies by cutting some corners that we chose not to.
Book well in advance, as space on the boat fills quickly. To catch the narrow window when the river is navigable and black flies only a minor annoyance, travel in late July or August.
You would be foolish to arrange this trip by yourself, even if you are comfortable in the Russian language. We used–and would highly recommend–MIR Corporation (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.mircorp.com); ask for “Olga Hayes”). They are based in the State of Washington and specialize in both group and customized tours in the former Soviet Union and Central Asia. They also have agents on the ground all over, including in Yakutsk. Everything worked like a charm. All guides and tour services were top-quality. Mysputniki want to go back next year — and in the winter — so as to have the full experience. We’ll see.
I would like to express my appreciation to all those who assisted me in preparing this article. I include in particular my American sputniki, Ralph Mittelberger and Dr. James Sundeen, our ethnic Yakut guide, Yulia Ivanovna Nikonova, our Czech sputnik, Tomas Sopuch and my wife, who strove mightily with her editorial pen.
P.S. Toward the end of our voyage we learned that ours likely would be the last cruise on the Lena for our boat in the current season, although cruises will continue in the 2012 season. (The best time to go is between early July and mid-August.) But after we disembarked we learned of its one more voyage on the Lena, ordered by the local government, for one V. Putin.