No matter how hard life seems to be,
It is a feast as long as we can see
The shadows of deer, of birds, of clouds,
Moving across the tundra, green and blooming.
Alexandr Gorodnitsky. Tundra Shadows
You didn't have to be a futurologist to understand that the era of cheap, fast, and safe travel in the USSR was coming to an end. It felt like crossing a frozen river during a spring breakup of the ice. Just at the moment I finally got my degree, I also completed a very successful business operation, and made almost three hundred dollars' worth of rubles. In 1991 Russia it was the kind of money people sold their kidneys for, but I knew I had to spend those rubles as soon as possible, or they won't be worth the paper they were printed on. I told both my bosses that I was done with the university, and would start working for them really hard in September. Now I had four months to visit all parts of the Soviet Union I hadn't seen yet. I had a gut feeling it was the last summer for the Soviet Union as a country.
Air travel was still very cheap, and railroad travel was virtually free. I made quick trips to some parts of Turkmenistan, took a ferry across the Caspian Sea, and explored the most remote parts of the Caucasus: Talysh Mountains, Inner Dagestan, Upper Chechnya, and Southern Kalmykia. Then I traveled to Subpolar Urals and made a wonderful journey across Western Siberia on railroad flatcars, from the Arctic Coast to Tobolsk at the southern edge of the taiga. Back home I realized that I still had most of the money left, and decided to make a "circumnavigation" of Asian Russia. I had some knowledge of pilots' lingo, and a sheepskin jacket that was part of Arctic Aviation uniform, so I had a good chance of sneaking on some local flights free of charge. But I could only do it in small Northern airports.
It took me six weeks to see all the most interesting places of Taimyr Peninsula, Putorana Plateau, Severnaya Zemlya islands, and Chukotka (Chukchi Peninsula). Most people think of Arctic tundra as some bleak "barren grounds", dull and lifeless. It might be true in winter, but in summer it is breathtakingly beautiful. 24-hour daylight gave way to sunsets and sunrises that lasted for 5-6 hours each - a photographer's dream. I fell in love with that land of quiet "white nights", rolling hills, lake-dotted plains and desolated icefields. I could walk around for days without sleep, and didn't even get tired.
It was a world as rich in color as a butterfly's wing. The most colorful thing was not even the ever-changing sky, but the birds. Coastal tundra in particular was teeming with eiders, geese, loons, jaegers, ptarmigans, snowy owls, millions of waders everywhere, and huge seabird colonies on rocky shores. In some places it looked like a chicken farm: if you remained motionless for few minutes, downy chicks of gulls, sandpipers, and plovers emerged out of nowhere and started running around. Inland areas had less wildlife, but many places seemed to be landscapes from some other planet: Byrranga Mountains of Taimyr, Iultin area of Chukotka, and Elgygytgyn Lake in a huge meteor crater.
The most spectacular thing I saw on that route was Arctic spring. I watched it in the southern part of Taimyr tundra during the last week of June. On Monday, everything was under snow. By Wednesday it had all melted, on Thursday the willows started blooming, on Friday the leaves opened on bushes, and on Sunday the plains were all green. Only large lakes were still frozen.
The further east I moved, the more diverse were flora and fauna. On Vrangel Island off Chukotka, the tundra looked like an endless flower bed, packed with lemmings, birds, tiny butterflies, and other creatures. Eventually I got to Cape Dezhnev and enjoyed spectacular views of Alaska across the Bering Strait. Border guards had installed large telescopes on hilltops along the coast there, and I used them to watch gray whales feeding in small fjords down below. The Asian side of the Strait was an unbroken chain of seabird colonies, walrus haulouts, and lowland bogs covered with geese nests.
Chukotka had been visited by dozens of zoologists, but it was still easy to discover something new there. Large portions of the interior were virtually unexplored, except by geologists and local nomads who constantly moved around with huge reindeer herds. But you didn't have to go to remote places: I was the first to find some spectacled guillemots (birds previously known to breed only south from Kamchatka) at Kriguigun seabird colony, which had been studied by many ornithologists.
Flying around by small planes and helicopters was a lot of fun, too, despite long spells of bad weather. Sometimes dense fog was twenty to thirty meters above the sea surface, so the helicopter had to fly just above the waves, following the shoreline. Ringed and bearded seals resting on ice floes were often caught by surprise. Two or free of them would try to dive in a narrow hole in the ice at the same time, and get stuck tails up for a few seconds, frantically trying to squeeze through. On the coast, emperor geese and sandhill cranes had no time to take off and tried to hide, lying low and spreading their wings over the ground.
One of the things I enjoyed the most was talking to native people of Chukotka: Chukchis, Kereks, and Siberian Yupik Eskimos. Chukchis are either reindeer shepherds or marine mammal hunters, Kereks are salmon fishermen of the southernmost part of Chukotka, and Eskimos are all marine mammal hunters. Fresh plant food is only available in summer months there, and mostly limited to berries and wild onion. At the outskirts of one small village I saw an old Chukchi man, sitting motionless near a tiny tussock of fireweed. I asked him what he was doing.
"Can't you see?" he said, "I'm guarding these plants. It's the only place in the vicinity where they grow. If I don't guard them, someone would steal them. They will be my source of vitamins for the winter."
Once I was hiking along a remote beach south from Inchoun in search of rare spoonbill sandpipers. A very old Yupik man was standing on a sand dune, looking towards the sea. I looked at the same direction, and saw a whale spout at the horizon. It was very far away, and I could barely identify the species. I have good eyesight: if I have difficulty seeing something, others usually don't see it at all. But the old man suddenly turned to me and said: "big guest", translating the Eskimo name into Russian. "Bowhead whale," I said. I don't know who was more surprised.
One of the advantages of being a zoologist is always having a mutually interesting subject to discuss with local people in remote places. Soon I knew that the man was 65 years old (Siberian Eskimos are seldom lucky to live that long). He'd spent most of his life as a watcher. Until recently, each coastal village had had a watcher, a person responsible for observing the vicinity from a nearby hill, and alerting the village in case something was changing: the weather, the snow condition, or the sea ice movement. The old man had been a watcher for forty years. The most exciting event he'd seen was a fire and explosion on a border guard patrol boat in 1952.
Chukchi people came to Chukotka many centuries ago, but they were recent invaders compared to the Eskimos, who'd probably lived there since their victory over the people of the Dorset Culture around 3,000 BC. The Chukchi learned seal and whale hunting from the Eskimos, and almost forced them off their ancestral lands on the Asian side of Bering Strait. They were fearsome warriors, the only people in Siberia never conquered by military force. They formally recognized the Tzar's authority, but never agreed to pay taxes. They call themselves Luoravetlan, that can be translated as "speaking the truth openly", or as "the one standing upright". Their language is very beautiful, and not nearly as difficult as Eskimo languages.
In a town called Providence Bay I got stuck for a week because of the weather. This scenic place at the head of a large fjord was full of American tourists, who came from Alaska on private planes. I showed a letter I got from my scientific club to the head of local Communist Party branch, and he helped me get on the first plane out of there. The Party office had a sign I wish I had photographed: Divine Providence Regional Committee of The Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
I flew to Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka, and got stuck again. I didn't know how lucky I was. During the two days I lived in the waiting room of Anadyr Airport, I discovered the first colony of rare Aleutian tern on Chukotka (just outside the airfield),and got a once-in a lifetime chance to swim with beluga whales (also just outside the airport). Besides, I met a guy in the waiting room who was a reindeer expert at the time, but later turned into a businessman, and hired me for the best job in my life. I wrote three guidebooks for him, and a lot of research papers.
Then I sneaked on a crazy military flight to Magadan City via some remote villages of Central Chukotka and Northern Kamchatka. All stopovers were very long, so the flight took three days, but gave me a chance to see some places I would've never seen otherwise.
Magadan is a beautiful city on a peninsula at the Sea of Okhotsk coast. It was once a gateway to the golden mines of Kolyma River basin, the most feared part of Gulag. There are still mines and some labor camps in the area, but the city itself is charming. It still has the feel of friendship and warmth that was so typical for the Far North during the Era of Exploration (1950-s and 60-s), but was later spoiled by bureaucracy and commercialization.
After two months in tundra it was hard for me to get used to a big city, to dense taiga forests around it, and most of all to dark nights. I explored the area, and then decided to hitchhike to Yakutsk along the infamous Kolyma Highway. It is probably the most interesting and challenging hitchhiking experience in the world. Now travelers undertake it almost yearly, but in 1991 I was probably the first person to hitchhike the entire length of this awesome road. I'd seen the Highway from an airplane before, but I had very little idea of what to expect when I get there. The Highway is the only road across three huge mountain ranges - the most remote, mysterious, and wild part of Asia.
The first 500 kilometers is an easy part. Getting a ride on a truck is not a problem, and there is even a bus almost daily. Once you cross Kolyma River, it gets more difficult, but the traffic is still reliable all the way to Ust-Nera on Indigirka River. The next thousand kilometers is what makes the trip so special. The road is nothing more than a dirt track with collapsed bridges and almost no settlements. Trucks pass by once every few hours or days, but sometimes you can get stuck for weeks.
I made it to Kolyma in two days. Not far from the bridge is an unmarked turnoff, from which it takes about twenty hours of hiking to get to Jack London Lake, one of the most scenic places in the area. A second, much smaller lake called Dancing Graylings Lake is said to have the best fly fishing in Siberia.
The rough part of the Highway starts from a junction a few dozen kilometers before Ust-Nera. I got off a truck there, and walked west, waiting for a ride. Suddenly a young bear appeared. It ran towards me as if I had a "free lunch" tattoo over my forehead. Just as it was about to give me a hug, I handled it a cracker, then another. The only tall tree in sight was about a hundred meters away, and I started slowly moving towards it. By the time I ran out of crackers, there was about half of the distance left. The only other food I had was a can of meat. I decided to punch the can with my pocket knife, give to the bear to keep it busy for few seconds, and try to get to the tree. At that moment we heard an approaching truck. The bear ran away, and the can was saved. I got very nice slides during that funny encounter. I was afraid the bear would approach other people for food and either kill someone or get shot. I asked locals about it the next time I was in the area, but the bear had apparently disappeared in the taiga.
The only trucks capable of getting through the rough part of the Highway are KRAZ, slow but with very powerful engines. Crossing the first of the three mountain ranges, Chersky Range, takes two days. It is not really a range, but a vast country of mountains and basins. There are no settlements along the road until you get to Orto-Balagan, a tiny village in the valley of Tarynnah River on the far side of the range, just inside Yakutia.
Ice banks, called naled' in Russian and taryn in Yakut, are a special feature of local landscape. Intermontane valleys of Northeastern Yakutia have colder winters than any other place outside the Antarctic. Even large rivers freeze all the way to the bottom in some places. The water breaks through the ice in spectacular fountains, rushes downstream and freezes again. After many cycles of freezing and breaking, river valleys become filled with deposits of dark-blue ice. These ice banks often take all summer to melt. Most are a few kilometers long and a few meters thick, but some are true giants. The largest one on Moma River is 120 km long, and completely melts only two-three times per century, during particularly hot summers.
I rented a saddle-reindeer (called uchik in local Even language) in Orto-Balagan, and rode to Labynkyr Lake hundred kilometers to the south. Only very smart, large, and strong male reindeer are selected to become uchiks, and it takes many ears to train one, so renting an uchik is very expensive. Soon I discovered that it is difficult to ride an uchik if you have long legs, so most of time I walked him. Well, at least he carried my backpack, and lured most mosquitoes away from me. The lake lies in a large meteor crater, and is home to a legendary monster similar to Nessie.
The next village on the Highway is called Oimyakon. It is listed in Guinness Book of Records twice: as the coldest place with permanent population, and as the point with the most continental climate on Earth. The difference between summer and winter temperatures is 110 degrees centigrade. Summers are very hot, but an obelisk with The coldest place in the Northern Hemisphere sign serves as a reminder.
Evens and Yakuts have very small herds of domestic reindeer, and wild reindeer never stay in one area for long. The grazing pressure is very low in the area, so it is one of the last places in Eurasia to see undisturbed lichen cover in mountain tundra. It can be knee-deep, and feels great to walk barefoot across. In Chukotka and other places where people have large reindeer herds, this cover is usually very thin. If trimmed by reindeer, yagel (lichen layer) takes decades or even centuries to grow back.
Southern slopes of hills around Oimyakon are covered with grasslands called tundrosteppes. They were the dominant type of vegetation in Siberia during the last Ice Age, and probably the favorite habitat of woolly mammoths. But now there are no large animals in Oimyakon Depression, and the place looks very boring, at least in summer.
If you survive the day-long crossing of the Depression, you are awarded with the most scenic part of the Highway. It follows a deep, 100-km long gorge across Suntar-Hayata (Misty Mountains). No other mountain range of that size anywhere outside Antarctic is so remote and pristine. As soon as you hike away from the road for half an hour in any direction, you have thousands square kilometers of uninhabited land to explore. Moose are huge there (they belong to American species). Wild sheep, reindeer, wolverines, sables, foxes, wolves, and bears are common. Peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, and snow-white goshawks nest on vertical rocks. In August you don't need to carry food, because the most common plant in river valleys is blueberry with fruit the size of small grapes. Higher upslope are fields of whortleberry, Arctic bramble, and cloudberry. I was so impressed by the overwhelming beauty of this land that decided to visit it again in winter.
Crossing Suntar-Hayata takes anywhere from two days to two weeks, depending on river crossings. The road hasn't been maintained much since the 1970-s, so most bridges are missing. You might have to wait for a few days before crossing a river if rains have fallen in the mountains. The road is usually impassable at all from April to June and from September to November.
You have three more mountain ranges to cross, and then the landscape changes. You are now on the plains of Central Yakutia. In summer, the road ends in Khandyga on Aldan River. You have to take a boat from there to Yakutsk.
I spent a few days in Yakutsk Airport trying to sneak on some flight to the Arctic Coast of Yakutia. I got caught, and had to pay five rubles' fee for entering the airfield without a permit (fines for flying without a ticket did not exist). After that everybody knew my face, and the situation seemed desperate. By I managed to get onboard by hiding in a box of flour, and was unloaded in Chersky, a town recently built on lower Kolyma. From Chersky, I hitched a boat ride to Pokhodsk, a tiny (about thirty families) village in the delta.
The first inhabitants of Northern Yakutia were the Yukagir and their relatives the Lamut. Their languages are believed to be among the oldest and most isolated in the world. Like Inland Eskimos of Canada, they depended on wild reindeer for living. As the wild herds were replaced by domestic reindeer brought to the area by Yakuts and Chukchis, both Yukagirs and Lamuts mostly died from starvation or were assimilated. The last speaker of Lamut language, an old woman, died in 1984. When I got to Pokhodsk in 1991, there were only two people left who could speak Yukagir. It is a very musical language that sounds a little bit like Inuit Eskimo.
The village was founded in the 16th century by Cossacks from Indigirka River. They saw an unusually beautiful rainbow at that place, and took it for a sign. The rainbow must've been really something to impress the Cossacks, who were the toughest professional travelers and explorers of the time. In 1887, an American whaling boat with mostly Cuban crew was crashed by sea ice not far from Pokhodsk. Now the villagers' faces are a striking mixture of Yukagir, Russian, African and Spanish features.
In 1908, two thirds of Pokhodsk residents died from smallpox. Because of the permafrost, most were not really buried, but put into wooden caskets just below the surface. The burials of Russians were marked with crosses, and those of Yukagirs with wooden geese.
In 1991 Kolyma River began to carve into a hill which contained the cemetery. Some local newspaper published an article claiming that the smallpox virus was about to spread all over Siberia, and an expedition was sent to the village from Yakutsk to investigate. By the time they got to Pokhodsk, most of the graves had been washed away. But the pay in the expedition was good, so its members decided to stay for as long as they could. When we met they'd been there for two months, and were slowly going crazy from vodka and boredom. A pair of leaf warblers that lived near their cabin got so used to having drunk men lying around all the time, that the birds weren't afraid to land on people and pick up mosquitoes. The expedition workers were glad to feed me in exchange for travel stories. They also let me use their boat to explore the area.
West from Pokhodsk is Chaiguurgino, the world's largest area of lake tundra. It is so flat and swampy that only 18% of it is dry land, the rest being millions of lakes of all sizes. Moving through that labyrinth of water, sedge, and willow bushes is very difficult, but it's the only way to see its residents: tundra swans, Ross' gulls, and Siberian cranes. Unfortunately, taking photos in Chaiguurgino is also difficult: there are so many mosquitoes that all pictures turn up gray.
Now I was in the land of small airports, and getting a free ride was not a problem. I returned to Chersky and took a plane to Chokurdah, another town further west. Here tundra was dry, with rolling hills, lichen carpets, numerous tiny lakes in cozy little valleys, and flowers everywhere. Northern Yakutia is the only part of the world where summers are very hot in tundra. The permafrost goes hundreds of meters deep, but in summer months its upper layers are subject to karst-like erosion. Some unusual formations can be seen there, but they only have names in Yakut language: berelekh, bestyakh, boldogonnokh, and so on. There are also formations that can't be seen: underground cavities and fissures. You find out they are there by falling into one. They are usually only a meter or two deep, but filled with ice-cold water.
The next place I got to was Tiksi, a sea port at the northern edge of immense Lena River delta. It was amazing how diverse tundra landscapes could be. The delta was a world of cold pebble fields and sparse grass, and the ground was mostly ice, not soil. The main source of income for local people was collecting mammoth ivory from river banks.
I returned to Yakutsk and took a boat upstream to see the famous Lena Pillars. Five kilometers of high river bank are covered with a forest of narrow rock prisms about hundred meters tall. It is probably the most unusual scenery in Siberia, except for colossal frozen waterfalls of Putorana Plateau. The pillars along the nearby Blue River cover its shores for forty kilometers and are even more spectacular, but few people know about them.
From Lena River I hiked to AYaM (Aldan-Yakutsk Highway), a dusty gravel road that connects Yakutsk with the Transsiberian Railway. It crosses Aldan Highlands and Stanovoi (Backbone) Range, but is not nearly as interesting as Kolyma Highway. It passes through hundreds of kilometers of recently burnt forest, now overgrown with fireweed. Sunrises and sunsets look very unusual and beautiful in the sea of pink flowers.
There are also some old Yakut villages along the road. The Yakut are Turk people. They moved to taiga from the grasslands of Transbaikalia many centuries ago, but their culture is still based on horse husbandry. They depend on vast alas meadows of arid Central Yakutia for pastureland. Just as the tundrosteppes of Oimyakon, these meadows are a relict of pre-taiga era, and they still have small populations of rooks and other grassland fauna.
I had little money left, so I had to hitchhike on freight trains along the Transsiberian. I got to Dahuria and almost starved there, because food stores were absolutely empty. The only thing they had were cucumbers for thirty rubles a pound. Eventually I had to buy one cucumber, but it happened to be bitter.
I then traveled to Khamar-Daban Mountains, Sayans, Tuva Republic, Khakassia, Shoria and some other places. By the time I got to Novosibirsk in Western Siberia, I had just enough money for a flight home. But the only tickets available were to Ufa in Bashkortostan, just west of the Urals. When I got to Ufa, I still had money for a train ticket to Moscow, but they only had trains to Saransk in Mordovian Republic. In Saransk I spent all money I had left to buy a ticket to Ryazan. The train was going to Moscow, and my plan was to go all the way. But the conductor noticed me, and I was thrown out of of the train in Kolomna, just hundred kilometers from home.
I got on a local train to Moscow. Soon, a group of ticket inspectors came, and asked me what place I was coming from. "Chukotka," I said. They thought I was crazy, and left me alone. Just before dawn, I finally walked from the train station to my apartment. "I will eat whatever I find in the refrigerator," I told myself, "and then will spend a week in a hot tube, eating and reading newspapers. No more adventures. Whatever happens, I'm not leaving my home."
It was the morning of August 19, 1991. The tanks were already entering Moscow, as Kremlin was been taken over by a coup. The world as we knew it was going to hell in less than three hours.
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