He unrolled a piece of unmarked blood-red cloth on the deck.
"But this is a pirate flag!" the sailors exclaimed in astonishment...
James Fenimore Couper. The Red Rover
Summer season of 1992 went all wrong from the beginning. The Far East and Siberia were inaccessible for financial reasons, and most of the new independent states in the South were turning into a war zone. My institute had been closed, so I had only one job left. It was a tiny publishing house with only five employees, so I couldn't take long vacations.
In June, I risked a trip to Chimgan Mountains of Uzbekistan, and almost got killed. I crossed the mountains to Kokand, and had to hitchhike back to Tashkent to take a train home. At one point the road was crossing a narrow belt of Tajikistan territory. Our car was stopped by armed people in combat fatigues, who took all our money and belongings, shot a full AK-74 magazine into us point-blank, and drove away in our car. The other passenger was killed, and the driver got a hole in his lung. I managed to fall back just before being hit by a bullet, but hit my head against the pavement really bad.
I somehow stopped a passing truck and took the heavily bleeding driver to a police checkpoint less than a mile away. But the police refused to chase the bandits, and tried to arrest me instead. I had to get to Moscow in bloody clothes and with almost no money. I still had my passport, otherwise I'd probably never make it home without spending some time in every jail along the route. The only good thing to come from that trip was that I could warn some of my friends who'd been planning an expedition to Tajikistan. They changed their plans, and avoided getting caught in bloody civil war which erupted there just a week later.
The summer was saved by Yury, a friend of mine. I first met him in a train from Komsomolsk to Soviet Harbor in the Far East a year earlier. He had a job at some maintenance service and an unusual hobby. His uncle was a customs official. He provided Yury with small boats confiscated from Japanese fishermen for entering Russian territorial waters. My friend got them almost for free, then found buyers for them in various parts of the Far East and Siberia, and delivered the boats by driving them to the destination points. In this manner he'd traveled the entire length of most major rivers in Siberia: Lena, Ob', Kolyma, and Amur. He also made a crossing from Soviet Harbor to Southern Sakhalin once. His uncle issued him permits to enter neutral waters. Such business was not very profitable, but it was a lot of fun.
When we first met, Yury promised to let me know if some interesting delivery would come up. Now he called me and offered to join him for a boat trip to Igarka on Yenisey River, in North-Central Siberia. I borrowed some money, and met with him in Krasnoyarsk City on the Transsiberian Railroad a few days later.
The boat was very small and didn't look special to me at all. Yury also had three Japanese outboard motors for sale. He managed to get it all to Krasnoyarsk for free by hiding the cargo in an empty railroad car, and spent a week in an empty cabin on a flatcar next to it. He had friends in every city in Siberia, and managed to get us a free ride to Baikit in Evenkia on a military airplane. When we were already in the air, we found out that the plane would make another stop in Vanavara further upstream, and decided to get off there.
In 1992 the airfares on local flights were absolutely crazy. An hour-long flight from Vanavara to Tura on a small plane cost twice as much as taking a jet from Tura to Moscow. Helicopter flights were even more expensive. But we sold one boat motor to the pilots, and agreed to give them a small discount if they take us to Tungus Event site. Then we sold the remaining seats in the helicopter to some tourists, so this side trip was free for us.
The Event occurred in 1908. There wasn't an impact crater to speak of, and now the site itself looks like an ordinary puddle in the swamp. But it is still surrounded by thousands of square kilometers of fallen trees, partly burned in the vicinity of "ground zero". If the comet (or whatever it was) had exploded over some populated area, it would have been the worst Natural disaster of the 20th century.
North from Vanavara there is a group of round-shaped lakes in the taiga. They are ancient maars, a kind of volcanic craters. The deposits of heavy volcanic rocks around the lakes cause small anomalies of gravitational and magnetic fields. A decade ago these lakes were claimed to be the most regularly used UFO landing site in Siberia. A large group of "ufologists" from Moscow decided to get to the lakes. It was supposed to be an easy summertime hike (the lakes are less than 100 km from Vanavara). But these folks were so ill-prepared that they managed to get lost and died. Two wolverine-chewed bodies were found in the fall by local Evenk shepherds, others disappeared without a trace.
To get to Yenisey, we had to go down Podkamennaya Tunguska ("river of Evenks, surrounded by rocky hills") first. It is a scenic river with some rapids and a lot of traffic. You don't see any wildlife except nutcrackers from the water, but the river itself is full of fish. There are many species of whitefish there, all of them delicious. The area around the mouth of Tunguska is a Nature reserve. We found a small tributary there, went upstream for a few minutes, and spent two days exploring blooming meadows and dark spruce forests. Then we floated into Yenisey and turned north.
A small part of the river valley is populated by Ket people. Their language is the last surviving dialect of Yenisey group, intermediate between Sino-Tibetan and Algonquin languages. Other peoples of this group had once lived in Southern Siberia, but were assimilated in the 19th century. There are still some Yenisean toponyms there, such as the name of Taishet city on the Transsiberian Railroad. Ket language is now rapidly disappearing, even in Yrvar, the most traditional of their villages.
North from Turukhansk the forest became more open, and spruce gave way to larch. It was the time of the year when mosquitoes were gradually replaced by gnats. Once we saw a very rare, almost legendary thing called gnat tornado. A roaring black column of millions of gnats was slowly drifting above a forest bog. It is not a good idea to get close to such mega-swarm: the insects can smell you and will chase you down. They can kill a human in five minutes by sucking blood and injecting poisonous saliva. We were lucky to have a boat with a good motor close by.
We got to Igarka and followed a chain of lakes to a small town in the foothills of Putorana Plateau, where our customer lived. These remote Siberian towns are made entirely of wood, including street pavement and airstrips. The man we delivered the boat to let us take his old aluminum boat he no longer needed. We loaded it on Raketa, a very fast hydrofoil, and went back up Yenisey.
There is an old, long-abandoned waterway known as Alexander's Locks, which connects one of Yenisey's tributaries with Ob' River basin. It hadn't been used for almost a century, and became so shallow and overgrown that we had to drag the boat along in many places. After a few days of travel we got to the headwaters of Chulym River, sold the boat and the last motor in one of the villages, and got to Tomsk City. Before taking trains in opposite directions, we counted our profits. We'd made just enough money to cover travel and fuel expenses. But it was a good way to spend a two-week vacation.
In late August Yury called me again. This time he had a much more interesting idea. He'd just got a large two-motor speedboat. He found a customer for it: chief of a private gold-mining team in Magadan City. Yury decided to cross the Sea of Okhotsk from south to north. I took a plane to Soviet Harbor and was really impressed by the boat, slim black torpedo with two powerful engines and navigation equipment I'd never seen before.
To save fuel, we loaded it on a barge to Northern Sakhalin, then followed the island's shoreline north for a while, and crossed back to the mainland coast. The boat was such a pleasure to drive that we couldn't get enough of it. It was stable, easy to steer, and very fast. We mostly remained in sight of the coast, gliding across the smooth sea surface, flushing huge bird flocks and trying to avoid hitting a sleepy seal. We got to Shantar Islands, explored them for a day, and crossed to the western coast of the Sea of Okhotsk.
From the 17th to the 19th century, the only road between European Russia and the Pacific Coast was zimnik, an endless chain of sled routes, only passable in winter. It went through Yakutsk and then to Okhotsk. A trip from Saint-Petersburg to Okhotsk took two years. From there boats departed to explore Kamchatka, Chukotka, and Alaska. When the Transsiberian Railroad was completed, Vladivostok became the main gateway to the Far East. Large sea ports were built in Soviet Harbor, Petropavlovsk, and Magadan, while Okhotsk was all but abandoned.
Now the entire coast from Amur River mouth to Magadan is sparsely populated and undeveloped. It is a very beautiful land of tall spruce, fir, and larch forests, rocky shores, and cold rivers running from Jugjur Range just inland. We spent almost a week there, moving from one cove to another, feeding on chum salmon. It's a great place to watch wildlife: foxes and bears on riverbanks, sables and musk deer in dense thickets, reindeer and elk on timberline meadows.
Navigation can be very treacherous there because of dense fog and immense quicksand mudflats. We avoided it all thanks to good weather, but once had to wait for high tide for many hours, because our boat was stuck a few kilometers from the water edge. The difference between high and low tide can be up to ten meters in some places.
The trip was going so smooth that we decided to make a risky side trip. There is a tiny island called Iona in the middle of the Sea of Okhotsk, 250 kilometers from shore. It is difficult to find, but the weather looked excellent, and we wanted to try the navigation equipment. In a small village we loaded our boat with fuel and went into the open sea.
We were less than hundred kilometers from Iona when the barometer began to fall, and cirrus clouds covered the sky. But it was too late to turn back. We decided that there was still enough time to find the island before it gets really bad. When the rain started and the storm began, we were almost there, but it was too late to attempt landing. The island looks like a giant rock castle with vertical walls up to 300 m high. There is only one small cove where landing is possible, but it is inaccessible in rough weather. We couldn't risk scratching the boat and had to wait out the storm in the sea.
The island has no man-made objects except for an automatic weather station, visited once a year by helicopter. Its shores are one colossal seabird colony. Even at the peak of the storm, thousands of birds left the rocks and returned every minute. But their calls were difficult to hear. The island is one of the largest haulouts of Steller's sea lions in the world. They made more noise than the pounding surf and the bird flocks together. We found a place relatively protected from the wind, and spent the night trying to maintain position. Thanks to the roar of sea lions, it was easy to know when the rocks were too close.
By sunrise we were so exhausted that decided to leave the island and go back to the mainland. The storm was still bad, so we didn't get there until late at night. We had no choice but to attempt the landing in pitch-black darkness. The only thing we could see was the white line of breaking surf. We followed it for few minutes, spotted some kind of a gap, and steered the boat in. We were lucky: it was a mouth of a tiny river, protected by a sand bar. We tied the boat to a huge log, waded to the beach, and fell asleep.
The wind subsided by morning, but we had to wait for two days until the swell was down. We had just enough gas left to get to the next village. We had no more adventures, except for picking a piece of fishing net by one of our propellers. We visited seal haulouts near Magadan, then found our customer, and celebrated the deal for two days. This time we even made some profit. Yury got on a cargo ship back home. I was put by my friends on a plane to the Crimea, spent a few days there, and then returned to Moscow.
Unfortunately, I never met Yury again. Next summer he took a large fishing boat from Southern Kurils to Vladivostok, but I was in China and couldn't join him. He made good money and was planning to take a confiscated yacht to Estonia through Indian and Atlantic Oceans. But his uncle got promoted to another job, so someone else's relatives got the yacht. Yury was very upset. He crossed to Japan on a life raft, and wasn't planning on coming back. I do not know where he is now, but we'll probably meet some day in some sea.
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