1 The plane was half empty, the air inside muggy and rank, redolent of sweat and latrines. A couple of hours into the all-night flight from Moscow to Bratsk, where I hoped to find a car or truck to take me three hundred miles northeast through the taiga to Ust’-Kut, I wiped away the condensation and peered groggily through the porthole. Below the jetliner, a Soviet-era TU-154 seating some eighty passengers, a darkly verdant carpet of forest laced with silver- gray rivers — Siberia — swept away toward the horizon under a pale sky — midnight on the twentieth of June.
Always an expedition’s first hours hit me the hardest, leaving me the nonplussed victim of my own wanderlust and obsessions. My distress began at Domodedovo Airport, in southeastern Moscow, earlier that hot, humid evening. Jostled by red-faced travelers dragging checkered vinyl sacks and plastic-wrapped suitcases for flights to Siberia, I had stood on the dusty linoleum with my wife near security control. Her eyes watering and wide open, she pressed her trembling cheeks to mine. We had been rushed on departure from our apartment and had not managed to sit for a few moments of silence, hands clasped and eyes locked, as Russian custom required for good luck on such a journey. Being Russian, and knowing her country, Tatyana distrusted everything Russian. I knew her fears. She felt she might be touching me for the last time before releasing me into a semibarbarous hinterland beginning just outside Moscow and stretching into infinity, all forest, bog, and low mountain, peopled with drunks and thugs, divided into satrapies ruled by petty tyrants who would love to get their hands on an American. Her fears were exaggerated, I knew, but I no longer argued with her — to make positive predictions before an undertaking in Russia is to tempt fate.
They called my flight. I pulled away from her, shouldering my bag. She stood at the guardrail and watched me pass through security, alarm washing over her face as an airport policeman pointed to my knapsack and asked me to open it. He pulled out my maps of the Lena. Largescale maps are still viewed as quasi military in Russia. What would a foreigner need them for, if not espionage, he asked? Expedition? What sort of expedition? What exactly was I planning to do in Siberia? And why Siberia, for that matter? During Yeltsin’s time, he probably would not have cared about maps or bothered detaining me. Now, with Putin in power, security officers did whatever they wanted and were as suspicious as they often were greedy. How much money was he going to demand to let me go? He questioned me for so long that I began worrying whether I would make the flight. Only mention of my affiliation to Dmitry Shparo won my release.
Finally free, I waved goodbye to Tatyana, jogged to the gate, and just made the bus that took me on a rattling ride over heat-warped tarmac and out to the plane. Now, gazing through the porthole, I started to doze off. But soon the sky shaded into azure and swords of sunlight from a point on the earth’s sharp rim stabbed my eyes. Before I knew it, I was standing in Bratsk’s dank terminal barn, swatting mosquitoes, dazed by the lack of sleep and the five-hour time difference, waiting next to a derelict luggage conveyor for my backpack and other gear to appear, with three or four drunken passengers who had also checked bags. (To avoid theft, most in Russia prefer to carry on.) Luggage retrieved, I then found myself haggling outside in the sun with the sole driver on the lot: a shaved-headed, pug-nosed, paunchy man in his late forties. His Russian’s aspirated g’s indicated Ukrainian provenance. With his crude mug and scarred hands, he looked like a criminal, but then out here driving was serious business; vehicle repairs in Siberian frosts often involved getting your damp bare hands frozen to steel and losing shards of skin. He had a peasant frankness about him that I found reassuring.
His taxi was a gray, listing Volga sedan of a model that I had seen only in old Soviet movies.
“Ust’-Kut?” he said. “Christ, we’ve had rain and the road’s all mucked up. But, well . . . well, okay, hop in.” He introduced himself as Volodya. We drove off the lot, rocking onto a narrow, beat-up highway running like an alley through the forest. I tried in vain to sleep. The violent ascending road, a swerving track of gravel in parts and mud in others, cut through a looming taiga of scraggly larch and majestic spruce, lucent with light flooding through broadly spaced boughs. Now and then logging settlements appeared on the hillsides, above rushing streams blue with the sky, glittering with the sun.
“Look at this mud!” said Volodya, wrestling with his wheel. “They daare call it a ‘federal highway’! Just this winter wolves tore a woman to pieces out here.” He was smiling with pride. “Siberia!” “When did you move here from Ukraine?” “Back in the seventies. I came to work at the dam power station in Bratsk. I’m too old to go home now, and anyway, I like the peace and quiet here. You can’t leave Siberia once you learn to live here.” The news came on the radio. I waited for the now customary litany of Putin’s daily meetings and wise pronouncements, but they never came. Local events filled the airtime.
“You don’t get national news out here?” I asked.
“Hell, we don’t care what they do in Moscow,” Volodya declared.
“Whatever they decide in the capital, whatever wonderful changes they say are coming to us, out here nothing changes. Our local deputies are always fending off some inspector come from Moscow to make trouble. Either that or they’re out for themselves. What do I care about Moscow, tell me!” A minor explosion sounded from the front of the car. A tire had blown out. We stopped. Volodya continued his tirade as he wrestled the spare free from debris in the trunk. “However, all politicians everywhere, even here, are just out for themselves . . . But who cares, and who does anything about it? But let some poor drug addict break into an apartment to get money for his fix. They throw him in jail for stealing a few rubles. Look, I don’t need the materik” — the “mainland,” as Siberians call European Russia. “ ‘A fish rots from the head,’ we say. Get it? See why I don’t care about hearing Moscow news? Here I have my peace and quiet. No rotten smells.” After we finished changing tires, I stepped away from the road and walked to the edge of the taiga. Here it was all birch, leaves so green they seemed to glow, and trunks gleaming as if painted with fresh coats of white and zebra-slashed with black from base to crown. Bumblebees buzzed around my ankles; a giant horsefly sailed out of the foliage and took to circling me. Soon I was standing in cloud of fat bugs, all swirling slowly as if drunk from the heat and sun.
“Hey, get away from the woods!” Volodya shouted. “You can get a tick in the grass and catch encephalitis! You could be dead in a day out here! Siberia!” I trotted back to the car and jumped in for the last three hours of jolts and bumps to Ust’-Kut.
For most of Russia’s history, nothing more than a mud track, which north of Mongolia and China disappeared into bog and forest, connected Saint Petersburg and Moscow to the Far East. In 1891, however, the tsar ordered the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Once completed twenty-five years later, it would run almost six thousand miles from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok on the Sea o...