Passengers waiting to board the Trans-Siberian Railway in

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         E     leven days from St. Petersburg, Ser-
                gei Lunev, Volodya Chumak, and I
         were well into the swampy flatlands of
         western Siberia. It was the summer of
         2001, and we were driving across Siberia
         in a converted Renault step van that had
         formerly delivered eggs and sour cream
         and sometimes didn’t start. Every night,
         we were camping out. In a country with-
         out fences or “No Trespassing” signs, we
         had an abundance of places to camp, but
         each one required a certain amount of
         searching nonetheless. Sergei sometimes
         spent an hour or more in the evenings
         looking—stopping, getting out, walking
         around, then trying somewhere else. He
         wanted ground that was dry, not too low,
         not too many trash heaps, near water if
         possible, away from the road but not too
         difficult to get to. When he was satisfied
         with his find, he would pronounce it a
         “khoroshoe mesto”—a good place.
             The country’s swampiness did not
         manifest itself in great expanses of water
         with reeds and trees in it, like the Florida
         Everglades. There were wide rivers and
         reedy places, but also birch groves and
         hills and yellow fields. The way you could
         tell you were in the swamp was, first, that
         the ground became impassably soggy if
         you walked at all far in any direction; and,
         second, by the mosquitoes.
             I have been in mosquito swarms in
         beaver meadows in northern Michigan,
         in boreal wetlands in Canada, and near
         Alaska’s Yukon River. Western Siberia
         has more. On calm and sultry evenings as
         we busied ourselves around the camp,
         mosquitoes came at us as if shot from a
         fire hose. Usually mosquitoes cluster in a
         cloud around their targets, but as Volo-
         dya made dinner I observed a thick and
         proximate cloud surrounding him head
         to toe, and then a whole other sort of
         candidate swarm around that inner
         swarm, and then more in all directions,
         minutely enlivening the sky.
             With such astronomical numbers,
         Siberian mosquitoes have learned to di-
         versify. There are the majority, of course,
         who just bite you anywhere. Those are
         your general-practitioner mosquitoes,
         or G.P.s. Then, you have your special-
         ists—your eye, ear, nose, and throat
         mosquitoes. Eye mosquitoes fly directly

         at the eyeball and crash-land there. The
         reason for this tactic is a mystery. The       Passengers waiting to board the Trans-Siberian Railway in Krasnoyarsk. Phantoms thronged
         44	      THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009
                                                              A	REpORTER	AT	lARGE

                                             TRAvElS	IN	SIbERIA—II
                                                              The path of poets and prisoners.

                                                                   bY	IAN	fRAzIER

along the railway, which was first completed in tsarist times. Photograph by Carl De Keyzer.
ear mosquito goes into the ear canal and       filled me with caution, not to say fear.         them, suffocating reindeer in Yakutia by
then slams itself deafeningly back and             Sergei had provided each of us with a       clogging up their nostrils, tormenting
forth—part of a larger psyops strategy,        special anti-mosquito hat, called a nako-       cattle on the Barabinsk Steppe so that the
maybe. Nose and throat mosquitoes              marnik, that was draped with netting and        herdsmen had to paint them all over with
wait for their moment, then surf into          resembled something a beekeeper might           tar. Some of my Siberian notebooks still
those passages as far as they can go on        wear. When the mosquitoes were worst,           have squashed mosquitoes between their
the indrawn breath of air. Even deep in-       we wore those hats, and gloves, and we          pages. The Lonely Planet guidebook to
side they keep flying as long as possible       tucked our pant legs into our boots.            Russia that I consulted before I went on
and emit a desperate buzzing, as if ra-        Dressed this way, we could move around          my journey states, in the section about
dioing for backup.                             and perform most essential activities. I        Siberia, “By August, the air has cleared of
    Nothing short of a good breeze keeps       found sketching and taking notes to be          mosquitoes.” From my experience, this is
Siberian mosquitoes down. They laugh           difficult with gloves on. Also, the no-see-       no longer the case.
at organic-based repellents. Strong repel-     ’ums got through the holes in the netting,
lent with DEET is disagreeable to them,        and were hard to swat once inside. A few        CAmp	YERmAK
but they work around it. Thick smoke           mosquitoes always sneaked in as well, and
can be effective, but you have to stand
right in it. In past times, native peoples
and Russians wove fine netting of the
                                               whined maddeningly. As Volodya cooked
                                               meals on the propane stove, mosquitoes
                                               attracted by the rising vapors flew over
                                                                                               A      s we followed the banks of the Tura
                                                                                                      River going northeast, we came to
                                                                                               the village of Pokrovskoye. I had wanted
long hairs in a horse’s tail and wore the      the pot, swooned from the heat, and fell        to check this village out because it was
nets throughout the summer. Members            in. When we ate our oatmeal in the              the home town of Rasputin—not Valen-
of a tribe called the Tungus carried smoke     morning, there were often a few mos-            tin Rasputin, the Siberian writer, but the
pots with them wherever they went,             quito bodies in it. Most of them we just        original unhinged self-described holy
while another native people, the Voguls,       ate, but sometimes there were ones that         man Rasputin, abettor of the downfall of
retreated into smoke-filled huts for the        had bitten somebody and were full of            the Romanov line. The village was all
summer months and became dormant,              blood . . .                                     gray wood and stretched along the river
doing most of their hunting and travel-            Bugs are just part of the Siberian situ-    for miles. Sergei did not care to look
ling in the wintertime. The sheer volume       ation, as inescapable as distance and mo-       for Rasputin memorabilia—for an old
of mosquitoes might cause an observer          notony. That long-suffering traveller            church associated with Rasputin, per-
not to mention the gnats, flies, and tiny       Chekhov described a cockroach-infested          haps, or a Rasputin museum. And Ras-
biting insects (known as “no-see-’ums” in      room in the jailhouse where he spent the        putin was not the kind of celebrity whose
America); there are plenty of all those as     night in a tiny settlement on Sakhalin          home place seemed eager to claim him; I
well. Sometimes in the evenings, I imag-       Island:                                         saw no signs anywhere, including at ei-
ined I could hear the great insect totality        It seemed as though the walls and ceiling   ther edge of town, that mentioned his
tuning up all around, a continent-wide         were covered with black crepe, which stirred    name. Later, I heard that there is a small
humming.                                       as if blown by a wind. From the rapid and       Rasputin museum in Pokrovskoye, but
                                               disorderly movements of portions of the crepe
    The mosquitoes kept tabs on us vig-        you could guess the composition of this boil-   to visit it you have to make arrangements
ilantly everywhere we moved, indoors as        ing, seething mass. You could hear rustling     in advance. Sergei drove straight through
well as out. Because our campsites were        and a loud whispering, as if the insects were   the village without a pause while I fretted
                                               hurrying off somewhere and carrying on a
just places along the road, the bathroom       conversation.                                   and said nothing. Rasputin, it was said,
arrangements had to be of the walk-off-                                                         gave off a powerful odor of goat. What a
into-the-bushes variety. Tending to ne-           V. K. Arsenyev, the Russian Army             museum you could make about a guy like
cessities while under insect attack was a      officer and explorer who in the early             that! Oh, well.
real experience. I recalled what a Sibe-       nineteen-hundreds mapped some of the                 A few hours later, we came to a river
rian traveller named Hans Jakob Fries          most inaccessible parts of the Primorskii       I’d long wanted to see—the Tobol. This
had written about this problem more            Krai, north of Vladivostok, wrote about         is the river that Yermak, the almost
than two centuries ago. Fries was a Swiss      flies that fell so thickly they put out his      mythical conqueror of Siberia, travelled
doctor, whose book, “Reise Durch Si-           campfire; Dostoyevsky waxed lyrical              as he approached his decisive battle with
birien” (“Travel in Siberia”), described       about the blessed moment in the cool of         the Khan of Sibir. The problem was, we
a journey he made in 1776 and, inciden-        pre-dawn in the prison barracks when            could glimpse the river only off in the
tally, became one of the earliest books to     the fleas stopped biting and the convicts        distance, because for most of its length
use that serviceable title. Fries wrote that   could sleep; and John Bell, a Scottish          it’s really more like a deeper part of a con-
during his passage through western Si-         doctor in the employ of Peter the Great,        tinuous swamp. Trying to get close to it
beria he was bitten on a “delicate por-        noted that his ambassadorial party,             in the late afternoon, we drove up on a
tion of my privy parts . . . so severely       bound for Peking in 1719, changed their         small hill. Birch groves and a meadow of
by a horse fly . . . that for three days I      route across eastern Siberia partly be-         long grasses covered the hill, which on its
didn’t know where to turn on account           cause they were “much pestered with             far side ended at a cliff descending steeply
of pain, and I had the greatest trouble        gnats and muskitoes.” The swarms                to the Tobol itself. Here the view swept
to prevent the setting in of gangrene.”        afflicted animals, too—descending on              far around a long continuation of the cliff
The recollection of Fries’s misfortune         young foals in such numbers as to kill          that enclosed a wide swath of water made
46	      THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009
by a sharply turning river bend. This          turned to my tent. The idea of chasing          woman’s mother, the other her aunt.
seemed an ideal camping place. Sergei          women in Siberia would have made me                 Both the aunt and the mother had
parked the van back from the cliff, in a        nervous even had I not been married.            brown, deeply weathered faces. The
clearing in the birch woods, and set up        Sergei and Volodya found my reluctance          mother wore a brown cloth Lenin-type
the tents for the night.                       mystifying.                                     cap, a dark-gray overcoat-smock with
    Along the cliff a kilometre or two                                                          holes in it, brown bloused pants with red-
away, the roofs and smokestacks of a vil-
lage mingled with the silhouetted trees.
According to somebody we had talked to
                                               T    obolsk, our local destination—a
                                                    must-see as far as I was concerned—
                                               was about an hour and a half away. In the
                                                                                               brown patches, and knee-high rubber
                                                                                               boots. The aunt was dressed similarly, but
                                                                                               she had a head of wiry hair dyed yellow-
on the road, the village was called Bere-      morning, Sergei announced that we               orange. Both carried big galvanized pails.
zovyi Yar—Birch Cliff. A breeze was             would drive to Tobolsk now, spend the           They were on their way to pick berries,
blowing, rendering our supper pleasantly       day there, then come back here and camp         and we were going to give them a ride to
mosquito-free. After the meal, as the          for another night.                              the berry patch, a few kilometres away.
light was declining, Sergei and Volodya            Rather tiredly, he and Volodya broke        The mother started right in talking to me.
proposed that they walk over to the vil-       camp and packed the van. Then we drove          Sergei must have told her that I was inter-
lage, buy some bread, and find out about        off, with a first stop at the village, where      ested in Yermak, because she informed
the area. While they were there, I would       three women were waiting for us. The            me that Yermak and his men had camped
stay and keep watch over the camp and          youngest of them, a sturdy, round woman         at the exact spot where we were last night.
the van.                                       of about thirty with blond-streaked hair,       I asked how she knew this and she said,
    I did not like being left in camp, but I   came up to Sergei and took his hand. She        “It’s a fact, everybody knows it,” adding
had brought that duty on myself. What          seemed delighted with her luck in having        that the aunt had even written a paper
with my awkwardness in the language,           met him. The other two women were               about this subject. The aunt nodded her
and the fact that I didn’t drink, I some-      in their late fifties or early sixties and did   head in confirmation. The mother went
times preferred to stay in camp and read       not appear to have been principals in last      on to tell us about the aunt’s paper, and
a book while Sergei and Volodya were           night’s socializing. These two were sisters.    what it said, and where it was published.
hanging out and socializing with people        One of them was the blond-streaked young        With more verifying nods, the aunt
they’d met along the way. But that does
not quite describe the problem, either. By
now we were in remote places where the
arrival of a vehicle with St. Petersburg li-
cense plates was news. Even the highway
police, when they waved us over at check-
points, were a bit wide-eyed as they ex-
amined our documents—“Where do you
live in America? What do you do?”—and
so on. One young policeman, before he
saw my passport, asked wistfully, “Is it
expensive to live in St. Petersburg?” And
this curiosity seemed to affect the local
women even more strongly than it did
the men.
    I’m not saying that women paraded
through our campsites wherever we hap-
pened to be; but they did show up occa-
sionally, even when we were camped far
from any village. A few nights before, in
a glade well off the road, I had just got
into my sleeping bag when Sergei rousted
me out so that I could meet two women
whom he described as schoolteachers
eager to meet me. Dutifully, I got up and
emerged and made conversation with the
schoolteachers for a while. They had
wanted to see the American, and I think
Sergei had felt compelled to prove that
he really did have one. Then he and
Volodya and the schoolteachers went
off—to a birthday party, Sergei said, at a
picnic spot nearby. I demurred and re-                                    “Thanks, I’ll write that down.”
The second half of the author’s route, via Irkutsk, the onetime Paris of Siberia, and Lake Baikal to Vladivostok and the Pacific.
                 backed up each detail. I asked the aunt         sembled more the blankness of eternity.         ter I understood how it differs from
                 what her job was. “She’s a philologist,” the    And yet it was not like other flat places        American roadside trash. Russian trash
                 mother said. With matter-of-fact pride,         I’ve seen. The Great Plains of America          has less paper. Paper plates and paper
                 the aunt nodded again.                          tend to undulate more than this steppe          cups, especially, are almost never seen.
                     At the berry patch, the mother showed       does, and when the Plains are flat-flat, as       The basic and most common item of
                 me what they were picking—a small,              in southwest Texas, they’re also near-          Russian roadside trash is the hand-made
                 round berry growing close to the ground         desert hardpan with only stunted brush          plastic drinking cup, which is improvised
                 on a plant with leaves like strawberry          and trees. On the Barabinsk Steppe, by          on the spot by cutting off the bottom
                 leaves. It looked like a holly berry and was    contrast, stretches of real forest often ap-    quarter or third of a plastic bottle that for-
                 very sour but sweet, with a big stone.          peared here and there, intruding into the       merly contained water, soda, or beer.
                 There were thousands of them. The               flatland like the paws of a giant dog            Some of these bottle-bottom cups are
                 mother said its name was kostyanika.            asleep just the other side of the horizon.      neatly trimmed at the lip, but most look
                 (The name means “stone berry.”) She                 The villages now were fewer, and            ragged and slapdash. The sturdier ones
                 said they made a jam of it to put in tea.       their names seemed to reach new levels          are made from bottles with thicker sec-
                     As for her information about Yermak,        of strangeness. In far-apart succession,        tions of black plastic reinforcing their
                 later I read in a Russian chronicle from the    we went through Klubnika (Strawberry),          bases. After use, the cups are naturally left
                 late seventeenth century that the Cossack       Sekty (Sects), and Chertokulich (hard to        where they were created, along the road
                 leader and his men, having fought one           translate, but something like Devil Bread,      or at the picnic grounds. In more fre-
                 battle with the warriors of the Khan of         according to Sergei). In the village of         quented parts of Siberia, from the Urals to
                 Sibir, “sailed on the 8th day of June down      Kargat (meaning unknown, probably a             the Pacific, you see these cups along the
                 the river Tobol, fighting and living on the      Tatar word), we stopped for a break in          roads everywhere.
                 alert. When they reached the landmark of        the late afternoon. I sat in the van with          Ravens and Crows—For weeks as we
                 Berezoviy Yar [!] a great battle was fought     the window open and my feet up, watch-          drove, flocks of ravens and hooded crows
                 lasting many days. The infidels were like        ing. First, a man went by on a motorcy-         remained a constant, ubiquitous in west-
                 sheep rushing out of their folds but with       cle with a sidecar. In a few minutes, he        ern Siberia no less than in St. Peters-
                 God’s help and the manifestation of heav-       passed by going in the other direction,         burg. The birds are easy to tell apart, be-
                 enly hosts they too were defeated.”             with the sidecar now full of hay. A flock        cause the ravens are all black, the hooded
                                                                 of sparrows burst from a cluster of bushes      crows black and gray. On the Barabinsk

                 A      t Tobolsk, we saw the oldest stone
                        fortress in Siberia, and the next days
                 took us to and through the city of Omsk.
                                                                 by the corner of a house with a noise like
                                                                 heavy rain. A moment later, a small hawk
                                                                 hopped from the bushes onto a nearby
                                                                                                                 Steppe, both kinds sometimes wheeled
                                                                                                                 in great numbers that vivified the blank
                                                                                                                 sky above the wide-open horizon. Past
                 I had been to Omsk twice before, but only       pile of firewood, looked around, hunched         the city of Novosibirsk, however, it sud-
                 at the airport. This city presented the         down, and flew off after them.                    denly occurred to me that although I
                 usual row on row of crumbling high-rise             A motorcycle again came by with its         was still seeing ravens, I hadn’t seen any
                 apartment buildings, tall roadside weeds,       sidecar full of hay. I looked closely. It was   hooded crows for a while. I began keep-
                 smoky traffic, and blowing dust. For a            definitely not the same as the previous          ing a special watch for them, and did see
                 moment, we passed an oasis scene—a              motorcycle. This motorcycle’s driver was        a few stragglers. But after another few
                 crowded beach beside the Irtysh River,          wearing an aviator’s hat with goggles, and      hundred kilometres no more hooded
                 kids running into the water and splash-         the sidecar was blue, not brown. As I           crows appeared.
                 ing—before the urban grittiness resumed.        considered that, a tall, shapely woman             Prisons—Sometimes I caught a
                 Solzhenitsyn wrote in “The Gulag Archi-         came walking from a long distance up            glimpse of a prison, but invariably it went
                 pelago” that he spent time in an ancient        the road. She wore a plain dress and had        by too fast. Prisons cropped up in unex-
                 prison in Omsk that had once held Dos-          curly black hair. She passed the van and        pected places on the outskirts of a city.
                 toyevsky, and that the prison’s three-          I smiled at her. She did not smile back.        Suddenly, I’d see a guard in boots carry-
                 metre-thick stone walls and vaulted ceil-       Then a beat-up car lurched into sight           ing a machine gun and standing on a cat-
                 ings resembled a dungeon in a movie. I          towing an even more beat-up car. As the         walk directly above an exercise yard. But
                 had wanted to explore Omsk looking for          cars came near I saw that they were con-        always, it seemed, we were in traffic and
                 this prison, but forgot that idea entirely in   nected back to front by a loop made of          couldn’t stop. Outside Novosibirsk, I saw
                 our collective eagerness to get out of          two seat belts buckled to each other.           derelict guard towers, tumbledown build-
                 Omsk. We stopped just to buy groceries,         That was the only time I ever saw a Rus-        ings, and drooping barbed wire in a
                 then sped on.                                   sian use a seat belt for any purpose at all.    broad, open place beside the road. When-
                     A day beyond Omsk, the vastness of                                                          ever I pointed to such a site, Sergei and
                 the Barabinsk Steppe stretched before           TRAvEllING	mUSIC                                Volodya would say, “Military,” without
                 us. For hours at a time, the land was so                                                        even turning their heads. My ongoing
                 empty and unmarked that it was almost
                 possible to imagine we weren’t moving at        N    ow a short interlude of travelling
                                                                      music on the balalaika, and a few
                                                                                                                 search for prisons did not sit well with ei-
                                                                                                                 ther of them. After a while, I decided

                 all, and I often had trouble staying awake.     images from the road in no particular           that pursuing it too much was impolite,
                 Lenin himself had declared this a land          order, movie style:                             and I let it drop for the time being.
                 “with a great future,” but what I saw re-          Trash—The more of it I saw, the bet-            Pigs—Although roaming herds of
                 	                                                                                          THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009	           49
pigs were occasional in villages in west-    were originally from this area, he said.      was about Americans. I asked them to tell
ern Siberia, east of Novosibirsk they be-    His father, a tank officer who had been         me the joke, but they wouldn’t. I kept
came more common. Now every village          stationed in the Far East at the end of the   bugging them, but Sergei said the joke
we went through seemed to have big           war, had met his mother while crossing        was not important. Finally, when he was
gangs of them. Because the weather was       Siberia on his way back to western Rus-       off doing something in the campsite, I
so hot, the pigs had generally been wal-     sia. Volodya was still a baby when he and     asked Volodya about the joke again, and
lowing in a mudhole just before they got     his parents left Yashkino, so he had no       he told it to me. The joke was: “Why do
up to amble wherever we happened to          memory of it; no relatives he knew of still   American men want to be present when
see them ambling. Evidently, the wal-        lived there. He felt no need to go there.     their wives are in childbirth?” Answer:
lowing technique of some pigs involved           Cottage Cheese—Called tvorog in           “Because maybe they weren’t present dur-
lying with just one side of themselves in    Russian, this was a favorite lunch of         ing conception.”
the mud. This produced two-tone ani-         Volodya’s and Sergei’s. Usually it could
mals—pigs that were half wet, shiny          be obtained in very fresh supply from         SmOG
brown mud, and half pink, relatively un-     the grannies along the road. Sergei and
soiled original pig. The effect was strik-
ing—sort of harlequin. The other ani-
mals that roamed the villages in groups
                                             Volodya especially liked their tvorog
                                             drenched in smetana (“sour cream”). I got
                                             to like it that way, too. Once or twice, we
                                                                                           U     ntil we left Novosibirsk, we had seen
                                                                                                 none of the large-scale environmen-
                                                                                           tal damage that Siberia is famous for.
were geese. When a herd of pigs came         had tvorog so smetanoi not only for lunch     Then we hit the small, smoky city of
face to face with a flock of geese, an un-    but for a snack later in the day. The only    Kemerovo, in the Kuznetsk Basin coal-
holy racket of grunting and gabbling         drawback to this diet was that it made us     mining region. Russians don’t bother to
would ensue. I wondered if the villagers     smell like babies. And as we were able to     hide strip mines with a screen of trees
ever got tired of the noise. Whether chal-   bathe only infrequently our basic aroma       along the road to spare the feelings of
lenging pigs or not, the village geese       became that of grownup, dusty, sweaty         motorists, as we Americans do. Beyond
seemed to gabble and yak and hiss non-       babies: the summertime smell of Mon-          Kemerovo, the whole view at times be-
stop. The pigs grunted and oinked al-        gols, in other words.                         came the gaping pits themselves, sprawl-
most as much, but always at some point           Talk Radio—There is talk radio in         ing downward before us on either side
the whole herd of pigs would suddenly        Russia just as in America, and call-in        while the thread-thin road tiptoed where
fall silent, and their megaphone-shaped      radio shows, and “shock jock” hosts who       it could between. Strip mines are strip
ears would go up, and for half a minute      say outlandish things. Sergei and Volodya     mines, and I had seen similar scenery in
every pig would listen.                      enjoyed listening to these shows some-        North Dakota and southern Ohio and
    Birthplace of Volodya—About a half-      times. Usually I understood nothing that      West Virginia, though never quite so
day past Novosibirsk, we passed close by     was said on the radio, except for one time    close at hand. Often through this Siberian
a town called Yashkino. Seeing it on our     when the host told a joke that Sergei and     coal region the road strayed and forgot its
road map, Volodya remarked that he had       Volodya both laughed at. I picked out the     original intention, and more than one fork
been born there. His mother’s people         word “Amerikantsi,” so I knew the joke        we took dead-ended without warning at
                                                                                           a city-size strip-mine hole. We mean-
                                                                                           dered in the Kuznetsk Basin for most of a
                                                                                           day and drove until past nightfall in order
                                                                                           to camp on the other side.
                                                                                               After the Kuznetsk Basin came a long
                                                                                           interval of meadows. We saw dark-
                                                                                           clothed people working the hay fields in
                                                                                           big groups as in an old bucolic painting,
                                                                                           or riding to or from the work in horse-
                                                                                           drawn flatbed wagons whose hard rubber
                                                                                           wheels bouncing on the uneven pave-
                                                                                           ment made the flesh of the passengers’
                                                                                           faces jiggle fast. In this more peaceful re-
                                                                                           gion, we camped one night on the banks
                                                                                           of the Chulym River at a popular spot
                                                                                           with a gravel bank more convenient for
                                                                                           bathing and washing than the usual
                                                                                           swampy mud. While we ate supper, a
                                                                                           group of Christians waded in not far
                                                                                           from us, some of them in flowing white
                                                                                           baptismal clothes. The worshippers sang
                                                                                           songs accompanied by a guitar, held
                                                                                           hands in a circle, swayed. A man in the
   “Seriously, dude, can we put the air guitar aside while we’re lurking?”                 middle of the circle took another man
and a woman and two girls in his arms
and then immersed them one by one.
    Environmental blight resumed the
next morning as we approached the city
of Achinsk. Never, under any circum-
stances, go to Achinsk. I’m still coughing
Achinsk out of my lungs to this day, prob-
ably. During Soviet times, ninety-five per
cent of everything—buildings, roads, bus
shelters, playgrounds, fountains, tele-
phone booths, lampposts—was made of
cement. A particular kind of five-foot-by-
eight-foot cement panel often used in
fences and walls seems to be the basic vi-
sual element of urban Siberia.
    Well, all that cement, or a hell of a lot
of it, is made in Achinsk. Achinsk has
mineral refineries, too. The thick, dusty
air of Achinsk coats grass blades to death
and desertifies everything in a wide ra-
dius around the city. Still forty minutes
away from it, we rolled up the windows
and sweltered in the van rather than
breathe the emanations of Achinsk.
Skirting the city at a far remove, we never                   “Your résumé is remarkably similar to our C.E.O.’s.”
actually saw it, but only its cement-dust
cloud, which densified to a dark gray at                                                •          •
what I took to be the city’s middle. For a
second or two, a haze-blurred smoke-            though a line of storefronts bearing the       distance, was only a thumbnail-size patch
stack could be seen.                            logos of Wrangler and Reebok and Be-           of the scene’s immensity.
    Our passage through this almost-            netton and Nike would not gladden me               The long view also revealed that Kras-
dead zone heightened the surprise a few         if I encountered it in New Jersey, seeing      noyarsk puts out an impressive smoky
hours later when we reached the river city      it in Siberia did, somehow.                    haze of its own. During Soviet times, a
of Krasnoyarsk. The name—from kras-                 Krasnoyarsk opens onto the Yenisei         lot of heavy industry relocated here. The
nyi, “red,” and yar, “cliff ”—refers to the      the way St. Petersburg opens onto the          first thing you see in the main hall of
red cliffs near the city, which give the         Neva. And the Yenisei here is huge,            Krasnoyarsk’s regional museum is a ban-
landscape with its broad valley a slightly      more like an estuary than a river. Many        ner with a slogan intended to inspire So-
out-of-context look, as if this place might     of Krasnoyarsk’s streets end at the water      viet factory workers during the Cold
be in eastern Wyoming or South Africa.          and route its amplified daylight into the       War. In large white letters on a red back-
The city occupies a prominence above            city; I recalled a similar effect on the        ground, it reads, “Dogonim i Peregonim
the Yenisei River just upstream from            streets of older Mississippi River towns.      Ameriku!”—“We Will Catch Up With
where a series of mountainous, tree-cov-        To get a better look at the whole picture,     and Surpass America!”
ered cliffs along both sides of the river        Sergei drove us to a scenic overlook he
suddenly descend to level ground. Che-
khov judged Krasnoyarsk the most beau-
tiful city in Siberia, and he was right,
                                                knew of on some heights west of town.
                                                This particular vantage dominated a
                                                graffiti-covered stone outcropping above
                                                                                               T     he road got worse after Krasnoyarsk,
                                                                                                     and soon deteriorated thoroughly.
                                                                                               Long unpaved sections with many big
from what I’d seen. Many buildings in           a small parking lot. As we climbed up to       rocks and yamy made for a bumpy and
the city center were from the later nine-       it, a wedding party was coming down            dusty ride. The van’s low clearance un-
teenth century, and in a style of brick-        with surprising agility in their tuxedos       derneath, which I’d worried about be-
work done decoratively, almost whimsi-          and high heels. The viewing promenade,         fore, now caused problems as we began
cally. Recent renovations had emphasized        when we reached it, was strewn all around      to scrape, and we almost high-centered
a color scheme perhaps based on the             with shattered champagne flutes from            from time to time. A boulder in the path
earth-toned reds of the Yenisei cliffs, and      their just completed toasts. While we          knocked away a foot or so of tailpipe. A
with white or light-blue trim for inten-        stood there, a storm came up the river,        worse bump on an uphill grade crushed
sity. The downtown boutiques, restau-           and you could see almost its entire ex-        and scraped away the remaining two or
rants, clothing stores, and galleries called    tent—the dark clouds, the advancing            three feet, leaving no pipe extending
to mind shopping districts in any of a          netlike pattern of smooth and rippled          from the muffler’s outlet to carry off the
thousand gentrified antique-ish towns            water beneath the clouds, the wispy pale-      exhaust fumes. Immediately, the air in
and small cities in America. And al-            ness of the rain. The city itself, off in the   the van, which had never been good, be-
	                                                                                          THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009	       51
came unbearable. Now I could detect an         to where they disappeared around a dis-
actual blue fog. I tried to remember what      tant bend. As on the old Sibirskii Trakt,
the signs of monoxide poisoning were.          phantoms thronged along the railway. I
Sergei, as expected, refused to go to a ga-    pictured the flag-bedecked, celebratory
rage or muffler shop or do anything              trains that passed by here when the rail-
about the problem. That was not neces-         way was first completed, in tsarist times,
sary, Sergei announced, sitting beside his     and the soldiers of the Czech Legion in
open window and its plentiful incoming         their slow-moving armored trains in
dust. Finally, Volodya, the swing vote         1919, and the White Army soldiers
among us, switched to my side and told         dying of typhus by the thousands along
Sergei that we had to fix the tailpipe right    the route, and the slave laborers who laid
away or we’d all suffocate. Sergei said he      the second set of tracks in the nineteen-
would fix it, and with some annoyance he        thirties, and the countless sealed Stolypin
pulled over to the shoulder.                   cars of prisoners dragged along these
    He got out. Volodya and I watched.         tracks to the deadly Gulag camps of the
Sergei was just wandering around a weedy       Soviet Far East. Osip Mandelstam, the
patch of ground that paralleled the road,      great poet, on his way to death at the
looking down and kicking occasionally at       Second River transit prison in Vladi-
the dirt. After a minute or two, he bent       vostok, had gone along this line. The ties
over and stood up with something in his        and the steel rails and the overhead cate-
hand. It looked to be a piece of pipe.         nary wires all leading determinedly east-
When we got out to see what he’d found,        ward still had a certain grimness, as if
he showed us a somewhat rusty but still        permanently blackened by history.
serviceable metre-long piece of tailpipe
that must have fallen off another vehicle.      THE	dECEmbRISTS
It was exactly the same width as the one
we’d lost. With Volodya’s help, Sergei
scooted under the van and wired the
length of tailpipe in place at the muffler
                                               O     n the afternoon of August 27th, we
                                                     reached Irkutsk, the onetime Paris
                                               of Siberia. Since leaving St. Petersburg,
outlet and other points leading to the rear    we had been on the road for twenty-two
bumper. When we started driving again,         days.
the fumes were much better, though not             Among the first places we went in Ir-
by any means gone. Still, I had to praise      kutsk was the house (now a museum)
Sergei for what an ingenious guy he was.       built in 1854 for Prince Sergei Tru-
    Beyond Krasnoyarsk, the road also          betskoy. He was one of the leaders of the
began to run closer to the tracks of the       revolutionaries whose failed uprising of
Trans-Siberian Railway, crossing it over       December 14, 1825, earned them the
and back from time to time. Each cross-        name Decembrists. Their plan, not thor-
ing was watched over by a guard in a           oughly thought out, was to depose the
small shed. When the guard, usually a          tsar and establish a constitutional form of
short, stout woman, saw a train coming,        government; when the moment for ac-
she would walk into the road, wave a flag       tion came, they collectively balked. Had      A prison in the Krasnoyarsk region. All along
to stop the cars, and lower the barricades.    the coup succeeded, Trubetskoy was sup-
If the train was a long and slow one, as       posed to become the country’s interim         to relocate with his family nearer to Ir-
many were, the people in the waiting cars      dictator. Many of his comrades saw him        kutsk, where he later moved and built
would unpackage drinks and snacks,             as a George Washington figure. By logic,       this house. Though it may have been one
throw their doors open, stretch their legs     after the movement was crushed Tru-           of the grander houses of Irkutsk in its
out, and get comfortable. After the train      betskoy should have been among the            day, it is not overly fancy, but suggests in-
had gone by, the guard would walk onto         ones hanged. The loftiness of his fam-        stead the elegance of curtailed excess and
the tracks, look both ways to make sure        ily—in nobility, the Trubetskoys ranked       of cultured taste making the best of ma-
all was safe, raise the barricades, and wave   just below the tsar—and the fact that his     terials at hand. The house has a brick
the cars through with her flag. At regu-        mother was a lady-in-waiting to the tsa-      foundation supporting smoothly joined
larly spaced intervals on the road, piles of   rina no doubt saved his life.                 logs that have been planed square and
snack remains showed where each car                Like many other Decembrists, Tru-         fitted together horizontally. Single-story
had been.                                      betskoy was sent to Siberia. His wife,        wings on either side balance a central,
    Sometimes in the evening we camped         Ekaterina, followed him into exile. For       peaked-roof section that rises to a tall
not far from the tracks. During lulls in       twelve years, he served his sentence of       second story. The over-all effect is of an

the train traffic, I climbed up the stones       hard labor in prison settlements east of      eccentric Greek-revival style married to
of the roadbed and looked down the rails       Lake Baikal, and in 1839 he was allowed       the skill and intricacy of Russian-village
52	      THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009
the route, prisons cropped up in unexpected places on the outskirts of a city. Photograph by Carl De Keyzer.

      woodworking. I thought I’d never seen a      friend. Like Ekaterina Trubetskaya,          leonic Wars in creating the character.
      better-looking house. I wanted to find        Maria, the young wife of Sergei Volkon-          The Volkonsky house-museum is
      out what it was like inside, but unfortu-    sky, voluntarily shared his exile. Nekras-   large and imposing, in a Russian château
      nately it was closed for renovation when     ov’s poem “Russian Women,” in praise         style, though it’s not a work of art like the
      we were there.                               of the Decembrist wives, compared            Trubetskoys’. Its exhibits consist mainly
         A block away is another Decembrist        Maria Volkonskaya to a saint. Pushkin        of portraits and photographs of the
      house-museum. It was the house of            rhapsodized that her hair was more lus-      Volkonsky family and the families of
      Sergei Volkonsky, whose nobility of          trous than daylight and darker than night.   other Decembrists. The elderly lady
      birth equalled Trubetskoy’s. The Vol-        Tolstoy, whose mother was a Volkonsky,       guide who took us through gave us the
      konsky family descended from a prince,       and who came from the generation that        biographical details of everybody. Zi-
      later a saint of the Orthodox Church,        followed the Decembrists, thought so         naida Trubetskaya, born to Sergei and
      who fought the Mongols in the thir-          highly of Sergei Volkonsky that he is        Ekaterina in Siberia in 1837, survived to
      teenth century; Sergei Volkonsky’s           said to have based Prince Andrei Bol-        1924, long enough to receive a govern-
      mother, Aleksandra Repnina, also hap-        konsky in “War and Peace” on him             ment pension granted by Lenin himself
      pened to be the tsar’s mother’s highest-     and to have used the letters and journals    in honor of her revolutionary father.
      ranking lady-in-waiting and closest          that Volkonsky wrote during the Napo-        Among the ancillary characters, the mu-
      	                                                                                    THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009	          53
seum also displayed the only picture I’d        lers used to stop there and pray at the cha-   high-rises that confront you whenever a
ever come across of Georges-Charles             pel dedicated to St. Nicholas for safe pas-    big open space from Soviet times scissors
D’Anthès, the French Army officer and             sage across the lake. The park is on a         across the network of lanes.
ballroom roué who killed Pushkin in a           hillside, and as Sergei navigated the van          Elsewhere on my Irkutsk ramblings,
duel. Had there been matinée idols in           up its incline he made a sharp turn that       I came across the graves of Ekaterina
D’Anthès’s day, he could have been one,         came within a breath of tipping the vehi-      Trubetskaya and three of her children
with his wavy blond hair.                       cle onto its side. He then stopped, backed     at Znamenskii Monastery. In the first
    For a while, Tolstoy planned to write       down, found a less steep route, drove to       years of the Decembrists’ imprisonment,
a book about the Decembrists, but he set        the campsite, and set up the tents without     Katya Trubetskaya had been everybody’s
the idea aside because all official papers        comment. This was the first “improved”          morale-builder, with her good humor
relating to them were in secret archives        campsite we had been in. Each site had a       and levelheadedness, but after her chil-
and thus unavailable for his research.          fire circle surrounded by stones, an iron       dren began to die and her own health
After the revolution of 1905, when docu-        grate for cooking, and two benches made        failed she became indifferent to life, and
ments withheld under the tsars became           of wood.                                       she died about two years before the am-
accessible, Tolstoy was seventy-seven               Sergei and Volodya spent the next          nesty declared by Tsar Alexander II, on
years old and no longer able to take on         morning climbing the cliffs above Baikal.       the occasion of his coronation, in 1856.
such a big project. Why the Decembrists         Sergei said that these cliffs were so beau-     Her death stunned her husband; when
interested him is easy to grasp. Though         tiful I must see them immediately. After       he went back to western Russia, he said
their revolution fell apart and though their    lunch he led me there. We climbed past         goodbye forever to her grave.
punishment was a humiliation and a              the camp and well beyond the village to            In advertisements posted around the
waste, the Decembrists were inspiring           a point where pale, columnar cliffs rose        city, I also noticed that Admiral Kolchak,
nonetheless. Of the hundred and some            spirelike above. Single file, we started up.    the White Army leader whose attempt to
Decembrists found most culpable by the          The rock had interstices and eroded            overthrow the Bolsheviks ended in Ir-
Committee of Inquiry that followed the          places through which a handbreadth of          kutsk with his capture and execution, is
suppression of the uprising, only ten were      trail snaked, mostly along the side closest    now a beer. Admiral Kolchak Beer is
over forty years old. Almost all the De-        to the water. I admired Sergei’s quick         brewed locally. I picked up an empty bot-
cembrists were of the same youthful gen-        footwork; mine was more uncertain, and         tle of it that I found. The label has a por-
eration in 1825; and if I had to pick one       at one or two places I got down on all         trait of the Admiral in his white naval uni-
generation as the greatest in Russian his-      fours. Lake Baikal, immensely blue, oc-        form and even provides the history-minded
tory theirs would be it. Alexander Herzen       cupied the entire space on our right-hand      beer drinker with a brief bio, which plays
hailed the Decembrists as “a perfect gal-       side clear to the horizon. At the top of a     up his heroism in the Russo-Japanese
axy of brilliant talent, independent char-      spire, we stopped, and there, directly         War and the First World War, his polar
acter, and chivalrous valor—a combina-          below us, maybe fifteen stories down, a         explorations, and his improvement of the
tion new to Russia.” Of those declared the      naked couple was swimming in water of          Russian Navy, but makes no mention of
most dangerous—in other words, the              a clear, almost tropical greenish-blue.        his violent exit. A beer garden on Irkutsk’s
most prominent among them—the                   We could hear the woman laugh; her             Angara riverfront sports a long striped
greater number lived out their lives im-        figure was Rubensian. In another mo-            awning with the Kolchak Beer logo re-
prisoned or exiled in Siberia.                  ment, they ducked into a grotto, maybe         peated prominently all along it; maybe the
    Irkutsk does kind of look like Paris, it    realizing we were there.                       awning is within sight of the place where
turns out—if you can imagine a Paris                Seen close up, the city of Irkutsk         the corpse of the unlucky Admiral was
with the Seine gigantically expanded to         (when we returned to it) resembled the         shoved through the ice back in 1920.
the horizon-filling width of Irkutsk’s           Baikal cliffs’ ancient and weather-beaten
Angara, and with diminished buildings           windings. During its early years, Irkutsk      THE	mOON	ROAd
and steeples poking up along the river’s        had grown unplanned, like coral, and
distant margins on either side. We drove
down the Street of the Events of Decem-
ber, we parked, we bought supplies. But
                                                when civic improvement tried to bring
                                                some order to the confusion the crews
                                                sent out for that purpose sometimes
                                                                                               T    hat night, we again slept near the
                                                                                                    shores of Baikal. This time, owing
                                                                                               to bad planning, we camped on the
the afternoon had got late, and Sergei, as      sawed houses in half to make crooked           grounds of what was billed as a resort. It
usual, was in a sweat to escape the city        streets straight. In much of the city, they    had a gate, cabins, picnic shelters, and
limits and find a good camping spot. He          still aren’t. A sense of almost microscopic    washroom conveniences best left undis-
said he knew of an ideal place on the           embroidery fills the town’s windingest          cussed. Its strewn heaps of trash were ex-
shores of Lake Baikal, fifty or sixty kilo-      lanes, where log homes sunk halfway to         treme, even for Russia. Somebody who
metres away. Before we set out for it, I        their eaves in the permafrost draw your        saw this campground without context or
stipulated that we return to Irkutsk the        attention with decorative woodcarving          explanation might come to the conclu-
following morning; there was more here          on shutters and doors and windows as           sion that a group of confused people had
I wanted to see.                                ornate as the finest carved birch jewelry       mistakenly gone on vacation at the town
    Sergei’s camping spot was in a little re-   box. And yet almost every house also           dump. We met a woman who “provided
gional park above the fishing town of            looked gray and older than old, though         touristic services” at the resort, and she
Nikola. Centuries ago, eastbound travel-        never as decrepit as the defiantly ugly         had been driven to a near-frenzy by how
54	      THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009
awful it was. This became evident when       went under a railroad bridge, there was         bottom refracted in the vertical face of
Sergei invited her to have tea with us       enough dry ground on one side for the           the wave. This glimpse, offered for just a
after supper, and she told us, with great    van to squeak through, and we emerged           moment in the wave’s motion, is like see-
drama and forcefulness and scorching         onto a beach of small, smooth rocks with        ing into the window of an apartment as
irony, about the difficulties of her job. By   no sign of people anywhere for three or         you go by it on an elevated train. The
one o’clock, her monologue had worn me       four kilometres. Sitting on the beach           moon happened to be full that night, and
out and I retired to my tent. Sergei had     with nothing to do but look at the lake, I      after it rose the stones on the bottom of
to evict her bodily at two-thirty. At an     finally got the point about Baikal.              the lake lay spookily illuminated in the
even later hour than that, when he and           I knew that it’s the largest body of        moonlight. The glitter of the moon on
Volodya were again off somewhere, I           fresh water in the world, that it contains      the surface of the lake—the “moon road,”
came awake to a loud conversation be-        about twenty per cent of the world’s fresh      Sergei called it—fluctuated constantly in
tween two passing drunks who were            water, that it’s 1,637 metres (more than a      its individual points of sparkling, with a
debating whether to do something or          mile) deep at its deepest, that it was cre-     much higher definition than any murky
other—I did not recognize the verb—to        ated by continental landmasses moving           water could achieve. Light glitters
our tents. Fortunately, the milder of the    apart, that it has species of animals found     differently on water this clear. I under-
drunks prevailed after a while, and they     only here. But, beyond its facts, Baikal        stood that I had never really seen the
went away. Cars then blasted up and          really does have a magic to it. Travellers      moon reflected on water before.
down the resort’s dirt lanes for an hour     who wrote ecstatically about it in the past         This camping spot was so great we de-
or so, blowing their horns. Just after       were not exaggerating. Most of Russia’s         cided to stay another day. True, trains did
dawn, the Big Brother-like speakers of       inland water is sluggish, swampy, inert;        go by almost constantly just the other side
the public-address system wired to nearby    Baikal’s is quick. For sparklingness and        of some shoreline trees; but the sound was
trees began playing bad music from many      clarity it’s the opposite of swamp water.       not bad for sleeping at all. In the morning,
different cultures while exhorting every-     The surrounding hills and cliffs that fun-       a fisherman who put his boat in at the
one to get up and exercise.                  nel winds along it keep it jumping. It          mouth of the creek brought us some omul ’
    Sergei assured me that he would find      reflects like an optical instrument and re-      he had just caught. (The omul’ is Baikal’s
us a better place on Baikal, and the next    sponds to changes in the weather so sen-        tastiest fish.) To reciprocate, I opened a
day he did. We drove around the south-       sitively that it seems like a part of the sky   stash of presents I had brought along and
ern end of the lake and then followed the    rather than of the land.                        got out a New York City snow globe,
railroad tracks that ran between the road        When a wave rolls in on Baikal, and         some Beanie Baby stuffed animals, and
and the shore. At a place where a creek      it curls to break, you can see stones on the    two folding pocket mirrors to give to him.
He liked the snow globe and he accepted
the Beanie Babies, but he gave me back
the mirrors, saying he had no use for                                                    GHOSTS
them. This made Sergei indignant and he
scolded the guy for being a rude person                 They bring with them a coldness, as tradition demands,
who didn’t know how to behave with for-                 and a light, dry odor of rot
eigners. Chastened, the guy took the mir-               much like worm in wood, and bring a chorus of cries
rors. I remembered I had a baseball cap
with the logo of the Bass Anglers Sports-               to fill the air as if it were birdsong, and bring in their open hands
man Society on it—the logo shows a leap-                tokens of themselves, a letter, a snapshot,
ing bass, in bright green—and I gave him                and bring some trace of their point of departure, a smudge
that cap, too. He put it on and examined
it in the mirror, and above his broad face              on the shoe, a stain on the sleeve, and bring the disguise
and brown bib overalls it looked exactly                they lived under, stitched with their names,
right. I liked the idea that I had success-             hoping you’ll give them the nod, hoping you’ll recognize
fully launched a B.A.S.S. hat on the wa-
ters of Baikal.                                         something, perhaps, of the old times, the fun and games,
                                                        while they shuffle up as if they stood on the edge

O      f the four hundred and thirty-seven
       rivers that are said to flow into Bai-
kal (only one, the Angara, flows out), the
                                                        of night so a nudge would tip them over, and bring

                                                        a dew of death that settles on picture frames,
Selenga is the principal stream coming                  on pelmets, on clothes in the closet, on books,
from the south. Its origins are in the                  on your eyelash, to make a prism through which you get
steppes of Mongolia. Genghis Khan
made his capital, Karakorum, near a Se-
lenga tributary called the Orkhon. The          end into an unfurling arc that ended with        off the vista that was beyond. I hiked a bit
Selenga was the most authentic-looking          the front of the raft wedged against the         to get a look around the cliff and discov-
Siberian river I’d encountered so far. Up       shore. Someone undid the raft’s gate and         ered only more cliffs and hills, and a nar-
to now I’d seen swampy rivers and ones          the truck drove off onto the bank, and a          rowed river slipping out of sight among
bordered by mountains and trees; the bare       dozen or so passengers jumped from the           them.
hills along the banks of the Selenga and        raft into the back of the truck. It revved its       In that direction—south—lay China.
the wide-screen vistas of river and open        engine smokily for a few minutes and             Our route here didn’t lead toward it but
country spoke of Asian steppes expanding        then motored away.                               veered away from the river and to the
to the southeast. Again, the fencelessness          Meanwhile, a few cars had arrived to         northeast. We spent the next day climb-
of the land amazed me. At a place where         go aboard for the return trip. I pointed out     ing out of the Selenga watershed through
wheel tracks led through the sparse brown       to Sergei that this traffic was likely to con-     hilly country of mixed taiga and steppe.
grasses beside the highway we drove down        tinue into the night, so maybe moving            The many hilltop vantage points revealed
a hillside and stopped beside the Selenga       camp would be a good idea. A chronic             one view after another, with endless up-
to make that evening’s camp.                    fear I have of being run over while asleep       lands and ridges and low mountains; Ser-
    The fact that the wheel tracks ended at     in my tent had begun to flare up. Sergei          gei kept stopping and getting out to
the edge of the river should                                replied that we had nothing at       sweep the video camera slowly across the
have tipped us off that this                                 all to worry about, and, not         scene. Many trees in this part were dead
was a ferry crossing. We didn’t                             wanting to be difficult, I went        and gray, I assumed from some infesta-
notice that until the tents                                 along. In fact the traffic did         tion or disease. At first, I thought the
had been pitched; then, from                                keep coming and going until          cause might be the pine beetle, as in sim-
the other side of the Selenga,                              late, and began again just at        ilar forest die-offs in North America, but
arose the sharp rat-a-tat of an                             dawn, but its orderly rhythms        I saw many dead birches, too.
unmuffled engine whose sky-                                   didn’t trouble me. I even found          Now we were passing fewer cars, peo-
filling volume seemed out of                                 them comforting, somehow.            ple, or villages than at any previous stretch
proportion to the little craft                                  While Volodya was fixing          of the trip. I had rarely seen country this
that was its cause. In another                              supper, I went a distance down       unused and empty anywhere. At midday,
few minutes, the sound came nearer, as a        the bank and sat on a camp chair and ad-         we stopped in a village called Desyatni-
short, stubby power launch angled across        mired the view. To the north, or down-           kovo to buy potatoes. An old woman there
the current with a small fenced raft in tow.    stream, the river spread so far from bank        told us that this was an Old Believer vil-
On the raft sat a truck of the kind that car-   to bank that it seemed more like a land-         lage, but it was dying. (Old Believers are
ries troops, its box back enclosed by an        locked sea. Facing that way, I did a sketch      dissenters from the Orthodox Church;
awning. The launch approached the shore         of the river and of the ferry launch arriv-      many of them have sought refuge in Sibe-
and then executed a neat, sharp turn that       ing. In the other direction, upstream, a         ria since the seventeenth century.) She said
swung the towrope and the ferry raft at its     rock cliff came down to the water and cut         that houses with the shutters closed meant
56	      THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009
                                                                                             of local population and the difficulty of
                                                                                             maintenance, from Chernyshevsk to the
                                                                                             town of Magdagachi, a long way to the
                                                                                             east, there was in effect no vehicle road.
           a broken image of what must be a stage set                                        Therefore, all cross-country drivers had
           of the Peaceable Kingdom, a front                                                 to stop in Chernyshevsk (or, if west-
           for that place you only ever find in dreams,                                       bound, in Magdagachi) and load their
                                                                                             vehicles onto Trans-Siberian car- and
           its undrinkable rivers, its scrubland of snarls and hooks,                        truck-carriers in order to traverse the
           horizons gone askew,                                                              roadless stretch by rail.
           beasts hamstrung and walking on their hocks,                                          This situation had created a bottleneck
                                                                                             at Chernyshevsk, where traffic backed up
           and bring their long-lost hopes, which they lay at your feet                      like leaves in a storm drain. The place was
           then stand back, stand apart,                                                     really just a village beside a large Trans-
           hairless, soft-skinned, their eyes bright blue                                    Siberian Railway train yard, and it offered
                                                                                             travellers—who routinely had to wait
           like the eyes of the newborn, and bearing a look                                  forty-eight hours before an available trans-
           of matchless sorrow, as would, for sure,                                          port appeared—almost no lodgings, no
           stop the heart of whoever it is they take you for.                                bathroom facilities you would want to
                                                                                             enter without protective gear, and almost
                                                           —David Harsent                    no restaurants. Meanwhile, the trucks and
                                                                                             cars kept arriving.
                                                                                                 Late in the afternoon, a train hauling
                                                                                             vehicle transports arrived from the east.
                                                                                             The transports carried used Japanese
that no one lived there now and the peo-       who came by to check us out told Sergei       cars, most of them Toyotas, with their
ple who used to live there had died. The       you could catch plenty of fish in it using     front ends covered in masking tape, like
woman showed us her own house, a               crickets. I set up my fly rod and tied on      bandaged noses, to protect from flying
bright-painted cabin of trimmed logs on        an all-around attractor fly. Casting into      gravel on the road. So far, I have not
the central street with shuttered houses on    slack water below some riffles, I got a lot     described this important aspect of Sibe-
either side. She seemed to be in permanent     of splashy strikes, but the fish were too      rian trade: throughout the year, but espe-
mourning and told us she was very sad. A       small to fit their mouths around the fly.       cially in the summer, guys ride the Trans-
somewhat younger guy we bought pota-           Finally, I hooked a flipping and flopping       Siberian to Vladivostok, buy used Japanese
toes from said that only old people lived in   six-incher. It had delicate yellow mark-      cars there, and drive the cars west across
the village nowadays. There is no work, so     ings on its side, like little reef fish I’d    Siberia for resale. Cargo ships full of
young people move away, he said.               caught in Florida. I don’t know what          these vehicles arrive in Vladivostok all the
    We kept climbing, descending, climb-       kind of fish it was.                           time. A used car bought in Vladivostok
ing again. One hilltop overlooked a span           I showed it to Volodya and he said        for two thousand dollars can be resold
of the Trans-Siberian Railway on which         he’d fry it up for an appetizer before sup-   farther west in Russia for three times that
a train consisting entirely of black oil-      per. Then I waded back into the river and     much. The guys who drive this long-
tanker cars stretched as far as one could      cast some more. Far downstream, I knew,       distance shuttle tend to wear muscle
see, west to east; it must have been four      the Ingoda joined the Onon to make the        shirts, shiny Adidas sweatpants, and run-
kilometres long. At about three o’clock in     Shilka, which joined the Argun to make        ning shoes, and their short, pale haircuts
the afternoon, Sergei informed me that,        the Amur, which eventually emptied into       stand up straight in a bristly Russian way.
according to the map, we had just crossed      the Pacific, which extended all the way to     On the road, they are easy to recognize
the divide between the watershed of cen-       Dockweiler State Beach, in Los Angeles,       by the tape on their vehicles and by the
tral Siberia and the basin of the Amur         where my sister-in-law brought her chil-      fact that they speed like madmen. The
River. The M55 highway goes over this          dren to swim. In theory, from here I          faster they finish each round trip, the
divide near the village of Tanga. From         could take the all-water route home.          more trips they can do and the more
that point, the road began to descend                                                        money they can make.
until it dropped into the broad valley of      THE	vAGON                                         One of the drivers debarking in Cher-
the Ingoda River—a familiar name.                                                            nyshevsk told Sergei that this load of cars
When the Decembrists were imprisoned
in Chita, they bathed in the Ingoda.
    In late afternoon, we found a good
                                               T     he following afternoon, we reached
                                                     Chernyshevsk, an important point
                                               on our journey. I had been half dreading
                                                                                             and drivers had had to wait five days in
                                                                                             Magdagachi for transports, and then
                                                                                             spent forty-eight hours on the train. In
place to camp on its banks. The Ingoda         Chernyshevsk, because beyond it the           Chernyshevsk, the unloading was done
is a pleasant, small river with a brisk flow    road became undrivably bad for the next       one car at a time. Some of the drivers,
and a bottom of sand and gravel in the         eight hundred or nine hundred kilome-         when they finally did emerge with their
parts I saw. Some boys near our campsite       tres. Owing to the swamps and the lack        vehicles onto the cracked pavement of
	                                                                                       THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009	         57
the Chernyshevsk parking lot, shifted          haired, bushy-eyebrowed, villainous-
into neutral and raced their engines in        looking party, appeared at the loading
automotive howls of liberation or rage.        ramp surrounded by a small entourage.
The emergence of each vehicle caused a         Yes, he did have his own vagon—a long,
crowd of begging children to swarm             windowless boxcar with room inside for
around it. Some drivers honked and             four ordinary-sized vehicles. The guy’s
yelled at the kids to go away; others rolled   vagon represented the high end of Cher-
their windows partway down and                 nyshevsk vehicle transports. Sergei nego-
held out little pieces of leftover food.       tiated with the guy to insure that our van
I saw a girl with large hoop earrings trot     would be one of the lucky four, and the
to a window and snatch the back end of         guy agreed, for two hundred dollars.
a kielbasa that a driver offered her.               Then our van was locked in the guy’s
    At about ten-thirty that night, the        vagon for a few hours while the train
stationmaster, a blocky woman with             made up its mind about leaving, and we
dyed red hair, a Dalmatian-spotted             had to fend for ourselves in the Cherny-
blouse, and an orange workman’s vest,          shevsk train station with no vehicle to re-
appeared among the vehicles and told us        treat to. I just kept moving, strolling and
all that there would be no train tonight.      taking evasive action so as not to be
Nor would there necessarily be one to-         swarmed on. Finally, we were let into the
morrow, she added, with keen enjoy-            vagon and it somehow got hooked up to
ment disguised as nonchalance. The             the train; and later, hours later, sprawled
quiet way she savored giving out this dis-     in the van, I felt the first few blessed
appointing news was a wonder to see.           inchings of forward motion. When a
Maybe a train would come along tom-            conveyance you are riding in fails to move
orrow night, she speculated; but, then         and fails to move, and you hope and pray
again, maybe it would not.                     and apply all your mental powers in an
    As we considered the prospect of           attempt to get it rolling, and it finally
spending the night in Chernyshevsk in          does move, that’s one of life’s sweetest
the van, Sergei again showed his mastery       feelings. When the train at last left the
of difficult situations. By distributing a       yards after all that time in Chernyshevsk,
small amount of cash to the drivers im-        I relaxed as if the sedative had finally
mediately in front of and behind us, he        reached my veins.
held our place for tomorrow. Then he               The vagon’s luxuries did not include
backed out of the queue, sped away from        interior lighting. Small planes of daylight
Chernyshevsk, and found us a place to          came through narrow slots at the top of
camp beside a quiet and clear and rela-        what might once have been windows;
tively un-trashed stream a few kilometres      otherwise the space was completely
outside town. We set up the tents, ate         sealed. Once darkness had fallen, every-
supper by lantern light, and turned in for     thing in the vagon grew dim, except at
a good sleep. In the morning, I took out       the front end, where a glow came from
my fly rod and caught a couple of little        an open door. Inside the door, the guy
fish in the stream. Volodya made break-         who owned the vagon—its khozyain, as          Fishermen on the Amur River, which forms the
fast, then drove to Chernyshevsk to mon-       he repeatedly instructed me to call him—
itor what was going on. He returned in         occupied a sort of stateroom.                 sian movie, and they were passing back
haste, saying the train was about to leave         Past his room was a small between-        and forth a sunflower blossom the size of
and we must get back there begom—“at           cars passageway with doors on either side     a party pizza, pulling seeds from the blos-
a run.”                                        that opened at the top so you could look      som’s center and chewing them and spit-
    The train was not about to leave, as it    out. This place was great for fresh air, an   ting the shells into cups.
turned out. To my surprise, though, it         antidote for the claustrophobia of the
did seem to have arrived. We spent an-
other afternoon in the vehicle queue
waiting to load. I had understood that we
                                               vagon. The khozyain kept his stateroom
                                               door open, and as I went by he would hail
                                               me, “Hey, comrade writer!” Sometimes
                                                                                             O     n every trip there is a hump that
                                                                                                   must be got over, a central knot to
                                                                                             be worked through. For us that knot
would be going on a vehicle transport,         we had short conversations. Generally,        pulled tight in the Chernyshevsk-
the usual open-air affair, where we would       he was drinking vodka from a large bot-       Magdagachi part of our journey.
just sort of hang out like train-hopping       tle while lying on a bed that fit into the        Being sealed in the vagon soon got to
hoboes until we reached Magdagachi.            stateroom’s corner. Beside him lay a          me. I mean, here were four vehicles parked
                                                                                                                                           vii nETwOrK

But Sergei had something better in mind.       blond woman so large and rumpled she          inches apart in a closed space, maybe
He had heard about a guy who had his           seemed to be part bed herself. A TV sat       twenty gallons of gas in each vehicle; and
own train car. The guy, a short, dark-         on a shelf opposite them playing a Rus-       there were no windows, no fire extin-
58	      THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009
border between Russia and China for about sixteen hundred kilometres, before heading northeast to the Pacific. Photograph by Seamus Murphy.

      guishers on the walls, no “Exit” signs, the   and father, a young son, and a fourteen-        smoke were rising, signs of coming in-
      vagon’s back doors secured tightly from       year-old daughter named Olya. The two           ferno—and Olya happened to sit up in
      the outside. . . . Safety is never the Rus-   girls lived far apart and had never met.        the front seat of her car where she’d been
      sians’ primary concern. Meanwhile, the        They hung out together in the passage-          napping, and she smiled at me so beauti-
      guy in charge of the vagon is drunk and       way and talked, and when they found out         fully that all my malaise lifted for a
      watching TV. Of course, I understood          I was from America they had a lot of            while.
      that there was no point in mentioning any     questions for me, mostly about Jewel (the           The guy in the fourth car, a Russian
      of this to anybody.                           singer), Sylvester Stallone, and the Hard       vehicle right in front of the van, was a
          Besides our van, the vagon carried two    Rock Cafe. Both girls said that Yakutsk,        scuba diver. He said that he worked on
      Japanese-made S.U.V.s driven by fami-         the capital of the Sakha Republic, was a        oil platforms and also gathered shellfish
      lies on their way back to their home cit-     really boring place. Olya gave me a piece       off the coast of Sakhalin Island, to which
      ies in the Sakha Republic, in northeast-      of paper with her address and wrote             he was returning. He was wiry-haired
      ern Siberia, after their summer vacations.    “Write to me!” all over it; naturally, I lost   and ruddy and he wore a vest of black
      One family consisted of a hard-drinking       it soon afterward. At one point, I was sit-     leather. With other people and by him-
      dentist and his fourteen-year-old daugh-      ting in the van and I took a nervous look       self, he drank vodka night and day. Our
      ter, Kira. The other family was a mother      behind us—making sure no wisps of               first morning in the vagon, after I’d slept
      	                                                                                        THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009	       59
pretty well on the front seat of the van        across it. In the cool morning air, the top     ing positions in the front seat. If I hit
complicatedly propped between the door          of every haystack was steaming, and each        upon a workable one, I could get an hour
and the steering wheel, I woke, sat up,         wisp of steam leaned eastward, the direc-       or so of napping time, provided the train
and rubbed my eyes. The scuba diver             tion we were going.                             kept up its regular motion. When it
woke at the exact same moment and got               All day the train moseyed on. During        stopped, I grew restless and thrashed
out of his vehicle rubbing his eyes. He         stretches where the track was really bad,       around.
saw me, broke into a huge grin, and             it slowed to walking speed. It stopped, it          During a long stop in the middle of
made the “Do you want a shot of vodka?”         started, it waited on sidings, started again,   the night, I emerged into consciousness
gesture, tapping his throat below the jaw       stopped. In the vagon, a temporary lo-          with a sense of something being different
with a flip of his fingers. From his car he       botomy seemed to have levelled every-           now. I got up, opened the van door,
pulled a half-full bottle of vodka to show      body. Sometimes as the train sat awhile         walked to the passageway. As I stepped
me. I shook my head no politely; it was         at a station I got out and walked around,       out onto it, my awareness of space ex-
about eight in the morning.                     never wandering too far, from fear of           panded enormously: our vagon was sit-
    Quietly, I slid from the van and went       being left. Every station I observed was        ting by itself in a vast, irregularly lighted
to the passageway for a look outside. The       dark, cracked, in the process of being col-     train yard. This must be Magdagachi. In
sun had risen on a cool, clear day in early     onized by weeds, and with the lights of         a minute the khozyain joined me, look-
fall. Our train was making a steady thirty      its platform broken.                            ing a bit rusty from the entertainments
kilometres (about twenty m.p.h.) through            People thronged the stations none-          of his journey, and confirmed that we
taiga mixed with hay fields. During the          theless—old ladies selling pirozhki (small      had arrived. Suddenly a beam of light
night, a heavy frost had covered the coun-      pies of cabbage or meat or mushroom),           swung down on us, backed up by a re-
tryside. It rimed the leaves of the birch       skinny guys with big bottles of foamy,          sounding diesel noise. Behind the light,
trees, some of which had already turned         off-color beer, girls displaying boxes           I could just make out, by shading my
yellow, and made the needles and knobby         made of birch and carved wooden shoes           eyes, a train engine’s massive form. Out
branches of a tree I took to be a larch a       on pieces of carpet, vodka sellers with         of the brightness, stepping onto the cou-
soft white. At this speed, I could see the      their bottles lined up in rows on folding       pling at the engine’s front, the engineer
trackside weeds, curved like shepherds’         card tables. Here and there, black electri-     appeared.
crooks by the spiderwebs attached to            cal wires drooped above the assembly.               Without preamble the engineer began
them, the frost on the web strands glis-        The khozyain and the scuba diver, hop-          to yell an abusive stream of complaint or
tening in the sun. When the tracks went         ping down for quick vodka runs, were the        instruction at the khozyain, who yelled
around a bend, the rest of the train was        only ones in our car who got off besides         even more heatedly at him. Amounts of
revealed extending far ahead. Our vagon         me.                                             rubles were shouted back and forth.
was the second-to-last car. A broad hay             The day went by, and again the twi-         Then the khozyain went into his state-
field we passed had just been cut. The           light in the vagon dimmed to almost-            room and reëmerged, cursing, with a wad
short stubble, all frost-white, lay like car-   darkness. I ate an energy bar I’d brought       of bills. He handed it to the engineer,
pet among the haystacks spaced regularly        along and experimented with new sleep-          who counted it in the engine’s headlight,
                                                                                                then put it in his bib. I was told to get out
                                                                                                of the way. The engine was then maneu-
                                                                                                vered around and the vagon coupled to it.
                                                                                                In another minute we had been pulled up
                                                                                                to the unloading ramp. All the drivers in
                                                                                                the vagon woke up, the sealed-shut back
                                                                                                doors opened, and the vehicles rolled
                                                                                                down the ramp into the Magdagachi
                                                                                                    It was one-thirty in the morning when
                                                                                                we emerged from the vagon. We knew
                                                                                                nothing about Magdagachi except its
                                                                                                name. The hard-drinking dentist, father
                                                                                                of fourteen-year-old Kira, told Sergei
                                                                                                that he could lead us to a fuel station that
                                                                                                he thought would be open, so we fol-
                                                                                                lowed him there. He also said that he
                                                                                                knew how to find the road out of Magda-
                                                                                                gachi; but after he had fuelled up he
                                                                                                drove off without waiting for us, and
                                                                                                when we tried to make our way by the di-
                                                                                                rections the fuel-station man gave us we
                                                                                                soon were meandering on roads and
      “I’m happy to answer your question as soon as you stop asking it.”                        non-roads in Magdagachi. Finally, we
got so turned around that we were driv-
ing on gravelly nothing zones between
unlit buildings, and Sergei pulled over in
a weed lot where we spent another few
uncomfortable hours attempting to sleep
in the van.
    A little after dawn, we awoke and set
out again, and with more people available
at that hour to ask for directions we
did find the road. Driving in our dusty,
exhaust-fume, no-shock-absorbers van
seemed like carefree travel after the
gloomy limbo of the vagon. A leisurely
three hundred kilometres or so farther
on, we stopped in the early afternoon and
camped on the banks of the Zeya River
outside the city of Svobodnyi (Free).

F     rom the Zeya we took a detour off
      the main road in order to see the
Amur River and the city of Blagovesh-                                            “Bad goldfish!”
chensk. Blagoveshchenie means “annunci-
ation,” and the name is not too lofty for                                           •          •
the city, which I thought the handsomest
we’d been through since St. Petersburg.
Blagoveshchensk is fortunate for two rea-      other weeds grew along the streets, and      ing, there were only a few cars, but still
sons—its light, and China. Something           the usually omnipresent trash, in heaps      no ferry. Soon more cars and several
about the Pacific Ocean, maybe, gives a         or promiscuously strewn, seemed to           trucks showed up.
reddish-gold tint to light that spreads up     be gone.                                         Finally the ferry came, loaded a few
the river and this far inland. The benign         We headed out of Blagoveshchensk          cars and our van with great slowness, and
and hopeful sunniness of Blagovesh-            in its California evening light and set-     slowly took us to the other side. A lot of
chensk reminded me somehow of Palo             tled back for a few hours of driving         other vehicles were waiting there for the
Alto, California. Blagoveshchensk and          in what remained of the day, but the         return trip. I could not understand why
other Amur River cities could be the           road we were on—a major road, and in         this one river should be without a bridge;
Golden East, as California was the             fact the only one here that continued        clearly, some of the people in the queue
Golden West. Or maybe this notion was          cross-country, a road marked in red on       would be there all day. But we seemed to
just my homesick imagination. Still, the       the map—suddenly came to an end. It          have entered a forgotten zone. As we
sun and blue sky and reddish-gold light as     reached the Bureya River and just quit.      continued on this alleged cross-country
we drove around Blagoveshchensk struck         Reëxamining the map, I noticed that          highway, it quit trying altogether and be-
me as imported, not quite Russian.             the red of the highway did become a          came little more than a swamp lane. On
    Second, China: The Chinese indus-          dotted line for a very short span at this    its rare paved stretches you couldn’t get
trial city of Heihe is just across the Amur.   spot. There was no bridge, no nothing.       too comfortable, because in another mo-
Our radio had begun picking up Chinese         I had never known a major road to do         ment you’d have to slow down and nego-
radio stations. On the other side of the       that before. After a bit of searching,       tiate mudholes in lowest gear.
pale-brown, slow-moving, dauntingly            however, we found a ferry landing, al-           Half a day of this brought us to the
wide Amur the tops of the tallest build-       beit sans ferry. The ferryman had appar-     border of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Auton-
ings of Heihe could be seen. Like other        ently taken the ferry to the other side of   omous Oblast. Under Stalin in the nine-
Amur River cities, Heihe and Blagovesh-        the Bureya, and no one among the two         teen-twenties and thirties, the idea of
chensk participate in an agreement that        dozen waiting cars knew when he might        setting aside this region in the drainage
locally suspends certain visa and customs      return. Sergei backtracked up the road       of the Bira and the Bidzhan Rivers for
regulations for the purposes of encourag-      to look for a camping spot, figuring          a Jewish homeland attracted support
ing trade. I saw several big buildings         we’d just wait till morning. All we could    among Jews in the Soviet Union, Amer-
under construction in Blagoveshchensk,         find were small openings in the thick         ica, and elsewhere. Here sparsely occupied
a rarity in these remote areas, and Chi-       woods where the weeds grew six feet          land extending for two hundred miles
nese laborers working on them. The hard        high. Finally, we plunged the van into       along the Trans-Siberian Railway offered
hats the workmen wore were made of             an out-of-the-way opening, tramped           the advantages of plenty of room and
wicker. A lot of the smaller structures in     down some weeds beside it, and pitched       no unwelcoming nationalities who needed
the city were new. Some had pagoda-            our tents.                                   to be removed. On the other hand, Biro-
style roofs. No thickets of morkovnik or          At the ferry landing the next morn-       bidzhan is a swamp in the middle of
	                                                                                       THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009	       61
                                                                                               Khabarovsk, the city, figures impor-
                                                                                           tantly in the movie—when Dersu, whose
                                                                                           sight is failing, moves to Arsenyev’s house
                                                                                           in the middle of town. Finding the house
                                                                                           where Arsenyev lived in Khabarovsk was
                                                                                           another of my Siberian goals. Sergei and
                                                                                           Volodya completely approved, for a
                                                                                           change; they were even bigger fans of
                                                                                           Dersu and Arsenyev than I was.
                                                                                               From far off, Khabarovsk looks noth-
                                                                                           ing like the trim little community of the
                                                                                           movie. The city occupies one of the great
                                                                                           river junctions in this part of the world: at
                                                                                           Khabarovsk, the Amur River, having
                                                                                           been the border between Russia and
                                                                                           China for about sixteen hundred kilome-
                                                                                           tres, turns left, or northeastward, and
                                                                                           crosses Russian territory for the rest of its
                                                                                           course until reaching the ocean. Mean-
                                                                                           while, the Ussuri River, joining the Amur
                                                                                           from the south, takes over as the Russian-
      “Hey, Frank, before you quit for the day can you go over these figures?”             Chinese border. Travellers coming to
                                                                                           Khabarovsk from the west cross the Amur
                                      •           •                                        on a bridge that goes on and on. Sergei
                                                                                           said it was the longest bridge in the coun-
                                                                                           try. Up ahead, spread out in a succession
nowhere. Although many thousands of          sometimes made forays to kill and carry       of ridges above the confluence, Khabarovsk
Jews, including groups from America, did     off dogs. Arsenyev describes how tigers        seemed endlessly large. With its tall sky
move here, almost all of them left within    in the forest sometimes bellowed like         and sprawling landscape, it could have
a few years. Birobidzhan’s Jewish popula-    red deer to attract the deer during mat-      been a city designed for animals consider-
tion was four per cent in 1990, and it has   ing season; the tiger’s imitation betrayed    ably larger than humans—mammoths,
gone down since.                             itself only at the end of the bellow, when    maybe, or mid-sized dinosaurs.
                                             it trailed off into a purr.                        We soon learned that Arsenyev’s
bY	THE	SEA                                       The humans one was likely to meet in      house no longer stands. An exhibit about
                                             this nearly trackless forest were Chinese     Arsenyev in the regional museum said
 D      ersu Uzala,” the memoir and nar-
        rative of exploration by Vladi-
mir K. Arsenyev, begins in 1902, when
                                             medicine hunters, bandits, inhabitants of
                                             little Korean settlements, and hunter-
                                             trappers of wild game. Dersu Uzala, a
                                                                                           that an Intourist hotel had been built on
                                                                                           the spot where the house used to be.

Arsenyev is a young Army officer as-
signed the job of exploring and map-
ping the almost unknown regions east
                                             trapper whom Arsenyev and his men
                                             come upon early in their 1902 journey, is
                                             a Siberian native of the Nanai tribe whose
                                                                                           T     he next day, we continued south-
                                                                                                 ward, passing villages called Roskosh
                                                                                           (Luxury), Zvenevay (Small-Group
and northeast of Vladivostok, including      wife and children have died of smallpox       Town), and Tigorovo (Tigerville), and
Lake Khanka and the upper watershed          and who now is alone. After their meet-       rivers called Pervaya Sedmaya Reka (First
of the Ussuri River. The name for the        ing, Dersu becomes the party’s guide.         Seventh River) and Vtoraya Sedmaya
whole area is the Primorskii Krai—           The book is about Arsenyev’s adventures       Reka (Second Seventh River). At noon-
the By-the-Sea Region. It and much of        with Dersu on this journey and others,        time, we stopped to buy bread in the
the Khabarovskii Krai, just to the north     their friendship, and Dersu’s decline and     small city of Bikin. Like most cities of
of it, consist of a unique kind of Pacific    end.                                          military importance, Bikin had been
forest in which tall hardwoods hung              In the nineteen-seventies, a Soviet film   closed to foreigners until after the end of
with vines grow beside conifers almost       studio produced a movie of “Dersu Uzala,”     Soviet times. With the Chinese border
equally high, and the lushness of the fo-    directed by Akira Kurosawa. It won the        only twenty kilometres away, Bikin for-
liage, especially along the watercourses,    Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of        merly was fortified with active military
often becomes quite jungly. In Arse-         1975. The movie is long and slow-paced,       installations all around it, and now their
nyev’s time, this jungle-taiga was full of   like a passage through the forest, and        barbed wire dangled and their concrete
wildlife, with species ranging from the      wonderfully evokes the Primorskii coun-       works had turned ramshackle in predict-
flying squirrel and the wild boar to the      try. I own a cassette of the movie and in     able post-Soviet style. And yet Bikin still
Siberian tiger. Back then (and even re-      my many viewings of it even picked up         had the cloistered feel of a garrison
cently) tigers could also be seen on the     some useful fractured Russian from the        town.
outskirts of Vladivostok, where they         distinctive way Dersu talks.                      Soon after Bikin, we suddenly entered
62	        THE	NEW	YORKER,	AUGUST	10	&	17,	2009
a weird all-watermelon area. Water-           weeds, stood a cement obelisk on which          like the sea and made the vacant place
melon sellers crowded both sides of the       was inscribed: “CROSSED OVER THIS               spookier.
road under big umbrellas in beach-ball        PASS: M. I. VENYUKOV 1858; N. M. PRE-               I saw the water just in glimpses be-
colors among wildly painted wooden            ZHEVALSKII 1887 ; V. K. ARSENYEV                tween the buildings, but then the road
signs. Sergei pulled over and bought a        1906.”                                          bore left and we were driving alongside
watermelon for a ruble, but as we went            Arsenyev’s passage across this divide       the shore. We stopped and got out. Here
along the heaps of them kept growing          happened during a mapping expedition            we had arrived not at a regular beach,
until melons were spilling into the road      guided by Dersu and described in detail         with big rollers coming in, but at the
and the sellers were giving them away. A      in the book. The party continued from           semi-fortified edge of Vladimirskaya
man with teeth like a crazy fence hailed      here until they came to the Pacific and          Bay. The Pacific rollers I had hoped for
us and in high hilarity thrust two water-     the port village of Olga, where they were       could be seen in the distance, at the bay’s
melons through the passenger-side win-        resupplied. Sergei said that we would also      entrance between its northern and south-
dow. By the time we emerged at the            aim for Olga and camp near there.               ern headlands. At this spot there were
other end of the watermelon gauntlet, we          Often the taiga stood so close to the       just rocks and broken concrete and pieces
had a dozen or more in the van. The wa-       road that the vines almost touched the          of rusted iron, and a small black cow
termelons were almost spherical, anti-        side of the car, and on the upgrades we         looking for something to eat among
freeze green, and slightly smaller than       were looking into the canopy. At one            them. Between the road and the water
soccer balls. We cut one open and tried       point in the movie “Dersu Uzala,” a tiger       a four-metre-high observation tower
it—delicious. This was not a part of the      stalks Arsenyev’s party, and the Siberian       leaned to one side, and the hulks of two
world I had previously thought of as a        tiger used for the scene was a splendid         wrecked ships, one still with its stacks
great place for watermelons.                  animal, all liquid motion and snarling          and superstructure, sat grounded and
    Rather than continue south, directly      growls. Though near extinction, the Sibe-       tilted over not too far out in the bay.
to Vladivostok, our ultimate destination,     rian tiger has not yet been wiped out, and          On the ocean-facing side of a big
we had decided to turn east again, cross      the thought that this Pacific forest—rem-        rock, someone had spray-painted the
the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, and arrive        iniscent in some ways of the American           “NY” logo of the New York Yankees and
at the Pacific (technically the Sea of         and Canadian Northwest—had tigers in            the “LA” logo of the Los Angeles Dodg-
Japan) in a less inhabited place on the       it gave the shadows far back among the          ers. Also in big white letters on the rock
mountains’ other side. The Sikhote-           trees a new level of authority. I had been      was the word “RAP.”
Alins, once we were among them, seemed        in a few forests that held grizzly bears, but       We drove along the shore a little far-
more like hills, and not very forbidding,     a forest with tigers in it seemed even more     ther, until there were fewer ghost build-
but the depth and silence of their forest     mysterious and honorable.                       ings around. In this part, the beach was
made up for that. Arsenyev had described          Rather than go straight to Olga, we         more beachlike and offered a better set-
the taiga here as “virginal, primeval tim-    turned off at a little road where a sign         ting for our momentous arrival. Wave-
berland.” From the altitude of the trees      pointed to Vesyolyi Yar—Merry Cliff.             smoothed stones and actual sand inclined
and the venerable length of the vines de-     This road as it led eastward and Pacific-        down to clear and cold waves that were
pending from them, I would guess that         ward was not particularly merry. The            breaking hard on this windy day. Strands
the taiga we saw was still original growth.   closer we approached to the coast, the          of kelp lay here and there like pieces of
That night, we camped above the small         more falling-down military structures           reel-to-reel tape. I went to the water and
gorge of a river named for Arsenyev—the       cluttered the scene. Overhead, the sky          put my hand in and cupped some of
Arsenyevka. The sound of it was pleasant      got bluer and lighter simultaneously in         it and tasted salt. Sergei immediately
to sit beside; this was our first genuinely    an ever-brightening expansiveness that          stripped down to his briefs and dove in
rushing stream. I stayed up for a while       could only be a reflection of the Pacific         and swam. Volodya recorded the event
after Sergei and Volodya had gone to bed,     just beyond. At the top of each rise, I         with the video camera while I made a
listening to it and looking up at the stars   thought I’d see it. Then we came over a         sketch of the bay and the ocean and the
and at the satellites tracking past.          crest above an unusually steep descent,         sky. During his dip, Sergei stepped on a
    The next day, we continued winding        and there ahead, in the notch between           sea-urchin spine, a painful development,
generally eastward through the moun-          two hills: the Pacific Ocean. Against the        but he mentioned it only in passing
tains. I noted villages called Uborka         green of the trees it was a deep pelagic        among the shouting, hilarity, and mu-
(Harvest), Shumnyi (Noisy), and Rud-          blue, with many white waves.                    tual congratulations. Finally, we were
nyi (Oreville). Now we were in Arse-              Past a few more hills and an aban-          here. Today was Tuesday, September 11,
nyev’s very footsteps. A little beyond        doned gate checkpoint, and then we              2001. We had crossed Russia by land
Rudnyi, we crossed a mountain pass            were on a level, sandy road that served as      from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean
that hardly looked like one. This was         the main street of another military ghost       in five weeks and two days. 
the divide between the waters that flow        town. On either side of the road, block         (This is the second part of a two-part article.)
roundabout to the Pacific via the Ussuri       after block of three- or four-story cement
and the Amur, and those which drain           residential buildings with most of their
down the front of the Sikhote-Alins           window glass out showed only occasional
and into the Pacific directly. At the crest    signs of human presence. An onshore             An audio interview with Ian Frazier, and
of the divide, back among the roadside        breeze rattling through the ruins smelled       more photographs and sketches of Siberia.

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