Cruising Siberia: Beyond Permafrost

By Alfred Kueppers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 12, 2005

When I told colleagues I was planning a trip to Siberia, they smirked and questioned, "On vacation?"

But when I mentioned the idea to my Russian teacher, she grabbed my hand, fired off several "nyets" and assured me I would die.

And so, a few weeks later, as I roll down the Lena River past tiny, dark-stained wooden villages silhouetted against the unyielding forest, I am somewhat more than pleasantly surprised. I am stunned.

Siberia, despite the dark reputation it shares among Westerners and Russians alike, is more than Dickensian factory towns, permafrost and gulag. Much of it is still pristine wilderness, and all of it is far from the well-trodden tourist trail. Outsiders who make the trip are assured a warm welcome, and, unlike in centuries past, round-trip journeys are not only possible, they are encouraged.

"You're the first American we've had this year," Capt. Sergei Ignatievich tells me, decked out in his gold-brocade, navy blue uniform. "But everyone comes on board, we've already had two Germans and a Swede."

I spent five days and five nights aboard his vintage 1959 Hungarian paddle-wheel steamer, heading from the Lena River port of Ust-Kut north toward the Laptev Sea. Despite its years, the Krasnoyarsk still brings a touch of class to the Lena, where blue-collar barges and tugs carrying heating oil, timber and scrap dominate the river traffic.

But the old steamer is no cruise ship; instead, it seems like an ark of the former Soviet Union, ferrying Georgians and Armenians from the Caucasus, an extended family of Uzbeks from Central Asia, Russians, Ukrainians and native Siberians, such as the Buryats and Yakuts.

Though the amenities may be rather basic, the prices are, too. My first-class single berth cost $160 for the trip, including hot showers down the hall. The room came with a sink, a sofa that folded into a bed and a window with a riverside view.

I had stocked up on food in Novosibirsk, where I took a marathon 38-hour train ride to Ust-Kut. But this precaution turned out to be unnecessary, since hearty Russian meals are available in the Krasnoyarsk's wood-paneled restaurant three times daily.

As the lone American, I am the subject of much curiosity, discussion and the occasional flirtatious glance.

"And do they know our Lena in America?" Tanya, who like me is bound for Yakutsk, asks in Russian.

"Of course," I lie, unwilling to offend. "Everyone knows it!"

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