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!"
Strangely, few do, despite the fact that it is one of the 10 longest rivers in the world, with a centuries-old record of conquest and colonization along its banks.
Russian Cossacks first navigated the Lena in the mid-17th century, subjugating the Yakuts, who had moved to the north from Central Asia five centuries earlier during Genghis Khan's turbulent reign. The new colonists established a series of forts where they collected furs from the Yakuts and shipped them on to Moscow. Over time these evolved into permanent Russian-speaking settlements, such as Kirensk, Olekminsk and the Sakha Republic's capital, Yakutsk. Now, the Yakuts are slowly reversing the equation, as the Slavic conquerors' descendants trickle back to European Russia.
Unlike the Congo or the Mississippi, the Lena has yet to inspire a Joseph Conrad or Mark Twain to tell its story to the world. The Russian obsession with secrecy is partially responsible, but the chief culprit is the river's remote location: It flows 2,645 miles from central Siberia to the Laptev Sea, splitting a vast wilderness with a population density of less than eight people per square mile.
For these isolated few, the Lena is a lifeline. There are no highways on the taiga, and few roads connect the individual settlements.
From May to September, the Krasnoyarsk and a few other ships stock the towns with enough food and fuel to last the winter. After that, the river is impassable until December, when average temperatures drop beneath 13 degrees below zero and the river freezes into an ice road strong enough to support heavy trucks.
The Krasnoyarsk begins each northward journey laden with 110-pound sacks of wheat, cases of vodka and drums of oil. Along the way, the crew barters its stockpile for the cold-resistant potatoes and onions that grow in the few feet of soil above the permafrost.
Since taking the helm in 1979, the 55-year-old captain has made nine round trips a year between Ust-Kut and Yakutsk.
On the second day of the voyage, he invites me up to the pilothouse above the passenger cabins. Inside, a crew of four jokes and listens to Louis Armstrong on the radio -- one at the tiller, the others watching the river or reading the detailed chart that fills an oversize hard-bound book. Below us the Lena stretches out, a few small forested islands ahead of us, a barge approaching.
Ignatievich taps my forearm and emphasizes that despite the relaxed atmosphere, navigating the Lena is no easy matter.
"She's a complicated river, a wild river," he tells me, breathing in a fresh Marlboro. "She twists and turns, and every year we find new shallows. If you're not careful, you can get stuck."
The towns along its banks lose their Slavic character as we approach the Sakha Republic, the semiautonomous Yakut territory six time zones from Moscow, but just one hour ahead of Tokyo.
Instead of the gingerbread-style houses with sky-blue shutters found in the OAO Kreb shipping company's home town of Kirensk, the simple wooden cabins stand unadorned. Herds of horses, used by the formerly nomadic Yakuts for transport and food, graze near their settlements.
The Krasnoyarsk's three or four daily stops are a highlight of the trip. I join my fellow passengers -- about 150 in all -- on deck to watch the tumult of arrivals, departures and goods changing hands.
Most settlements have no port, so we drop anchor 50 yards offshore and wait for the rowboats, some equipped with outboard motors. Often, the entire village lines up to greet us on shore, standing in front of their Soviet-era jeeps as wolflike mixed-husky breeds tussle at the water's edge. Farmers groan under the weight of potatoes as they row toward the Krasnoyarsk and grimace as they return to shore, their boats laden with wheat.
I ask the man on my right the name of the town, but he answers with a shrug. I turn to the left and repeat the question.
"Don't know," the passenger says. "We just call it 'the village.' "
Locals shout conversations in Russian and Yakut, a Turkic language, to relatives already on board.
"What class did you get? Third?" a woman calls to her husband.
"No, nothing left in third, we're in first!" he shouts back, an index finger pointed at the sky. "Cabin Number 5."
"Number 5, did you hear that!" another passenger shouts, her hand open flat across the railing. "Yes, send them a letter! Address it to Cabin Number 5 on the Krasnoyarsk! Better still, send cash!"
We all laugh while the farmers continue their struggle with the massive sacks below us, an oarsman slowly turning white from the flour that seeps out of each one he loads onto his boat.
Finally, after 90 minutes, the foghorn sounds. We head back onto the open river.
The sky is overcast, low clouds hanging just above the trees. The Krasnoyarsk sails at a steady 14 mph, straight into a cold wind. Already, in mid-September, you can feel winter crouching just over the next hill, ready to freeze the landscape for the next seven months.
But then, the sun breaks through, and as it hits the fall leaves they light up like the stained-glass windows of a cathedral.
"So, American, do you like our Sakha?" Olga, a Yakut teenager, asks.
This time I don't have to lie.
"But in the winter, I don't think you'd like it," she giggles. "Minus 50!"
On the last night the captain invites me up to the pilothouse again. It is after midnight and the stars of the galaxy are scattered above us in their eternal panorama.
Inside the radio is silent and the crew peers out at the lighted buoys or stares intensely at the Soviet-era navigation system.
It has been more than a century since Mark Twain published "Life on the Mississippi," and we are more than 5,000 miles from Hannibal, Mo., but something of him is there with us:
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book -- a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing.
The next day, we make it into Yakutsk, where a chaotic unloading scene again unfolds. I push my way through, stand above the Krasnoyarsk and stare out at the Lena: No wider than 500 yards in Ust-Kut, it is several miles across now.
As I look out, I wish that I had time to travel for three more days, to cross the 71st parallel and sail all the way to the port of Tiksi on the Laptev Sea.
But there is an empty desk and a computer screen in an office waiting for me. I turn my back on the great river, knowing that other travelers will come and finish the journey for me.
Alfred Kueppers is a journalist based in Frankfurt.