GETTING THERE: Lufthansa and its partner Aeroflot offer connecting flights from Dulles to Novosibirsk, Russia. Round-trip fares vary widely; at press time, they were running about $2,250, with restrictions. From Novosibirsk, it is 38 hours on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Ust-Kut. A bunk bed in a four-person compartment costs about $50. Travelers can stay overnight in Ust-Kut before catching the boat to Yakutsk the following day.
There are several other ways to reach Ust-Kut, such as flying to Moscow and taking the Trans-Siberian and BAM lines. Austrian Airlines offers a flight from Dulles to Moscow, with a stop in Vienna, for $994; Delta, with a stop in Atlanta, for $1,421. It costs about $120 to travel from Moscow to Ust-Kut on the Trans- Siberian railroad and takes close to three days.
WHEN TO GO: The Lena River is navigable from May to September. Average temperatures rise above 68 degrees in July and stay above 60 degrees in early September. After that, winter sets in, and by December temperatures drop below zero.
TAKING THE TRIP: The Krasnoyarsk and its sister ship the Blagoveshchensk make 18 annual round trips between Ust-Kut and Yakutsk from May through September. For the five-night trip, I paid $160 for first class with a sofa bed.
For schedule information, Russian speakers can call the shipping company in Kirensk at 011-7-39568-3-23-06. Non-Russian speakers should inquire about tickets and scheduling through one of the tour companies listed below.
Meals on board cost less than $3, and although you might want to pack some munchies, inexpensive bottled water and snack foods are available from the Krasnoyarsk's small shop. Don't forget to pack a towel and toilet paper, though.
TOUR COMPANIES: TourService Center Co. (12 Poyarkov St., Yakutsk, www.yakutiatravel.com) is an English-speaking travel agency that arranges visas and trips on the Lena. In the United States, Sokol Tours (724-935-5373, www.sokoltours.com) can provide visa assistance and arrange trips to Siberia through a wide range of partner companies.
WHERE TO STAY: While waiting in Novosibirsk for the train to Ust-Kut, travelers can stay at the Hotel Sibir (21 Lenin St., Novosibirsk, 011-7-3832- 231-215, www.novosibirsk-hotels.com/novosib-sibir.htm), a former state-run giant that is popular with foreigners for its refurbished rooms. The bar is a great place to meet travelers from around the world. Doubles from $9 per night, including breakfast.
The centrally located Hotel Lena (88 Kirov St., Ust-Kut, 011-7-39565- 51507) is the best place to spend the night while waiting for the Krasnoyarsk to set sail. Doubles from $33 per night.
There are several hotels to choose from at the end of the journey in Yakutsk. The Polar Star (24 Prospect Lenin, 011- 7-4112-34-1215, www.alrosahotels.ru) is the city's newest luxury hotel and is part of the Alrosa chain; it boasts a fine restaurant serving European and Russian cuisine. Doubles from $160 per night. Hotel Parus (7 Prospect Lenin, 011-7- 4112-423727) is across the street from the main square; this slightly cheaper option offers more basic but modern rooms. Doubles from $140.
WHERE TO EAT: The Krasnoyarsk's wood-paneled restaurant serves hearty Russian meals of borscht and salmon for less than $3.
Antalia (23 Prospect Lenin, 011-7- 4112-43-5528) is the top choice in Yakutsk outside of the major hotels. It serves Russian cuisine in a Turkish- themed interior. A three-course meal with drinks costs less than $15.
Otherwise, hotels dominate Yakutsk's restaurant scene. In addition to the Polar Star, try Hotel Tygyn Darkhan (9 Ammosova, 011-7-4112- 435109), which serves Russian and European meals for less than $20.
INFORMATION: The Russian National Group (877-221-7120 or 212-575- 3431, www.russia-travel.com) represents the Russian National Tourist Office in the United States. It can provide information on obtaining visas and tourist "invitations" to Siberia.
-- Alfred Kueppers