September 01, 2016

Crossing Siberia



Russia first began to pull on me back in 2010, while I was in Central Asia on a climbing expedition to make a first ascent in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains. Over the five years that followed, I ventured further into more remote corners of Central Asia and into countries on the perimeter of modern day Russia.

Each place I visited and the unique people I encountered fueled my fascination with the region: a camo-clad Siberian driving through the Western Mongolian town of Olgy, heading towards the Altai Republic with two freshly shot adult wolves lashed to the hood of his UAZ 4x4, blood trickling from their noses onto the streets; two Russians who bombed their way enthusiastically across the Eastern Kazakh steppes in an old beater car to cheerily greet my friend and I with a toast of vodka as we journeyed across Kazakhstan on horseback in 2013; or Radik, a boisterous and good-humored man originally from Russia who decided to become a camel breeder and herder in the Kyzyl Kum desert of northern Uzbekistan. My interest in the world’s largest country grew with each new incident.

It was on a trip paddling in the Barents Sea of Arctic Norway, on the tiny Grense Jakobselv River less than 20 meters from the Russian border, that I realized it was time to experience and explore Russia from the inside. I was mesmerized by how big it was, knowing that, from this insignificant point on the Russian-Norwegian border, the coastline ran unbroken for thousands of kilometers all the way to China.

The country’s physical size and beauty captivated me with its possibilities, and it was Siberia that particularly drew me in. Unlike Canada, Greenland and Scandinavia, Siberia was truly foreign. Its vast, beautiful and widely varied landscape remains almost untouched by Western culture and language. Five million square miles of outstanding natural beauty stretching from the Ural Mountains to the Bering Strait and home to the world’s largest terrestrial biome: the endless taiga forest that wraps itself in and around other equally fascinating local environs like the southern steppes, the Arctic tundra, endless bear-riddled coastlines, and mighty rivers powering their way north. To me it represented a true frontier.

A year before the trip began, I started my research by reading popular books such as Colin Thubron’s In Siberia and Anna Reid’s The Shaman’s Coat. I was excited by the stories of early Russian and indigenous explorers who pioneered the Siberian River Routes as a means to explore Far Eastern Siberia, and to develop trade and build settlements in otherwise hard-to-reach lands. The story of Ivan Moskvitin – the first non-indigenous man to reach the Pacific Ocean – particularly piqued my interest, especially considering that their team completed the journey more than 60 years before the more widely known Lewis and Clark expedition across the western US.

Taking inspiration from Moskvitin’s exploratory sojourns down Siberia’s waterways, I began to explore the possibility of utilizing the river systems in the modern-era to traverse the true wild extent of Siberia: from the southwest to the most easterly point of the Eurasian Continent, Cape Dezhnev. Thus was the Crossing Siberia project born. The method of tackling the route was to be “multidisciplinary,” combining travel on foot, by ski, kayak, and, most crucially, by packraft (lightweight inflatable boat) for travel on the vast river sections.

I was also equally motivated to use the journey as a conduit to create an adventure travel film series that would tell the story of the unique people and places in this expanse of wilderness, to provide an opportunity for a wide international audience to learn about the country’s fascinating history, its diverse cultural make-up, and gain an understanding of how the socio-geographical landscape changes from region to region.

The first segment of my journey took me to Tuva, a Russian republic bordering Northern Mongolia. To Russians and foreigners alike it’s best-known for throat-singing (khoomei) and for being the geographical center of Asia. The latter honor is, notably, hotly contested by China, which claims that the continent’s center is actually located near Ürümqi, Xinjiang Province (the debate having arisen due to the varying definitions on what constitutes the Asian continent and the map projection used). Regardless of the dispute, when one stands by the monument on the outskirts of Kyzyl’s city center, it is easy to feel a sense of wonder, knowing that, in every direction you look, you are thousands of miles from any coastline.

I came here because my route started in the isolated Todzhinsky Basin region in the republic’s northeast. It was through the basin that I was aiming to walk on foot for 450 kilometers, following loosely connected hunters’ trails running upstream. Eventually, these would lead me into the Eastern Sayan range, on the boundary with the Republic of Buryatia. From there I would inflate my packraft and descend the Tissa and Irkut rivers for another 1000 kilometers to reach Irkutsk, near the fabled shores of Lake Baikal. If all was to go according to plan, the following year I would return to Irkutsk and continue further east into Siberia, following more discontinuous trails and rivers, gradually leap-frogging my way over the years through this vast landmass – a journey I estimated to be approximately 10,000 kilometers long.

After spending a few days picking up food supplies and resting in Kyzyl with my local friend Khombu, who spends much of his time working as a geologist in Eritrea, I headed by vehicle to my starting point in the small village of Toora-Khem, the only major settlement in the Todzhinsky region.

I distinctly remember my first impression of the taiga as the trusty breadloaf-shaped UAZ truck pulled over the crest of a mountain pass towards Toora-Khem. I looked down into a giant valley and wide plain and saw that it was thick with forest stretching to the horizon. It was entirely unbroken, aside from the Maly Yenisey River slithering its way through the forest. I was awestruck by the immensity of the wilderness stretching before me as far as the eye could see, and more than a little dumbfounded by the significance of the task I had set for myself. I also knew that, because I was choosing to head in there alone, the feelings would soon become intensified.

I never could have predicted that these feelings of intimidation would soon be the least of my concerns.

Shortly after arriving at Toora-Khem, I attracted the attention of a local man named Maxim, one of the most memorable characters any visitor could meet in this otherwise placid and sleepy mountain settlement. Through an exchange of broken Russian intermixed with sign-language, Maxim told me that it was necessary that he accompany me at least to Azas Lake, because the area was supposedly full of armed robbers. He made his point pretty clear through vigorously shaking me back and forth and mock-grabbing my possessions. Despite greatly doubting what he said, it proved impossible to make an appropriate excuse to escape him. So, unable to shake him over the next 48 hours, I watched helplessly as he precipitated a variety of mishaps that bordered on the comical. These ranged from a wrestling match he instigated after a friend reprimanded him for the late return of a borrowed longboat used to take me on a high-speed putter around the lake, to a man from Krasnoyarsk who, infuriated by Maxim’s brash and offensive behavior towards his wife, gave him a corrective punch to the gut. After two days, I made my break when Maxim was behind a truck, lazing in the sun. I clandestinely dragged my bags through deep grass to reach the edge of the forest, to bed down on the shores of the lake for the night.

It was ironic that, after months of dreaming about being alone in the taiga, I would now begin my first night there worrying not about bears or the difficulty of the terrain, but about who or what else might scupper my plans.

The following morning I awoke, thankfully alone, finally free to begin my journey through the Todzhinsky Basin, a route that I estimated would take over a month.

Before leaving Kyzyl, I had met with Maadyr – Khombu’s uncle and a famous local Tuvan mountaineer who has climbed five of the seven world’s highest summits, to ask him a few questions about travelling through the taiga. He told me that where I was headed was regarded as an exceptionally tough and dense region of forest, making it notoriously difficult to traverse. He told me that even the nomadic Todzha reindeer herders can take two weeks to travel to their camps in the interior. The density of the forest region is due to the fact that it is an unusually large drainage basin (the size of Delaware and Connecticut combined), home to many of the upper course tributary rivers (the Toora-Khem, Khamsara and Systyg-Khem), all of which feed into Russia’s longest river system, the Yenisey.

I started paddling east along the northern shore of Azas Lake – Tuva’s largest, heading for the mouth of the Azas River that flows into the lake’s eastern end, 30 kilometers away. The air was tinged with the smell of smoke from forest fires on the southern shores, casting the sky a murky grey color. It was hard not to worry about what might happen if I encountered an encroaching fire somewhere along my journey. I made sure to stick close to shore, as the heavy load of food and equipment strapped to the front and back of my boat made for a rather cumbersome ride.

Every paddle stroke I took through the lake’s calm waters brought relief, but also the growing awareness that I was committing myself further to the remoteness and magnitude of the task, which was greater than anything I had attempted before. After a full day’s paddling, I reached the mouth of the Azas River. With nightfall approaching, I waded and towed my boat upstream a couple more kilometers to find a suitable camp inside the taiga. There, I would spend a few days in camp acclimatizing, checking out the terrain and scouting out a miniscule track indicated on my Soviet era maps that would take me towards the Eastern Sayan Mountains and on to Buryatia.

Over the days I spent in my small, squalid and bug-infested campsite, I quickly came to realize my plans for traversing the basin were going to take another unexpected turn: the track I sought was non-existent, and the only semblance of a route was created by fresh bear trails. I saw a few paw prints on the silty banks near my camp, fresh scat lying about the place, and there were also scratch markings on the trees.

To make matters still more challenging, the terrain and density of the forest was worse than I had anticipated; it was more like a rainforest, with big fallen trees rotting into swamps, held together with thick brush and vines seeking to entangle you. It seemed even worse than Maadyr had described; in the space of ten meters it was incredibly easy to get lost and I had to make chop marks on trees in order to find my way back. I had grown up in the sub-tropical climate of South East Asia, and had organized a first ascent climbing expedition through the Malaysian jungles back in 2009, but much to my surprise, the navigability was considerably worse in Siberia.

I spent the next couple of days in my campsite debating what to do, scouting further into the bush for the trail and poring through my paper and digital maps to determine an alternative route I could take through the unforgiving forest. Each time I reached a dead end. By now, having prepared new estimates based on the terrain, lack of tracks and the intense 40º C heat, I estimated I would only be able to cover 2 kilometers per hour through the basin – half the speed originally planned. What seemed increasingly obvious was that, if one had any chance of going on foot through the Todzhinsky taiga, the most effective way to do so was with a light pack and subsisting as much as possible off the land, neither of which were in my power to do. After weighing up the risks of trying to push further into the taiga at a slow pace and eventually running out of food deep in the interior, I reached the crushing conclusion that it would be wisest to abort my route and head back to Kyzyl.

It was deeply upsetting to feel I had failed in my journey so early on and that my planned film could come to such an abrupt and anticlimactic end. I reminded myself that no matter what I must keep shooting and produce a story, so I decided to re-cross Azas Lake and then descend 400 kilometers down the Toora-Khem and Bolshoi Yenisey Rivers over ten days, in order to return to Kyzyl. My disappointment and even self-criticism soon faded as I began to weave my way down the steadily moving rivers and low-grade rapids running through the quiet and serene landscape.

Even though I was now no longer in the isolated basin and was returning back to something I had sought to avoid – civilization – I never could have imagined that those days spent on the river would be some of the most enriching moments I have ever spent alone. I felt humbled by the taiga and the difficulty it can present for anyone who tries to venture into it.

When I finally pulled into Kyzyl, on the riverbank overlooking the monument to the geographical center of Asia, I found myself unknowingly at the beginning of a new journey – one that would take me down another unseen path, much like when I first went to Kyrgyzstan all those years ago. The remaining ten weeks in Tuva gave me a unique opportunity to thoroughly explore the human side of the republic, where I met with a collection of incredible local characters passionate about sharing their stories on film. Through meeting them, my focus for Crossing Siberia has now evolved into a project that will delve as deeply into its people as its landscape. RL

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