Russia’s River Villages: Yakutsk Hospitality

Jon Waterhouse and Mary Marshall take the Network of Indigenous Knowledge (NIK) and its citizen-science effort to monitor water health deep into Russia. Along the way, amid sanctions and tension between the U.S. and Russia, they find a more peaceful journey and more friends than they ever imagined.

After an eight-hour plane ride from our last stop in Moscow, we finally landed in the Sakha Republic in eastern Russia. Our first experience of the Lena Watershed began in Yakutsk, the Sahka Republic’s vibrant capital. There we were greeted by an amazing couple—educator Tatyana and her husband, Vasili, a forester who has worked for three decades in the Boreal Forest.

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Me in a classroom, discussing geographical relationships with Yakutsk students. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Tatiana and Vasili introduced us to their good friend, Gricia, a well-known local veterinarian who is in the early phase of raising cattle and goats. We also met Kliment, an innovative and notably successful advocate for at-risk youth. These individuals, their varied backgrounds and the fields of work they represent exposed us to a wonderfully surprising side of Russia’s immense persona.

With Tatyana, we visited an engaging group of students focused on environmental issues within their community. Jody and I answered their questions about our Yukon River Watershed and shared the thoughts and concerns of students who live on the Yukon—as well as messages from students on other rivers within our network around the world.

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These students in Yakutsk were eager to learn about the others in NIK’s network and connect! We loved seeing so many National Geographic magazines in this classroom! (Photo by Mary Marshall)

“Selfie” appears to be a universal word, perhaps because it won’t translate. Yet, it’s even funnier when you hear it pronounced with the intense flare of a Yakutian, Evenki or Russian accent. I’m sure our faces are now posted on FaceBook and Instagram pages across the Russian internet. Oy.

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Who can say no to a selfie? (Photo by Mary Marshall)
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Not even this reindeer can resist the urge. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Directly after leaving the school, Gricia took us on a short road trip to his beautiful farm outside of Yakutsk. There we visited with his personality-plus, individually named, free-roaming livestock. Nothing like spending an hour in a pasture by a lake with a few cows and goats who think they’re lap dogs!

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A friendly cow at Gricia’s homestead. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
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Grecia’s comforting and eclectic house. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Later that day we were treated to an impressive welcoming celebration at the multi-modular but modest home of Kliment. Amid his fragrant flower gardens, a group of very talented (and formerly at-risk) youth performed several traditional Yakut songs and dances for us, demonstrating skills that seriously blew us away. These were troubled youth who’d been living on the fringes of society when they joined Kliment’s “camp” and embraced a positive reintroduction to their culture.

Kliment’s program appears to be producing confident and caring young people who now understand the value of making wise choices and doing the right thing. We were impressed and overwhelmed at the shift in these many young lives thanks to the focus and dedication of a man and his family.

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We were totally surprised by a welcoming celebration in Yakutsk! (Photo by Mary Marshall)

After the welcoming songs, we drank a toast of fermented horse milk served in tiny carved wooden chalices, then went inside and enjoyed an incredible Yakut dinner, including an outrageously delicious starter that was a simple mixture of browned butter, flour, milk and spices. Afterwards, we entered a separate part of Kliment’s home set up for performing and recording.

As Svetlana, a lovely former student of Kliment—now a successful singer—performed songs for us, we were pulled out of our seats to join the kids in a big circle of traditional dance. We lasted about an hour before we fell over. After crawling off of the dance floor, we were bombarded with requests from the kids for selfies with them. This whole unexpected gathering was a total blast!

Next: An Icy Grave

Previous: A Tale of Two Countries

Read More by Jon Waterhouse



Meet the Author
Jon Waterhouse’s destiny was foretold the moment he pushed his canoe off the bank of the Yukon River and started to paddle. That incredible 2007 canoe trip, which he christened “the Healing Journey,” began with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed to "go out, take the pulse of the river." Waterhouse’s journey raised awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship, combined traditional native knowledge with modern science, and helped rebuild intimate connections between Yukon communities and the natural world. The journey soon stretched far beyond the Yukon and led the Native American down rivers and through cultures in distant parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand.