Human Journey

Russia’s River Villages: Strangers in Strange Zhigansk

Our journey to bring the Network of Indigenous Knowledge and cleaner water to Yakutia in Russia continues! After our visits in Yakutsk, we took a stout old Antonov 120 aircraft north to Zhigansk. Upon our arrival in the last airport before shifting to river travel, we laughed at seeing a giant wall map reminding us that, as the crow flies, we were almost back in Alaska!

Located two hours north by plane, though downriver from Yakutsk (the Lena flows south to north and is the largest freshwater input to the Arctic Ocean), Zhigansk is as lively and forward-thinking as it is weathered and frontier. Large, friendly dogs run freely in the bustling community and several of them waited on the runway to greet us as we taxied in. Wooden houses of all shapes and sizes, six- & eight-unit apartment buildings, above-ground pipes wrapped in insulation, multi-stall outhouses, and small stores line the grid of unpaved roads (roads which are extremely dusty when dry and unbelievably muddy when it rains).

Parallel to most dirt roadways exist walking paths, hard-packed by elders with their reusable shopping bags, young parents pushing strollers and the majority of the community. Most all pedestrians were using cell phones as they trekked around town.

There are also gray 4WD vans—lots and lots of gray 4WD vans. They are called UAZ-452s and a model from 1965 is pretty much identical to one from 2014, with most parts interchangeable. Brilliant, actually. They are roomy and capable, and visible wherever there are roads (or cow trails). They can easily negotiate the muddy or soft sands of the roads or river banks in Siberia.

While looking at the map in the Zhigansk airport, we realized that physically we were closer to home than we are when we travel to Washington, D.C. This observation was further evidenced as our team came face-to-face with the wonderful Yakut and Evenk people of this region. The numerous similarities in physical characteristics, dress, mannerisms, diet and general lifestyle to those who live along the Yukon River are pretty stunning.

Next: Hitchhiking the Great Lena

Previous: An Icy Grave

Read More by Jon Waterhouse

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.

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