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Russia’s River Villages: The Rough, the Gruff and the Friendly

Our journey from the staging area of Zhigansk out to the Sakha Republic communities of Yaktuia, Siberia would not be a routine venture. After all, the Lena River was the only “highway” for us to travel down, and it wasn’t exactly common to see tour boats and cruise liners on its remote, wild waters. On our...

Our journey from the staging area of Zhigansk out to the Sakha Republic communities of Yaktuia, Siberia would not be a routine venture. After all, the Lena River was the only “highway” for us to travel down, and it wasn’t exactly common to see tour boats and cruise liners on its remote, wild waters.

On our first trip out of Zhigansk, we caught a 12-hour ride downriver with a large fuel tanker, which anchored just offshore and waited for us to be ferried out. The captain was gruff at first, but with Kate translating our sincere appreciation, and Mary and Jody so obviously interested in learning all about his cool ship, he warmed up to us quickly.

Before long he was sharing his black caviar and pushing a delicious dinner on us. He even set us up with bunks and hot showers in crew cabins. We presumed the ship was built in the 50’s or 60’s but learned that the tanker was actually built in the early 80’s. It looked a lot older but only because of styling, not wear. It was in beautiful original condition and its style gave it what could be described today as a “cool retro” look.

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The raw, natural world, as in Alaska, is always right outside the front door in Yakutia. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

We made our way upriver aboard the tanker with our friend Sasha, a Yakutian and a former Russian soldier who generously hosted us for a few days at his river camp on the banks of the Lena. He had planned on a traditional bear hunt while we were there, an opportunity that sounded perfect to Jody who is of the Kaska First Nation in Canada and to Mary who hoped to film some of the event. However, Sasha informed us that only I could participate in a “traditional” hunt because women were not allowed. Hmm. That news didn’t go over so well, but we all understood. The heavy rains soon came, so shortly after our departure on the hunt, we came back empty-handed anyway.

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Just as on the Yukon, hunting and fishing are everything to the people we met on the Lena. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

We helped Sasha with his fish nets and brought in a few nice sturgeon from which Jody made black caviar. This delicacy, so common in the region, would accompany an upcoming traditional meal of roasted horse. Yep, the Yakutian horse is key to Yakut culture, and is raised not only for its meat, but for milk, skins, manes, tails, etc.—all of it is utilized by these people. The image of the horse is prominently displayed on flags and banners, in logos and elsewhere throughout the Sahka Republic. The horse is featured in almost all works of art from paintings to carvings, and is also featured on tools and utilitarian items.

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Here we have a meal of pickled fish, roasted horse and black caviar made from locally caught sturgeon. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

On our return trip to Yakutsk, we literally “caught” a larger cargo ship which was passing at about 5:00 a.m. The captain did not want to stop or drop anchor so he did neither and we transferred mid-channel, on the fly. His voiced boomed over a loudspeaker as he neared our location on a high bank of the river, and we hustled to get out on the water and catch him.

We were ferried out into the ship’s lane and, with our bow nudging up to the bottom of the ship’s 25-foot ladder, we passed our gear to a helpful crew that was clearly focused on keeping us safe. Meanwhile, their intimidating captain looked down on us from the deck high above. Once aboard we were led inside and shown to our quarters. The atmosphere seemed strict and very disciplined but we were happy for the lift so we followed instructions and kept our heads down.

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Perch is common on the Lena. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Our rushed embarkation aside, it turns out that this captain was another nice guy underneath his tough exterior and he was proud to provide us great hospitality. His ride was equally impressive, especially once we could explore a bit. Again we were offered an incredible meal—this one accompanied by red caviar. The ship was also in great condition; perhaps a little more ornately appointed than our previous tanker since it was designed for cargo instead of liquids. Decorative carpets and paneling reminiscent of old movie theaters covered the floors and walls. All in all, our experiences aboard Lena ships were outstanding, and we were able to continue on towards the indigenous Yakutian communities in unexpected comfort.

Next: Art and Science Still Reign

Previous: Hitchhiking the Great Lena

Read More by Jon Waterhouse

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Meet the Author

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.