Siberian wasteland

An overland journey exposes a traveler to the hazards of radiation, desolation and snowstorms.

Published March 5, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Dawn never really came the next morning, but the clouds awoke with tints of gray blue. A cold snap had hardened the ground overnight. Mud swells were now like crusty moonscape. The air bit and chafed at my skin as soon as I stepped out of the cabin after breakfast.

The hard ground improved Anatoly's mood and sparked a new series of monologues.

"Russia is huge. And wealthy. You can bathe in any hole once the snow melts. Our water is pure. No one to fear. No snakes or crocodiles, like on your Canary Islands. I've seen your TV show about this. Snakes ... America ... Canary Islands ... No, Russia is self-sufficient. A land where a man can feel free to bathe in the snow. And after that he can look at these larch trees. Queens of trees, the larches. You don't have them in Vasheentoon. I know. This is a land to be born in and die in."

The snow deepened at the side of the road. The sky turned into a descending pewter-tinted sheet and closed in on us. Not a truck met us coming north, and Anatoly muttered about weather changes. We were alone on the road. Trees thinned, more and more often struggling to breathe through the snow. Another cold belt. Aldan, no more than half an hour south of the mine, had been struck hard by a hit-and-run blizzard. Trucks were pulled up by the filling station at the edge of the settlement, and Anatoly found his naparnik among them. This man, white-haired with thin skin and a belittling tone in his voice, told Anatoly he'd go no farther today and rolled up his window.

Anatoly pulled out his primus again to make tea. I sensed something was wrong.

"Anatoly, we just had tea an hour ago."

"That's right. But we've driven enough for today. We're going to drink tea and relax."

Driven enough for today? It was eight in the morning and Berkakit was less than two hundred miles south. What was the point of stopping so close?

"You mean we're going to sit here in this cabin all day?"

"What's a day, or two, or three out of our lives? My naparnik is staying put. So are we."

"You didn't even ask why he's staying! We've only got two hundred and seventy-five kilometers left!"

Anatoly muttered and peered into his tea sack, then clattered around in his satchel of tins and eating utensils. I was fading away for him again.

"Tea ... Trucks stopped here ... Ice ahead ... After that, Vasilyevka ... Bad ... Ice ... Strong tea."

"Ice? How do you know?"

A truck rumbled past us heading south. Then another.

I sat back and collected my thoughts. I knew I was being pushy by asking Anatoly to drive on, and I had no doubt that he knew his roads and weather conditions. But we were near our destination, and cabin life was starting to get to me again. It also seemed that he might be happier to sit and stay put; he was comfortable on the road and would be paid no more to hurry. Foul weather could be just an excuse for inveterate Soviet indolence.

He finished his tea and looked up.

"Okay. We'll take a look. Maybe we can go a bit farther."

South of Aldan, roads were built over sopki, not around them, and soon after the settlement disappeared from our rearview mirror, a pass came into view, along with the sun, which shot metallic light earthward in searing shafts and burned our retinas. We crept up the pass, our wheels spinning on ice, then catching on dry patches and jerking us ahead. When we crested the rise, Anatoly slowed and drew up on a lookout point above a roundabout curve high on the sopka. A long, steep descent spread before us, at the bottom of which the road veered right and then rose into another grade.

Anatoly sucked in his stomach and we began the descent. Our truck gained a threatening momentum and Anatoly touched the brakes gently. We skidded, long and slow, our Kamaz moving sideways down the slope. He let up on the brakes and we straightened out, then touched them again, and the same thing happened. There seemed to be no way to slow down without skidding.

We hit the turn at the base of the descent and slugged through plowed snow piled on its outer edge. This provided us with further traction, and so we drove, hugging the left shoulder, round the curve to the next ascent. No trucks met us head-on, and we continued to the top.

We reached a plateau rimmed on the south by sopki. Anatoly drove a bit, then pulled over.

"I want to bathe."


"I'm going to take a bath. I'll go no farther today. We'll have to wait until the ice thaws. Bath ... Tea ... Gotta bathe."

Anatoly threw open the door. The air outside was frigid. He walked along the road a few feet, then dropped into waist-deep snow off its bank and floundered in it, like a swimmer moving into the open past a choppy surf. He whipped his shirt over his head and began snatching at snow and smearing it over his sallow chest, under his arms, onto his face, into his hair. Wind drove snow around him -- he held his face to it as a sunbather would to fresh beams of sunlight on a beach in June and opened his mouth wide, then dove into the drift and wallowed around in it. When he finished, he stretched and plodded back to the truck, lifting his legs high and clumsily above the snow, as children do above knee high waves when trying to run the last few yards to the beach.

"Aaaah! Bath ... Good bath ... Go no farther today. Ice ... ice on the road. You want to take a bath?"

I couldn't bear the thought of sitting in that cabin another day. Or maybe more. Who knew? If there was risk involved in going forward, what about the danger in sitting still, waiting for some snowstorm to bury us? We had no access to weather reports, and neither of us had talked to anyone coming north, although we had seen several trucks moving south. Anatoly chortled to himself when I verbalized these thoughts. He was listening to me, but his mind was set on a long sleep- and tea-filled sojourn in the cabin on that plateau.

We sat in silence. A truck appeared in our rearview mirror.

"Anatoly, maybe I ought to stop that truck. He seems to be ignoring the weather. Do you understand?"

He did. He handed me a white metal cup.

"A souvenir. Drink tea and remember Anatoly!"

He jumped out and plodded through the snow, waving his blue bandanna at the approaching red Kamaz. It stopped. Anatoly talked to the driver and waved me over. I grabbed my bags.

"Drink tea! Remember Anatoly!"

Pavel, the driver, shifted into first and we drove off, leaving Anatoly, a tiny brown figure in the sheer whiteness behind us, waving a bandanna and moving through the snow on bandied legs.

Gripping the wheel as a cowboy does the reins of a bucking stallion, Pavel was big and strapping and blond and looked to be around twenty-five. He was originally from Blagoveshchensk, near China. I liked his clear head and complete sentences.

"You've been in a truck since Yakutsk with that old guy? Those old people can't restructure their thinking. I've got money to make -- I'd never sit in a truck cabin for days hoping the weather will break. It may get worse!"

Kinship of age and spirit directed our conversation. Pavel thought that I should have picked a young driver, that I wouldn't understand Russia's future by socializing with the old. I wasn't sorry to have ridden with Anatoly, though; rather, I was pleased with the chance I had to get to know a Yakutian old-timer, and glad that my ride with him introduced me to Pavel, with whom I felt I could talk freely.

We pounded ahead over the icy straight stretches of the plateau, as bumpy as corrugated steel, then began weaving downward in a slow descent through sopki under a sky of shifting beams of silver cast from a sun partly hidden behind the clouds. Pavel asked detailed questions about life in the States and the legal aspects of marriage. It seemed he'd had a marital problem ending with a divorce that turned out unfavorably for him; he had lost possession of his son to his ex-wife. He blamed "laws drafted by Communists" for this, and thought American judges would have been more inclined to let his son stay with him.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

At the crest of the final sopka, a glimpse of the massive, rolling steppe below dissolved our discourse on family law and replaced our good humor with a sense of foreboding. The wind began to howl, weary undulations of steppe swathed in ceaseless rushing clouds of white stretched to the horizon, and the cabin grew perceptibly colder as we descended. Pavel shifted in his seat and threw away his cigarette.

"What's happening here?" I asked, awed by the sudden change in weather.

The wind, now screaming through the numerous slits and crevices in the cabin, lashed at our Kamaz and drove five-story high clouds of snow across the road. Pavel's voice cracked.

"This ... this is bad. Maybe we should have waited it out."

The horizon had faded into white -- the sky was white and the earth was white. A glare resulting from sunlight hitting flying snow struck our eyes from every angle. Trees had diminished to scarecrow-like burned twigs.

"This is bad. This is a bad place. Vasilyevka. There is radiation here. From the uranium gulag over there. Stalin had prisoners mining uranium here. The radiation is high."

To the west and south, about two hundred yards off the road, remnants of shacks and prison barracks peeked up through the snow, mirage-like in the blizzard, fading with the thickening waves of white, reemerging as they thinned. I was thankful to be in a moving truck.

We descended a gentle slope approaching the ruins of the gulag and stopped. Pavel's naparnik, a Yakut named Dima with a long, Genghis Khan mustache, had halted ahead of us, and ahead of him another two trucks had pulled over. Dima jumped out and slipped on the snow as he ran through the winds to our cabin.

Dima shivered, the wisps of his mustache hoary with frost.

"Something's happened ahead. I don't know what. We have to stay put."

Pavel suggested we eat. Food was the last thing on my mind in all this radiation and snow, but I kept this to myself and forced down some ham and tea. We fell silent. Within an hour, as we all chomped glumly on biscuits and stared at the road, the wind died with a death rattle, as if it were the final breath of an expiring elder, and the snow stopped blowing, dropping to the earth with a hiss.

The eye of the storm, Pavel said.

In the frigid, sterile stillness, the splinters of the gulag stabbed through the white powder to the west. Above us hung a sky of thin blue air, beneath which rolled sweeping expanses of lifeless white steppe dotted with black runts of trees. We sat in uneasy silence, the kind of silence one finds amidst those waiting for news of loved ones going under the knife.

One hour passed. Then two. Pavel and Dima dozed. I closed my eyes and wondered how much radiation we were being exposed to. When I'd asked the two of them about this, they'd answered, "We're used to it. We don't know. We know this is a bad place, but the authorities would never tell us the truth."

At the top of the third hour, the weather spoiled again with one wrenching boreal blast of gale and blowing snow, a blast so vicious it woke up Pavel and Dima and startled me out of my be numbed inertia, but at the same time the trucks ahead roared their engines and pulled away into the white. Dima cleared his throat and jumped down out the door. Pavel ran his hand through his hair and shifted into first gear. Dima's truck lurched ahead and was immediately lost in the snow cloud.

Ahead of us was a roll in the steppe, partly obscured by a maelstrom of white, where distance ceased to exist, where snow and earth and wind coalesced into a gaseous whirling mass. We entered it, groping for the road, and came upon a truck sunk side ways in the snow off the eastern bank.

"That's what held us up," shouted Pavel over the wailing wind. "He got off on the bank and had to abandon his truck."

The road lay on a raised bed; should a truck slip off its grade, it would simply disappear into the powder, as this truck had done. We passed it and drew up on another rise, beyond the crest of which we discovered wind driving snow in front of us like water rushing through a burst dam, burying what road we could still see as we crept along.

"Zanosy." Snowdrifts.

Pavel pronounced the word as though it were a death sentence.

Ahead of us, in the drifts, a shadow resolved itself into a Zhiguli lodged sideways on the road, blocking our path.

"Son of a bitch! What kind of idiot drives a passenger car on these roads?!" shouted Pavel.

We crunched forward and halted. Pavel pulled a shovel out from behind the seat and jumped out to help the driver, a bundle of fur holding onto his hat flailing a shovel, dig himself free. Although they were no more than twenty feet ahead, their figures waned to white in the driving snow as they struggled to keep their balance in the gales.

They finished. The driver crawled into his car and lurched past our truck, stalling in the drift behind us. Pavel jumped aboard and drove on anyway. We had covered no more than twenty yards when we came upon the Zhiguli's naparnik.


Pavel let loose a stream of curses, grabbed his shovel, and started out again. I grabbed his arm.

"Let me do this one."

"No way. I'll just be a second."

He struggled through another brief, frantic ordeal of shoveling with another fur-hatted driver faceless in the whirling white. As before, the driver climbed in and hit the gas, trying to break free, slipping back and grinding into the snow. But then Pavel dropped to his knees, bracing himself on the shovel, and placed his forehead on the handle, fading to white in the hoary gale. He did not get up, even when the Zhiguli lurched free. The wind drove snow over him and screamed through the cabin. The thermometer on the rearview mirror read forty-two below zero.

I jumped out and started through the snow. Pavel saw me and, not wanting to appear weak, pulled himself up on his shovel and started back toward the truck.

We climbed in. Pavel held his head in his hands for a moment and winced, then pushed the heavy gearshift knob into first. A whir followed, then a roll, then another whir, but we remained stationary.

We were stranded in the drifts.

I reached for the door.

"I'll shovel now!"

"No, you won't. You can't shovel your way out of a drift. You'll freeze to death if you try."

Pavel sniffled, his nose red and running as his body warmed. He dropped his head to the steering wheel.

We sat in silence. I figured that if there were anything to be done, Pavel would do it, or ask me to. But the cabin grew colder and colder, and the wind continued to scream. I had wrapped myself in my coat and was still cold; Pavel never took off his parka.

Our silence stretched on and on, metastasizing into paralysis, an inertia born of deathly white cold outside and the claustrophobia of the shrinking cabin. I wanted to do something, to say something, but couldn't. Pavel's face lost its expression, turning blank and pallid. Snow rose about us, and we became part of the drift. The truck dispatcher's warning came to mind: in Siberia, a man had to be cleverer than nature to survive. Such cleverness might be acquired with age -- Anatoly's age. I wondered if my American sense of time efficiency -- my reluctance to sit tight in Aldan and wait, as Anatoly had wanted to do -- wouldn't now have the gravest consequence of all.

An hour passed.

There was a rumble and the low whine of an engine. Something ahead of us broke the reign of the screaming winds. Gears were changing, a motor was grunting. We looked up, and the snow curtains parted to reveal a looming plow, which braked suddenly as its driver realized he'd come upon our truck. Pavel got out and, without exchanging a word with the driver, hooked a heavy cable from our front end to a claw on the plow. In one wrenching spasm of creaking steel, it pulled us onto cleared road. The plow driver disengaged our cable and disappeared into the white behind us. Pavel hit the gas.

Dima was waiting for us at the high pass before Maly Nimnyr. From the pass the Yakutian plateau free-falls to the low altitude of the Siberian plateau. He left his truck and climbed into our cabin.

"Look, we may want to wait this out. It's sheer ice on the descent ahead. I'm for tea and candy myself."

I wasn't, but I said nothing. Pavel was blunt.

"Tea and candy! Listen to you, lazy Yakut! I think we can make it. I want to hit Berkakit by tonight."

So did I. It was already four in the afternoon, and the remaining 125 kilometers would take at least four hours to cover if we maintained our same pace. Pavel prevailed.

Dima took a cautious lead. Although the ice had some gravel sprinkled on it, traction was tenuous. We began to slide as soon as we left the crest, and our trailer swung right, then left. Dima lost control within minutes and slid slowly into the snow bank; Pavel did some deft maneuvering and avoided his jutting trailer.

"We can't stop for him. Someone else will have to pull him out."

Down below, at the foot of the pass, stretched an expansive Siberian vista of low rumpled sopki covered with dark brown larches. The trees augured a return to life, an escape from steppe harshness and frigid sterility.

We pulled over in Khatymi and waited for Dima. The road from there to Chilman was violent and jarring, often little more than a rock-strewn clearing in the taiga. Pavel's shock absorbers were shot, but he bobbed up and down in comfort on a spring-mounted seat. I took it straight and whacked my head against the ceiling several times -- we were in Dima's dust trail and inhaled it unfiltered for five more hours.

At one in the morning, we pulled into Berkakit, all crime lights and glinting ice and restless wind, and collapsed into deep slumber, I on the seat, Pavel in the spalnik, with the road dust between our teeth.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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