Undiscovered Siberia: A Riverboat Trip on the Yenesei
The riverboat’s name was Zarya, which means “Dawn.” A plume of river water spouted up behind it, pumped by the powerful engines. Zarya is built like a cross between a floating bus and a camper van, a sturdy craft made for plying the unpredictable waters of the 3,110-mile Yenesei River from south Siberia up to the Arctic.
(On the Siberian rivers of Russia, up is down, and down is up; the Ob, the Yenesei and the Lena all run north, and floating down the Yenesei means heading north.)
In the summer of 2001, my travel companions and I were on a one-time custom-made tour that MIR had put together, partnering with people from a USDA program affiliate called Project Aid Siberia (PAS), now defunct. We were to ride along as PAS workers motored down the Yenesei, delivering cartons of food aid to the remote Siberian villages along the shores – not an easy job.
Of course, Siberia has never been easy.
From 1582, when Ivan the Terrible began sending officials into Siberia to collect furs from his new indigenous “subjects,” to the present day, as the northern people struggle to adjust to a self-supporting economic system, Siberia has been a difficult land.
For one thing, it’s enormous. According to one of its historians, the whole of the continental U.S. would fit in the middle of Siberia – with 2,000,000 square miles to spare.
For another, its climate is notoriously extreme. In the winter, temperatures of 70 degrees below zero were not uncommon, at least prior to the 21st century. In the summer, when the sun barely sets, it can be a sweltering 90-100 degrees for weeks.
The southern border of permafrost snakes under the land along the Yenesei, making it difficult to grow food, even in perpetual sunlight. Root crops like potatoes and turnips do best.
Hordes of mosquitoes and blackflies breed in the standing pools formed where the top foot of earth thaws and the water can’t drain into the frozen dirt beneath.
Armed with our mosquito nets and repellent, we boarded Zarya and pulled away from the Krasnoyarsk dock. The Yenesei breeze cooled our faces as we stuck our cameras out the windows for photos. The river was smooth and wide and tea-colored, and the banks sliding past were green with fir, birch and larch. Now and then we would pass a beach with small battered boats pulled up on the shore and a path leading up the bluff to a small village.
We stopped at our first village that morning. Like all the villages we visited, it had dirt streets just beginning to dry out from the spring thaw. The preferred mode of transport was a small motorcycle with a sidecar, sometimes with as many as four people clinging to it.
While the Zarya crew and the villagers unloaded the packages of lentils, dried peas, rice, flour, and vegetable oil, we walked around the villages meeting Siberians of all stripes.
Little cabins and houses built of rough-milled wooden planks with tin roofs lined the streets or stood solitary, surrounded by potato patches and sunflowers. Chickens scratched in the dooryards, cows yanked at the backyard grass, and an occasional pig wandered its lazy way down the road. We had to step over long wooden ducts enclosing hot water pipes that ran from the village heating plant to each cabin, which also had piles of firewood stored for the inevitable times when the plant failed to provide heat. Most villages had their own small church and general store that might sell bread, milk, cookies, and fur coats.
During the long bright northern evenings, young people promenaded under the Midnight Sun along the muddy streets, the girls picking their way around puddles and cow pies in stiletto heels as if they were in Moscow.
Kids, babushkas (grannies), indigenous folks, nuns, teachers, and weatherworn working men all greeted us as if they had never seen anything like us before. And they probably hadn’t. These villages were not riverboat tourist stops, but distressed places where even the small boxes of food staples were welcome, especially in the spring before the gardens started producing.
Siberian villagers, for the most part, try to live off the land, gathering wild berries, pine nuts, and mushrooms, fishing for sturgeon in the Yenesei and trout in the streams, snaring rabbits, and shooting larger game when it comes around. But during the years of communism, they came to rely on supplies of commodities like bread and milk at subsidized prices, and in 2001 were still learning to cope without them.
It looked like an idyllic place for the kids, who were batting absentmindedly at the mosquitoes buzzing around their heads – open spaces, woods to play in, horses grazing in a field – but then we saw the state of one of the schools. It had been a boarding school, but now it was a peeling, empty wreck, filled with bed frames and little else. We saw no books, no teaching materials. The village seemed a forgotten place, a speck in the taiga with a future that included survival, but little else.
Now, 15 years later, the food aid has long been eaten, and the country has seen its economy become more dependent on Siberian natural resources, a development that’s brought both boom and bust to the villages. The village kids are grown, and only a few remain. Most have moved to towns and cities in search of jobs and a more promising future for their own kids.
Zarya is still here, living out her days in semi-retirement, still plying the waters of the Yenesei on a gentle 20-mile round-trip excursion that takes tourists to look at the huge Krasnoyarsk Dam.
Meanwhile, time and the river keep rolling on.
Travel to Siberia with MIR
MIR is your Siberia travel expert – with 30 years of travel experience to Russia and with affiliate offices in Ulan Ude and Irkutsk (both in Siberia), as well as in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
You can visit Siberia with MIR a number of ways, from a deluxe rail journey by private train, to an adventurous small group tour or an independent trip down one of Siberia’s mighty rivers, put together just the way you want it.
Top photo: Home on the Yenesei River in Siberia. Photo credit: Mariana Noble
PUBLISHED: March 10, 2017