Siberia Part II – The Lena Barge, Mirny and the Vilyuysk Trackt to Yakutsk
How we travelled 1000km by freight barge up the Lena River, visited one of the worlds largest and most isolated diamond mines, had the fright of our lives and traversed the Vilyuysk Trackt to reach the coldest city on earth.
While retreating back to Severobaikalsk from the Vitim Bridge, we noticed a knocking noise and an unsettling aroma of exhaust fumes in the cab. Moments later the exhaust noise ramped up and we pulled over immediately. Upon closer inspection Griff discovered the exhaust had sheared off at the manifold and needed urgent attention. Typically we had a stainless steel system installed so not only did we need to find a welder, we needed someone who could weld stainless and more importantly had the gear to do it. We were still 200 kms from Severobaikalsk and it was a Saturday afternoon – not the best timing Mister Exhaust! So we stopped in the next village with our fingers crossed that we could yet again stumble upon someone who could help. We asked an old man in an old car if he happened to know of a welder, and as luck would have it, he did. (We caught a lot of luck on this trip, we happily acknowledge!) So with a gesture to follow his car, he took us to a gate on a back road of the village and left. We waited, and waited, (unsure what for, exactly) until eventually a retired BAM railway welder appeared, who after wild gesticulation and repeating the Russian word for ‘stainless’ had the skills AND the equipment we needed. We attracted a fair amount of attention there, and ended up surrounded by a small crowd of men from a building across the street. They were very patient with our poor Russian, and we chatted the entire time the welder was working. All eyes inspected the work, and we all agreed it was a good job (it is still holding now 11 months later!). We owed him so much but he only wanted a pittance for the job and a few photos!
We reached Severobaikalsk later that evening, and discovered the two wheeled orange worshipping KTM gang Kurt and Noah, with Kim on his BMW. They had replaced us in the hotel ‘Dom a Baikal’ and it was full. They were heading east along the BAM and we spent a good hour or two relaying our experience before heading off to find alternate lodgings. We ended up in the ubiquitous Hotel Turist, a standard in most Russian towns although this one was nicer than it’s namesakes elsewhere, and we rested for a couple of days before embarking on our next venture: taking the barge up the Lena River to Lensk.
After a lovely camp by a lake, we reached the river port of Ust-Kut, where we hoped to board the freight barge. Tourists are rare here, let alone tourists catching the unglamorous fright barge with lorries and locals sleeping in cars. But the river is the only way to Yakutsk without returning back to Irkutsk, to the Trans-Siberian road and the extremely long and less exciting route which we estimated would take us around 10-14 days. In winter the Lena is frozen over and becomes an ice road, which would have been easier in some ways, and free!
After much kerfuffle and lots of misunderstanding at the booking office, we thought we were booked on. So we rushed into town to buy supplies ready to board at 4pm. But it turned out we were returning at 4pm to make our booking, and the barge didn’t actually leave until the following morning! We had to measure the exact length of the rig, and pay per metre, although we were unsure what the rate was. All of this was explained to us by a couple of really lovely truck drivers who had taken pity on us after seeing our bewildered faces. Andrey, Mischa and their friend Ilya (who spoke a little English) told us we had to wait until morning, and see which (if any) barge had room for us, so we had to camp in with the trucks in the secure yard. We still weren’t sure if we would be travelling, or how much it would cost, or even how long it took, but we went with the flow and enjoyed the company of our newfound friends.
Mischa had a young daughter also called Lisa (I have been told in several countries that ‘Lisa’ is a local name…Russian, Norwegian, etc.) and both he and Andrey were heading to the diamond-mining town of Mirny, a few hours north of Lensk. Mischa offered to show us around the town if we wanted to make the detour, so we made plans to call him upon our arrival in Mirny a few days later.
With nothing else to do we had a wash in the river before settling on the beach for beers, vodka and tinned meat and mushrooms on bread. It was such a fantastic evening, Griff wasn’t ready to end it and go to bed. He disappeared off to the picnic benches in the truck yard with Micsha and Sasha, another driver, where he drank vodka out of a teapot (yep, a teapot) until the early hours, despite needing to rise at dawn for the truck shuffle! Griff maintains that his Russian got better at each refill of the teapot.
Early the next morning, we awoke to rumbling engines as trucks were shifted around to fit like a mosaic on the barge – size mattered and angles were vital! It was all very precise. There were two barges alongside each other, allowing vehicles to cross over onto the second. Once full, the second one was towed behind the first, like a two-carriage train. We had to wait a few hours while trucks were maneuvered on and off to get the best fit, and just as we thought they had packed every small space without us getting on, we got a sudden call to board. So with the help of our new friends we squeezed the car and trailer on – although we had to separate the trailer from the car to wedge it into a small space down the barge. We popped up the roof tent ready to settle in for the next few days, sandwiched between a refrigerated truck and the side of the barge. Ilya and Sasha were on the barge with us, but sadly Andrey and Mischa had to board the next one. We had enjoyed their company immensely over the past couple of days and had hoped to spend more time with them. Still, we thought we might see them at the other end.
Three more days of beautiful weather, stunning scenery and Scrabble followed. The strange foreigners camped on the boat with no good reason to be travelling to the barren north had become some sort of attraction, which led to a few more friendly encounters with locals. Sasha invited us to eat truck-community cooked borsch and plov. Out came the vodka, and several toasts later we realized the truck drivers were drinking in shifts – after a few shots, some of the drivers would retire for a nap, replaced by others who would continue to pour for us. This meant that we were the only ones continuously drinking! They would share out slices of watermelon to “dilute the alcohol”, and we started drinking tea in between shots to try and stay sober. As dusk settled we managed to escape to the relative peace of our roof tent.
We spent the next couple of days catching up on chores or hunkered down in the roof tent (I’m not ashamed to say we were tired from drinking and translating non-stop, so wanted some time out!), and taking in the moment. Sasha brought us hot stew, perhaps because he thought we had hangovers and felt guilty… Despite the bombardment of locals, and diesel fumes from the refrigerated trucks, it was a relaxing way to travel.
We were descended on by a curious group from the second ‘carriage’ that had heard about us from Ilya. More vodka was brought, along with chocolate and other treats. Stories of “crazy locals” were abound, i.e. the native Yakut people. Apparently they were dangerous, as they drank too much and liked to shoot at white people, aka Russians and tourists. At first, we took no notice, as we have heard such rumours from every community about their neighbours, and xenophobia was nothing unusual. But after several similar stories from different people on board, and with Ilya seriously insisting we heed their warnings, we started to worry that there might be some truth to it.
On the evening of the fourth day we reached Lensk. We still had a few hours of daylight left, so decided to head on towards Mirny and look for somewhere to camp halfway. People were rushing off as soon as they departed for the long drive home, some intending to drive through the night. Cars from the barge were overtaking us on the long single road, clearly in a hurry. We stopped in a small roadside café for some dinner, as did others we recognized from the barge. While we leisurely ate our food, everyone else was wolfing down their dinner and legging it straight out of the door. We started to wonder about the stories, seeing as there were few small towns by the road, and most of them were “Yakut”. People here clearly didn’t like being around after dark.
We left the café shortly before sunset ready to find an opening in the forest to wild camp. Mile after mile we drove finding only boggy tracks between the trees. When your Garmin GPS changes over to ‘night colours’ you know that you should be pulling over very soon. As the darkness was enveloping the remaining light we heard an almighty SMASH!!!
The driver’s side window imploded over Griff; glass shattered everywhere, and all of the window had disappeared. Knowing that this was a little out of the ordinary Griff kept calm (still driving in a straight line) and drove on until we found somewhere appropriate to pull over, checking Griff and the car, in a state of mild shock. What the hell was that?! There were no other vehicles around, very few stones were deflecting off the tyres and the only thing they could possibly ricochet off were trees 20m away. Were the guys on the barge right, had someone just shot at our window? No, Griff would have been injured. Shots from a catapult, local kids playing? We hadn’t seen anyone. Stones kicked up from the wheels seemed unlikely, but the only scenario we were happy to indulge. But still, we were spooked, and as we had no window we couldn’t camp on the side of the road even if we wanted to. Our only choice was to continue to Mirny, and hope that Ilya or Mischa could help us out.
At 2am, shattered (no pun intended) and cold from the new draught, we rolled noisily into the sleeping town where Ilya had agreed to help us. We pulled up outside a hotel, wondering if it was secure enough to leave the car outside, as we desperately needed sleep. While waiting for Ilya to find us, we were approached by the police. Apparently we were parked illegally, and asked to move the car. We obliged, and explained our predicament. They were convinced the only explanation was a stone kicking up from our wheel, which was such a common occurrence, that people often glued second windscreens onto their main one!
Eventually Ilya arrived, ready to escort us to his home to stay, but after some discussion with the police he explained that we would be taking our car to the secure police compound until we could get a window sorted Monday morning. In the meantime we would be staying with one of the policemen, also named Andrey, in his flat. His family was out of town and he had room. We couldn’t believe our luck – what a relief! Griff and Andrey took the Landy to the compound while I rode shotgun in the police car with Andrey’s partner Aleksey. After securing the car and packing a few things for our stay, Andrey took us home with him and introduced us to his spaniel Tsoosha. Then he set up a bed, showed us (me) the kitchen, and said goodnight before going back to work! We were so grateful to him; he literally saved the day.
Perhaps it is a result of the society we are surrounded by, but as generous as I think I am, I’m not sure I could honestly say I’d have done the same thing. It is extremely humbling to know that there are such people out there, ready to surprise you. However I do find it ironic that people trust foreign strangers more than they trust their neighbours!
The next day was a Sunday so we were unable to accomplish much with regards to fixing the window, so Andrey and his friends Mischa (another policeman) and Natalya took us to the local “zoo”. It was small, housing bison, deer, yaks and a single bear (in the tiniest cage imaginable). Andrey was keen to show us his hometown, taking us on a tour of the monuments at The Ring (like a small plaza), the town’s facilities, and to the open pit diamond mine in the centre of town. There was a viewing platform overlooking the 525m deep and 1.2km wide hole spiraling down into the earth. It is the second largest excavated hole in the world – a vertigo-inducing sight, I can tell you! It was closed in 2011 after almost 60 years of service, producing up to 10 million carats annually. We also visited the sorting site, where 20 ft high trucks brought tonnes of excavated soil from nearby Udachny mine to be sifted for diamonds. Upon close inspection, we could make out tiny shiny elements. It was a unique experience. Dinner at Natalya and Mischa’s finished off a relaxing day, drinking through until midnight to see in Griff’s birthday.
On Monday Andrey wanted to take us for lunch. The first place he tried was closing, but at the mention of it being Griff’s birthday, the owner came running out after us holding a huge cream, kiwi and pear-topped cake! After lunch in an Uzbek restaurant, we drove the Land Rover to a back-street garage where a man proceeded to cut us a window out of plastic. It was an amazing job, he even glued it into the channel so it was fully functional, and it is still going strong today! We tried to pay him, but Andrey wouldn’t let us, saying it was a favour. So we gave window-cutter cake, and tried to pay secretly as we left, but he refused. Andrey had arranged it and there was no room for arguement. We think he enjoyed showing off his guests, and proving to us what power he had in the community. It was a little embarrassing though, and we felt uncomfortable receiving services and gifts under duress.
Once home, Andrey presented Griff with birthday presents; a beautiful hunting knife and traditional furry hat from his days in military service in the Caucasus region. He opened his gun cabinet, and Griff indulged his fascination with firearms while wearing said hat.
We attempted to leave several times over the next few days, but Andrey protested each time, followed up by an excuse for why we had to wait a day. The roads were flooded (true enough, we saw the news); the barge wasn’t working; we had to do our laundry and shower (there is only hot water in Mirny Sunday to Wednesday); he wanted to get our car fully serviced, washed, refuelled, etc.
On Wednesday night, after he’d ordered pizza, then shashlik, Andrey opened an expensive Armenian cognac that we drank in shots. It was past 2am when we finished the bottle, mixed with some beers, and were suitably merry. Suddenly Andrey stood up announcing that we had to visit his private dacha and banya in the morning. Although we would have loved to visit his holiday home in the country, we told him we would be heading off the next day. However this didn’t deter him from calling a friend to pick him up and take him to said dacha to get the banya hot and ready for us! He was so drunk that we couldn’t stop him, but Aleksey told us he would forget by morning and let him go. Aleksey went home and we snuck off to bed, hoping he was right.
At 9.30 the following morning, I had a phone call from Ilya, asking where we were and if we were ready for our interview at 10am. I was more than a little confused and thought he was having trouble with his English. But after he had rubbed the sleep from his eyes, Griff suddenly remembered getting a message the previous night asking if we would mind being interviewed for the local TV station! So with no time to spare, we threw on some clothes and tried to look like we hadn’t been drinking into the small hours before jumping in the car and finding Ilya. Andrey woke just as we were leaving, but we were gone before he could offer to escort us. Thankfully, nothing was said of the dacha.
We found Ilya and he introduced us to the news team who wanted to do a piece on us. They were fascinated about our trip and how a woman such as myself coped with the journey. They couldn’t understand why anyone would want to camp in the places we’d visited, let alone a woman! We had to do a cheesy walk around The Ring, a carefree young couple looking sufficiently wowed by the local history it portrayed. Fortunately we didn’t have to do the interview in Russian, as the journalist spoke English and they would dub over us with a translator. It was just as well; we had no forewarning of the questions and some of them were hard enough to answer in English! After the interview, we were invited to the TV station and newsroom to look around. It was all very exciting, and of course we had to have a go in the anchor’s chair!
We had met some fantastic people and had a great time, but by now we had been in Mirny for five days and needed to get our bums in gear. We were running out of time to make the journey to Magadan and back down to Vladivostok before the weather turned and our visa restrictions meant we had to leave the country. Even though we were starting to feel a little claustrophobic being shadowed by Andrey (even walking to the shop alone got us scolded!), we were sad to leave. We might not have agreed with his methods, but his heart was in the right place. It was such a strange feeling when we drove away from his house, like something was missing! We didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves, almost like animals released from a cage…
We were also really disappointed that we didn’t get to see Mischa or Andrey the truck drivers except for a brief visit by Mischa to the house, and our keeper promptly dismissed him even though he was the reason we had come to Mirny in the first place!
A couple of hours after leaving Mirny, we reached the ‘barge’ – it was basically a floating platform pushed by a tiny fishing boat. Not exactly what we were expecting! The next three days were spent driving along the Vilyuysk trakt east towards Yakutsk, a sandy quagmire of a road in the rain. The route is some 1300km between Mirny and Yakutsk and as is so often the case in this part of Russia there is only the one road. There are 4-5 river/barge crossings and the trackt weaves its way through traditional Sakha/Yakutia villages. Wild camping was surprisingly difficult in this wilderness, as the forest was impenetrable and the logging tracks leading off were so muddy we would have gotten stuck in no time. Luckily there were the occasional clearings, empty except for scrap metal and old tyres from logging trucks. Sometimes we camped in old sand quarries where there was space and plenty of firewood. We hunkered down in the rain, building fires to keep us warm in the ever-colder evenings, and waited for the late sun to set. That’s the problem with being so far north: the sun would stay up until gone 10pm and we were relying on night to conceal our camp spots! After what seemed like several days on the track recovering vehicles, towing sedans through deep sand sections, Griff had to plug a tyre that had been impaled by another nail (the same tyre had already been plugged by Mischa at the Lena barge), and noticed that the brake pads were worn down to the metal! The wet sand acted like a grinding paste between pad and disc. Luckily we had some emergency spares (but how long would they last?), which Griff fitted in the pouring rain late one evening while I cooked dinner over a huge fire.
The rain hardly stopped the entire time. Sand and mud had covered the Land Rover and trailer, including the roof tent, making camp life difficult and unpleasant. We couldn’t wait to get off the track and into civilisation!
Four days after leaving Mirny, after an uncomfortable night with dodgy stomachs – a result of poorly reheated samsas from a local roadside café – we finally rolled into the city of Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha–Yakutia province. And headed straight to an industrial-looking car wash!