GoNOMAD Book Review: Rafting Through the Heart of Russia
By Marina Solovyov
Excerpt from River of No Reprieve:
“Finally the Lena veered due north and we embarked on the last hundred miles to Yakutsk, the capital of Sakha, just beyond our journey’s halfway point. The sky, a canopy of rain cloud and mist, pressed earthward; malevolent electricity charged the sticky noontime air. Our bad moods told us that the barometric pressure was dropping. Gripping the steering shaft with his left hand, Vadim turned around on his perch astern and, with his right, raised his binoculars to scrutinize the southern horizon.
“‘Oh ho! Now we are in for it! Now we’ve had it. Here we go! That’s it, we’re really done for!’
“These words he uttered at the genesis of each new storm that morning. Born of summer heat in regions to the south, showers were fomenting above the horizon at our backs and rolling toward us across the bogs and sopki, dowsing us in pellets of warm rain, flickering lightning into larches shaken by unstable breezes.
“Thunder rambled in, long and low, sundering the silence, echoing off the cliffs now rising higher and higher on the eastern bank. The weather excited Vadim to repeat boilerplate admonitions concerning the perils of wet sleeping bags, the priority of building a fire for tea and warmth, the need to keep well rested or risk falling ill, and so on.
“Each peal of thunder or bolt of lightning heralded doom and affirmed what he had been telling me since the Ust’-Kut: the dangers of the Russian north would overwhelm and destroy all but the most skilled and determined survivalists.”
Jeffrey Tayler, a Moscow correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly is the travel writer responsible for this thrilling and dangerous journey down Sibera’s “waterway of exile, death, and destiny,” the Lena River. His latest book is River of No Reprieve and Tayler takes his readers down the route made by Cossack forces more than three hundred years ago.
He travels on a custom-made wooden raft built by Vadim, a Russian veteran of the war in Afghanistan who becomes his guide. Readers must hold on tight as they imagine themselves sailing 2,400 miles down the Lena River with Tayler and Vadim.
In an interview with Yahoo.com, Tayler explained that he had lived in Russia for 13 years and decided to travel the Lena to see if the strength he admires in Russians had rubbed off on him.
Tayler knew that the Lena would be no easy feat with its mosquitoes, cold weather, and arctic storms; he hoped to be worthy of his adopted country. While others might feel there is a better way to understand Russia than by sailing down a dangerous river, Tayler is admirably brave and passionate for Russia and its culture. His travel goes on to explore the heart of the nation: the Lena River.
According to the NASA Earth Observatory, the Lena River in Siberia is the 10th longest river in the world, estimated at 2,800 miles. The Baikal Mountains, south of the Central Siberian Plateau, serve as the river’s source. The Lena flows northeast and joins with the Kirenga and the Vitim Rivers. In some places the river is ten miles wide. In the lowlands it is touched by the Olyokma and flows north until it meets with the Aldan.
The Verkhoyansk Range deflects it to the northwest where it runs into the Laptev Sea, a division of the Arctic Ocean, and finally empties into there, southwest of the New Siberian Islands. The Lena has a fierce personality and its strength makes it a dangerous and uninviting place to travel.
Only a native of Russia who has felt Russian life’s tough and trying times, has the capacity to travel the Lena on a raft and survive. Vadim is a stocky, hateful man who has been traumatized by war experiences in Afghanistan. Yet he, like the Lena, is proud and relentless; he shares the heart of the Lena. Although the Lena makes no exceptions, even for its own, Vadim has what it takes to survive the terrible river. His experiences as a former Soviet army veteran in Afghanistan give him the skills to endure anything.
As the Lena River turns from serene and beautiful to angry and violent in the second half of the book, Vadim becomes Tayler’s lifeline. Even though Tayler has trekked by camel through the Sahara and canoed down the Congo during the revolt against Mobutu, he has never seen anything like the hellish voyage he writes about. Without Vadim, Tayler would never survive the freezing river; to come out of the Lena alive, the men work together and learn to navigate the rancorous whitewater in turbulent storms.
River of No Reprieve is Tayler’s fifth book. This time his purpose is to delve deep into the wilderness of Russia, in Siberia, and search for Russia’s primeval beauty. He wants to see a change from corruption, violence, and the self-destructive habits of Russian culture. He finds the roots of the culture in Cossack villages. He learns it is the same as it was centuries ago; there are Soviet outposts full of listless drunks, and ruins of the gulags.
All this is found in all of the miles of Siberian forest; Siberia makes up 56% of Russia’s territory, runs from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific, southward from the Arctic Ocean, stretches to the hills of north-central Kazakhstan, and goes up to the borders of both Mongolia and China.
The river route Tayler chooses is symbolic of the Russian spirit: beautiful but wearisome; but he never imagined just how wearisome the trip could be. Tayler chooses to write about the Cossacks because they greatly impacted Russia’s history and people in the 16th century; the Cossacks took the route and successfully annexed most of Siberia for the Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible.
Many of Tayler’s readers and others familiar with his work recognize that he is a uniquely gifted travel writer. He has deep knowledge of lands and places most consider difficult to live in. Nonetheless, he is always open-minded, and does not complain.
Traveling the Lena is an unimaginable experience and it affects him both physically and emotionally. When the temperature drops, turning from pleasant to deathly, and clouds of mosquitoes and horseflies appear, Tayler shows suffering he never expressed in his past writing. He says “I had never hit this nadir of gloom.”
“After leaving Ust’-Kut, which shined in my mind’s eye a vision of young mothers strolling along a spruce-lined river, drunken teens hollering, I felt I had sailed through purgatory,” he says.
During his trip, Tayler sees and meets poor and rebellious teenagers dancing away in Arctic night clubs, drunken Russians in depressed villages, and spiritual and healing Yakuts.
Despite how hard and grey he sees life may be for the Russians, he also recognizes it as beautiful in that the people try to laugh, dance, and find a little solace in their families and friends.
The reader learns how humble and appreciative Tayler is when he describes the people he encounters along every one of his stops as some of the kindest people he has ever met. They “live in a dump not a city; cows graze the bus stops, not one traffic light in sight…imagine using an outhouse when it’s forty degrees below!”
Still, the people stay optimistic and sing to rather than complain or cry. Vadim remains at the camp, scowling and muttering about how much he hates civilization, which Tayler embraces, however depressing it turns out to be.
Tayler has become “Russianized” because he tries to see life with his cup half full not empty; a Russian is a fighter and will find a way to laugh at life no matter how frustrating his trip gets.
One theme to consider is that no matter how hard one tries, sometimes cultural differences make it difficult to get along. Vadim is stubbornly bias against all Americans. He says, “You’re just a writer living on paper… and your America doesn’t have its own cuisine. Your national dish is hamburgers.”
Vadim is disgusted with the easy and valueless life he feels Tayler has led and will not change his mind or open up his heart to accept or understand him. Nevertheless, Vadim is the protagonist who saves them from vicious river, and despite Tayler’s feeling towards Vadim, the reader comes to love the stocky character.
Although River of No Reprieve is a difficult book to digest emotionally, one leaves appreciating how human beings can adapt to the most difficult of situations and still appreciate living.
Marina Solovyov, is a student at the University of Massachusetts and an intern at GoNOMAD.com.
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