Julo


Leaving ten-million Moscow, the easternmost great city of the Atlantic world


To fly, in a barn-size Ilyushin 96, into the Siberian vast


High and wide


A third full


Most look Slavic, more men than women


Cops, businessmen, military in mufti, Siberian couples, rucksack hikers, very few kids


Mysterious, immense Russia to be crossed to the Pacific


Moscow-to-Kamchatka flight, the western Russian taiga to tundra to the Siberian ranges to the Sea of Okhotsk


Before the railroad, ventured only on foot, on horseback, by telega, drogi or droshky, or from the sea around the Cape of Good Hope


Much as North America was crossed


Conestoga for telega, and Cape Horn for the Cape of Good Hope


This trip an ultimate psycho-geographic undertaking


The Ilyushin 96’s windows the viewing screens


Climbing from the Moscow region and over the Urals, the westernmost wilderness is puddle lakes with the mid-June snow melt not yet absorbed and drained


The surface from ten thousand meters perhaps seventy percent lacustrine water with no evidence of anything that is not totally wild


Ob’ River country there below


What must be the Tyumen Oblast


The Ob’-Irtysh alone has a drainage ten times the Rhine’s


Is a thousand kilometers longer than the vast Paraná before it swells La Plata


Move around avoiding sun-side window glare and cloud-cover groundscape voids


Window to unoccupied window


To the best views, to peer down on the big mountain systems, to gawk as far as possible up and down the river courses


To try to follow traces on the wilderness below


Long, long all-light midsummer passage out along the ten-hour Eurasian taiga-tundra arc


To Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky


Over the splatterlake taiga, empty tundra and the broad and jumbled ranges of Yakutskaya


And those vast river systems with names like exotic women


Pechora, Yenisey, Lena, Yana, Indigirka


Where all the way east on the way down into Kamchatka over the Sea of Okhotsk, skirt the upper reaches of the Kolyma River country


Empty grandeur


Pure geography


Without the act of doing it, there can be no perception of what it is overflown across nine time zones of Eurasia


Very rarely the trace of a pipeline or truck track, buildings only a few times and then only hamlets, yurts, or forlorn sheds


Much totally vacant grassland


With the texture of the rises, gullies and flats spread relentlessly


Empty


In the endless evening arctic summer-solstice light


The gray early-summer reseda of northern steppe


Then scrub conifer bush


Then the snowy taiga


The surface geography procession of deep wilderness Halfway there, the daily westbound Aeroflot Ilyushin 96, Petropavlovsk to Moscow, passes impossibly close with a startling whoosh


Huge twin planes with intersecting courses like two ascending and descending gondolas counterbalancing on a funicular


Hurtling flat out


On the horizontal of the Eurasian ultimate


In vivid clarity at over ten thousand meters, both flights in mid-journey probably traveling near the 900 km/hr top speed for Il96s


So the intersect at something like 1,800 kilometers an hour


A quick slam like a fast train into a tunnel


Shaking our plane violently in the turbulence


The other Il96 came out of the nowhere into which we continue to plunge


Crews no doubt look forward to the daily encounter


Pilots are hotdogs beneath their methodical attention to skills or they wouldn’t be pilots


Putin uses an Il96, plenty of room with the cabin seating nine abreast


A plane large enough for its country


They feel like horse barns


With an open vault, overhead luggage racks only along the fuselage’s sides


Bound now for the foggy, volcanic Pacific Coast


Big timber like coastal BC and the Tongass


As in Alaska, turning to stlanik in the farther inland in the North


Low-growing elfin cedar and dwarf alder, a meter to two meters high, impenetrable, once in it must search for paths through, go around, the ultimate thicket


Stlanik and muskeg to tundra


In two sailboats we’ll take coastal course on north along Kamchatka to barren Chukotka


Kamchatka, considerably larger than Texas


Chukotka, nearly three times the size of Kamchatka


Thoroughly off away from the cluttered world’s psychobabble occlusion


As if, like stlanik, self-centered neuroses are decumbent in the face of all that weather, all that space, all that open sea


Russians acknowledge this


They don’t think of Chukotka, Kamchatka and what lies south to Vladivostok and the slim North Korean border, as being in Siberia


It’s their Far East


Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, its second city after Vladivostok


And the second largest city in the world unreachable by road


A quarter of a million people in a city spread over volcanic hills


Three snowcapped active volcanoes within sight of its port


The latitude of Dublin but with Eurasia’s weather pushing across overhead


Long dramatic landing path, slant down into rusty blue vitality of green alder bush


A flattening rush of peaks, snowfields, long glacial valleys, tarns, slopes, down into the level willow-birch bush


Come to ground at Petropavlovsk’s Yelizovo


Into town on a road of speeding trucks swerving widely to miss potholes


In the back of a right-hand drive old Mitsubishi Pajero from the boats’ agents


Its seatbacks badly broken, Nadia and Serge in front jawing away


Thirty kilometers into town with long views of snow-covered volcanoes the whole way


Almost everything on wheels, or treads, in the Russian Far East is Soviet military surplus or right-hand drive rundown trucks and jeeps shipped north from Japan and South Korea


Mazda, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Subaru, Hyundai, Daewoo, Kia


Off on side roads and in turnouts along the crowded Yelizovo-Petropavlovsk road, a Saturday morning serial road market is going on from truck beds and jeeps


Summer vegetables, wild berries, and the goods, implements and tools that rural taiga-dwellers need to get along


Nadia shouts back that we should stop on the way to the port for rye flour for Diablesse, the other boat


Diablesse: Johan the owner, Mike the skipper, Ben the mate, Steve an engineer, Gennadiy the sled-dog owning guide


Leonore: Dave the owner and skipper, Chris his son, Joe the mate, Kate the cook, Pavel the interpreter, me


Diablesse a 28-meter centerboard sloop, Leonore a 25-meter ketch, the first private boats to make it to the Kamchatka coast in years


They’ve been sailing in tandem up from Hokkaido


The store’s inventory and its clients where we stop for flour before going to the boats is remarkably similar to two visited a month later in Nome


Again, what it takes to live at the edge of the Arctic, the clothes, the hardware, the rigging, the tarps, the tools, the sundries, the food


Still the feel of a soviet era grocery hall, with unexpected alternatives, yet a good deal like what it would be as a western European discount store


Driving on to the port, Nadia is intelligently voluble about what goes on in Petropavlovsk


Leonore and Diablesse are tied up stern-to side by side


Trim and almost otherworldly this far north


Vitus Bering’s Avacha Bay out beyond their bows with the three volcanic peaks in view


The stupendous Avachinsky Volcano steaming away above the city, the inactive Koryaksky Volcano on Avachinsky’s flank, and the symmetrical Vilyuchinsk Volcano across the water


Avacha Bay was the site of a Crimean War Russian victory over French and British ships


Was where in the 1870s an American out of Seattle served as Petropavlovsk’s mayor


We cast off early with crisp and clear with Avachinsky Volcano rearing off the stern


Into the morning calm with murres, pelagic cormorants and a few sea ducks


Vilyuchinsk Volcano dead ahead


Swing to a course east by northeast for Cape Shipunskiy


Bound for the Arctic Ocean, and after almost three thousand nautical miles toward the Chukchi Sea, and western Alaska


Sail off at four and a half knots while up in the bow locker working on a solenoid problem


Through a flock of crested auklets


Crested auklets all in pairs, in Beringia through the earlier months of the year from Baja California


As sandhill cranes come in great numbers from New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua to nest on Russian tundra


Near the dozens of salmon-crowded watercourses draining the two-thousand-meter mountain country of the treeless, empty Chukotka-Kamchatka borderlands


All dead ahead in the month before Nome  

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