Dusk was falling as we entered Yakutsk. We drove from place to place within the city, dropping off passengers. The second driver, who had driven half the road from Neryungri, was set down first, dropping out of the van with a short bark of laughter and tottering up to his wood-fenced yard. Then the two long-faced men sitting facing me, who I had been staring at for twenty-four hours. We had driven on broken roads and frozen rivers, in still, white terrain on routes that were impassable in the spring and summer. They had not looked at me once, apart from a glance as I had boarded carrying a bottle of beer, and we had sat together in silence. Next, the wide man from the North Caucasus, with a thick moustache like a sausage who, sitting behind me, had explained over my shoulder to the other passengers about his home, where a language was spoken that he shared with only six thousand others. His wife, wearing a floral patterned headscarf, and their child had been silent the whole way.
Alone in the back, I asked to be taken to a hotel. We drove first to one, then to another, then to a third, and I stayed seated in the van each time. Everywhere, the driver went in alone, bearing my passport, saying he didn’t want to leave me somewhere I didn’t have a bed. But at the first, and the second, and the third hotel, he came out saying there was no room for me. It was not until we were leaving the fourth place, when it was fully dark, and we were driving in an outlying district, the van heaving over crests of frozen mud, that the driver told me: Because I had not gotten an entry stamp in my passport when I had passed the border of Yakutia, before Neryungri, it would be illegal for any hotel to house me, a foreigner. Something could happen to them if they took you in, he said darkly.
I had heard of no such stamp, nor had one been offered to me, in Neryungri, in Tynda, or at any stop in between. And now the police station was closed, it was after dark, and there was nowhere to go to get a stamp. The driver was becoming tired and hungry, and he was late home. It was cold, too cold to be out, even driving. He would take me one last place but could not stay to see if I was taken in.
At the airport, he said, they understood foreigners. They would know what to do. But he wouldn’t stay there and see, he couldn’t help me any more than he had. I shrugged and agreed. I noticed I was speaking in a flat, slow voice. He began to explain himself again, speaking quickly from guilt, looking directly at me over his shoulder as he drove. He added that he could not take me to his home, he was too afraid: If the police learned I had been there, staying with no entry stamp or official permission to stay overnight, it would fall on him in unpredictable ways. He had an apology in his voice. Something like this, I thought, had happened to him before.
I grasped his hand when he put it out for me, through the window, as he left me outside the airport. The main terminal was closed, but there was a small, wooden building attached to it, with a little light showing. I entered with my long green bag over one shoulder and saw, behind me to my right as I turned, a clerk standing behind a counter, in the dim. I asked for a room and showed my passport.
You have no stamp, she said, paging through it. I cannot give you a room if you have no stamp. Her voice was cold and dry.
I said nothing to her, standing and waiting. I slid my long bag off my shoulder and let its end fall to the floor.
If the police learn that you have no stamp and I have given you a room, it would be very bad for me.
I continued to look at her.
You must go, she said.
Where can I go, I said, looking at her, to get a stamp, in my passport, at this time of night? The police are closed. Where should I sleep? I gestured theatrically to the door behind me. Should I lie on the ground outdoors?
You cannot get a stamp here, she said. You cannot sleep here. She had stopped looking at me, her hands making some motion I could not see on the table before her. I cannot help you.
I sat down on the padded bench opposite, across the room, and watched her. She said nothing, and I said nothing. I saw she was busying herself with some papers.
Then we both spoke at once. I can sit here all night, I said, I have nowhere to go, at the same time that she was saying I could lose my job, I have children.
Children! she said. Do you understand, I have children, and there was something broken in her voice. Her hair was thin, and short, and it had a thin auburn violet color as if it had been dyed too many times. Her teeth were bad, and some of them were gold. Suddenly she seemed haggard, and lost and alone. I have children, she said, and handed me a key, without looking at me.
The next morning I walked into the city. It was an hour’s walk from the airport, at nearly fifty below zero. Breathing deep was difficult and caused sharp pain in the pit of my lung. I walked quickly to warm myself, and the sun’s light warmed me. But my beer froze in the bottle as I walked, before I could finish drinking it. Long before I arrived, I could not feel my feet and was stumbling.
I walked along the road, two lanes of breaking asphalt, a yard-thick water pipe in thick white insulation running alongside it. Every thirty yards or so, this tube took a ninety-degree turn, sometimes vertically, sometimes horizontally, taking another turn after another ten yards, and another ten yards after that a third turn, and then returning to its original direction, making what looked like a series of portals. The tube was suspended above the ground by thin supporting rods of corrugated metal, in groups of three, coming together from the ground to attach to a metal ring, making small triangles all along; every quarter mile or so, there would be a set of three steps that led up, a small platform that led over, and a matching set of three steps that led down on the other side of the pipe. There were occasional leaks in the pipes, and these created cascading slow motion ice sculptures, growing over time.
In Yakutsk, the apartment buildings stood on concrete stilts sunk into the ground. In the warm summer, the mosquito season, the ground would melt into mud, the foundations would move and settle, and the buildings would shift and reshift; then in the fall it would freeze, and the motion would cease.
The Hibernating Museum
A few days later, after sleeping on the couch in the main room of an apartment belonging to the family of a teenage juggler I had met, I found a small cabin, in a field of permafrost marked off by a half-built stone wall, near the wide, flat, frozen Lena River. I walked to the door, painted a cheerful blue, and entered. I surprised an old Yakut woman sitting amidst a clutter of objects: portraits, paintings, carvings; a piano, a long two-stringed fiddle with a sculpted horse’s head atop its neck; half of a shaman’s costume made of deer leather, covered with pendants.
Is this a museum, I said. As if she had been waiting for just such a word, she leapt up and into a role with me. Grinning, she took my money in exchange for a small receipt, which she tore in two as she gave me. There were only two or three rooms, and she took me around, showing me this portrait of an ethnologist or that talisman in a glass case. There was a book of the Yukaghir language, which has only a few hundred speakers. There were works of folk art as well, such as Yakut masks. One work in particular I vividly recall: It was done by searing leather, it could have been with sticks aflame at their ends, making burns upon a tanned hide stretched over a wood frame. It showed men standing upside down and walking backwards, a river that flowed uphill, and a sun and moon appearing at the wrong sides of the sky. It illustrated the hell told of in the legends of the Evenki people, in which time was reversed and everything done in life became undone; all trauma was wiped away and all achievements were as lost as if they had never been.
There was an upright piano, and it appeared to be in regular use. I put my fingers on the keys and looking in the bench, found sheet music. I touched it and it felt fresh somehow. She said she played. She sat down and showed me the music she had been studying, which had been sitting on the rack. The piano was out of tune, especially in the higher and lower registers, and she played it loudly, with short, sharp motions. The small pieces housed in the museum formed a resonant chamber, throwing back different pitches. The composition she played me had been written by an early modernist, a practitioner of the tone-row school of composition. He was a Yakut and had been repressed, she said, using the Soviet euphemism. She herself had been forbidden to play at all, due to her dedication to playing in modernist styles not approved by the organs of government, although early in her career she had played Moscow, Tallinn, Helsinki, all the famous places; she told me this all with wide smiles and an attitude expressive of the pleasure she took in company, which she played broadly enough to suit a stage, however awkwardly it fit in such a confined space.
The Giant Garbage Pit, or The Largest Diamond Mine in the World
I found a man to take me to Mirnyy, in the far west of Yakutia; in his mostly toothless mouth the lower canines thrust up from the gums like tusks. We rode alone, the two of us, in a military van, a two-day trip; he was making a delivery, and I paid him for a seat. We stopped for the night in Vilyuysk, where I tried to explore the town, wandering in the freezing fog that came off the Vilyuy River and seeing nothing. I arrived at the hostel where I would sleep. Entering, I noticed in the mirror hung in the front hall, looking over the thawing fog that had crystallized on the lenses of my glasses, that there were two yellowish white lines on my cheeks. When I touched them with my fingers, I could feel nothing there but pressure. I asked the Yakut woman at the desk about them and she said, her broad face unmoving, staring seriously into my eyes, You have frostbite. Your cheeks will turn black, and they will fall off your face. You may die, she said, and then she turned to go, quickly bored even with mocking me to my face. I found a Gideon Bible in English in the drawer in my room, and read parts of Genesis and Psalms to myself before sleep.
The next day, before departing, I found a Belgian, working at a local school in Vilyuysk through the UN He was tall and walked in a loping stride. He held his thin shoulders high and in. He took me to his home and asked me with a subdued desperation to communicate with his host, who mocked him in easy contempt, ridiculing him and his hours of walking in the empty frost, going out into the taiga, wearing four layers of long underwear. This was conducted with a rapidity of Russian that only left the Belgian more restless and agitated. I spent some time translating for him but I left him as isolated as I found him.
In Mirnyy, I stayed in an apartment: a fourth floor flat, where there was a physicist sitting alone at a kitchen table, looking out the window at the city. He had the forgettable look of a television extra. He fried me eggs and sausage and talked to me about a multitude of things, including the world’s largest diamond pit mine, here in Mirnyy. It was so large, he said, so wide and so deep, that it created its own weather patterns, like an inverse mountain. Flight patterns were altered around it, for fear that an unexpected gust would suck a plane into it. An aging married couple living across the hall from the apartment the two of us were renting visited and invited us to dinner and drinks. In a rush of good feeling and fellowship, somewhere after the fourth toast but before the ninth, they took me to see the mine, the second-largest man-made hole in the world. In the middle of the night it was all lit, and there were trucks going down, around the slow spiral to the center and bottom, but, they said, it was all for show.
It is closed, they said. They spoke loudly over the sound of air plunging into the hole, like the static of some immense malfunctioning electronic device. It was the reason for this city and the reason we moved here, but now it is only a hole to throw garbage in. The wife spoke in a thin, worn, high voice, and the man spoke in grunts through his moustache. The trucks moving at the bottom of the hole were so far away they were only headlights. There was a smell of diesel that the currents of air brought up to the lip of the hole. The rush of air tumbling into and out of the hole made me fear for my stability, and I took a few steps back. We stood there by the edge of the pit, not speaking, for a few minutes, simply observing this giant cavity in the earth’s surface, this immense open wound, over a kilometer wide and half a kilometer deep, the largest landscape feature for miles around.
There was nothing to see but the hole.
Watching a House on Fire While Waiting for the Train
It was in Blagoveschensk that I had transferred off the east–west Trans-Siberian onto the north–south line and eventually to Yakutsk. I arrived in Blagoveschensk in the middle of the night.
The train station there was one large room, and I was the only one in it apart from a pair of policemen who were eating thin soup out of cracked white bowls in the opposite corner from where I sat. I planned to spend the night sitting up: my arms through the straps of my bags, dozing on the hard wooden seats, my fists clutching the fabric of my bags against their being taken from me.
After some time waiting, which felt like hours, I found myself full of a strange nervous energy. I left my bags on the bench and went out to walk in the city. The houses in the district near the station were small and wooden. They were lined by bare-board, irregularly shaped picket fences, with dogs that awoke and challenged me as I walked by. For a few blocks I saw no one, and nothing: no streetlamps, no cars, no light but the moon and stars in a high, clear sky. I turned one corner, and another, and saw that ahead of me there was a changing light cast out onto the street.
At the same time I heard a crack and noticed a pulsing warmth on my face. I came within sight of a large house, ablaze, and three people gathered in front of it. I sat on a bench across the street, behind their dark figures, and watched the fire roaring in the still, dead winter’s night, until I became bored again, and returned to the station, where the two policemen, strangely, were somehow still eating their eternal bowls of soup.
After a Beating, a Hospital Cot
Oymyakon may be the coldest settled place in the world: Average daily lows in January are around sixty below. I barely entered the town. I only left the van that brought me to go into the hostel where all the passengers slept together in one large room, with a large brass-framed mirror hanging on the wall, above a non-functioning fireplace, the room warmed to an itchy, dry-skinned heat by a series of small wood-burning stoves at the feet of the beds. The double-paned windows were layered with a third pane of solid ice. I dreamed that night of the mirror, and a steel marble, or a ball bearing, that I was idly tossing against the wall, and then against the mirror. I felt suddenly that I was in control, no longer the powerless victim of my changing circumstances, and knowing that was the greatest pleasure I had ever felt, a pure physical pleasure concentrated in the mind, and mine alone. I held the ball slightly longer, tossed it with a certain spin, and it passed through the mirror. I ascended through the ceiling, awakening with a pleasure and peace that I had never known before and that I still think about, weekly or more often.
Then I left the north and traveled to Khabarovsk. Late in the day, after having explored some outdoor markets and looked across the frozen Amur into China, I remembered that the explorer Arseniev had settled here late in life, that his home was still in existence, that it had become a museum. It was growing dark, but I thought I had a chance to find it open. I walked along a main prospect asking directions from passers-by. I was drinking beer as I walked, enjoying the varied spectacle of humanity I saw out, in the evening. Passing by a large expanse of semi-wooded parkland on my right, I saw a group of young men like myself, drinking beer as they walked. I asked them where to find the museum, and they began to speak with me, asking where I was from, what I was like. They asked to take a picture with me. I was happy to oblige, and we walked into the park to take the picture by a particular tree that they had indicated. The place seemed important to them, and I went cheerfully, pleased I could so easily help. One man asked to see an American dollar bill, as he had never seen one. I had with me the money I would need to reach Mongolia and obtain a Turkish visa there, and I drew it out, showing him the first bill that came to my hand, a hundred. He looked at it with pleasure, holding it up to the light. He gave it back, and his friend suggested posing near another tree farther into the park. We went and stood there together, the six of us, while another young man, who came from somewhere, took the picture, and I felt a hand at my pocket. I grasped it by the wrist, and felt a blow to my face from the other direction. Suddenly all five or six were on me, and I had fallen on my back. They were beating me with their fists and feet.
It stopped as suddenly as it had started, and they were running away. My pockets were empty. I shouted after them, Hey you, hey boys! Guys, my documents! You don’t need those! One turned around and threw my passport to me. It came sliding over the ice, and they fled.
After I stood, I realized I had lost my glasses. I went looking for them, thinking they had fallen into a nearby ravine. I walked up and down the edge of it, then realized I needed help, as I could not see to find them. There was an amusement park nearby, full of Russians laughing, walking hand in hand, eating ice cream. I tried to stop several people, but a look at me and they turned away. Eventually a boy of high school age asked if I was well. My forehead and one cheek were covered in blood, and it had begun to drip down by my eyes. I told him I was well, but he called his brother, a police officer, who came for me.
At the police station, I was having trouble following the interview to make my report. My head hurt, and for some reason the police were very insistent on learning more about one young man: I had described him as having an Asian appearance. Wasn’t he Korean, they asked, wasn’t it possible his friends had called him Kim?
A Chinese laborer, coal on his face and his red, thick hands, was waiting in the room, trembling in fear; he had been caught working without a permit, and could barely speak enough Russian to understand what was happening. He stared straight ahead, with a terrified look in his eyes, afraid to look at anyone and even more afraid to look down, in case he was seen being inattentive.
In the overcrowded hospital, I learned from a doctor in a dirty smock that I had a concussion, and one of my pupils had taken on the shape of an ellipsis, like that of a cat, only its axis was some degrees off from the vertical. He brought me to a mirror, and I stared and stared at my pupil in the large mirror that covered one wall. My other injuries were minor. My glasses had broken only against the bridge of my nose; they had not gone into my eyes. Only my optic nerve was pinched. It was only a concussion.
There was no space in any ward, so I slept in the hall, on a cot. I slept across from a man whose grotesquely engorged, bruised testicles hung sickeningly far out of the bottom of his hospital gown: He kept sliding half out of his bed in the middle of the night and kneeling on the floor and squirming, groaning and gnashing his teeth, and crawling back into it, all without waking up.