Lena River tour explores remote, rugged northern Russia

Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 9:47 PM
The Cambrian sandstone pillars were carved along the Lena River because of the extreme temperature ranges from summer (up to 100 degrees) to winter (down to minus 75 degrees). The Lena Pillars Nature Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is about 125 miles south of Yakutsk. Short-duration cruises to the park are offered in summer.
Nikolai Stepanov, a fisherman, chats with a cruise passenger from Finland about life on the Lena River. The fisherman and his wife live on a hill high above the river, although you can see high-water marks in nearby gullies. The fisherman travels by boat in the summer and snowmobile in the winter, when the river is frozen. His compound includes several work and storage buildings as well as his home.
Residents of the village of Kyusyur perform a skit about welcoming a newborn to the village along with songs and dance at the local community center. The village is north of the Arctic Circle. The men are engaged in fishing and reindeer husbandry, and the women make national clothes decorated with fur and beads, as seen in the performance.
A Yakut woman welcomes tourists to tour her home on a hill high above the Lena River. The six-room main house had two back rooms filled with beds – for when their children and grandchildren visit from the cities to which they have moved.

SAKHA REPUBLIC – When I mentioned that I was vacationing in Siberia, inevitably the first question from others was “why?”

“Because I haven't been there,” I'd respond. But, why not? Siberia's more than 5 million square miles covers 10 percent of the world's land mass, and 77 percent of Russia's, and it holds a strange romanticism about survival in the most remote, cold and sparsely populated landscapes in North Asia.

I spent 14 days in late August in Yakutia (the Sakha Republic), nearly all of it on and along the Lena River, which stretches more than 2,700 miles from its headwaters in the Baikal Mountains to its delta at the Laptev Sea of the Arctic Ocean. We joined it at Yakutsk, the largest city and the capital of the Sakha Republic, and traveled more than 1,000 miles north to Tiksi aboard the Mikhail Svetlov.

Still, I sampled only a sliver of the Siberian landscape and culture. Indeed, many maps of Siberia cut off about where the cruise started. There's not much detail to show to the north – scattered fishing and reindeer herding villages and the vast taiga and tundra, snow-covered seven months of the year. The famed Trans-Siberian Railway and resort areas on Lake Baikal are far south.

Yakutia, covering three time-zones and home to about 1 million people, is perhaps most widely known for being the coldest place on Earth, gulags, diamond mines and the so-called Road of Bones east of Yakutsk.

There is one daily, seven-hour overnight flight from Domodedovo Moscow Airport to Yakutsk, and one daily return. There are less frequent flights to Yakutsk from China.

The kitchen crew of the Mikhail Svetlov often prepared local dishes for the passengers to try, including this traditional Russian barbecue, schashlyk, on the banks of the Lena River. Passengers were also offered a chance to taste fish soup, an appetizer of raw frozen fish cubes seasoned with salt and pepper, traditional Yakut pudding of flour, milk and butter and Stroganina, thin slices of frozen fish served quickly as the fish was carved. The schashlyk was served near the end of the cruise, before an onboard farewell party in which passengers also performed.
Sue McMillin/Special to the Herald

En route from Denver, I spent one night in Moscow to break up the travel. My return to the United States was about a 40-hour nonstop ordeal from ship to home in Colorado.

Because of the extended travel, I recommend spending extra days in Yakutsk. Visit Yakutia offers several worthwhile tours in the city and surrounding area. Had I done this, I wouldn't have missed the “Kingdom of Permafrost” Ice Tunnel Complex and the underground lab of the Permafrost Institute.

Getting started in YakutskBack to the cruise. We arrived in Yakutsk at 9:30 a.m. Monday; a van ride to the ship gave us our first look at Yakutsk – lots of dust and multi-story, Stalinist-style apartment buildings. The dock area gave me pause – broken steps, dirt and trash, but we were greeted warmly on board and the ship was fine. The rooms were tiny with fold-down beds and a small wardrobe and bathroom, and a nice-sized window that opened.

This was not a luxury cruise. Pack jeans and sturdy shoes for navigating rocky shores and muddy paths, rain gear and a fleece jacket, hat and gloves for the top-of-the-world outings. And lots of bug repellent and mosquito netting.

Although our booking agent had assured us a city tour was available before the ship sailed, that wasn't the case. Most passengers were in tour groups and had separately arranged things such as a city tour, vodka tasting, tea ceremonies, etc. So, these things were not offered to the independent travelers. (We later were graciously invited to one group's vodka-tasting party, which was fun. In lieu of that, the friendly bartender likely would've helped us create our own tasting.)

A Lenin statue stands in downtown Yakutsk, a bustling city of about 300,000 people on the Lena River and the capital of the Sakha Republic in Siberia.
Sue McMillin/Special to the Herald

Also, some things get lost in translation. The “free program in Yakutsk” on the itinerary meant passengers could arrange their own time in Yakutsk. We met at a stated time for an “English speaking tour of Yakutsk” but learned it was for a specific group, not all English-speaking passengers.

Fortunately, the ship's English translator/guide, Nadia Noeva, offered to take us and another independent traveler into Yakutsk to visit the Mammoth Museum of North-Eastern Federal University and to see some city sights. Nadia, a native, was a wonderful guide, both that day and throughout the cruise.

Towering pillars, merciless mosquitoesWe sailed at 7 p.m., initially heading south about 125 miles to the Lena Pillars Nature Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The spectacular Cambrian sandstone pillars rise more than 300 feet into the air, formed by the extreme temperature changes in the region – from minus 75 in the winter to 100 degrees in the summer. The park has little development – a circular area with a few stone benches where a traditional greeting ceremony is conducted, a small gift shop and a trail to the top of the pillars.

The crew repeatedly warned that the hike, including dozens of wooden steps, was slippery and dangerous, but it wasn't bad – except for the bugs – and the view was well worth it.

Although the skies often were overcast and light rain was not uncommon during the 14-day cruise, sunsets were quite beautiful on the river. This one occurred just before we crossed the Arctic Circle. Mornings were more likely to be foggy.
Sue McMillin/Special to the Herald

The arctic summer brings an invasion of mosquitoes and midges – the locals say the mosquitoes are worse earlier in the summer and the midges are worse later. Whatever, many people were mercilessly bitten. My nylon jacket, including hood, and bug repellent kept them at bay, a miracle since I'm usually a juicy target. Another bit of local lore – the bugs don't like vanilla scent. Just so happened that the lotion I packed was vanilla scented. I used it liberally.

That evening, Capt. Anatoly Stepanov welcomed passengers with a champagne reception, clinking glasses with each tourist. Travelers were from several countries, including Germany, England, China, Finland, Russia and the U.S. – and all shipboard announcements were made in Russian, English and German. Crew members were friendly, and it was evident that they wanted the 70 passengers to enjoy the meals, entertainment, stops and other programs, including films, lectures, crafts and lessons.

The food at daily breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets was delicious and varied, and featured local cuisine. The meal times, however, were close together, and more than once, I heard a passenger say, “Are we eating again already?” And often there were extras at the “green stops” along the riverbank – such as the captain's fish soup one evening, the schashlyk (barbecue) at another, and at Yakut Culture Evening, the chef prepared stroganina, raw frozen fish that was quickly served as he shaved off thin slices. All served with shots of ice-cold vodka of course. Pace yourself.

A bull at the bison farm along the Buotama River eyes a herdsman that is opening a bag of feed. The farm is a bi-national effort to reintroduce the wood bison to Yakutia in northern Asia. In 2006, 60 bison were shipped from Canada to Yakutia, and the herd has since grown to 170. The first release into the wild was expected within the year, a herdsman said in August.
Sue McMillin/Special to the Herald

Wonderful evening programs included folk music and tales and accomplished opera singers and other musicians from the Yakutsk State Opera and Ballet Theater.

We stopped near the junction of the Lena and Buotama rivers, where we walked inland about 20 minutes to a bison farm. In 2006, Yakutia and Canada began a joint program to reintroduce the wood bison to Yakutia. Canada sent 60 bison to Yakutsk, and the herd, now in two locations, has grown to 170. The herd manager said in August they would begin releasing the bison into the wild within the year.

Top of the worldWe continued north and crossed into the Arctic Circle. We moored in Zhigansk Bay, taking a ferry/barge to shore, where we were greeted by locals and a smoky fire to cleanse us of our troubles (which were quickly being shed on the low-key cruise into nature with little internet access). Here, as in the village of Kyusyur, there was a small museum, a native dance performance, locally-prepared foods and people selling crafts. Much local lore, shared by villagers, crafters and crew members, centers around protection from evil and revering nature.

On the seventh day, we arrived at “end of the earth,” the captain said, or the top of the world, as I call it. We docked in Neelovo Bay, where the remnants of a military outpost remain, and no photographs are allowed.

An old bus and a more modern arctic overland vehicle took us to Tiksi and then on to the shore of the Laptev Sea. Tiksi seemed nearly lifeless, a collection of empty buildings in various states of ruin alongside a few inhabited ones, all on stilts because of the permafrost. The industries and military bases of the Soviet era have been largely abandoned. Now, it is inhabited by people who work for the military and government operations, such as a weather station, researchers and the like.

Inside one nondescript building is the Arctic Nature Museum, created by Alexander Gukov, a former professor who moved to Tiksi in 1982. Several rooms are filled with Arctic flora and fauna, displays about Arctic expeditions, geology and other research.

Then we headed back south, and all stops now were green stops, including one with a Polar Circle marker high above the shore. That day we were presented with personalized certificates noting our crossing into the Arctic Circle. A few crew members and passengers fished along the way, primarily for sturgeon. Surprisingly, because of the time of year, one night we got a brief aurora borealis show. After one brief shot of green light, it faded to misty veils of light dancing above us.

Our final stop was at Sottintsy, an open-air museum featuring restored native homes and buildings. That evening, we had a farewell ceremony with a friendship fire on shore before sailing back to Yakutsk beneath a beautiful sunset.

Sue McMillin, a longtime journalist and former city editor at The Durango Herald, is a freelance writer and editor living in Victor, Colorado.

Travel tips

The cruises from Yakutsk to Tiksi are in July and August, and there are generally four each summer, each 14 days and 13 nights. The cost in 2017 was about $2,500 and included meals, programs and translator/guide. Airfare was also about $2,500.Pack lots of bug spray and mosquito netting (some netted hats were sold on board the ship; some repellent was available to use for free at the reception desk).Pack light and in small suitcases; large suitcase won't fit under the pull-down beds. No fancy clothes needed. Spend an extra day or two in Yakutsk and take a city tour and/or one offered into the surrounding region. For more information, visit souvenirs in Yakutsk – little else is available along the cruise, although you can pick up some small local crafts in a couple of villages.If you enjoy wine in the evening, buy a few bottles in Yakutsk. The wine onboard was expensive. Or, you can just drink vodka.Close your cabin window whenever the ship is moored to avoid a room full of bugs.Cash only on the ship; easiest to exchange money in Moscow; while there's not much to spend money on during the cruise, cash is required for your bar bill (and laundry if you use those services).For more information, visit and