Tuesday, October 24, 2006

delta

Our last full day aboard the Mikhail Svetlov would have kicked off with morning exercises on the sun deck if we'd been up in time. Instead at 10.30 we joined the Turks in the music salon for an English language showing of Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom. When you are sailing into the Arctic there is nothing that sets the mood, I find, like Harrison Ford apparently coated in sunflower oil.
The Turkish watched Indiana Jones exactly like K and I currently watch Russian films, which is to say we laugh at all of the slapstick jokes and none of the others. Several of the Turks including, pleasingly, Captain Candiru, were also of the kind that like to offer advice at dramatic intervals when watching a film. "Watch out for the arrows!" one woman said. "Ah, geez, he's going to get crushed," said Captain Candiru.
Around midday came the news that a two-day storm was raging around Tiksi. We gathered in the ship's cinema (did I mention, cruise ship?) for an explanation by the ship's captain, Georgy, of what this meant and how bad, if the weather kept up, things could get. He ended his talk by explaining that the wind currently whipping up whitecaps on a fairly open stretch of the Lena was blowing 18 miles per second, while the ship could withstand 30 to 35 miles per second. Some of his reassuring tone was, I think, lost in translation, and by the time a waitress named Olga demonstrated how to wear the life jackets there were hands in the air all over the shop. What experience did the crew have of storms in this part of the world? Was there a chance of icebergs? A German woman, at whose weight I will leave you to guess, wanted to know if the life jackets could support a very, very large person. Olga claimed each life jacket could take up to 600kg, which suggests to me a bit of quick-thinking falsification on Olga's part, but it seemed to do the trick.
Not long after Kyusur the last spurs of the Verkhoyansk mountains had risen on the right. Basically bare stone with silly toy pines clinging to grass between rock and scree, it's the Verkhoyansk range that turns the Lena almost due north for its long final stretch. Eastwards the mountains cover an area the size of France but with far fewer louvres and Fabien Barthezes.The river narrowed here, and deepened. The wind threw up spits of icy water in an air temperature that had dropped to zero. The shoreline was lined with washed up trunks of bleached pine. Once or twice a motor boat was pulled up beneath the cliffs, but we saw not a single living soul all day.
Over dinner we heard Orhan's tales of travels in Central Asia. One of his stories involved leaving Uzbekistan for Afghanistan at a border point which, it turned out, was unofficial and manned by rebels under the control of a local warlord. Orhan had been refused entry, in response to which he had argued, shouted and snapped a photograph of the heavily-armed man interviewing him. Arrested and sent back to Uzbekistan, Orhan had dealt with the situation by asking as many questions as he could of his guard "to confuse the man", and then running away from him. I made a mental note not to apply any of Orhan's travel advice in real life.
By evening the wind and died and we were in the Arctic. On the right side (yes, yes, starboard) were the last gorgeous grey points with their scree and dribbles of green. On the other side the shore looked like a links golf course. The only colours were white and grey and a deep otherworldly green. Here and there was a lick of white that turned out, when we drifted close enough, to be a glacier, or the cold side of a rise in whose shadow the snow never melted. There was no longer a tree to be seen.
Just before midnight the sky lit up with streaks of red and purple. At this time of year it never gets dark enough here to need a reading light. In winter the sun comes up around February 15. Set your watches. At 1am we passed Stolb (pillar) Island, a single large rock that, if it didn't mark the beginning of the Lena Delta, would never have so many people hauling themselves out of bed to stand in the cold and photograph it. A fishing trawler had anchored in its lee. Black-tipped gulls shrieked overhead. In the tundra on the left there was a tiny settlement, six or seven sheds and boxes of what might have been a research station. Immediately afterwards the shore dropped away on both sides. The wind had dropped to a breeze. We were in the Lena delta, and some time in the night we sailed in and out of the Laptev Sea.

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