Listen to the sound of silence

Paddlesteamers puff and chug their way along Siberia's river Lena in summer. Margaret Campbell packs her bags with a healthy supply of fruit and boards the people's ferry for a 2,000km journey through the wilderness to Yakutsk

The safety warnings and pleas to refrain from dumping our rubbish overboard had barely given way to the first of many scratchy renderings of a long-forgotten Chris de Burgh album when the Krasnoyarsk's captain, all gold trim and smart jacket, knocked at my cabin door. Was I the Scottish woman who had phoned to reserve a cabin? Well, yes, but it was no thanks to his reservations clerk that I had actually boarded the 9am sailing, rather than strolling down to the Ust Kut landing stage for an 11am departure as instructed - and if I had missed it, the Krasnoyarsk would not have been leaving here again for another 17 days. Fortunately, some instinct had made me phone to check.

The safety warnings and pleas to refrain from dumping our rubbish overboard had barely given way to the first of many scratchy renderings of a long-forgotten Chris de Burgh album when the Krasnoyarsk's captain, all gold trim and smart jacket, knocked at my cabin door. Was I the Scottish woman who had phoned to reserve a cabin? Well, yes, but it was no thanks to his reservations clerk that I had actually boarded the 9am sailing, rather than strolling down to the Ust Kut landing stage for an 11am departure as instructed - and if I had missed it, the Krasnoyarsk would not have been leaving here again for another 17 days. Fortunately, some instinct had made me phone to check.

He was not just puzzled about what a Scot was doing aboard his old tub of a paddle-steamer. He also wondered why I had bothered to book. Most people hoping to travel on either of the two steamboats plying the river Lena in eastern Siberia between June and September just turn up in the knowledge that there will be a place somewhere, even if it means fourth-category and steerage (£50, and you sleep on the corridor floor).

It didn't matter any more - after a 25-hour train journey from Irkutsk, westward to Taishet junction then north-east on the BAM railway line (the Russian abbreviation stands for the Baikal-Amur Main Line, or Brezhnev Swindles the Young: take your pick), I was finally aboard this 42-year-old paddle-steamer, and we were moving downstream on her first trip of the summer. We would disembark five days later in Yakutsk, the capital of the diamond-rich Sakha Republic, one of the 89 "subject" territories that make up the Russian Federation, but first there was a 2,000km journey to enjoy.

The word "enjoy" is crucial. I had been warned by Muscovite friends about this trip: you're taking a passenger ferry down the Lena? Not even a cruise ship? Can't you fly to Yakutsk? The mosquitoes will eat you alive - and in any case, you'll starve. All of which shows how little people in Moscow, five time-zones away, know about this part of Siberia. Yet here I was in my single cabin (category 1, £120), having stocked up on bread, orange juice and tins of salmon. Although there had been plenty of stares as I carried my tell-tale Western rucksack on board, they had been curious rather than hostile.

Depending on what you are looking for, five days of enforced idleness on a boat with no internet access, evening entertainment, television or even radio could be as dull as watching a Soviet news bulletin about hyper-productive tractor factories. In fact, it was so addictive that I would have been happy to keep going for another few days. The banks of the Lena slid steadily past, high and red at the beginning, then descending and slowly changing from fiery brown to pinky-cream as the river widened. No wider than 500m in Ust-Kut, it broadened and flattened as it flowed north, now meandering past villages that flood every spring when the Lena carries a winter's worth of ice to the Arctic, now racing through tall narrows, including one named the "drunken bull".

By the time it reaches Yakutsk, the Lena is several kilometres wide, and still has another 1,700km to flow. It is a lifeline for the remote communities along its length, and is known as Grandmother Lena to the Yakut people: cargo is transported by water in summer and along the ice-road that it becomes in winter; in spring and autumn, when the ice is melting or forming, it is unnavigable.

All the time, the forest, the unending Russian taiga, stretched out behind and ahead and around us. The fir, larch and cedar trees were occasionally separated by meadows clustered around hamlets that may or may not have been ghost villages. (It was hard to tell from the river; some looked abandoned, with no sign of life or livestock. Smoke rose uncertainly from others.) Chekhov's description of the taiga was apt: "Where it ends, only the migrating birds know."

Except for the first and last nights, we did not stop at the end of the day, travelling on through spectacular sunsets that lit up the sky and glowed on the water. This was early June, and we were heading north, so the sun rose earlier and set later each day.

I stayed on deck as long as possible, far into the night, listening to the silence - broken now and then by birdsong (the Krasnoyarsk's engines were running, of course, but one had stopped noticing them after the first half-hour). The air was unbelievably clear, the sense of space exhilarating. Excessive hunting and the presence of humans along the river mean that wild animals are rarely seen, but I couldn't believe my bad timing on emerging one morning to be told that a bear and two cubs had been spotted just half an hour before.

The boat stopped three or four times a day: sometimes this meant lowering a boat and rowing people (or luggage) back and forth to the bank, but usually it meant drawing up to a small quay. The longest stop was in Kirensk, home to the line that owns the paddle-steamers, where we could spend two hours on shore while the crew caught up with company gossip.

I immediately crossed the river on the small ferry that connects the new and old parts of town. Even today, with cars and modern communications, Kirensk and its dusty streets seem a long way from anywhere. How had it felt to the handful of aristocratic Decembrist rebels who spent several years in exile here in the late 1820s?

Lenin's statue had fresh flowers on the pedestal, although attempts to remove the word "dictator" from the stonework had not been entirely successful. I caught the tail-end of a sermon in the town's oldest Orthodox church, used as a cinema until a few years ago. Most of the building is still being renovated, and the service, attended by six women and two men, was being held in one of the wings. The black-bearded priest was filling us in on Saint Nicetas, wonderworker of Pereyaslavka, whose name-day it was: in addition to performing numerous good deeds, he had apparently sat on the top of a pillar for many years.

By the river, I popped into a little museum dedicated to employees of the Lena river company (a state-owned enterprise that operated all river traffic for most of the 20th century). The walls were covered with photographs of captains and crews, Stakhanovite workers busily exceeding their production norms, and veterans of the Great Patriotic War, as the 1941-45 conflict is called. Unfortunately, in a throwback to old Soviet habits of secrecy, I was not permitted to photograph the exhibits (as the caretaker said: "It's ours - what do you need a photo for?"). Squeezing every minute out of the stop, I found a shop that had just received a delivery of fruit, and stocked up. So much for scurvy.

On the move again, a sheet of silver spread out, troubled by our wake, ruffled by wind, sometimes broken by another boat heading upstream. These meetings were sometimes a pretext for bawdy broadsides, once for enthusiastic inter-crew fraternisation. On passing one cargo ship, its inebriated crew began yelling "where are your chicks?" at our decks - much to the disapproval of an elderly cleaner who had handed over responsibility for the corridor to her daughter but still travelled part of the route for free. On the other hand, when the Blagoveshchensk, our sister ship, was sighted on her return journey up-river, the engine was cut and we drew up alongside for 20 minutes. The crew jumped back and forth between decks, official papers were handed from one bridge to another. A number of passengers, both Russian and Yakut, called greetings and asked for news from acquaintances on the other boat. The rest of us stood and gazed benignly at our mirror-images, sleepy-faced, awkward, and somewhat the worse for wear from long evenings spent on deck. Ah yes, these conversations on deck.

Who needed television or radio with all these people around, each with their own story, and most of them willing to tell it? Dark-eyed and beslippered Tajiks, escaping the stuffy air and cramped conditions in third- and fourth-class, were the most exotic. A group of four, all in their teens, sat one evening and recited poetry from scraps of paper until they were almost in tears; three other boys clowned around on the prow and blushed whenever they caught me watching them; an older man informed me (unprompted) that although the Koran allowed him to take four wives, he loved the one he had and didn't need anyone else. Like his compatriots, he was heading to Sakha in the hope of finding construction work (several towns and villages on the Lena were badly damaged by spring floods in 2001). This would earn them enough to support extended families back in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, for the winter. An Azeri man was curious about everything: how to make haggis, why Scottish men wore skirts, how we slaughtered our sheep. Dimitriy, a retired foreman from one of the few Siberian salt mines still in existence, had not been to Yakutsk in 23 years - back then he could afford the air-ticket. He cursed Gorbachev for ruining what had been a fine country, and spat as he described how, given the opportunity, he would hang the Soviet Union's last president from the ship's flagpole "like a dog".

A boy in army uniform was heading home after two years' military service on the Chinese border; he was happy, but not looking forward to the showdown with a girl who "hadn't waited". A young woman with flame-red hair was sharing a cabin with a bright-eyed babushka in her seventies: they provided some welcome female companionship when the flirting threatened to get out of hand.

At Lensk, passenger numbers swelled, and several of the Tajiks disembarked to look for work. We had passed from Irkutsk region into Sakha, moving our watches forward an hour. The new faces were predominantly Asiatic, members of the Yakut people, a Turkic-speaking, horse-breeding group that pushed northward several centuries ago. They are numerically stronger than many of the other northern peoples, and had already established a semi-sedentary rather than nomadic lifestyle when Cossacks arrived in the 17th century. Consequently, they have been the most successful of Siberia's peoples in maintaining a stake in their own affairs - and the region's vast diamond and gold resources have helped.

Late one night, the boat stopped off at three tiny settlements in a row; at each, a teenager was being seen tearfully off for his military service. In the still night, we could hear rowdy singing from the first stop long before we reached it, a noisy goodbye to a boy who would come back a man; at the next, the mother had to be supported as she parted from a son whom she feared would never return.

But it was not all emotional trauma. On the last day, we lined up starboard to look at the "Lena Pillars", Sakha's most famous - and accessible - natural attraction (yes, it has others). This is a stretch of sandstone rocks, several dozen kilometres long, sculpted by wind and water into elongated and strangely shaped columns. In some ways, it was reminiscent of the North American Badlands.

Since we were running ahead of schedule, the captain wanted to stop for a picnic, but was refused permission - a government-sponsored cruise for potential foreign investors took priority.

That evening, a drunken passenger jumped in the water. The entire ship's company gathered cheerfully on the upper deck to watch as he was fished out by two grim-faced crew members and dumped on shore. His brother-in-law was equally grim-faced on leaving the boat by more conventional means, carrying dry clothes and their holdalls: they would be hitching the last 55km.

Limited berthing space in Yakutsk meant we could not dock until our scheduled arrival time the following morning, so the ship dropped anchor for the night by a small island. Without the wind generated by our movement, the mosquitoes attacked; my Western insect-repellent rapidly changed status, from a source of ridicule to the hottest commodity on board. The next morning, the bustle began early. The cleaners came round collecting linen and cabin keys, but I was already on deck, watching the sun rise over the pale silver river, now so wide that the banks were invisible in the morning sheen. We turned past rusting hulls and cranes and into the noises and smells of a city. I still had much to see, but was very glad I had not missed that 9am sailing five days before.

The Facts

Getting there

The easiest way to reach Irkutsk is to fly via Moscow. Transaero (0870 850 7767; www.transaero.ru,) offers return fares from Gatwick to Irkutsk via Moscow from around £279 The direct train from Irkutsk to Ust-Kut (No 71) departs every other day and a ticket costs about £16.

Several airlines fly from Yakutsk to Irkutsk. A one-way ticket with Siberia Airlines costs about £65 through Bilet Plus (00 7 3832 106 000; www.ticketplus.ru).

Several organisations provide visa support (the official invitation that must be submitted to the Russian embassy with your visa application form). Organise this well in advance. Russia Direct (0131-476 7727; www.russiadirect.net) can arrange single-entry visas for £69.

In the Republic of Sakha (Yakutsk), foreigners must register with the local passport office (OVIR). Go to the Passport and Visa department in Government building 2 (behind Lenin's statue). Registration costs about £10.

Being there

For sailing dates (late May to end September, depending on ice), contact the Kirensk office (00 7 395 68 3 24 10, fax: 00 7 395 68 2 16 09).

The Krasnoyarsk is not a cruise ship and amenities are basic. One hot meal a day is served in the ship's canteen, costing around £2. Hot water is available free. Showers cost about 25p each. Toilets are seat-less and paper-less. Speaking a little Russian is useful as few crew or passengers will speak more than very basic English.

Further information

'The Siberian BAM Guide - Rail, Rivers and Road', by Athol Yates and Nicholas Zvegintzov (Trailblazer, 2001 edition).

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