The Road to Belyy Yar

August 14th, 2010 by Joanne Howl
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Tomsk Oblast  57.45 N 85.96 E

11:30 pm Siberia, 11:30 am EST

 High: 60 F  Low 62 F   Light rain

 It’s been quite a long day on the road.  We spent about 11 hours today working our way about 700 km through the countryside to find this campsite.   We got in as the sun was going down.  We scrambled to pitch tends, and then most of us went right off to bed.  It’s just me and the mosquitoes.   I think they are happy to have my company. 

We had a little trouble with loading the vehicles.  We have a lot of stuff we’re taking with us.  We got everything stowed securely then we realized we’d made a big mistake – there wasn’t enough room for all the people.  Something had to go.  For awhile it seemed to be a question of if they would keep the inflatable boat or me.  I’m happy to report that they picked me, and we left the boat behind.   It’s a loss, though – it means we won’t be able to reach the more remote sites.  

Mikal loads gear into The Pill, while Slava and Pasha look on. The vehicle earned the nickname because it apparently resembles some medicine that the Siberians might take if they were sick.


We have two vehicles.  One is Slava’s personal car, which is something like a jeep.  Slava was our driver and Pasha, Bruce and I were passengers.  Marsha, Sergei and Bruce were stowed with the gear in the blue van, with Mikal driving.  The van is fine, but it looks a bit odd.  I caught the Siberians laughing at it.  They said it looked like a pill, like medicine they might swallow when they were sick.  It doesn’t look like any American pill I can think of, but now it has a nickname. We all call it “The Pill”. 

Today we’ve traveled highways and back roads, through cities, towns, villages and countryside – lots of countryside.  We’re traveling on the edge of the west Siberian Plain, which is the world’s largest unbroken lowland. It covers about 1/3 of Siberia’s landmass.  Much of the plains are poorly drained, so there’s a lot of peat bogs and wetlands.  What we’ve seen mostly, so far, are rolling hills and grassland, with pockets of forest. 

We planned to end our journey in forest close to a town called Belyy Yar.  When we stopped for gas in the area, the local mechanic told us that the road to Balyyr is blocked by high water, and is totally impassible.  That’s unfortunate, because we were going to take this road to work the entire east section of the study area.  We poured over maps, and have decided we’ll spend a few days working the south side of the study area. Then we will have to find another way east, if we can do it at all. 

 In the end, Slava turned onto a small road that led deep into the forest.  It’s little more than a trail, really.  We found a wide spot and set up camp.  We’re blocking the road here, I think, but its late enough we don’t expect visitors.  Tomorrow we’ll have to pack up and move closer to the river that is near here – a tributary to the Chulym I think – to get out of the way.   

We didn’t do much scientific today – we’re saving that for tomorrow.  But we did observe some local culture.  The first lesson came when Slava stopped into a local crafts shop in one of the towns and bought us some Larch chewing gum.   It was, um, interesting.  The gum is made out of the resin of local larch trees.  It was brown and dense and took a bit more work to chew it than the gum I’m used to.  It had no sugars added and I guess it was a pretty natural product.  But it also didn’t have a lot of flavor.   It was okay – but mostly as a novelty. 

We drove through cities, towns and villages today. At this craft shop in a small town, Slava is buying locally made Larch chewing gum.

The next cultural lesson was at a bridge in a little village.  We were driving along, finally making some good time, when we saw the road blocked ahead of us at this bridge.  People were milling all around.  I thought it was an accident, for sure.  But it wasn’t.  It was a wedding. 

It was the town’s tradition that when a man and woman were married that the groom had to carry the bride across the local river.   They then walked back together, arm in arm.   Slava told me that the name of the river translates into English roughly as “anti-devil”, so the ceremonial trip across was to ward off evil and to begin the marriage with great happiness.   I don’t know what they did before the highway came through town, but this wedding party shut down the entire road, stopping all traffic both ways, while the bride and groom took their walk right down the middle of the highway bridge. 

The wedding party came to the stopped cars, handing out candy and toasts of vodka to the travelers.  Russian driving rules are very strict – if you are found driving with a drop of alcohol in your bloodstream, then you lose your license.  And that’s a hard thing in an area as vast as Siberia, to be unable to drive.  So while passengers accept toasts, very few drivers would dare. 

Once the groom had carried his bride safely across the Anti-Devil, and they had returned arm-in-arm, the bridge was quickly opened. Before we were allowed to pass, the wedding party asked us for a few coins for the newlyweds.   Apparently, gifts of coins bring good luck.   Then they thanked us and wished us well as we drove away.  It was fun to see – they were all young people, kids in their 20s, and seemed to be full of hope and joy.  I wish the bride and groom happiness through the years. 

Tonight we’ll sleep in the forest, far away from civilization.   We are in a stand of Scots Pine, a tree that can be quite beautiful when mature.  Here they are tall and straight, with dark green needles and a yellowish bark.  I’ve heard it said that the some native Siberians call groves of Scots Pines “the shaman forests”.  It is said that one should enter such forests with silence and reverence, to show respect to the spirits living there.   I personally know nothing about shamanic spirits, and I’m not sure I want to, but it will be wonderful to enjoy the silence of the pines as we rest up for tomorrow.

One Response to “The Road to Belyy Yar”

  1. Alexander Jablanczy says:

    I am enjoying immensely this Siberian blog As we were going to visit there with my homonymous father in ’56 but world Hx intervened and instead we ended up in Canada. Almost the same forests. Also my father in law was a guest of the Red Army after WWII. He loved the climate and the people as the POWs gave food to the starving people who were worse off than they.
    But all this is an old story and I am writing about the dinghy AKA rubber inflatable boat. It seems the Russians are just as dumb as the Canadians as every truck I have ever had I had to fight to get any canoe carrier on the cap. To me a 4WD is not a four wheel drive unless it has dozens of metal gizmos to which you can attach ropes strings straps on all sides and all corners of the top. What the hell is an all terrain vehicle for if it isnt to carry a canoe a moose a deer a bear a tent a boat logs lumber dead bodies whatever on top.
    So you should have rigged up a series of clamps ropes bungee and rubber ties all around the van or truck and carried two boats if necessary as well as a canoe with anchors poles paddles nets etc.
    Next time dont leave anything behind but tie it to the roof.
    In the same way as I refuse to take a truck without a fifth wheel or a winch or a foglamp. I also carry bear paws and lumber and 2by4s and comealongs and jack alls as well as pickaxe shovels saws axes prybars buckets sand water ropes more ropes so when I get stuck I can have some fun. Also always a canoe sometimes a kayak and a dinghy or a mtn bike.
    You gotta be prepared.

Notes from the Field