How much taiga is too much taiga?

Alex informs me that these two trucks have spent the night side by side on the ice road. Which seems like a potentially colossal error of judgement.


How much taiga is too much taiga?

I’m about to find out. Tomorrow my return to southern Siberia on the local train that goes no faster than the Needham Line, will take a full 36 hours. Then getting somewhere I might actually want to be will be another 18.

Meanwhile Alex has exerted revenge for my relentless efforts to engage him in conversation by secretly arranging personal tours of the Permafrost and the Mammoth Research Institutes. ‘Go talk to some professors’ he smirks, no doubt realizing that with professor visitors being a rare commodity in Yakutsk each tour will take at least 3 hours.

The venerable Soviet Era Permafrost Research Institute. Could they be engaging in cutting edge research after all? They hide it very well.


It must have been quite something back in the day but the day is now nearly 100 years ago .

The venerable pre-Soviet father of Permafrost Research himself. Except for the Permafrost itself, things haven’t changed much.


What’s going on


Marginally interesting: Ice crystals down at the lowest level have incorporated various effluent from our breath (apparently). Not sure what this has to do with Permafrost however.


The newly Doctor Svetlana who has been deputized to show me around squirms lest I think it is the full extent of their current research efforts. Which of course she can’t show me. Or talk about.

Dr. S. smiles wanly as I force her to describe the antiquated equipment on display.


It turns out there are many important things I didn’t know about Permafrost: a) It’s everywhere except for Australia. b) In most places it’s confined to the mountains (hence it is found in Africa) c) It begins about a meter below the ground (which is why vegetation can grow on it in the summer). d) The thickest layer is about 150 meters thick (I think).

Permafrost in Siberia. The two darkest blue colors mark where it is actually permanent; the thickest the dark blue in the middle. The problem is in the light blue areas, where it comes and goes. They are most sensitive to the environment.


My rapt interest in Permafrost eventually does the trick and a thread I am actually interested in emerges (I was tipped off to this by the NYM journalist on the flight from the UK, Alex of course was clueless):

Dr. S: Permafrost melting when tree cover disappears, no more insulation from sun. (In fact it is a vicious cycle: because the permafrost begins about a meter below the surface, when its temperature rises there is more standing surface water that smothers more tree roots).

Me: How do trees disappear?

Dr. S: By fire or cutting.

Me: Can the permafrost recover?

Dr. S: Yes if trees are replaced.

Me: Who cuts the trees? (This is the $75,000 question).

Dr. S: Shrug. Now we pass law saying no more clear cutting of taiga.

Me: Well who owns the land the trees are on?

Dr. S: Government Land

Me: Do people obey this law?

Dr. S: Yes.

Then, she gives me her private email in case I want to follow up.

At the Mammoth Research Institute, a lot of bones. Thousands are washed or dug up every year and most of them make their way here.

Bones up the wazoo at the Mammoth Research Institute (they have closed for ‘renovation’ in self defense).


Some mammoths have been reassembled


And organs! And poop! And baby mammoths! they have it all.

Mammoth stomach containing mammoth lunch, I skip a photo of fossilized what comes out the other end (of which there’s plenty)


Delightfully chatty museum director Professor Fedorov is more than happy to describe everything about every bone. He is disappointed I don’t buy a fridge magnet.


In the way of science, it turns out we have mutual acquaintances. That, and my rapt interest in mammoth bones elicits a movie showing a nearly intact mammoth corpse being unearthed. I can barely watch. The rapturous multinational research group swarm all over it, hauling out chunks of intact flesh, and then the motherlode! actual mammoth blood! It is like a satanic ritual in which none of them are wearing even gloves. They are extracting the DNA so they can combine it with elephant DNA to clone an intact living breathing mammoth. Director is politely scathing. ‘It will be just a hybrid’ he says sadly, fondling his favorite mammoth tooth and explaining just what defining characteristics to watch for when the hapless creature does eventually emerge.

Eventually we run out of bone and mammoth anecdotes and I seize the opportunity:

Me: At the Permafrost Institute they told me that permafrost melts when tree cover is lost.

F: True

Me: I have also heard that the Chinese are clear cutting the taiga.

F: Also true. They have special automated machines that can cut very fast in secret.

Me: Isn’t that illegal?

F: Yes.

Me: Who owns the land?

F: Its government land

Me: So how does that work?

F: Well you know that two and two make four.

He gives me his personal email too.

Postscript: I later learn that plans are afoot, not just for nouveau mammoths, but also for bisons and all sort of prehistorical mammals which will repopulate the taiga and protect against global warming. Watch this space. I guess.

To Skovorodino!

The Yakutsk train is a prize among rail travel aficionados (a group I modestly embrace). Only operative since last November it has taken 100 years to build, and was only finished to placate escalating Yakutia rumbles about independence (and who wouldn’t harbor dreams with all that gold, diamonds and uranium, certainly Alex does).

Unfortunately the long gestation period has not avoided certain design flaws, chief among which was the choice to follow the right side of the Lena river (whereas Yakutsk itself is solidly on the left). As a result the line actually ends in Nizhny Bestyak, population 3500 (100 times less than Yakutsk) and is accessible only when the river flows in summer or when it is fully frozen in winter. During the several  sloppy months intervening before and after the hard freeze it is not accessible at all.

Add to this global warming (which, to be fair, was maybe not forseeable) and now we are in a situation in which the official ice roads must be maintained to ensure that the ice depth doesn’t drop below 60cm, while their ancient counterparts, well, aren’t. Not surprisingly few residents of Yakutsk have heretofore embraced the train as a way of escaping to the outside world.

My Uber driver rushing me to the station for an exhorbitant $15 has opted for a questionable short cut. It seems ominous that even at ‘rush hour’ we are the only ones here.


Few takers at the spanking new station that is not only not in Yakutsk at all, but is most often inaccessible.


Third class only, but satisfying new train smell, and more than half empty.


The exception that proves the rule. Jocho has bought himself a rucksack and is off to seek his fortune in Vladivostok, the first time ever he has left town.


Many new stations along the way, but since there are no villages, no one gets on or off.

Conspicuous absence of footsteps around the station. The cellphone tower too is fake – no signal for 24 hours.


Finally after 24 hours, the big city – Tynda, population 30,000. Since we have a 5 hour wait I take myself off on the #6 bus to find the bright lights

Me: Excuse me, where is the center?

Babushka: What center?

Me: Town center

Babushka: What town?

She is being unfair. There is a town center, here it is.


Back at the station 2 hours later, I amble round to where our train is, or rather was 2 hours ago. I hoof it round to Information ‘I’ve lost my train’ my GT tells them cheerily. Alarmingly no ‘This happens all the time’ response is forthcoming. Finally a long-suffering denizen hauls on their polar gear and accompanies me out to the nether regions where my carriage hides in forlorn splendor. Happily, once it is hooked back up to a means to move it along to our next destination, we have acquired the unimaginable luxury of a restaurant.

Masha had the same soul-shattering experience so we take ourselves off to the bar to recover with several beers and caviar.


The barmaid is happy for the company and contributes a bar of chocolate to our celebration.

Our friendly barmaid. We are the only customers thereby upending several stereotypes about Russians, and trains.


Changing trains at Skovorodino in the middle of the night with a 4 hour layover, is causing some anxiety thanks to all the unwelcome information obtainable through the Internet. The 18 stalwart citizens who have offered opinions average a 3 star rating (initially quite promising given the Russian glass-half-empty world view, but closer inspection indicates the positive reviews are simply grateful the station exists at all). Elsewhere Skovorodino is ‘freezing cold’ ‘infested with cockroaches’ and ‘the toilets are terrible’. Even the Lonely Planet (train travel subforum) has told me explicitly ‘No-one will be getting off at Skovorodino’. This is all canard and the event is a nothingburger.  My carriage disembarks en masse and since we are stopping for 20 minutes dear Masha gets off too to ensure I can identify the blazingly illuminated front door. Inside, a mere $5 investment gets me a sparkling room with toilet so I can not only avoid both cold and cockroaches but also have a nice nap, since all three people on night duty pledge to come and wake me up in time, and some come more than once

No trash talk about Skovorodino station! The resting rooms are well worth the $5 investment


Sadly no-one is willing to brave the cold to ensure I actually make my connection, which worryingly will only stop for 2 minutes. Naturally, opinions differ as to whether carriage 2 will be to the left or right, a decision that must made with dispatch when a train could be 50 carriages long. Salvation! the couple already on the platform reassure me they too need carriage 2. They do not, however, elicit confidence. First they are dressed in party clothes and not much else, second they have neither luggage nor the requisite week’s supply of food, finally they can’t manage to get down the platform to where they are sure carriage 2 will stop without each falling over at least once. I need not worry. They are here (from where though?) merely to greet a similarly inebriated friend, himself in transit to points west, and yes traveling in carriage 2. “Privet Russki!”* they holler at each other at 2:30 in the morning while I struggle up the steps. Once aboard the prodnitsa enfolds me in a full embrace, and when I’m all settled in brings me a nice cup of tea, with two lumps of sugar. I will need to lie in tomorrow morning.

*Hi there Russian!

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