CHAPTER XL. THE GREATEST HORSE-EXPRESS SERVICE IN THE WORLD - EQUIPMENT FOR THE ROAD - A SIBERIAN "SEND-OFF" - POST TRAVEL ON THE ICE - BROKEN SLEEP - DRIVING INTO AN AIR-HOLE - REPAIRING DAMAGES - FIRST SIGHT OF IRKUTSK
We remained in Yakutsk only four days - just long enough to make the necessary preparations for a continuous sleigh-ride of five thousand one hundred and fourteen miles to the nearest railway in European Russia. The Imperial Russian Post, by which we purposed to travel from Yakutsk to Nizhni Novgorod, was, at that time, the longest and best organised horse-express service in the world. It employed 3000 or 4000 drivers, with twice as many telegas, tarantases and sleighs, and kept in readiness for instant use more than 10,000 horses, distributed among 350 post-stations, along a route that covered a distance as great as that between New York City and the Sandwich Islands. If one had the requisite physical endurance, and could travel night and day without stop, it was possible, with a courier's "podorozhnaya" (po-do-rozh'-na-yah), or road-ticket, to go from Yakutsk to Nizhni Novgorod, a distance of 5114 miles, in twenty-five days, or only eleven days more than the time occupied by a railway train in covering about the same distance. Before the establishment of telegraphic communication between China and Russia, imperial couriers, carrying important despatches from Peking, often made the distance between Irkutsk and St. Petersburg - 3618 miles - in sixteen days, with two hundred and twelve changes of horses and drivers. In order to accomplish this feat they had to eat, drink, and sleep in their sleighs and make an average speed-rate of ten miles an hour for nearly four hundred consecutive hours. We did not expect, of course, to travel with such rapidity as this; but we intended to ride night and day, and hoped to reach St. Petersburg before the end of the year. With the aid and advice of Baron Maidel, a Russian scientist who had just come over the route that we purposed to follow, Price and I bought a large openpavoska or Siberian travelling sleigh, which looked like a huge, burlap-covered baby-carriage on runners; had it brought into the courtyard of our house, and proceeded to fit it up for six weeks' occupancy as a bedchamber and sitting-room. First of all, we repacked our luggage in soft, flat, leather pouches, and stowed it away in the bottom of the deep and capacious vehicle as a foundation for our bed. We then covered these flat pouches with a two-foot layer of fragrant hay, to lessen the shock of jolting on a rough road; spread over the hay a big wolfskin sleeping-sack, about seven feet in length and wide enough to hold our two bodies; covered that with two pairs of blankets; and finally lined the whole back part of the sleigh with large, soft, swan's-down pillows. At the foot of the sleeping-sack, under the driver's seat, we stowed away a bag of dried rye-bread, another bag filled with cakes of frozen soup, two or three pounds of tea, a conical loaf of white sugar, half a dozen dried and smoked salmon, and a padded box containing teapot, tea-cannister, sugar-jar, spoons, knives and forks, and two glass tumblers. Schwartz; and Malchanski bought another pavoska and fitted it up in similar fashion, and on the 19th of November we obtained from the Bureau of Posts two podorozhnayas, or, as Price called them, "ukases," directing every post-station master between Yakutsk and Irkutsk to furnish us, "by order of his Imperial Majesty Alexander Nikolaivitch, Autocrat of All the Russias," etc., etc., six horses and two drivers to carry us on our way.
In every part of the world except Siberia it is customary to start on a long journey in the morning. In Siberia, however, the proper time is late in the evening, when all your friends can conveniently assemble to "provozhat," or, in colloquial English, give you a send-off. Judging from our experience in Yakutsk, the Siberian custom has the support of sound reason, inasmuch as the amount of drinking involved in the riotous ceremony of "provozhanie" unfits a man for any place except bed, and any occupation more strenuous than slumber. A man could never see his friend off in the morning and then go back to his business. He would see double, if not quadruple, and would hardly be able to speak his native language without a foreign accent. When the horses came from the post-station for us, at ten o'clock on the evening of November 20th, we had had one dinner and two or three incidental lunches; had "sampled" every kind of beverage that our host had in the house, from vodka and cherry cordial to "John Collins" and champagne; had sung all the songs we knew, from "John Brown's Body" in English to "Nastoichka travnaya" in Russian; and Schwartz and Malchanski were ready, apparently, to make a night of it, send the horses back to the station, and have another provozhanie the next day. Price and I, however, insisted that the Czar's ukase to the station-masters was good only for that evening; that if we didn't take the horses immediately we should have to pay demurrage; that the curfew bell had rung; that the town gates would close at ten thirty sharp; and that if we didn't get under way at once, we should probably be arrested for riotous disturbance of the peace!