CHAPTER XXV. PENZHINA - POSTS FOR ELEVATED ROAD - FIFTY-THREE BELOW ZERO - TALKED OUT - ASTRONOMICAL LECTURES - EATING PLANETS - THE HOUSE OF A PRIEST
The village of Penzhina is a little collection of log houses, flat-topped yurts, and four-legged balagans, situated on the north bank of the river which bears its name, about half-way between the Okhotsk Sea and Anadyrsk. It is inhabited principally by meshchans (mesh-chans'), or free Russian peasants, but contains also in its scanty population a few "Chuances" or aboriginal Siberian natives, who were subjugated by the Russian Cossacks in the eighteenth century, and who now speak the language of their conquerors and gain a scanty subsistence by fishing and trading in furs. The town is sheltered on the north by a very steep bluff about a hundred feet in height, which, like all hills in the vicinity of Russian settlements, bears upon its summit a Greek cross with three arms. The river opposite the settlement is about a hundred yards in width, and its banks are heavily timbered with birch, larch, poplar, willow, and aspen. Owing to warm springs in its bed, it never entirely freezes over at this point, and in a temperature of 40 deg. below zero gives off dense clouds of steam which hide the village from sight as effectually as a London fog.
We remained at Penzhina three days, gathering information about the surrounding country and engaging men to cut poles for our line. We found the people to be cheerful, good-natured, and hospitable, and disposed to do all in their power to further our plans; but of course they had never heard of a telegraph, and could not imagine what we were going to do with the poles which we were so anxious to have cut. Some said that we intended to build a wooden road from Gizhiga to Anadyrsk, so that it would be possible to travel back and forth in the summer; others contended with some show of probability that two men, even if they were Americans, could not construct a wooden road, six hundred versts long, and that our real object was to build some sort of a huge house. When questioned as to the use of this immense edifice, however, the advocates of the house theory were covered with confusion, and could only insist upon the physical impossibility of a road, and call upon their opponents to accept the house or suggest something better. We succeeded in engaging sixteen able-bodied men, however, to cut poles for a reasonable compensation, gave them the required dimensions - twenty-one feet long and five inches in diameter at the top - and instructed them to cut as many as possible, and pile them up along the banks of the river.
I may as well mention here, that when I returned from Anadyrsk in March I went to look at the poles, 500 in number, which the Penzhina men had cut. I found, to my great astonishment, that there was hardly one of them less than twelve inches in diameter at the top, and that the majority were so heavy and unwieldy that a dozen men could not move them. I told the natives that they would not do, and asked why they had not cut smaller ones, as I had directed. They replied that they supposed I wanted to build some kind of a road on the tops of these poles, and they knew that poles only five inches in diameter would not be strong enough to hold it up! They had accordingly cut trees large enough to be used as pillars for a state-house. They still lie there, buried in arctic snows; and I have no doubt that many years hence, when Macaulay's New Zealander shall have finished sketching the ruins of St. Paul's and shall have gone to Siberia to complete his education, he will be entertained by his native drivers with stories of how two crazy Americans once tried to build an elevated railroad from the Okhotsk Sea to Bering Strait. I only hope that the New Zealander will write a book, and confer upon the two crazy Americans the honour and the immortality which their labours deserved, but which the elevated railroad failed to give.
We left Penzhina on the 31st day of December for Anadyrsk. After travelling all day, as usual, over a barren steppe, we camped for the night near the foot of a white isolated peak called Nalgim, in a temperature of 53 deg. below zero. It was New Year's Eve; and as I sat by the fire in my heaviest furs, covered from head to foot with frost, I thought of the great change which a single year had made in my surroundings. New Year's Eve, 1864, I had spent in Central America, riding on a mule from Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific coast, through a magnificent tropical forest. New Year's Eve, 1865, found me squatting on a great snowy plain near the Arctic Circle, trying, in a temperature of 53 deg. below zero, to eat up my soup before it froze solidly to the plate. Hardly could there have been a greater contrast.