CHAPTER XXXIX. START FOR ST. PETERSBURG ROUTE TO YAKUTSK - A TUNGUSE ENCAMPMENT - CROSSING THE STANAVOI MOUNTAINS - SEVERE COLD - FIRE-LIGHTED SMOKE PILLARS - ARRIVAL IN YAKUTSK

When we reached Okhotsk, about the middle of September, I found a letter from Major Abaza, brought by special courier from Yakutsk, directing me to come to St. Petersburg by the first winter road. TheOnward sailed for San Francisco at once, carrying back to home and civilisation all of our employees except four, viz., Price, Schwartz, Malchanski, and myself. Price intended to accompany me to St. Petersburg, while Schwartz and Malchanski, who were Russians, decided to go with us as far as Irkutsk, the east-Siberian capital.

Snow fell in sufficient quantities to make good sledging about the 8th of October; but the rivers did not freeze over so that they could be crossed until two weeks later. On the 21st of the month, Schwartz and Malchanski started with three or four light dog-sledges to break a road through the deep, freshly fallen snow, in the direction of the Stanavoi Mountains, and on the 24th Price and I followed with the heavier baggage and provisions. The whole population of the village turned out to see us off. The long-haired priest, with his cassock flapping about his legs in the keen wind of a wintry morning, stood bareheaded in the street and gave us his farewell blessing; the women, whose hearts we had made glad with American baking-powder and telegraph teacups, waved bright-coloured handkerchiefs to us from their open doors; cries of "Good-bye!" "God grant you a fortunate journey!" came to us from the group of fur-clad men who surrounded our sledges; and the air trembled with the incessant howls of a hundred wolfish dogs, as they strained impatiently against their broad sealskin collars.

"Ai! Maxim!" shouted the ispravnik to our leading driver, "are you all ready?"

"All ready," was the reply.

"Well, then, go, with God!" and, amid a chorus of good wishes and good-byes from the crowd, the spiked sticks which held our sledges were removed; the howls instantly ceased as the dogs sprang eagerly into their collars, and the group of fur-clad men, the green, bulbous church domes, and the grey, unpainted log houses of the dreariest village in all Siberia vanished behind us forever in a cloud of powdery snow.

The so-called "post-road" from Kamchatka to St. Petersburg, which skirts the Okhotsk Sea for more than a thousand miles, passes through the village of Okhotsk, and then, turning away from the coast, ascends one of the small rivers that rise in the Stanavoi Mountains; crosses that range at a height of four or five thousand feet; and finally descends into the great valley of the Lena. It must not be supposed, however, that this "post-road" resembles anything that we know by that name. The word "road," in north-eastern Siberia, is only a verbal symbol standing for an abstraction. The thing symbolised has no more real, tangible existence than a meridian of longitude. It is simply lineal extension in a certain direction. The country back of Okhotsk, for a distance of six hundred miles, is an unbroken wilderness of mountains and evergreen forests, sparsely inhabited by Wandering Tunguses, with here and there a few hardy Yakut squirrel hunters. Through this wilderness there is not even a trail, and the so-called "road" is only a certain route which is taken by the government postilion who carries the yearly mail to and from Kamchatka. The traveller who starts from the Okhotsk Sea with the intention of going across Asia by way of Yakutsk and Irkutsk must make up his mind to be independent of roads; - at least for the first fifteen hundred miles. The mountain passes, the great rivers, and the post-stations, will determine his general course; but the wilderness through which he must make his way has never been subdued by the axe and spade of civilisation. It is now, as it always has been, a wild, primeval land of snowy mountains, desolate steppes, and shaggy pine forests, through which the great arctic rivers and their tributaries have marked out the only lines of intercommunication.

The worst and most difficult part of the post-route between Okhotsk and Yakutsk, viz., the mountainous part, is maintained by a half-wild tribe of arctic nomads known to the Russians as Tunguses. Living originally, as they did, in skin tents, moving constantly from place to place, and earning a scanty subsistence by breeding reindeer, they were easily persuaded by the Russian Government to encamp permanently along the route, and furnish reindeer and sledges for the transportation of couriers and the imperial mails, together with such travellers as should be provided with government orders, or "podorozhnayas." In return for this service they were exempted from the annual tax levied by Russia upon her other Siberian subjects; were supplied with a certain yearly allowance of tea and tobacco; and were authorised to collect from the travellers whom they carried a fare to be computed at the rate of about two and a half cents per mile for every reindeer furnished. Between Okhotsk and Yakutsk, along the line of this post-route, there are seven or eight Tunguse encampments, which vary a little in location, from season to season, with the shifting areas of available pasturage, but which are kept as nearly as possible equidistant from one another in a direct line across the Stanavoi range.