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.

We hoped to make the first post-station on the third day after our departure; but the soft freshly fallen snow so retarded our progress that it was nearly dark on the fourth day before we caught sight of the little group of Tunguse tents where we were to exchange our dogs for reindeer. If there be, in "all the white world," as the Russians say, anything more hopelessly dreary than one of the Tunguse mountain settlements in winter, I have never seen it. Away up above the forests, on some elevated plateau, or desolate, storm-swept height, where nothing but berry bushes and arctic moss will grow, stand the four or five small, grey reindeerskin tents which make up the nomad encampment. There are no trees or shrubs around them to shut out a part of the sky, limit the horizon, or afford the least semblance of shelter to the lonely settlement, and there is no wall or palisade to fence in and domesticate for finite purposes a little corner of the infinite. The grey tents seem to stand alone in the great universe of God, with never-ending space and unbounded desolation stretching away from their very doors. Take your stand near such an encampment and look at it more closely. The surface of the snowy plain around you, as far as you can see, has been trampled and torn up by reindeer in search of moss. Here and there between the tents stand the large sledges upon which the Tunguses load their camp-equipage when they move, and in front is a long, low wall, made of symmetrically piled reindeer packs and saddles. A few driving deer wander around, with their noses to the ground, looking for something that they never seem to find; evil-looking ravens - the scavengers of Tunguse encampments - flap heavily past with hoarse croaks to a patch of blood-stained snow where a reindeer has recently been slaughtered; and in the foreground, two or three grey, wolfish dogs with cruel, light-coloured eyes, are gnawing at a half-stripped reindeer's head. The thermometer stands at forty-five degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, and the breasts of deer, ravens, and dogs are white with frost. The thin smoke from the conical fur tents rises perpendicularly to a great height in the clear, still air; the ghostly mountain peaks in the distance look like white silhouettes on a background of dark steel-blue; and the desolate snow-covered landscape is faintly tinged with a yellow glare by the low-hanging wintry sun. Every detail of the scene is strange, wild, arctic, - even to the fur-clad, frost-whitened men who come riding up to the tents astride the shoulders of panting reindeer and salute you with a drawling "Zdar-o-o-va!" as they put one end of their balancing poles to the ground and spring from their flat, stirrupless saddles. You can hardly realise that you are in the same active, bustling, money-getting world in which you remember once to have lived. The cold, still atmosphere, the white, barren mountains, and the great lonely wilderness around you are all full of cheerless, depressing suggestions, and have a strange unearthliness which you cannot reconcile or connect with any part of your pre-Siberian life.

At the first Tunguse encampment we took a rest of twenty-four hours, and then, exchanging our dogs for reindeer, we bade good-bye to our Okhotsk drivers and, under the guidance of half a dozen bronze-faced Tunguses in spotted reindeerskin coats, pushed westward, through snow-choked mountain ravines, toward the river Aldan. Our progress, for the first two weeks, was slow and fatiguing and attended with difficulties and hardships of almost every possible kind. The Tunguse encampments were sometimes three or four days' journey apart; the cold, as we ascended the Stanavoi range, steadily increased in intensity until it became so severe as to endanger life, and day after day we plodded wearily on snowshoes ahead of our heavily loaded sledges, breaking a road in three feet of soft snow for our struggling, frost-whitened deer. We made, on an average, about thirty miles a day; but our deer often came in at night completely exhausted, and the sharp ivory goads of our Tunguse drivers were red with frozen blood. Sometimes we bivouacked at night in a wild mountain gorge and lighted up the snow-laden forest with the red glare of a mighty camp-fire; sometimes we shovelled the drifted snow out of one of the emptyyurts, or earth-covered cabins, built by the government along the route to shelter its postilions, and took refuge therein from a howling blizzard. Hardened as we were by two previous winters of arctic travel, and accustomed as we were to all the vicissitudes of northern life, the crossing of the Stanavoi range tried our powers of endurance to the uttermost. For four successive days, near the summit of the pass on the western slope, mercury froze at noon. [Footnote: We had only a mercurial thermometer, so that we did not know how much below - 39 deg. the temperature was.] The faintest breath of air seared the face like a hot iron; beards became tangled masses of frosty wire; eyelids grew heavy with long snowy fringes which half obscured the sight; and only the most vigorous exercise would force the blood back into the benumbed extremities from which it was constantly being driven by the iron grasp of the cold. Schwartz, the oldest member of our party, was brought into a Tunguse encampment one night in a state of unconsciousness that would soon have ended in death, and even our hardy native drivers came in with badly frozen hands and faces. The temperature alone would have been sufficient evidence, if evidence were needed, that we were entering the coldest region on the globe - the Siberian province of Yakutsk. [Footnote: In some parts of this province the freezing point of mercury, or about forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit, is the average temperature of the three winter months, and eighty-five degrees below zero have sometimes been observed.]

In a monotonous routine of walking on snowshoes, riding on reindeer-sledges, camping in the open, or sleeping in smoky Tunguse tents, day after day and week after week passed, until at last we approached the valley of the Aldan - one of the eastern tributaries of that great arctic river the Lena. Climbing the last outlying ridge of the Stanavoi range, one dark, moonless evening in November, we found ourselves at the head of a wild ravine leading downward into an extensive open plain. Away below and in front, outlined against the intense blackness of the hills beyond the valley, rose four or five columns of luminous mist, like pillars of fire in the wilderness of the Exodus.

"What are those?" I inquired of my Tunguse driver.

"Yakut," was the brief reply.

They were columns of smoke, sixty or seventy feet in height, over the chimneys of Yakut farmhouses; and they stood so vertically in the cold, motionless air of the arctic night that they were lighted up, to their very summits, by the hearth-fires underneath. As I stood looking at them, there came faintly to my ears the far-away lowing of cattle. "Thank God!" I said to Malchanski, who at that moment rode up, "we are getting, at last, where they live in houses and keep cows!" No one can fully understand the pleasure that these columns of fire-lighted smoke gave us until he has ridden on dog-or reindeer-sledges, or walked on snowshoes, for twenty interminable days, through an arctic wilderness. It seemed to me a year since our departure from Okhotsk; for weeks we had not taken off our heavy armour of furs; mirrors, beds and clean linen were traditions of the remote past; and American civilisation, as we looked back at it across twenty-seven months of barbarism, faded into the unreal imagery of a dream. But the pillars of fire-lighted smoke and the lowing of domestic cattle were a promise of better things.

In less than two hours, we were sitting before the glowing fireplace of a comfortable Yakut house, with a soft carpet under our feet; real crockery cups of fragrant Kiakhta tea on a table beside us, and pictures on the wall over our heads. The house, it is true, had slabs of ice for windows; the carpet was made of deerskins; and the pictures were only woodcuts from Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's ; but to us, fresh from the smoky tents of the Tunguses, windows, carpets, and pictures, of any kind, were things to be wondered at and admired.

Between the Yakut settlements on the Aldan and the town of Yakutsk, there was a good post-road - really a road; so, harnessing shaggy white Yakut ponies to our Okhotsk dog-sledges, we drove swiftly westward, to the unfamiliar music of Russian sleigh-bells, changing horses at every post-station and riding from fifteen to eighteen hours out of the twenty-four.

On the 16th of November, after twenty-three days of continuous travel, we reached Yakutsk; and there, in the house of a wealthy Russian merchant who threw his doors open to us with warm-hearted hospitality, we washed from our bodies the smoke and grime of Tunguse tents and yurts; put on clean, fresh clothes; ate a well cooked and daintily served supper; drank five tumblers of fragrant overland tea; smoked two Manila cheroots; and finally went to bed, excited but happy, in beds that were provided with hair mattresses, fleecy Russian blankets, and linen sheets. The sensation of lying without furs and between sheets in a civilised bed was so novel and extraordinary that I lay awake for an hour, trying experiments with that wonderful mattress and luxuriously exploring, with bare feet, the smooth cool expanses of linen sheeting.