The two meet for the first time in Ust-Kut, at Siberia's western edge, in mid-June, hoping to take advantage of Siberia's brief summer and camp on the shores of the Lena each night. Almost immediately it becomes apparent that Vadim has all the skills that will make him an excellent wilderness guide, but absolutely none of the grace required for a pleasant companionship. Ever eager to prove superiority to his Western partner, Vadim's idea of conversation is to bark, "Don't you know that? Everyone does."
Understandably, Tayler dives into every remote village outpost they encounter along the river (and there aren't all that many in the course of the 2,200-mile trip) in search of other human beings.
That's lucky for us. For while there is definitely majesty in Tayler's descriptions of the Siberian landscape ("summery fields, fat bees climbing lazily over flowers ... sleepy huskies at my feet" early in the voyage, and then, closer to the Arctic Circle, "dwarf pines and mini-larches scarcely taller than a man and spaced out over rumpled mats of yellow-green lichen and patches of slatey earth"), the real interest in this book is in its people.
Tayler queries all he meets about life in post-Soviet Siberia. He gets the same answers over and again: Things are worse. We have been forgotten. There is no work, there is no government, there is no life. There is no reason to stay.
And yet stay many of them do – battered by the twin evils of alcoholism and poverty – and as they chat with Tayler we catch glimpses of the odd mix of resilience and despair that shape their distant world.
The Siberia Tayler encounters is a world of tragically overlooked beauty. Garbage strews the streets of tiny hamlets once blessed with at least a touch of storybook charm. Stunningly beautiful women ride the buses and staff the shops, seemingly unnoticed by anyone but Tayler.