The urge to explore is written into the Y chromosome. There’s just something about discovering foreign lands, risking death and dismemberment for a payoff that is not guaranteed, that appeals to men. The only problem with this urge is that our world has been mapped out. Save for some inaccessible pockets of the Amazon, every possible corner of the Earth, every obscure tribe and mountain range has been explored and hooked up to the sewer line of American consumerism.
The closest we can get to living like the explorers of old is heading into second-world countries to fuck the local girls.
For a glimpse into that lost world of discovery, Tent Life in Siberia is a fantastic book. An account of explorer George Kennan’s journey across Siberia around the time of the Civil War, the book catalogues his observations and experiences as one of the first Americans to explore the most remote regions of Russia. As a first-hand look at a land that had barely been touched by the outside world, it’s invaluable.
The story: at age twenty, Kennan was hired by Western Union to journey to Siberia as part of an effort to establish a overland telegraph line between Alaska and Russia, linking the Americas and Eurasia for the first time in history. The reason why you’ve never heard about this feat is because it was a failure; while Kennan and his comrades were alternately exploring Siberia and trying to survive, a transatlantic cable was successfully laid between New York and London in 1866, rendering the Russian project useless:
We all went down into the cosy, well-furnished cabin, where refreshments were set before us by the steward, and where we talked for an hour about the news of the world, from whaling in the South Pacific to dog-driving in Arctic Asia, and from Weston’s walk across the North American continent to Karakozef’s attempt to assassinate the Tsar. But it was, on our side at least, a perfunctory conversation. The news of the complete success of the Atlantic cable was as unexpected as it was disheartening, and it filled our minds to the exclusion of everything else. The world would have no use for an overland telegraph-line through Alaska and Siberia if it already possessed a working cable between London and New York.
Nonetheless, Kennan’s story stands apart due to his party’s thorough exploration of eastern Russia. Over the course of two years, he meets with the various tribes that live in Siberia, catalogues the local flora and fauna, witnesses the aurora borealis and nearly dies of starvation and exposure several times. I particularly enjoyed his account of a Korak wedding midway through the book:
…Our sudden entrance seemed to create a temporary diversion from the legitimate business of the evening. The tattooed women and shaven-headed men stared in open-mouthed astonishment at the pale-faced guests who had come unbidden to the marriage-feast, having on no wedding garments. Our faces were undeniably dirty, our blue hunting-shirts and buckskin trousers bore the marks of two months’ rough travel, in numerous rips, tears, and tatters, which were only partially masked by a thick covering of reindeer hair from our fur kukhlánkas. Our general appearance, in fact, suggested a more intimate acquaintance with dirty yurts, mountain thickets, and Siberian storms, than with the civilising influences of soap, water, razors, and needles. We bore the curious scrutiny of the assemblage, however, with the indifference of men who were used to it, and sipped our hot tea while waiting for the ceremony to begin…
Despite the age of Tent Life in Siberia, Kennan’s prose is surprisingly modern, lacking the pretension and sentiment that was endemic to pre-Twain American literature. He conveys his thoughts and observations simply and honestly, painting Czarist Siberia as a land largely unknown, even to the Russians who controlled it. Christianity and European influence had just barely begun to penetrate into Siberia, with the traditions and lives of its inhabitants largely intact, defined by its treacherous weather and isolation from the greater world:
…If any proof were needed that this system of religion is the natural outgrowth of human nature in certain conditions of barbarism, it would be furnished by the universal prevalence of Shamanism in north-eastern Siberia among so many diverse tribes of different character and different origin. The tribe of Tunguses for instance, is certainly of Chinese descent, and the tribe of Yakuts is certainly Turkish. Both came from different regions, bringing different beliefs, superstitions, and modes of thought; but, when both were removed from all disturbing agencies and subjected to the same external influences, both developed precisely the same system of religious belief. If a band of ignorant, barbarous Mahometans were transported to north-eastern Siberia, and compelled to live alone in tents, century after century, amid the wild, gloomy scenery of the Stanavoi Mountains, to suffer terrific storms whose causes they could not explain, to lose their reindeer suddenly by an epidemic disease which defied human remedies, to be frightened by magnificent auroras that set the whole universe in a blaze, and decimated by pestilences whose nature they could not understand and whose disastrous effects they were powerless to avert—they would almost inevitably lose by degrees their faith in Allah and Mahomet, and become precisely such Shamanists as the Siberian Koraks and Chukchis are today. Even a whole century of partial civilisation and Christian training cannot wholly counteract the irresistible Shamanistic influence which is exerted upon the mind by the wilder, more terrible manifestations of Nature in these lonely and inhospitable regions…
The worst part is that these tribes and ethnic groups probably don’t even exist anymore, or if they do, they are almost unrecognizable from decades of cultural destruction of both the communist and capitalist variety. Kennan’s very voyage and purpose for being in Siberia shows this; as one of the first Americans to explore this part of the world, he brought Western influence to the Koraks, the Kamchatdal and the other peoples of Siberia.
The world gets smaller with every passing day.
My criticisms of Tent Life in Siberia are two. Firstly, Kennan’s penchant for multiple page-spanning paragraphs got tiresome very quickly. Secondly, this particular edition of the book lacks the photographs of the original edition, instead substituting them with descriptions. It’s a minor thing, as Kennan’s prose was more than able to convey the beauty and danger of Siberia for me, but it’s somewhat annoying.
Other than that, Tent Life in Siberia is one of the best travel memoirs ever written, a must-read for anyone interested in Russia or who just enjoys tales of exploration in general.
Click here to buy Tent Life in Siberia (free on Kindle).