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Visiting Verkhoyansk, Siberia

One compensation for the intense cold is a landscape as beautiful as any I've ever seen. The countryside around Verkhoyansk is wooded, not at all bleak. During the day, the low sun painted everything with golden light and long blue shadows. The trees, trimmed with ice, became elaborate glass sculptures. When the wind blew, the air sparkled with snow crystals. It was too cold for anything to smell of much-even the outhouses. And the snow itself acted as an acoustic blanket, throwing every sound into sharp relief: the squeaking of boots or hooves, the bells on a reindeer's harness, the soft crump of snow thrown aside by a shovel. Just below the Arctic Circle, I saw the northern lights for the first time: luminous green gauze curtains blowing around in outer space.

The Russian word for Siberia, Sibir, comes from Mongolian Altai and means "sleeping land." The woods and rivers and mountains did seem to be in suspended animation. I was reminded of the impenetrable forest around Sleeping Beauty's castle, where everything is frozen at the moment she pricks her finger: the waves sculpted into the rivers, the autumn berries iced onto the bushes, a skinned wolf carcass frozen into an unspeakable shape outside a reindeer herder's hut.

Anatoly, our anthropologist guide, was himself born into a family of Even reindeer herders. The Even were nomads until they were collectivized by the Soviets in the 1920's and 1930's and moved into villages. They live hard lives, ignored by the regional and national governments, which are far more interested in the land beneath them (Sakha holds diamond reserves as vast as South Africa's).

Anatoly bears an open grudge against the European civilization that has so disrupted the Even's traditional life. He enjoyed subjecting me to funny and unsettling lectures about my personal responsibility for the destruction of Even culture. He also liked to point out the shortcomings of our high-tech apparel. He laughed at our bulky Canadian boots. "Pure European approach!" he snorted. "Below minus forty, you will freeze. We should just take a match and set fire to them now." He warned me that if I insisted on wearing my North Face hat instead of a fur one, an archaeologist would be digging me out of the permafrost in a thousand years' time like a woolly mammoth.

On his own feet, Anatoly wore unty, made from reindeer leg fur, and hardly larger than a regular shoe. When we traveled by reindeer sleigh, I borrowed fur clothes from the herders: unty, trousers made from wolverine, snow-sheep mittens, a reindeer jacket. These were not only warmer than my other clothes but stayed quiet and flexible, and the smell of the fur seemed to put the reindeer at ease. (Nigel the cameraman, rustling around in artificial fibers and big boots, kept startling the animals, who would get all tangled up in their harnesses as they leaped to avoid him.) At the end of the day, the fur clothes were placed in a sack and left outside. Warmth and damp destroy them. Yet after a night at 40 below, they were never cold to the touch when I put them on in the morning.

While few in the West have heard of the Even, everyone knows one word of their language. Shaman is the Even term for a traditional spirit-healer. Its etymology is uncertain-it may mean "one who knows"-but the word has been internationalized, passing into various languages from Russian ethnography. During long hours in our overheated truck, Anatoly told me stories about the Even shamans, celebrated by his people as the most powerful shamans of all. According to Anatoly, not only were most Western scientific discoveries preempted by the shamans, but it was also commonplace for Even shamans to visit the moon.

Anatoly told me all this with a smile on his face, but his stories correspond to a belief in Siberia that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he was met by an old Russian wise man called Ivanov. It would be interesting to ask Armstrong about this. In particular, I'd like to know whether Ivanov had a frozen fish in his boot.

Marcel Theroux's first novel, A Stranger in the Earth, was published by Harcourt Brace . His second, The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes, isdue out next spring.


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