Monday, January 18, 2016

Classic #1

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Tent Life in Siberia – George Kennan

This delightful book stands as a classic travel narrative. A young man only in his twenties, Kennan writes in a way that we would expect a educated guy of the time to write. That is, he is witty, allusive, facetious, energetic, and confident. He tells many funny stories about his mishaps. This on Siberian dog-drawn sleds:

Our legs were immovably fixed in boxes, and our bodies so wedged in with pillows and heavy furs that we could neither get out nor turn over. In this helpless condition we were completely at our drivers' mercy; if they chose to let us slide over the edge of a precipice in the mountains, all we could do was to shut our eyes and trust in Providence. Seven times in less than three hours my Kamenoi driver, with the assistance of fourteen crazy dogs and a spiked stick, turned my pavoska exactly bottom side up, dragged it in that position until the hood was full of snow, and then left me standing on my head, with my legs in a box and my face in a snow-drift, while he took a smoke and calmly meditated upon the difficulties of mountain travel and the versatility of dog-sledges! It was enough to make Job curse his grandmother!

Anyway, some background. In the 1860s, a private American company entered into a joint venture with the Czar of Russia’s government. The deal was to erect a telegraph line from the Russian Far Northeast to Europe and China, thus beating out an Atlantic cable for customers and profits. The project required joint Russian-American parties to explore Siberia for prospective routes for the telegraph lines.

Their mission, then, was to explore of the north and west coasts of the Okhotsk Sea,  the Russian city of Yakutsk, south of the Anadyr and along the lower Myan river, and the land between Gizhiga and Anadyrsk, as well as rivers connecting the Okhotsk Sea with the Pacific Ocean near Bering Strait.

The parties also scout out possibilities to hire thousands of Yakut laborers for cutting poles and buying Siberian horses for hauling them. Kennan plays the amateur ethnographer.

I highly recommend this narrative. Fans of nature writing would have to go far to find more wonderful descriptions of the aurora borealis. Readers into travel writing will also enjoy reading about a region little visited by explorers or travelers.

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