"It can carry tons," Rostislav explained proudly.
For our trip, however, the plane was half-empty.
"How far are we from our destination?" I asked Rostislav before we were airborne again. By then we were worlds away from Bratsk, which itself was but an outpost. Yaktusk appeared to be the final point of civilization in this ice-crusted emptiness. Rostislav simply nodded and smiled after Antonovna had translated the question.
I was puzzled by his answer. Perhaps he didn't know. At that moment the engines drowned out what he might have said, and in no time at all we were airborne again. Soon the sky became clear.
"The fog over the city must be generated by people," Antonovna supposed.
"That's how you can spot a heard of reindeer," said one of the crew. "Their breath generates a cloud of fog around them."
We flew lower now than on the previous run. Occasionally we came upon ice-crusted forests that nestled between small mountains and frozen lakes. Occasionally, there was also an isolated herd of reindeer visible. Just like the crewman had said, a group of black spots could be seen that were enveloped in a thin fog that shone brilliantly in the reflection of the slowly rising sun over the timeless snow that covered everything.
"Did you realize we are over seven and a half thousand kilometers east of Moscow?" Antonovna asked excitedly, From here we could go another four thousand kilometers to the east and still be in what used to be the Soviet Union. And all of this country is as beautiful as this. Don't you love this land?" she said and smiled.
We looked down through the small window of the plane; "It's so untouched, so rich, so wild, so beautiful," she said.
"Yes it is beautiful," I agreed. Still, the thought became stronger that we hadn't come here to look at the open taiga. I whispered something like this to Anton.
"Nicolai has arranged everything with the commander of the Reindeer Research Station," she whispered back. "The commander and a couple of scientists, know what we are coming for. The rest of the people know only our cover story. Even Rostislav knows nothing more. Nevertheless, he has been instructed to keep our destination and our visit a secret. He can be trusted with this."
Moments later Anton pointed to the ground again where she had spotted another herd of reindeer. "Did you know that there are two million reindeer in Siberia," she asked, while I had taken over the small window that we shared. "We have 80% of the world's reindeer population in Siberia. They are bred mostly on collective farms now, and on feed lots, which is far more efficient for raising them, than shepherding herds across an icy land. The wild herds that we see are not harvested anymore, they belong to the land."
Her face radiated with a great pride whenever she spoke about Siberia. This pride seemed totally justified. What I saw was a beautiful land, a land of blue shadows, white trees, and a deep blue sky. Except her pride in it was more beautiful than the land itself.
"It is a free land, for free people," she remarked. Watching Antonovna, I instinctively sensed that this was her land, something she owned as a citizen, something she identified with, that provided her an immense satisfaction.
It was altogether a lovely experience flying with Antonovna. We had our faces glued to the window. It was amazing the things she knew and noticed. She talked about trappers and prospectors who had pioneered this land, and about today's communities serving the Soviet era infrastructure projects. Everything was exciting to her, even the shape of the mountains, as well as the bright future that this land signified to her.
In her company, the two-and-a-half-hour flight seemed like a short jump. We landed on a frozen river or lake between three hills that formed a triangle. Landmarks are scarce in this endless wilderness of ice crusted trees, and apparently, so are good landing sites. The chosen site was perfect. We came in smooth, with a gentle approach and an almost unnoticeable landing. Everything in sight was clean and brilliantly white, unmarred by the least sign of civilization. There weren't even footprints in the snow where the aircraft came to rest. By all accounts we had landed in the middle of nowhere. Nor did anyone get off. The pilots kept the engines idling. Still, the captain did say that this was the end of the line. There was the occasional chatter on the radio, except there was no one around. As far as I could see, there weren't even animal tracks in the area. It looked to me as though nothing had stirred in this part of the country for thousands of years.
Suddenly, as out of nowhere, a huge tracked vehicle appeared. It lumbered down over a snow bank. Antonovna gestured that we should step outside. One of the crew handed us snowshoes. The snow appeared far from being solid enough to walk on. The plane, on its wide skis, had carved deep furrows.
Uh, was it cold, though. The sun was bright, and quite warm behind the window of the heated aircraft, but what a deception this had been! The wind carried tiny ice crystals that stung like needles in the face. But who cared? I was in the Siberian wilderness that few in the world had ever set foot in. It was exciting.
"Welcome to Oymyakon International Airport," shouted the driver of the snow cat in English. He looked down on us from his huge snowmobile, something out of a science fiction movie, and grinned. "Come on up." Then a side door opened.
"Thank you!" I shouted back, waving at him.
"Your taxi is waiting," he replied.
We hobbled over the loose powder like some cowboys whose legs had grown to match the contour of a horse's back. As we reached the snow cat, the driver came out and greeted us. The plane's cargo doors opened just then. We turned back and helped the driver and one of the plane's crew transfer the cargo. Our cargo consisted of wooden crates, some cardboard boxes and several heavy canvass bundles. The plane even carried a sleigh to transport the stuff to the snow cat. The cat with its massive weight might have overburdened the ice of the river or the lake. I had remained at the edge of the 'runway.'
As we boarded the cat, we handed the snowshoes and parkas back to the aircrew and waved to the pilots. Rostislav must have taken this as his cue, or maybe he had to wait until we had handed our snowshoes back. That's when he appeared at the door of the aircraft once more as if he would dive headlong into the snow. But he announced that his assignment was done, he would fly back with the plane. We had arrived safely. His mission was completed. After this little speech, and an official farewell, the aircraft's door was shut again.
For the rest of the journey, we drove, apparently aimlessly, across the taiga. There were no roads, trail markers, nor any landmarks that I could make out. We now had a close up view of the country we had seen for hours from the air. The snow cat drove for another three-quarters of an hour through empty spaces and sparse forest of towering snow sculptures that were leaning slightly with the wind, casting bright blue shadows on the snow. At one point, on top of a bare, wind swept hill the driver stopped. He asked us to come forward and pointed towards the slope of another hill. "Look, there is a rare sight for your photo album," he said and handed the binoculars to Anton and me.
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