Siberia is one of those places we simply forget about. We fly above it en route to Asia with our window shades rigorously lowered and if we ever look at it it’s just for seconds, enough to think “Shit, isn’t it empty there?” and then we return to our movie.
I, for some odd reason, feel incredibly attracted by Siberia. Growing up I had two places I wanted to visit more than anywhere else in the vast world (and still do, in case you’re wondering): Easter Island and Siberia. I always wanted to see the majestic Lake Bajkal, follow the course of the great rivers (Ob, Yeniseoi, Amur…), visit forgotten outposts of civilisation on the Arctic ocean…
… But what I’ve seen one day returning from a trip to Japan blows everything out of the water. It was some three hours into the flight and, up until that point, the views hadn’t been that great: it was June, and a thick humidity haze was lingering above the terrain. I could make out the twisting ribbon of the Amur, but everything else was pretty much invisible to my eyes. Until we reached it.
All of a sudden the most majestic natural show displayed before my eyes: an apparently seamless succession of enormous canyons, valleys and almost vertical walls of rock. It was early summer now, but obviously this land hadn’t been reached yet by it: snow still covered the flattened peaks, and ice engulfed the canyons.
Within moments, the entire Economy section of our plane was glued at the windows, forgetting about sleep or movies. I, too, stuck my face to the perspex glass and stayed like that for the entire time we flew over this marvel. The air had cleared out and I could see even the tiniest detail: rocks, trees, cracks in the ice. I left my adult body and returned to my childhood dream, daydreaming of being an explorer down there, busy negotiating with the orography of the terrain. I imagined being distracted by the noise of that plane up above, then returning to my duties.
The show lasted for about 40 minutes. Then the mountains abruptly ended, leaving the ground to a succession of meteor crater-like lakes and rivers, some frozen and some not. It was fascinating, but not as much as discovering the existence of a Siberian answer to the Gran Canyon, with no one living next to it. This, I thought, was how the average Victorian explorer must’ve felt like when discovering the source of the Nile or another Pacific island. I ordered a gin & tonic just to thrust myself better in the part, by Jove!
Once home, still upbeat from my discovery, I went on to know if my new favourite place had a name. It’s called Putorana Plateau, a word that in the Evenks language (the nomadic people who lives these latitudes) means “The country of lakes with steep banks”. The Evenks might’ve named the place but didn’t quite live there at all, for this is one of the remotest and least inhabited areas in Siberia, with a population of 0.
It lies to the south of the Taymyr peninsula and north-east of Noril’sk, and this is where the problems start if you want to visit it. Noril’sk, home of some of the world’s largest (and most polluting) nickel mines and treating facilities, is a “closed city”. Only Russians and those lucky enough to have a passport yielded by Belarus’ Lukashenko can visit this place without having to pass – and probably fall – through the Russian bureaucracy. This applies to the Plateau as well, meaning that you and I are likely to visit it only from above, or to read about it in articles. National Geographic, for instance, dedicated a dispatch to the Plateu, something you can read here. Click here, instead, for the brilliant photos taken by Randy Olson during that expedition.
Does this mean I’ve given up hoping to visit the Plateau? No! I don’t know how long it’ll take but I know that, one day, I’ll be there and a plane will pass above me en route to Europe. Hopefully you’ll see me waving up at you!