This post is part 1 of a short series on a 10-day trip I took with my older son Kerith this summer to a remote land and ethnic groups of northern Siberia. As will come as no surprise, it was an unforgettable experience that will inform my thoughts and feelings on ministry for years to come.
This trip was possible thanks to an old acquaintance here in St. Petersburg whose very ministry is to the forgotten natives of that part of the country – Igor Bogomol. I have tremendous respect for him and his heart for these people. He has been traveling to one of several such locations a few times a year for over 20 years. I asked if we could tag along, and he was more than accommodating.
Before I describe the amazing land, the fascinating people, and my broader thoughts on missions that this trip engendered, I need to give you some sense of why people group (the missiological term for an cohesive ethnic target) are mostly unreached with the Good News. In a word, they are unreached because they are hard to reach!
We first had to fly into Salekhard, the capital of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region. Call it Yamal for short, but notice that the second part of the name is about the people group that we went to visit – the Nenets. More about them in another post. They are sufficiently “autonomous” from Moscow to not only elect their own president, but they even had passport control for us coming in, which was a total surprise for us, and all the more so since they stopped us for not having a COVID test. Fortunately, the officers were really nice and, after writing up the paperwork against us, let us go and said nothing would come of it. Igor, BTW, had come in on the train (two days from St. Petersburg), and when he found out they would want a test, he just got out one station before entering the region and took a cab from there.
But our real destination was not Salekhard, nor the town we spent our first night in – after having to take a ferry across the river Ob (see below). Our destination was so hard to get to, we spent half of our first day just going around town to buy the humanitarian aid we were to give along the way. We are talking about primarily groceries, but with other goods thrown in. Where we were going, there were no stores to buy anything except what you really needed to survive.
We packed our van to the gills and took off, but first was a stop off to give some items to a young woman that Igor had known and cared for for many years to help with her dorm room (anyone can live in dormitory type buildings here), which was otherwise completely empty of all furniture and belongings. This first rendezvous was complicated by the fact that she was not only hard to find, but hard to contact, since she had probably been drinking all night. Drinking a lot was a common story that repeated itself many times over the course of our trip.
Once we got well out of sight of the city and civilization, the real fun began. We got off the road onto what I really thought was a temporary stop or detour, because it looked like a construction site for the beginning of a new road. But I soon learned that although construction was still going on, this was an active road, and in fact what they called the “new” part of the road. For the life of me I could not understand what quality about this road had earned it the title “new” since it was not only not finished, but in worse shape than any road I have ever been on in any other country, including my own rural Georgia. The best parts were still being constructed, and what amazed me was the fact that traffic actually passed through active construction sites where they were currently laying down the road. As I eventually came to see, this was no doubt a compromise of necessity, as there were no detours to be offered. In fact, this one road that we were to travel for the next 8+ hours had essentially no towns, no gas stations, no stores, nor EVEN ANY OTHER ROADS to distract us from our singular path. This road was the single artery to the tiny town we sought.
Did I mention that the trip on this road took over 8 hours? But that might conjure up images that are completely divorced from reality: us sailing down a highway like Route 66, singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” or some such jocular way of passing the time. As the forest land slowly faded into the background, and the land became quite flat and serene. The tundra emerged. The scenery was indeed idyllic and beautiful. But I am getting ahead to another post. My point here is to say that the experience we had on the road does not in any way correspond to the pastorale scenes we passed of a completely level landscape.
The problem in these parts is the fact that the tundra is the land of permafrost. The ground is quite unstable beneath the surface, so to build a road you have to build up a pretty hefty base. So what we are riding on is a kind of peninsula of rock and gravel and dirt. But either this bed has no hope of competing against the forces of nature that constantly array against it, or the Russians have no willpower, or funds, to make it so. All we know is that their vehicles can take the licking and keep on ticking. In fact the Japanese are reported to have declared that “Russians will build anything to avoid making better roads.”
Yet I still can’t comprehend why it could be in anyone’s interest to allow such horrible roads to exist. This road is actually owned by Gazprom, the big gas and oil guys. It exists, as far as they are concerned, to get to the natural resources that are abundant in this region, and to get them out. Admittedly their trucks fare better than any personal vehicle. With tires as big as a man, they handle “inconsistencies” with relative ease.
But even big trucks need good bridges. Since the whole terrain is not only saturated with water, and there are tons of rivers, lakes, and ponds, there were quite a few bridges to cross. Most were steel frame with wooden roads across, and most work most of the time. Our driver, Grisha, however, not long ago became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and fell through a bridge. He and his truck survived (though it can be deadly), but the bridge went out. He and Igor had to bypass one such former bridge last year, taking them through the swampland that only gets swampier with every passing truck. But the big guys can plow through. Their little van got stuck, and they had to spend the night there before the next vehicle showed up and pulled them out. The nicest looking bridge, from a distance at least, was like a mini Golden Gate. All the others were nothing but flat bridges, but this one was impressive. But the devil’s in the details. Once we got on it, we learned that the surface is covered in planks, which would be fine, but for the fact that some places required a second layer of planks to cover the holes underneath. So Kerith got out to help Grisha align these blocks with 45 degree angles cut in them to help him get up onto the boards across the abyss. It was kind of like climbing onto the do-jigger at the auto repair shop.
Back to the road, what do I mean by these “inconsistencies”? Of course you are thinking about potholes. Most roads with pot holes can be driven in such a way that you can usually avoid them. But if every cotton pickin’ kilometer has hundreds and hundreds of them, your task becomes not to avoid them, but to just see where others have found the least offensive journey forward. This is why, on the “new” road, we felt like we were flying when, once in a blue moon, we could accelerate up to 50km/h (that’s 30mph for you Americans). The rest of the time, at 10-20km/h it was sufficiently tortuous to manage the bumpiness that I found myself having to wear a seatbelt, not to avoid any traffic (we probably only saw a few trucks every hour), but because otherwise I was being thrown about too violently.
It wasn’t until we got to the “old” road that I appreciated the good ol’ days of riding on the new one. Here our pace slowed to 3-5km/h much of the time as we battled all the stones that had been working their way up to the surface of the road over the years. Maybe “stones” is too idilic sounding. That probably makes you think of the “smooth stones” that David used to kill Goliath, that could fit in the palm of one’s hand. We are not only talking about the roughest, most irregular shapes imaginable, but these were stones of such size that at times they would have been insulted to have been given any other moniker than “boulder.”
But wait: it gets better. The road itself had taken such a beating over the years that the peninsula was often wearing away on the edges. Unlike my grandfather, who when asked at the age of 100 how he was feeling, would often answer, “I’m aging pretty evenly,” this road had aged at all different kinds of rates, so that the angle of the van would vary vastly on all relevant planes – as much as 45-50 degrees from the center.
Having now drawn for you as best I can a picture of what we traversed to get to our destination, I can safely give you the final tally in a way that you can fully appreciate: it took us these 8 hours just to travel 160 kilometers (100 miles).