As anyone who’s ever lost a game of Risk will know, Asia’s a big place, and there’s no bigger geographical region on the continent than Siberia.
Covering more than five million square miles, this vast expanse of land first claimed by the Russian Tsars around the 17th century is also home to the world’s largest terrestrial biome, the seemingly endless taiga forest.
Making up virtually a third of the entire world’s forest cover, the taiga—or boreal forests as they’re known in North America—are a vast collective of pines, spruces and larches found throughout the high northern latitudes, between the tundra, and the temperate forest, from about 50°N to 70°N.
It is one of the last remaining untouched wildernesses left, largely because it’s so incredibly hard to access, as sparsely populated as the continent of Australia and subject to some of the world’s harshest extreme weather conditions outside of of Antarctica.
Not that many English-speaking people enter the Taiga for extensive periods of time, but we know of one: Anglo-American filmmaker and explorer Matthew Traver, who’s planning on making a full 10,000km multi-disciplinary journey across the wild taiga by himself, without support.
To give you a scale of how insane this undertaking is we’ll quote direct from his website crossingsiberia.com: ‘To put… the route into perspective, Crossing Siberia is the equivalent of travelling in a straight line from London to Cape Town or Hong Kong, but almost entirely through wilderness and without roads.’
Just back from a three month long recon trip to Siberia, we couldn’t resist whizzing a few emails questions over to the intrepid explorer to learn more about what he saw out there on his taster session in the world’s largest forest. Be warned however: Matt’s replies are as comprehensive as the Taiga is large (but he doesn’t mind us saying that)!
Hi Matt, good to catch up. Hope you’ve recovered from your trip now. First could you please tell us a bit of the background of your project to cross the Siberian wilderness alone?
The plan and project, which is still ongoing, is called ‘Crossing Siberia’. The aim is to try and find a way to cross the entire wild extent of Siberia from west to east over multiple stages to eventually reach the Bering Sea, travelling as much as possible off-road; which involves travelling on foot, by packraft, hopefully by ski and maybe kayak.
I recently returned from the first leg/attempt of my trip in the Republic of Tuva, which is a state in Russia bordering northern Mongolia. It’s most well-known to non-Russians for two things; throat-singing (aka khoomei) and being the geographical centre of Asia, although the Chinese Government will contest that statement as there’s another ‘centre’ near Ürümqi, Xinjiang, China thanks to varying definitions on what constitutes Asia and what map projection you use!
The ultimate aim for the whole trip though is to use this approximate 10,000km journey to produce a documentary TV series unveiling the contemporary story of Siberia. Through doing this I hope to provide an opportunity for a wide audience to learn about the world’s largest expanse of wild space, the region’s fascinating history, diverse cultural make-up and how the socio-geographical landscape changes across this vast transect.
How did you get to your starting point in Siberia?
The starting point was a small Tuvan village called Toora-Khem, which is mainly full of hunters and fisherman working on Azas/Todzha Lake, the largest in the Republic. Toora-Khem is a heck of a long way and starkly contrasts to my life in London where I’m based at the minute. Anyway, getting to Toora-Khem itself involved flying from London to Kiev to Moscow to Abakan. From there I was lucky enough to be picked up by my friend Khombu, who drove me down to his home in Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva. It’s here that I stayed for a few days before arranging onward transport in to Toora-Khem, which is about six hours north of Kyzyl.
My plan from there was to try and cross from Toora-Khem following a series of rivers upstream on foot for 450km through the Todzhinsky Basin region to reach the Eastern Sayan range. From there I would follow two key rivers by packraft to reach Irkutsk/Lake Baikal. The total distance being 1500km. However things didn’t quite go to plan!
What were your first impressions on the taiga you were about to cross?
I remember my first impression of the taiga distinctly. It was as the UAZ bus was pulling over the crest of a mountain pass towards Toora-Khem and I looked down in to this giant valley and wide plain thick with taiga stretching in to the horizon. It was entirely unbroken, aside from the Maly Yenisei River slithering its way through the forest. I looked up the definition of ‘awe’ recently, which is defined as ‘a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.’ This is exactly how I felt, probably more than ever in my life. I was dumbfounded by the immensity, but also tinged with a controlled and lingering fear because I knew I was physically inside of something that was much more significant than I originally imagined.
What was the first day like in the forest proper?
My first day went comically wrong. It actually started having woken up hiding in the forest near the banks of Azas Lake after having spent 48 hours trapped with a crooked, violent and drunk policeman named Maxim. He was assigned to me by the police station in Toora-Khem after I went to register my passport there. The station was a memorable place… I saw two guys with massively swollen punched faces locked inside a jail cell and right beside me a nearly blind drunk older man was talking to me in German, blood pouring from his eyebrow and his words hard to understand through his split and bleeding lips. Upon reflection, I’m pretty sure this was probably a close relation to the aforementioned Maxim, as they looked remarkably similar.
The so-called police assigned him to me, stating that it was necessary for me to be accompanied to my starting point because the taiga and lake area was supposedly full of armed robbers. Maxim made his point pretty clear through vigorously shaking me back and forth, mock-grabbing my possessions and sticking his fingers against my head like a gun and pulling the trigger.
Ironically, it was Maxim who was the most dangerous. So much happened in those 48 hours I was trapped with him; I saw him get in to two fist fights, I was accidentally kicked in the head by him in his drunken stupor, I had money extorted from me three times, he tried to take my wallet to buy 36 litres of vodka lemonade (he drank it all…) which nearly resorted in a punch up and he took a friend’s boat without asking, which later broke down in the middle of the lake at night leaving us to paddle to an island and sleep overnight.
You probably wonder why didn’t I just leave and why did I relinquish £150? Well… when you have 40kg and £4500 of equipment which you’re trying to conceal from being thieved from an aggressive drunkard… it’s incredibly hard to effectively run away without great risk. You’ve got to make your escape strategically!
Finally after 48 hours I made my lucky break from Vasiily when he was behind a truck talking to some other guys. I basically clandestinely leap frogged and dragged my bags through deep grass to reach the edge of a forest. I then bedded down for the night with a grab bag of essentials and camouflaged my possessions in multiple locations in case he came back for me and I had to run. Fortunately he never came back. But I’m sure he would have dragged me out by force if he found me again, using various excuses to try and control me and take more money. So, basically I started my first night in the forest twitching and wondering if other backcountry Siberians were as intimidating as he was.
I just want to say though, that aside from another instance of nearly getting choppered to pieces in a drunk guy’s boat engine on the Khemchik River mouth, everyone else I met in Tuva and all of Russia were truly incredible and welcoming. I’m only telling you this alarming story on Maxim because that is what happened to me… and well, nitty gritty stories are the ones we all love to hear, right? In fact, all these experiences, beautiful and scary, have made me even more enamoured with Russia!
What animals and wildlife did you see?
Naturally in such a wide space and with hunters about, most animals remained quite elusive on my trip in the taiga. However, things I did see were salmon and sturgeon fish, which would occasionally jump out of the water taking me by surprise! Whilst paddling down the Maly (Little) Yenisei river, I had a couple encounters with pretty large Eurasian beavers which would aggressively slap their tails on the water. The sound their tail slaps made was surprisingly loud, almost like a mini popping explosion. Naturally I also saw a lot of beaver lodges and dams, which were impressive in size. In fact, for a number of days I thought they were just deposited flood debris, until I started seeing them at work on them. They create some truly impressive structures, sometimes up to two metres high and many times as wide. I see where the phrase ‘beavering away’ comes from now because they must involve a lot of hard work to create!
On the banks of the Azas River I saw a couple Siberian roe deer or something similar to it. It curiously seemed unafraid of me, which is surprising given that there are a lot of predators in the area.
As for bears. Fortunately I never encountered any, but in my campsite a few kilometres up the Azas River before I turned around I was definitely sharing my space with them. I saw a few prints on the silty banks and when I went to scout out my potential route deeper in to the taiga towards the Eastern Sayan range, I saw a number of trails which I strongly assume were bears given they were as wide as a bear torso, fresh scat lying about the place, and there were also scratch markings on trees too.
I think that was a moment that really had me uneasy as the grass was up to shoulder high everywhere, so it would be hard to locate a bear in that sort of terrain and the sort of place you could very easily stumble upon one without intending to… the only bear deterrent I had was a can of repellent spray intended for ‘wild dogs’ which I bought in a hunting shop in Kyzyl. The shop owners seemed amused that I even requested bear specific spray…
After my plans changed (which I’ll tell you about in a bit) one other area I was particularly impressed by in terms of wildlife was a remote and hard to access area called Huun Huur Tu. It’s regarded as the most beautiful area in all of the Tuva Republic. It took about 16 hours to access offroad, the track which runs at points just a few kilometers from the open Mongolian border zone. When I first arrived there, I was a little sceptical on why it was considered so beautiful. It was just an impressive lake as far as I could tell… until you hung around for a couple hours and realised the place was literally filled with golden eagles. Dozens of them! Just hanging out in trees. Flying so low overhead you could catch them with a net. I’ve never seen so many big and beautiful birds up close in one place. It would be birders heaven!
Even more incredible is in the middle of the lake is an ancient Uighur Chinese fortress connected by a dilapidated bridge slowly sinking in to the sand and one family lives on the adjacent island. One of the residents is a young hunter and fisherman called Dorzha who he, along with his family, were very enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides on the area and the fortress. Supposedly in a certain location of the fortress if you go at sundown there is a time portal you can access which will take you straight back to the 8th-9th Century when the Uighur Khagante stretched in to Southern Siberia.
What were the main challenges of negotiating the terrain?
The Todzha taiga where I was is regarded as being notoriously difficult to travel through. I think that’s because it’s an unusually large drainage basin (the size of Wales) home to many of the upper course tributary rivers to Russia’s longest river, the Yenisei. Therefore it means it’s pretty abundant in thick vegetation and also quite swampy. The only way I can describe the taiga where I was is that it was exactly like a rainforest. Big fallen trees rotting into swamps, thick brush and vines wanting to tangle you. Combine that with tall grass, 40ºC heat and the ability to only travel less than 2km an hour and being unsure of reliable water sources away from the river… it was a tough place for me to be. I was using a Carrix cart, a one wheeled tow cart. It’s designed for off road use, but it was not in any stretch capable with the Todzha taiga.
I was expecting it to be relatively negotiable covered forest in parts, where it tested totally well when I tried it out in Scotland (which is part of the same biome as the taiga, but known as the Caledonian Forest).
However, the system completely failed out in Siberia. I now know that if one has any chance of going on foot through the Todzha taiga it’s with a light sack and subsisting as much as possible off the land. Better yet, hitch a ride with the nomadic Todzha deer herders who live out here if you can find them.
I’m sure the cart system I had would work in other areas, but I think given the distance I’m trying to cover I need more versatility in my mode of transport and I think two feet and a rucksack is a tried and tested method. Although I find walking terribly boring at times!
Why did you turn around in the end?
I turned around for a number of reasons. Primarily because I knew crossing the terrain with the amount of equipment I had would be tortuously slow and therefore ultimately become dangerous. It was the sort of situation where I could’ve fooled myself on the viability, trudging deeper inwards in to the taiga, until one day I’m so far in that I can’t get feasibly out again in time without running out of food and becoming fatigued. Even from my extraction point on the Azas River I still took around 10 days to get out via the rivers, running on a diet of berries, ramen, powdered milk and water.
A linear type trip like this where you’re trying to go from A to B has a defined ‘point-of-no-return’ where it no longer becomes safe to return the way you came. In a place like the Todzhinsky Basin region, if you wanted to bail out or had an emergency you could easily be 150km or more from the nearest extraction point. Even then, heading for that point is a gamble because you can’t totally rely on what you’ll find out there; it could be an overgrown hunter’s trail leading to an abandoned dacha or seasonal derelict nomad’s camp or you could just end up meeting someone who is ‘less than helpful’.
In many ways I would say that aborting my route early on was very similar to trying to attempt a new first ascent in rock climbing… where sometimes your instinct tells you something isn’t right and that you need to turn around, head back and re-think a new approach. In early winter 2014 there was a helicopter flying from Kyzyl over the Todzhinsky region which crashed with all dying on board. It took nearly a year of on-ground and aerial searching to find the wreckage. So, if a helicopter can disappear for that long, you can imagine how hard it could be to locate a lone person in trouble.
How did you escape the wild?
I escaped by paddling back down the Azas River and along the southern shores of Azas Lake which leads in to the mouth of the Toora-Khem River. From there I followed that to the Bolshoi-Yenisei confluence and down that river to eventually reach Kyzyl 10 days later.
After returning to Kyzyl, naturally my original plans for the film changed considerably from what I had first envisioned. So I spent another two and a half months in Tuva shooting other culture based stories and ventured to every conceivable area in the Republic. I met some very fascinating people, which I can’t wait to share with everyone. In many ways, whilst I wished I could have journeyed deep in to the taiga, I ended up having an equally enriching time and probably collected more valuable and visually diverse material had I just been wandering alone through the taiga. Although I did knock off paddling on other rivers in the region, totalling up to 850km or so, as well as an ascent of Gora Munkhulik (3600m) with Maadyr and Marianna which overlooks Mongun Taiga, Tuva’s highest peak at 3970m.
What was it like hanging out in the Siberian wild all by yourself?
Truthfully I was surprised by how much I enjoyed being alone. I think that was down to the fact that there’s a part of my psyche that is naturally inclined to needing to feel some stillness and quiet. Usually life is always so busy and so are my thoughts. But in being alone, one is offered a rare sense of quietude. I think most of us can relate to that!
Don’t get me wrong though… in total most of my time on this first leg only saw me spend 30 days or so by myself. I know it’s nothing in comparison to a real full time hermit or other folk who have been on a much larger solo expedition, nonetheless I still hope I can experience more extended periods in the future. Although I feel it’s a selfish thing to aspire to too much, partly because I really feel at times like I could live in a tent in the forest for all eternity and people would miss me!
What was the most magical moment of the expedition?
This is a great question and I’m glad you asked this as the word ‘magic’ is so polysemantic. It can mean pulling a rabbit out of a hat or describing something wondrous. To me, the way I like the word the most is in using it to describe ‘a feeling or happening that shapes how I perceive the world around me’.
So in this case, the most magical moment I had was actually during the night of running away from Maxim. After I had bedded down for the night my mind was under stress to the point that I had a strange hallucination/vivid waking dream. I’ve never had anything quite like it. Basically as I closed my eyes, trying to just concentrate on the space around me to relax myself, a benevolent looking Tuvan woman wearing a shaman’s headdress was floating in front of me smiling, surrounded by some pulsating red cloud.
I’m cautious about sharing that story as some people will think you’re fibbing or you’re cuckoo. The Western-logic explanation for it would be it was a visual hallucination triggered by stress (which can happen). However, I like to think it was a visiting forest spirit, which some say are believed to exist in the taiga. One thing is for sure is that I felt instantly relaxed after the experience.
Before I left for the taiga, I met with Khombu’s uncle, who happens to also be Tuva’s most famous mountaineer (www.maadyr.com) and who has a lot of experience with the terrain. Among a lot of useful practical advice he gave me, the most valuable of all was that ‘I must listen to the spirits of the forest’. Out in Tuva and many other regions with Turkic roots, the Tengrism belief system runs strong, so it’s advice to be taken seriously.
In all honesty, I think this is the best piece of outdoor advice anybody has ever given me. Some people might chuckle on hearing that and dismiss me as yet another foreigner trying to appropriate a culture he knows nothing about. But I really think it was solid and meaningful advice because in encouraging yourself to listen to what’s around you it raises your level of self-awareness, in turn helping you to make better decisions. Another thing I liked about the advice is that it helped me to turn the space around me in to an entity that I could have a real interaction with on my own terms. For me it is way more interesting and meaningful to journey through a wild space and challenge my own sense of logic by being open to the idea that the forest could be alive with spirits!
Did you see much evidence of deforestation or environmental deforestation?
One thing I did see was massive forest fires. Apparently they were some of the worst Tuva had seen in a long time. Even paddling along the shores of Azas Lake you could see islands on fire and further up mountain ranges you could see vast swathes of burnt out land. This was mainly down to the extremely hot and dry weather at the time. However, I’m sure some of these fires could have been accidently triggered by humans.
Did you see logging or examples of poaching?
I saw logging trucks in the Todzha area, but never the sites themselves. I believe not far from Azas Lake, near to the small settlement of Adyr-Kezhig there is some managed logging.
Poaching is an interesting topic. When I was on Azas Lake, I was told by a local fisherman to be careful around the forests in case I came across poachers. I’m not sure if that was because they might try to rob me or if I’d accidentally get shot, but it seemed a legitimate warning nonetheless.
However, my only real personal contact with potential poaching came in the form of a drunk Old Believer, one of the ultra-orthodox Christian communities which reside throughout Siberia, pulling up in his truck asking if I wanted to buy bootleg vodka, bear parts and deer antlers. It’s hard to tell if these were from licensed hunts, but it would not surprise me if they were illegal given it’s a practical means of making an income. Also, at least up until the early 2000s there was a grey market existing in Kyzyl, which mixed both legal and illegal hunting and was stimulated by Chinese and Korean interest. I wandered around the market a number of times and never saw any activity myself, but I would imagine it’s still there but pushed further underground. However, I would be very interested to learn more about how the regulation and trade may have changed in the last 15 years or so.
I was told by a couple Tuvans that the Todzhu people regularly visit and rely upon some of the logging and gold mining operations within the area, which I think may be Chinese owned as well. I imagine there is some trade that goes on here, primarily because hunting for sable and squirrel has been a source of reliable income for them in the past. It’s also more than possible that the Todzhu are relying on some level with the mining/logging camps as a source of food due to over-poaching in their local area reducing their wild food sources.
What lessons did you learn from your journey about one of the largest biospheres on earth?
The main lessons I learned were:
- Rivers are one of the most effective modes to travel vast distances unpowered and they are also a good means of getting out of trouble.
- Taiga terrain comes in many varying conditions and styles. It’s not just wide and cruisy open coniferous forest! It can also be boggy swamp land with dense overgrowth.
- If you’re travelling on-foot and off-trail in the taiga, going as light as possible and subsisting as best you can off the land is the most effective approach. I think that also goes towards aiding in your assimilation with the environment around you, as you learn more about how to let your environment help you.
- It’s impossible to run out of a food source in the taiga, but it’s definitely easy to run out of water in the summer.
- The largest biome on earth holds many unexplored realms and mysteries! It’s also one of many superb things about Russia.
Will you be going back?
I can’t predict where my life is going, but one place I know is that it is headed is straight back to Siberia as soon as possible! However, before I do that I need to review the twenty-six hours of footage, build this in to a pilot episode, interview a few Siberian-focused explorers/academics and ideally get a commission to develop the series further. It’s the sort of place I could see myself obsessed with until my final days, given that it’s so extraordinarily large, raw and culturally fascinating.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If you want to follow the progress of my upcoming pilot episode from this trip then please check out my website, follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Also if you ever have any questions about this trip, Siberia or anything in general then please get in touch.
Lastly thank you to all the superb people I met along the way and the sponsors of the trip; Celtic Paddles, Transcend, Sugru, Multimat, Timmissartok Foundation, Lyon Outdoor and Ortlieb.
Good luck Matt!
If you’ve made it this far, why not have a read of our other interviews on Love Nature: