It is probably good you didn’t come along. When you said you wanted to join your grandson and me on this dark adventure across Siberia by train, I agreed it would have been a blast—until now. Things are deteriorating quickly. The waters are rising.
I am sending this group of letters all at once when we arrive in Vladivostok, so I hope you read this one last; that’s why I numbered the envelopes. I thought our journey was almost over, but it seems we’ve run into a problem.
We now head south along the Amur River, China to the west, North Korea not far and Vladivostok at the end of the line another day or so away. We just passed an abandoned old mission on the other side of the border. This 19th-century structure sat in the woods near the river like the last building in an old ghost town, made more obvious by the dark green hills and the deep green and swollen Amur.
Last night we received word the Amur is flooding. There is the talk of closing down the rails. This isn’t looking too good, Dad. It doesn’t help that the territory is the untamed and dangerous Taiga region. Remember that book Michael was reading, The Tiger, by John Vaillant? Few can survive this haunting wilderness where that tiger hunted people, ate them, and was finally caught only by sheer luck. There are others, though, outside our train on this stretch of the Siberian Railroad. And we might have to stop and disembark.
I watched Michael watching the water and I wondered if he was worried, or, if like most twenty-one-year olds, finds all of this exciting. This is being a father, isn’t it? You told me once all parents are put to the test with worry and concern. Is it possible that my test and your test as fathers will come at the same time, here, on the far side of the world?
Early today we stood in the hall looking out the window. It is warm out, and we crossed bridge after bridge looking at the river which is well over her banks. The cabins have large windows, but the hallway stretching down the west side of the car is all glass with a short aerial view of the rising waters. Locals from Vladivostok pointed to fallen trees and floating structures, talking to each other, gasping. I’ve spent my entire life on the coast and along rivers, but I’ve never seen so many submerged farms and roads, and even a few houses.
It turns out, Dad, there is the massive burning of the Tundra right now and it has led to this catastrophic deluge. The conductor reported the waters have risen more than twenty-four feet and are the worst in more than one hundred and twenty years. He said it is already thought to be the most costly flood disaster in Russian history—and here we are, drinking tea and wondering if we are about to be forced off the train. Apparently, the waters are almost covering the tracks ahead. We are too far south of the last station and too far north of Vladivostok for there to be any place to eat or stay. This is wilderness—flooded wilderness—with dangerous wildlife. Yes, Dad. You should be here.
The river in this region has swollen to anywhere from five to twenty miles wide from its normally narrow reach. Reports have been passed around from texts and messages received by our cabin mates telling of bears, displaced by the water, encroaching on villages. And now they tell us strong rain storms are supposed to continue down from the northwest.
Soldiers have been deployed and in the rare areas of dry land, we passed military convoys while villagers abandoned their fragile homes. The waters aren’t expected to fully recede until September. That’s two weeks away, Dad. Even China, apparently, has evacuated tremendous swatches of territory along their side of the Amur.
It is later in the afternoon from when I started this letter. Word has come that some of the stone ballast supporting the tracks have been washed away, but no one in this car knows if it is in front of us or behind us. Everyone is converging either on the windows overlooking the river, or the dining car overlooking the vodka.
Someone saw cattle floating downstream. Trees are breaking like twigs.
Some of the settlements here are being relocated with a military escort as at least four dams have collapsed. No one yet knows about casualties, but one man said that on the best of days in the Taiga it is difficult to stay alive. It will not be good.
Yet it is also beautiful, this Amur region of Siberia. Chekhov wrote from this train over one hundred years ago, “I am in love with the Amur, and would be happy to stay here for a couple of years. It is beautiful with vast open spaces and freedom, and it’s warm. Switzerland and France have never known such freedom; the poorest exile breathes more freely on the Amur than the highest general in Moscow.” When Chekhov rode the Trans-Siberian rails to Vladivostok he took note more than a few times of the people and places that made him feel more welcome than the finest of characters in the most modern of houses. He never ran into a tiger, however. Or, apparently, floods.
The closer we come to Vladivostok, the less likely it feels like we will arrive anytime soon. What a trip it has been. I’m glad to have shared it with you through these simple letters. I’m just looking now at the first ones I wrote and it seems like so long ago this father and son boarded the train in St. Petersburg and traced the journey made by that most famous of Russia fathers and sons—Nicholas and Alexi, as the road to their deaths one hundred years ago.
I’m sitting now in the dining car, Dad, thinking about your trips to New York from the Island on the Long Island Railroad. That was a lifetime ago. Now it is me riding the rails, my son wandering around taking pictures of a once in a century flood. The tender here tells me they’re out of vodka and beer, but that’s okay.
I wasn’t thirsty anyway.
Bob Kunzinge’s work has appeared in many publications, including St Anthony Messenger, Southern Humanities Review, The Washington Post, and others. Several essays have been noted in Best American Essays. He is a professor of humanities and art at Saint Leo University.