Magazine article Geographical

To Siberia with a Christmas Pudding: Inspired by the 19th-Century Explorer Kate Marsden, Felicity Aston Travelled to Sakha in Northeastern Siberia and Found Her Edible Gifts Met with Indifference

Magazine article Geographical

To Siberia with a Christmas Pudding: Inspired by the 19th-Century Explorer Kate Marsden, Felicity Aston Travelled to Sakha in Northeastern Siberia and Found Her Edible Gifts Met with Indifference

Article excerpt

In the gloom of the smoke-filled, fire-lit shack, I could just make out the expression on the weather-beaten face of the Siberian hunter sitting opposite me. He was steeling himself for something unpleasant.

Several other rugged-looking locals had squeezed themselves into the snug hut, but there wasn't a sound; everyone was watching the hunter. With solemn ceremony, he tentatively placed a spoonful of food in his mouth.

We watched in suspense as he chewed and rolled his jaw elaborately With a flicker of a grimace, he swallowed the mouthful and politely smacked his lips. He rubbed his belly, sticking it out to show that he couldn't possibly eat more, before passing the spoon and its attendant bowl to the man on his left. I recognised this tactic immediately. All week, I had been miming a similarly small appetite when presented with an unappealing local delicacy.

One by one, each man nibbled a miniscule helping and rubbed his belly. It was clear that none of them had tasted anything like it before. They were deeply suspicious of the foreign food I had given them, and I was courteously returned an almost untouched Christmas pudding.

HISTORICAL INSPIRATION

I had travelled to a remote part of northeastern Siberia with a Christmas pudding in tribute to the woman who had inspired my journey--the unjustly forgotten Kate Marsden. More than a century before my own travels, Marsden had set out for Sakha, a place known to Russians as Yakutia.

Sakha is roughly the size of India, crusted in a deep layer of permafrost, and swathed in a thick forest called the taiga. Winter temperatures fall to -70[degrees]C (colder than anywhere outside Antarctica), and in summer, they soar above 40[degrees]C.

Having traversed Russia by sledge, Marsden rode out into the taiga on horseback, accompanied by an intimidating--and exclusively male--group of Yakut Cossacks. She travelled more than 3,000 kilometres, yet she wasn't an explorer but a nurse on a mission. Her quest was to find the truth behind rumours that the Yakut people had a miracle cure for leprosy.

Of course, Marsden didn't find the cure, but having witnessed the devastation that leprosy inflicted on the communities she encountered, she pledged to help. After returning to London, she raised money to build a hospital near the town of Vilyuysk.

VICTORIAN PIONEER

In 1892, Kate Marsden was included in a group of women who became the first female Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society. (The decision to allow women to become Fellows was reversed a year later. Although the original 22 were permitted to retain their status, no other women were accepted into the Society until 1913.)

However, Marsden was an unlikely adventurer. Her postings as a nurse had taken her to Bulgaria, New Zealand and Cyprus. Her Siberian journey took her to regions that were famous for their lawlessness and harsh climates.

Marsden's inexperience led to her making some unusual decisions while preparing to depart for Sakha, including packing 18 kilograms of Christmas pudding because: 'This delicious compound would certainly "keep" in cold weather, as all housewives know; and I liked it.' Whether Christmas pudding was still a personal favourite after eating it day-in, day-out for several months isn't known.

Almost as extraordinary as the provisions is Marsden's description of her sledging outfit: 'A long, thick pair of Jaeger stockings made of long hair; over them a pair of Russian valenki boots made of felt, coming high up over the knee ... a loose kind of body, lined with flannel, a very thickly wadded eider-down ulster, with sleeves long enough to cover the hands entirely ... Then a sheep-skin reaching to the feet ... over the sheep-skin I had to wear a dacha, which is a fur coat of reindeer skin ... Then I was provided with a large fur bag or sack into which I could step.'

The ensemble was so cumbersome that even movements as basic as bending limbs were impossible. …

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