Sitting on the final train that will make up this trip across the world’s largest country, conversation somewhat inevitably turns to trying to sum up the whole experience. In an odd turn of events the whole carriage is housing predominantly western travelers at about a nine to one ratio. Most with the same thoughts on their mind. The consensus is that taking the time to stop in more than the standard stops was crucial to the success of our time here. No-one could say that Russia is an easy country to get through. A theme that has been repeated many times here. Yet it is easily the most rewarding and interesting country I have visited so far.
Like peeling away the layers of an onion dome there is always something else just underneath. Perhaps the simplest way of trying to explain this country goes back to a conversation Rdoc and I had somewhere around Yekaterinburg. That was that we both kept on getting ahead of ourselves and feeling as though we understood even just one aspect of life here. As soon as such an opinion was given voice it would be disproved. Often within minutes. With this in mind it becomes easy to understand how so much great literature has been produced trying to answer these questions. What is Russia? What does it mean to be Russian? Who the fuck knows.
Speaking of books, Jannina leant me Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych during our extended border crossing. Perhaps in the same way that this short story says so much about accepting death in a way that can be understood by people from anywhere, Russia as a country is beguiling as I think most people can recognise elements of themselves in it. Yet there is always something more just beyond what your mind can grasp and understand.
Some pointers for those contemplating a trans-Siberia journey. Resist as much as possible anything a travel agent tries to sell you in your own country. You will get ripped off. What they have access to is maybe ok if you are old or unable to think for yourself. But mostly what you will be provided with will make it even harder to meet and interact with the population. The prime example of this is train tickets. Everyone we met who had organised their tickets at home got booked into second class. Not only are these tickets between three and four times as expensive but kupe class means cabins of four. In a country like Russia it seems silly to have more walls around you than already exist.
Also important to remember at all times is that preconceptions are only going to be a hinderence. Bear in mind that most of these were conceived and perpetuated by a culture that regards the artificial as improvement. For those that love the tactile and subtlety there are rewards nearly everywhere. This is not a country that needs to go around brashly telling of its greatness. Under a surface of self effacement is a great pride and this is charming to draw out.
Stop in as many places as possible. In the same way as Provence is a completely different France to Brittany, Liverpool to London, the South to the north eastern US, Siberia allows the idea of Russia to be more fully realised. Of Siberia, Chekov wrote “It’s not the giant trees, nor the deathly stillness that constitutes its power and enchantment, rather, it’s in that only the migrating birds know where it ends. You don’t pay attention to it on the first day of travel; on the second and third, you are surprised; the fourth and fifth day give you a feeling that you’ll never get out of that monster of the Earth.”
This feels like a good opportunity to talk a little of some of those who have gone before and blazed the trail. The most inspirational of these that I have come across is RL Jefferson. Described as an enthusiastic cyclist he made at least three trips on what must have been infernal roads in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Included in these was setting a cycling speed record of fifty days from London to Moscow and back. Truly mind boggling.
Reading about him I am reminded of the two Germans we met in Tomsk who had cycled up from Beijing and were then following us across to Baikal and beyond. I wonder about how they are getting on as the weather is starting to turn and there is a real hint of snow around. When I get home I am definitely going to look up Jefferson’s account of one of his journeys Across Siberia by Bicycle.
A book that has been great for inspiring us to look at Russia, or more particularly Siberia, in a more inquisitive way is In Siberia by Colin Thubron. A truly inspiring traveler being nearly seventy yet still exploring in a way that puts ninety nine percent of ‘authentic’ backpackers to shame. Reading of his encounters with all types of people in many of the most extreme places on the planet has been quite a good way to get into a more appreciative frame of mind.
As the saying goes, when you travel you can leave everything behind except yourself. Especially when you are only stopping briefly in places it becomes all too easy to glance only at the surface. Everything is about personal gratification and entertainment. Less about what might have gone into making a place. Oddly it is this depth that most seem to crave as an incentive to travel. Yet so often a trip devolves into ticking off lists of biggests, oldests etc.
Tags: culture, culture, myths and legends, literature, myths and legends, Russia, Siberia, Trans-Siberia, Travel