Around the Russian world

A sort of book review of The Trans-Siberian Railway, a Traveller’s Anthology, edited by Deborah Manley

This book is a delight. Published in 1988, it is a collection of edited excerpts from accounts of the great train journey across Russia, drawn together into a sampler. Many of the stories are old (some from before the train opened in 1903 when it took months to get across the world’s largest country, and many in ten years after its opening), many newish (mostly around the time of the Second World War), and a few more recent accounts,
especially from the 70s.

The book gathers together the material thematically first (the idea for the train and the dream, the train itself, preparations required, its role in war, some of the people involved), and then works broadly chronologically, with comments collated by region as we follow the train from Moscow in the West to Vladivostok in the East, plus a little at the end on the East to West trip and the time in China.

The book includes many excerpts from books that are hard to find or obsolete, including that stalwart of all 20th century European travellers, the Baedeker, – a close-typed swarm of advice and information of variable reliability about the train, the country, the people and the amenities. And it is no stranger to direct, negative reviews. The hotels of Siberia are “almost invariably dear and indifferent”, says the edition of 1914. “A disturbing feature is the inevitable concern of ‘sing-song’ in the dining room, which usually lasts far into the

A touch of local knowledge

Which causes me to digress for a moment to talk about guidebooks.

The question of the acceptability of guidebooks has been around as long as they have been in print, I suspect. As EM Forster has Mr Emerson say in Room with a View (well, at least in the movie):

We residents [of Florence] sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little. Handed about like parcels from Venice to Florence to Rome, unconscious of anything outside Baedeker, anxious to get done and go on elsewhere. I abhor Baedeker. I’d fling every copy in the Arno. Towns, rivers, palaces, all mixed up in an inextricable whirl.

The world has come rather far from Baedeker with modern guide books. Endless coverage of even trivial destinations, clear layout, quality photographs, regular updating, internet add-ons, and, most important, their positive tone. In the Lonely Planet world, even the most squalid hellhole has a charming cafe, a rustic hotel, or an ancient ritual of interest to the visitor, written up by a likely-impecunious backpacker after his/her half day in the city en route to more attractive parts.

I recall a description from the Lonely Planet for Russia of Nogliki, a town in the middle of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, describing it in sufficiently fond terms as to suggest it worthy of a pause if one was passing through (a rather unlikely journey, to be fair, since the delights of Northern Sakhalin were not notable), and boasting of it playing host to the world’s slowest railway.

This was, of course, an earlier edition. The editors have now realised the error of their ways in painting up the rustic, railway charms of Nogliki. And just as well, since I can report from personal experience that Nogliki is (or at least was, at the time that description was current) in fact a charmless locale with nothing to detain the visitor at all, except the public transport timetable that was created by a malignant gnome to ensure all visitors are forced to hang around the dead-end train station far longer than any sane free-thinker ever would. The world’s slowest railway had slowed sufficiently further that its trains could no longer be perceived to be moving at all.

Which is all by way of saying that something has been lost along the way, I think, in the move from Baedeker to Lonely Planet, in the change from the excitement and uncertainty of not knowing whether the guidebook is reliable to a powerful reliance on “the lonely” as the Bible of travel information. Oh how often have I met travellers who cursed the very name of Lonely Planet for the fact that a hotel it mentioned was closed, noisy or more expensive than promised.

The idea that a mere book could remove the uncertainty of travelling seems unusually naive and even arrogant, as if all the delights and horrors of any place could be parcelled up, summarised and contained within a few thousand words and a map or two, and that the whole would condescend to remain the same until next time the travel book updater happened to pass through.

Of course, this is not what modern travel guides say, introduced, as they are, with warnings about the fundamental unrealiability of the information contained therein. Reliable enough to be useful, but not so reliable that it could be our fault if something goes wrong. Besides which, things being different from the description on the tin is precisely the point of travelling.

But it does seem to me the underlying philosphy of modern travel guides tends to be empowering and positive. Every country has some charm and delight, and travelling is something sensible, informed, worldly types – normal people like you – do every day.

The underlying philosophy of Baedeker seems rather different. You get the impression the editors consider themselves doing an unpleasant public service. Travel is a nasty, dirty business but, if you persist against our reasoning, you had best be prepared, and so we offer you the following information, including direct advice on how to maintain your personal security. Travellers must always be on guard against thieves, and avoid carrying large sums of money.

It is desirable to carry a revolver in Manchuria and in trips away from the railway.

You can also see this trend in the accounts in the book. Those travelling at the start of the railway are unusually committed – travelling for work, or exploring, or both. As we get later on in to the century, leisure travellers emerge and travel writers whose market is the adventurous but not foolhardy. By the time you have Bob Geldof on a package tour on the train (his account is from 1978), you know that it is basically mainstream.

End of digression about guide-books.

The power of the brand

There is much fabulous material in here showing the development and change of attitudes towards Russia including this gem, from John Bell’s “Travels from St Petersburg in Russia to Diverse Parts of Asia” near the turn of the century (when optimism about Russia’s potential seems to have reached its apex amongst Western industrialists).

For my part, I think that, had a person his liberty and a few friends, there are few places were he could spend his life more agreeably than in some parts of Siberia.

The global brand of the trans-Siberian is also obvious from even very early accounts. As Ms Manley has it:

Perhaps no other journey on earth has captured people’s imagination as powerfully as … the Trans-Siberian

Authors consistently report that the reaction of their friends on hearing that they were taking this train trip was envy and excitement. This was 100 years ago, but I can report a similar reaction in modern times from my own train travels. There is something powerful about this train that makes it more appealing and attractive without any significant effort by its owners at advertising, except perhaps a few accounts of its astounding comforts at the time when it first began. Perhaps it is the appeal of exotic Russia herself: a long train ride across Canada is exactly that – a long train ride. A long train ride across Russia is something more mysterious, interesting, risky. You could get lost in all those trees. The limits of authority and civilisation seem to ebb away far more quickly in Sibera than they do in Alberta or Sasketchewan.

The thrill of the train ride also demonstrates to me that often the meaning attached to experiences can be divorced from the experience itself, i.e., the story we tell ourselves about an experience is what matters, and that story is not necessarily correlated with the facts. From my experience, it would be quite possible to write up the trans-Siberian as a very long ride on a non-too-comfy seat, the endless days punctuated with short
visits to dreary towns filled with people who look like they haven’t moved far from the days of the serfs. But in practice, everyone I ever met on the trans-Siberian (and most of the authors in this book) treated the train ride like an adventure, and every surly carriage attendant, depressing town, or unexplained halt in the wilderness was just another stitch of excitement in the cloak of mystery and unpredictability in which they wrapped their travels on the train, or in Russia in general.

I recently read Tiziano Terzani’s brilliant “A Fortune Teller Told Me” (you can read my sort-of book review here). He too was taken by the dream of the train, and influenced by early accounts of its magnificence:

To me, the term ‘Trans-Siberian’ has always suggested something demode and romantic.

But when he finds the reality rather different, he ascribes the variance to grubby economic development, rather than sullying the dream of the train.

Such is the strange destiny of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Built as a line of defence against China … it has now
become the supply line which enables the poor Russians … to dress in trashy Chinese clothes. Instead of the
duchesses and spies and generals and adventurers of half Europe, today the Trans-Siberian carries the
descendants of Genghis Khan along the path of ancient Mongolian conquests. But they too have come down
in the world, travelling not as conquerors but as peddlers.

As Ms Manley’s book demonstrates, the global brand has attracted many famous people to take the trip and record their thoughts for posterity. It is a shame that there is not more in the book from Russians who have built, maintained or travelled on this railroad. But Ms Manley’s book does include contributions from a large number of Western luminaries including Walter Duranty (a famous New York Times journalist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize), Peter Fleming (whose “News from Tatary” remains a travel adventure classic), George Kennan (explorer and war correspondent), Fitzroy Maclean (all-round over-achiever – British), Laurens van der Post (ditto – South African), Eric Newby (genius British travel writer) and Paul Theroux (ditto – American).

All of these accounts are worth a read. Paul Theroux, in particular, was interesting for his lack of enthusiasm. He was clearly in an especially bad mood on these train travels. Even the romance of the journey could not compensate for being late getting home for Christmas after a long absence, and overwhelmed by the short-day gloom, the dankness and the dirt with which he found himself surrounded.

Speaking of the reputation of Siberia reminds me of one of my university Russian lecturers, John Godliffe, RIP, who edited a book of excerpts from Russian literature that mention New Zealand. Most famously, there is a character in a Chekhov story, I think it was, who is heard to say, “It’s barbarity. It’s New Zealand!”, suggesting that perhaps the Siberians might have had a rather darker view of the attractions of these fortunate isles than Europeans had of travels in Siberia.

Get going

A map of the train’s course shows how southerly the route actually is. Obviously because no one much lives anywhere else in Russia (although presumably where people live is also influenced by the course of the train). The huge distances and lack of navigable roads to me shows the relevance of Lenin’s famous comment in reference to his then just started Bolshevik Revolution “if the trains stop, that will be the end”. Without the railroad, there is no unified Russia, but even then there are many, many places the railroad does not go.

I note that Russia recently opened the final segment of a road that goes all the way across the country, and the then President tweeted about the completion of the trainline from Tynda to Yakutsk. Siberia is a ways out of town, but Yakutsk is seriously in the boondocks. There is also talk of a train from Yakutsk to the Russian Pacific coast by 2030, and a tunnel underneath the Bering Straits, meaning a continuous rail journey would be possible from London to North America via Russia. Fun times. And cause for a whole new collection of trans-Chukotkan travel stories, I suspect.


2 thoughts on “Around the Russian world

  1. You might enjoy Mark Taplin’s book if you haven’t read it, “Open Lands – Travels Through Russia’s Once Forbidden Places”. He travels through the areas of Russia opened up after 1992 agreement with US An interesting read, with some great descriptions of nothing much in particular.

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