Distant pangs

A few thoughts on Open Lands, by Mark Taplin

In 1992 the United States and Russia agreed to let their citizens travel without restrictions within each others’ countries, quite a development given that the Soviet Union only ceased to exist in December 1991 and there was still plenty of Cold War hangover on both sides.

Cool

Mr Taplin, a cultural attache at the US embassy in Moscow in the 1980s, took the opportunity to go to some places that were previously forbidden and to write about what he found. Part travelogue, part economic study of a country in crisis, and part ethnographic investigation of a diversity of ex-Soviet characters, this book is the result.

It is great on people. The impoverished vulcanologist of Kamchatka and his fish-soup making wife, the tin-pot secessionists of Kabardino-Balkaria, the over-organising tour guide in Tuva, all could be characters from the modern equivalent of a 19th century Russian novel. Perhaps an undiscovered Gogol, with that blend of stoicism and fatalism in the face of the plainly unacceptable or surreal that is both Russia’s iconic national personality trait and the demand that it makes of all visitors.

It is also a great blend of history and modernity. Mr Taplin takes the opportunity to review the history of places that he visits, and illustrate then with personal stories of the people across whom he comes. And he combines this with stories from his own road as he tries to make sense of what the history means for the present day.

Thinking big

It is also great on dreaming. To his credit, and perhaps demonstrating the book’s appeal to those who like to venture from the trail, Mr Taplin makes attempts to follow long forgotten paths in an effort to bring meaning to what could otherwise be seen as a depressing tour of some low priority provincial Russian regions.

Most entertainingly, but also ludicrously, he hatches in Moscow (seven time zones away) a plan to follow the trail blazed by George Kennan, the explorer not the diplomat, who visited Kamchatka in 1865 and (p 245):

ascended the Abacha River in a whaleboat; climbed over the mountain range behind the capital on horseback; rafted down the Kamchatka River to Klyuchi, a village at the foot of Kamchatka’s highest volcanoes; trudged over the high ridges of the Middle Range; struggled up the trackless west coast of the peninsula  and then wintered among the nomadic Koryaks, who carried Kennan and his companions across the frozen tundra in dogsleds, sheltering them in sooty teepees.

If this all seems a bit dramatic in the light of modern cruise shipping to Kamchatka, these sorts of impossible itineraries do rather seem to have been de rigueur for real explorers back in the day. I recently read Turkestan Solo, in which Ella Maillart, a Geneva-born hardcore explorer, describes amongst other things her crossing of the Kyzylkum Desert in western Uzbekistan by camel in winter on an expedition she put together on the hop and on a shoestring in the 1930s. They bred them tough back then, apparently.

The net result for Mr Taplin is less glamourous. He ends up on a horrifying truck ride with a coterie of serving military folks with a sideline in smuggling, some charmless days in the truly charmless Klyuchi including being, in a marvelous Sovietic twist, a near neighbour to Stalin’s granddaughter, and an effective exile back to Moscow courtesy of local officials for whom the end of the Cold War still seems to be news. For extra colour we have the mysterious figure of Leonid, whose overweening blandishments and toady assistance mark him out immediately to readers of spy novels as a sympathiser with the authorities and someone definitely not to be trusted.

Lessons

There are many possible morals to the story. The boringness of the previously forbidden places particularly struck me, hardening my prejudices against the abuse that eventually emerges from powerful systems that are not transparent or open to external challenge. Why they would bother to make these places closed to foreigners, or for that matter to Russians, is a question best left to the historians. I recall a story of Eric Newby’s about being forbidden for security reasons to take photos of bridges on his Big Red Train
Ride, despite the fact that all details including photographs of the bridges were published in a book that was freely available in the West and that he even carried with him. I remember holding my camera with particular caution around unimportant railyards on the train, suggesting that this secretiveness was still part of the atmosphere in the early 2000s.

Even when Mr Taplin does go somewhere that seems intrinsically interesting, dreariness is his constant companion. The book has a set of reviewers with whom I make particularly poor company. No less an authority than the Economist describes the book as identifying in particular the “soul destroying ugliness” that communism foisted on its subdued populace. Every traveller to Russia will recall some incident like that that befell Mr Taplin in the cafes of Vladivostok, and all budding Kremlinologists will recognise the political machinations of that far-eastern town as typical of the madness that descends when “democracy” is grafted on to autocracy and has not yet had time to grow firm roots.

Despite the bleakness of the future in prospect for Russia’s farflung provinces, there is
something positive in this account also. Laughing and crying are never far apart in Russia, and it seems as if Mr Taplin is partly trying to find out why it is that he is sufficiently interested to even bother to visit these outposts of fading empire.

Perhaps he is captured by the same romantic travelling spirit that defines all problems as challenges, all grotty bedding-down places as experiences, all inedible chow as an opportunity to discover a new cuisine, and all uncomfortable journeys as chances to see the world a new way. It is the dream that some cleaner, more magical dream is just around the next bend, that a visitor can peel back the facade of crumbling infrastructure and ruined lives and reveal the delight and cleanliness of an upcoming civilisation rampant. It is probably also a reminder of how pampered one quickly becomes in the feedback-form-filling west.

Which is just as well. Because without this superimposed meaning, the unremitting poverty, decay and despair could make it rather hard to cope with a journey like this one: the underlying thought of all travellers being “at least I don’t have to stay”.

Last line

Overall Open Lands is an excellent addition to my library, such as it is, an interesting record of how it was in the mid 1990s as the support systems that sustained economic life in previously-important parts of Russia broke down, and excellent vanity travelling for places that I may not reach for some years. So thanks to the Wellington man who commented on a previous post pointing me in its direction.

In particular, I have always been interested in the border between Russia and Mongolia in Tuva, a line on the map where two forgotten places meet. It was reported as being impassable in the early 1990s when I was near there (although there was no risk that I would actually go in any case), but now I have heard that some folks on the Mongol Rally pass through, which is clearly the sign that mass tourism is just around the corner.

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