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
night.”

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
Railway.

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.

Making sense of travel

These are my travel diaries in reverse chronological order. Not much logic at all there, I am afraid. In case it helps, the trips looked liked this:

April – June 2001 Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, China

July – October 2001 China, Russia

February – April 2002 British Columbia, Amsterdam, Italy

April – October 2003 Italy, Turkey, Georgia, Central Asia (the ‘Stans), Russia, Mongolia, China, Laos, Thailand, Singapore, NZ

These days I tend to think the photos are cooler than the words. Your mileage may vary.

The final chukker (for now)

Hi all,

Here I am. Back home again. This is the last installment in the (until recently ongoing) saga of my latest trip. It is mostly about Laos (9/10 – a jewel, to steal a phrase from a friend), Thailand (8/10 – world-class beach-sitting), Singapore (8/10 – simplicity and old friends), and Auckland. From France (kinda), through an ex part of England to New Zealand. From unhustle and unbustle, through high-tech-air-conditioned-never-buy-cheaper, to home-cooked, pure-bred, down country perfection.

The short story, for those of you who did not have this email on your list of things to do today, is as follows:

* I exited China almost on foot (pretty close to walking pace, and just about as cheap) for the joys and wonders of Laos. These include (in no particular order) the friendly Laotians who welcomed me in, tiny villages where pens are still pretty neat, rooting for the orange boat with a couple of friendly dutchmen, an exhilarating (if dangerous, damp and masochistic) speedboat on the Mekong, excellent coffee at minimal prices, wondering what I would say to the rebels if I were be held up along stretches of dangerous road, and the feeling that you have left the real world behind.

* I raced (comparatively speaking) across Thailand, pausing just long enough in Bangkok to renew my acquaintance with Khao San Road and to score a ticket on the hottest bus in the world. Destination south and the overnight (sleepy Hayden) boat to a beach (where even sleepier Hayden caught up with an excellent Israeli and slept off the accumulated disorders of several months en the route).

* Then Singapore lulled me into a sense of security (possibly false, but do I care), and I got excited about being close to home. Things that I have done many times before (zoos, taxis, shops, shoes, frisbee, food, beaches) seemed all the sweeter and more novel for the unusual places that I had been in the meantime. I bought stuff. I caught the MRT. I sat out in the heat and drank expensive beer.

* And finally to home. To a reunion with a beautiful girl. To surprise at how little things have changed. To reorganise. To throw things up in the air. To throw things out. To throw some things in a bag and move. To Auckland even. To a new place to live. To a significant other. To a job search, a new domestic balance, to all the joys that domesticity allows. Craziness. At least by contrast.

Something else exciting happened when I reached Thailand. Well, actually, something exciting did not happen. No one asked me for a visa. The first country since Georgia, so many months before, where I needed no special permission to enter. No particular document or stamp. No processing fee. No queue. No mysterious rules and time limits. That little sentence in my passport imploring foreign governments to let me pass freely and help me out if I need it starts to look a little less tarnished. Definitely closer to home.

For sure Azerbaijan has the most permissive visa regime of any I encountered. Don’t worry about the form. Just tell the big besuited man outside the consulate what you want, hand over the cash and come back later in the day. Kyrgyzstan wins prizes for helpfulness (wait five minutes, pay $80 – you do have to fill in the form though), and for best border service (border guards ask if you actually need a visa at all, and they don’t stamp you in or out). Plaudits also to the Georgian consul in Turkey who was so keen to get rid of me he bent all the rules. No, no. No invitation is needed. No no, just sign the form. Forget the rest, it is all crap anyway.

Russia is one of the most difficult (secure an official invitation by email, print it out, take it to the embassy, stand in an enormous queue, get a form, fill it in, get let inside the embassy just before closing, get told they accept only roubles, run down the road to a money changer, run back, get let inside again, pay up, settle up, come back tomorrow, stand in an enormous queue). And Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are tricky too (mostly because the consulates are hard to find and open for only three hours in the morning and one more late in the afternoon).

The helpful border people in Turkey called us a taxi to get us across (after apologising that it was illegal to walk). The unhelpful Mongolian consul in Irkutsk had to be convinced that I would not starve and that I would be safely accommodated before I could even be allowed an application form. The excellent Chinese embassy staff follow rigid rules (be sure and fill out all the boxes) but get it done quickly. The Laotians tell you it takes at least three days and then process it in five minutes when you come to pick it up.

I have been home quite a while now. The calendar measures it in months. My instinctive reaction is disbelief. But it does seem a long while ago since I was anywhere but here. The present so quickly becomes history. Laos, Thailand, even Singapore seem far far away again. Something that might have happened to someone else sometime. And finishing up a diary, an enjoyable diversion that takes less than an hour, is one of those things that is so easily put down to do tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after. Sometime anyhow, not now.

And so yes. New places (Ponsonby), new challenges (jobs and credit and assets and living with someone neat and sewing circles – okay, so not sewing circles). People ask me when I am going next. As if I am best understood as the person who goes away rather than the person who stays around. I am not sure I am cured of the travelling bug yet (although I do seem to be in some kind of remission). But perhaps something a little less extensive (shorter periods, fewer places) or a new format (work and travel in the same place, even), maybe even go with somebody else (I even have someone in mind). We shall see.

In any case, if your travels should take you near to where I am, drop me a line. We can do lunch.

Stay safe and I guess a merry christmas is in order as well, wherever your travels may have taken you,

h

(in Auckland)

Bible woman

Another day, another plane. But here is something newish. The woman to my right (aside from being black, which is unusual to see in New Zealand) is reading a Bible. I can’t tell the version, so I can’t assess religion (aside from Christianity, that is), but I can see she has passages marked in it, so she is clearly not just playing around.

Since I am at the airport, it starts me to wondering. I mean, is it risky to be getting on the same plane as her? Does she have some kind of death wish? Would I be more worried if she were reading the Koran? Maybe she just finds it helpful to read the Bible to get her through the day. Maybe it is just what she needs to kick start the engine at 7 in the morning on a bleary humid day. It has got to be better than the dubious schmaltz that I am reading before I get on the plane.

Oh look, she is not on my flight after all. Or perhaps the Lord told her not to take this plane. Oh dear. Imagination is so much better than reality, after all

Lessons

With hindsight, and from the point of view of a person who now has a place to live, a combination girlfriend/flatmate, some normalcy, some routine and some domesticity, I found out a few things out on the way. They include the following:

* There is physical and there is mental. Sometimes being in the best place in the world is not enough to compensate for feeling like you should be somewhere else.

* Having things waiting for you at home (houses, cars, computers, credit cards) can help make your trip a little easier). Assets can bring security as well as commitment. You have a choice about how you view them.

* Joy can be smoked salmon in bad weather and bad traffic. Joy can also sometimes be flavourless boiled goat in perfect weather with not another jeep for miles. But the smoked salmon is a better bet.

* Commitment is not so scary. Many good things can only happen when you relax into it. The tree is close to the ground – fear not to step away from the trunk.

* Remoteness is as much cultural and linguistic as it is geographical. You are never that far from home.

* Credit cards can be troublesome. and being on hold is irritating when the call costs $6 a minute.

* Perspectives vary: what i hate, someone else loves; what i find common others think weird.

* Fabulous people can sometimes be hard to find. But this only increases the wonder and joy from finding one, whenever that might be.

* When you put your mind to it, you can go a long way in a very short time, even without planes.

* There is nothing quite like the freedom of a long train journey (provided you are properly prepared). Unlike airplanes, they take much longer (airplanes almost always arrive too quickly), you have more freedom of movement (although there is nowhere to go but to and from the window and the restaurant car), and no one takes responsibility for keeping you entertained but you.

* Visas, like sandpaper, are designed to irritate.

* Most of the sights of the world are a disappointment. Definitely not as interesting as the people seeing them. Keep your expectations low and your standards high.

* Happy people are not scarce – neither are friendly people. Altruism does exist.

* Travels mostly sound exotic to those who have never been. To those who have come and gone, excitement is tempered by the realisation of discomfort. Nasty can be cool, but usually only in hindsight.

Sameness

Before a big event (like getting home after almost six months overseas, just to take an example entirely at random), time seems to go so slowly. As you get closer to the event, things speed up. Like travelling towards a black hole, I suppose, not that I ever have. And suddenly, wham, bam, there you are. Everyone is excited to see you, to touch you, to make sure that you are really there. You need a haircut, a shave, a change of clothes. You are excited to see all the things you have missed, and amazed to see all the things you had forgotten. Time races by.

And then, a few days later, when you have a quiet moment to yourself and maybe a cup of tea, you realise that time is going slowly again. The distance between ten and twelve seems like far more than two hours. And the length of time that, only two days before, would not have been enough to even figure out what to do next stretches out before you: an empty diary to be filled in. It is kind of like after a party: the expectation, the guests, and now just the clean up to go.

Of course, this is a well planned clean up. I have many things to do. I have had a lot of spare moments (some with cups of tea (Central Asia, Russia), some without (Mongolia – tea undrinkable – Laos – coffee superior)) to draw up a list.

But it is funny how when I get home I am struck by how little has actually changed. I think in part this is the purpose of home. So I don’t know why I always notice it. I mean home is the place where everything stays pretty much as it always was, where everything is expected and normal, and if something dramatic happens (something as exciting as new carpet, or someone new joining your friend base), even that is not all that dramatic, or at least not for very long. Inertia, and the ability to absorb changes and act as if everything has always been that way. These are the characteristics of home.

I have spent the last day or so cleaning up my parents’ house. I figure the time has finally come to move out. A new phase of maturity? Or just enough room to store my junk? And, of course, when faced with the costs of moving it and storing it, I choose to throw a lot of stuff out. Goodbye notes from university. Goodbye schoolbooks from long, long ago.

Goodbye random gifts that were never used but not never appreciated (the value of a gift, after all, lies primarily in the process that goes into its choosing).

Along the way I found a whole box of love letters. The process slowed down at that point. Parenthetically, who would tidy up their previous life if they could not sneak a peek at it from time to time as they went along? I threw away a whole bunch of my love letters. (Fear not, I threw away old bank statements too). I found myself unable to recognise my own handwriting and my own turns of phrase. Endearments, so strongly felt in the past, seem remote and even irrational in my present. I guess that is how you know it is time to throw them away.

Fortunately, perhaps, one thing I did not find in the course of my cleanup was the desire to go travelling some more. Maybe I have satiated that particular part of my personality for a while. Or maybe not. Time will tell, I guess. Perhaps it is just the type of places I have been going that I am done with. A cruise or a luxury lie-on-the-beach-in-a-beautiful-warm-but-cheap-country sounds good to me right now.

Receipts seem to be crucially important in communist (even if only nominally) countries. In China and Laos without the receipt you were lost. Even if you had only been in 10 minutes before and the person behind the counter recognised you. Here you get receipts all the time, and the person behind the counter considers it a part of their service to offer to throw them away for you. Strange how you see the differences.

I also think the trend of making new nouns has taken great strides in the last six months. We are now accustomed to ‘a coffee’ without the cup. ‘A tea’ still sounds strange, but ‘a water’ has entered the lexicon as standard usage. As in, “would you like a water?” on the plane. The change in part of speech does not seem to prevent me from spilling it on myself, of course. So some things have stayed the same.