As mysterious as its beautiful, as forbidding as it is populated with warm-hearted people, Syberia is a land few Westerners know, and even fewer will ever visit. Traveling alone, by train, boat, car, and on foot, Colin Thubron traversed this vast territory, talking to everyone he encountered about the state of the beauty, whose natural resources have been savagely exploited for decades; a terrain tainted by nuclear waste but filled with citizens who both welcomed him and fed him--despite their own tragic poverty. From Mongoloia to the Artic Circle, from Rasputin's village in the west through tundra, taiga, mountains, lakes, rivers, and finally to a derelict Jewish community in the country's far eastern reaches, Colin Thubron penetrates a little-understood part of the world in a way that no writer ever has.
Many adventurers plunge into Siberia in search of untrammeled roads or unspoiled grandeur; only a handful bring with them a significant knowledge of the land's history, geology and wildlife. Even rarer are those who relay the experience as magically as does this award-winning author. Thubron (The Lost Heart of Asia) recounts a journey studded with fantastic encounters: in Pokrovskoye, a peasant who claims to be a descendant of Rasputin wrestles with his own identity as he nears the age of the infamous holy man's death; in Omsk, wizened grandmothers talk of skinny-dipping in holy water; in the Pazyryk valley, excavators remove a prince, his concubine and a team of stallions from two and a half millennia of frozen slumber; in Kyzyl, a local shaman places an order for Scottish walrus tusks. The author marvels: "wherever I stopped seemed atypical, as if the essential Siberia could exist only in my absence." In fact, that phantom essence pervades Thubron's journey, which stretches from the site of the grisly murder of the Romanovs to the Far Eastern epicenter of the brutal penal camp system that killed millions of Soviet citizens. More than a report of an inquisitive traveler's adventures, Thubron's account doubles as a haunting elegy to the victims of the bloodshed and hardship that are Siberia's most lasting legacy. Only his tender treatment of Siberia's enchanting characters and extraordinary natural beauty brighten what would be an otherwise dark and desolate path. 4-city Author tour. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2000
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Excerpt from In Siberia by Colin Thubron
The ice-fields are crossed for ever by a man in chains. In the farther distance, perhaps, a herd of reindeer drifts, or a hunter makes a shadow on the snow. But that is all. Siberia: it fills one twelfth of the land-mass of the whole Earth, yet this is all it leaves for certain in the mind. A bleak beauty, and an indelible fear.
The emptiness becomes obsessive. Until a few years ago only five towns, scattered along the Trans-Siberian Railway, were open to foreigners under supervision, while Siberia itself receded into rumour. Even now the white spaces induce fantasies and apprehension. There is a place where white cranes dance on the permafrost, where a great city floats lost among the ice-floes, where mammoths sleep under glaciers. And there are places (you could fear) where the terrors of the Gulag secretly continue, and the rocket silos are rebuilding....
Over the Urals the train-wheels putter pathetically, like old men running out of breath. The mountains look too shallow to form a frontier, let alone the divide between Europe and Asia: only a faint upheaval of pine-darkened slopes.
Beyond my window the palisades of conifer and birch part to disclose sleepy villages and little towns by weed-smeared pools. The summer railway banks are glazed with flowers. Beyond them the clearings shut on and off like lantern slides: wooden cottages and vegetable patches boxed in picket fences, and cattle asleep in the grass.
Dusk arrives suddenly, as if this were the frontier also between light and darkness. Siberia is only a few miles away. It sets up a tingle of alarm. I am sliding out of European Russia into somewhere which seems less a country than a region in people's minds, and even at this last moment, everything ahead--the violences of geography and time--feels a little thinned, too cold or vast to be precisely real. It impends through the darkness as the ultimate, unearthly Abroad. The place from which you will not return.
I chose it against my will. I was subverted by the sudden falling open of a vast area of the forbidden world. The immensity of Siberia had shadowed all my Asian journeys. So the casual beginnings--the furtive glance in an atlas--began to nag and deepen, until the wilderness seemed less to be empty than overlooked, or scrawled with invisible ink. Insidiously, it began to infect me.
The Azeri merchant who shares my carriage never looks out of the window. Siberia is dull, he says, and poor. He trades clothes between Moscow and Omsk, and taps continually on a pocket calculator. 'I wouldn't stay long out there,' he says. 'Everything's falling to bits. I'd try China, if I were you. China's the coming place.' He is big and hirsute, thirty-something, and going to seed. After dozing, he checks his face in his shaving-mirror and groans, as if he had expected someone else.
Suddenly in our window there springs up the ghostly obelisk raised by Czar Alexander I nearly two centuries ago. It stands on a low bank, whitened by the glimmer of our train. Here, geographically, Siberia begins. On its near side the plinth proclaims 'Europe', on its far side 'Asia'. It flickers past us, and the darkness comes down again. And nothing, of course, changes. Because the boundary between Europe and Asia is only an imagined one. Physically the continents are undivided. Ancient geographers in the West (itself an artificial concept) perhaps decided one day that here was Europe--the known--and over there was somewhere else, Asia.
So I wait for the change which I know will not happen. In the dark the railway cuttings seem to plunge deeper, and the trees to rush up more vertiginously above them. A few suffocated stars appear. Occasionally the land breaks into valleys slung with faint lights, and once, from the restaurant-car, I see a horizon blanched with the refracted glow of an invisible city.