Travels in Siberia

by Ian Frazier

(Picador, R184,95)

If you’re talking travel reading, Siberia was never one of my desired destinations. But the fact that I would certainly never go made me dip into this one with great delight.

Think of the temperatures that had most of Europe shivering and staying indoors just a few weeks ago. That’s normal conditions for Siberia, a region that many of us associate with the time when it was used as a place of banishment.

It’s where many of the Soviet Union’s greatest minds and activists were sent to live a life of exclusion from the rest of the world. Those in power didn’t have to do much to secure their perfect isolation.

Frazier developed a fascination with Siberia as a vast stretch of land that he wished to explore in all its many facets; from the daunting map at the start of his storytelling to the final story of contrasts in a country that is still battling to deal with many issues.

That’s what makes this such a gripping read. He takes us into the past, details the historic links of a specific corner of this impressive but impenetrable region with a landscape that can be overwhelm- ing, and shares his knowledge about the most famous exiles, including Dostoyevsky and Lenin.

He looks at the impact of the Tartars, at the end of the banish- ment of people, the health statistics of the past and today – almost anything you can think of to give insight into this place.

The author tells about his many travels to explore the landscape, its history, people and psychological impact on those who live there and those who leave.

It’s a place that feeds many of Russia’s desires, and a place from where its inhabitants flee. Officially, there is no such place as Siberia, is how the author starts the book.

He also describes the hardships of travelling in what has always been the discarded part of Russia in many ways. And yet, it also holds all the wealth and the future of the country.

That’s why it hasn’t just slipped off the face of the earth.

One of the things that stuck with me and made a mental impact, perhaps because I live in Africa, is the rubble and rubbish that is part of every rest stop along the way.

The landscape conjures up many specific images – and rubbish isn’t one of them. But he takes you from the impact of the harsh labour camps to the daily life of someone living in such isolation, as he explores both the practicality of living in such a cold region and the way it affects the soul and the psyche of the people.

There’s a reason that Siberia has become a figure of speech rather than a piece of land for most people, he notes.

“In one of the most important places to be seen having lunch in midtown Manhattan, Siberia is the tables next to the ketchup room, where the condiments are stored,” he writes as an introduction to this piece of land that so attracts him.

It’s tough to think of those freezing living conditions, which are as much a part of their lives as sunshine is to ours.

It has to determine the dispo- sition of a people when they live in what is described as the coldest place on earth.

But think, for example, of the many opportunities this kind of isolation allows. Anyone who has gazed at the night sky from the vantage of the Karoo will have an inkling. Astronomers are grateful for the skies of Siberia largely being untroubled by pollution of any kind. “Never in my life have I seen so many satellites and shooting stars,” writes Frazier.

His focus is as much on Lenin and Ivan the Terrible as it is on the size of the elk found in these climes. And while you might think that travelling through this bare landscape won’t offer much scope, that’s unfounded.

It’s perhaps hard to imagine those kind of journeys yet Frazier has a knack of taking you there because he so clearly captures the discomfort of travel or what it’s like to experience some miraculously breathtaking vista.

Along the way he made some drawings of the places he found fascinating. These are charming rather than illuminating, yet they capture the mood of the writing, which is almost as random as someone keeping a diary.

I was immersed in what he was sharing, though, as a travel writer, he’s probably failed. Siberia is still last on my list.