For tourists, Siberia is best known for two things: Lake Baikal and the Trans-Siberian Railroad. But there is more to this vast area than that. There are scores of amazing places, but often either there is now way to get there, the ways to get there are prohibitively expensive or you are not allowed to go there to begin with. Many of the cities are dirty and industrial; and as beautiful as the forests are they are all more or less the same.

In Siberia many places can only be reached by air, or in the summer by river boat. In Siberia it is not a bad idea to take two watches and have two programmed times: local time and Moscow time. All the trains and planes run on Moscow time regardless of what city you are in. Planes in Siberia can fly all day and passengers can see nothing put trees. During flights at night it seems like you are traveling over the ocean as there are few if any lights. Traveler on the Trans-Siberian railroad see more or less see the same thing out of their windows for a week. There are bears and tigers in the forest but your chances of seeing one are slim.

Some cities have small fleets of Hungarian-made buses while other buses resemble converted tractors or chicken coups on wheels. Trains are the cheapest and most comfortable way to get around. Foreigners are no longer restricted to specific routes or trains. No trains exist in northern Siberia. Planes are used extensively for inner-city travel. Most towns have a small airport or landing strip. When planning a journey involving multiple destinations, book each destination in advance.

In the Altay Mountains, Khakassia and Tuva, and Ussuriland, populated areas are compact; the road system is well developed within and near cities. Distances between villages and towns are somewhat less than in other regions of Siberia. Rental cars are available in Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, from hotels with service bureaus, or from Intourist. Bus transport generally is limited to suburban routes, local links and city-to-airport links. Distances between cities are too great, and the roads are either lacking or too poor to make bus service practical.

Traveling by Road in Siberia and the Russian Far East

On driving in Siberia, ASIRT reports: “Driving regulations are the same as in European Russia. Driving conditions are very different than in the European areas of Russia. Distances between cities often are vast. Traveling from Irkutsk to Khabarovsk is about the same distance as London to Cairo. Local roads tend to be unpaved, very rough and full of potholes. Finding gas or spare parts can be difficult. Harsh weather conditions increase the cost of road construction. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 |=|]

“Some roads are winter roads only and are impassible when the ground thaws. Winter roads are not indicated on maps. Ask residents about year-round routes. Often no bridges are available for crossing the rivers; crossing is only possible where trucks ford the river. Existing bridges are not well maintained, and some are not safe to cross. Erosion sometimes creates a large gap between the road surface and bridge surface.Transcontinental highway: A narrow, two-lane road with shoulders that are seldom paved and generally no lane markings. |=|

“Bicycles and horse-drawn carts share the road with motorized vehicles. Extremely large potholes, wandering livestock, sections of unpaved road, and jagged rocks scattered on the road surface make driving difficult and can cause vehicle damage.

Dealing with Car Trouble in Siberia

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “ Somewhere Sergei spotted a garage in a roadside expanse of mud and gravel and pulled up in front of the garage-bay door. Just at that moment, the garageman came out, yanked a rope, and pulled the bay door down. He informed Sergei that the garage was now closed for the day. Then the garageman hurried to his car and sped away into the power-line forest. Sergei returned to the van, reseated himself behind the steering wheel, and turned the key. From the engine came no noise of any kind. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 3, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“With this particular non-starting of the van we entered an odd zone—a sort of horse latitudes of confusion and delay caused by the mysterious problems of our vehicle. At low moments, I thought I might bounce around in this zone and stay in western Russia forever. The episode comes back to me in flashes: ‘Here are Sergei and Volodya and me pushing the van away from the garage-bay door, and then heaving and straining from behind to build up enough speed in order to start the engine by popping the clutch. Finally, at our breaking point, Volodya runs up to the open driver’s-side door, leaps in, throws the gear shift into first, and the engine coughs alive.’

“Here we are in the city of Vologda, a hundred and thirty-five kilometers down the road, where Vyacheslav, the brother of a friend of Sergei’s wife, lives. Night has fallen. We are in a parking lot behind some buildings with our weakly idling van. Vyacheslav arrives....In the silvery aura of the headlights of his shiny new Volvo sedan, he says he knows an excellent mechanic who will repair the van tomorrow. For now, we will stay at his dacha, twenty-eight kilometers out of town. We will leave the van here in this parking lot overnight. Someone must stay with it to watch our things. This job falls to Volodya. He accepts it with a shrug.

“Here we are rocketing back to Vologda in the early morning. The faithful Volodya, when we find him, is walking up and down unhappily in the parking lot. He looks a bit worn from his night in the van. Vyacheslav’s mechanic has been summoned and is on his way. Now, Vyacheslav tells us, we will go to a tennis exhibition put on by his son, a rising tennis star. Then we will take a tour of Vyacheslav’s factory. Meanwhile, Volodya will stay and deal with the mechanic and the van....

“Here we are in Vyacheslav’s office. Sergei and Volodya have just arrived. The van is out of the shop and supposedly ready to go. A conference of the executives of the Start-Plus company has been assembled to determine what we travellers should do now. My own plan is simple: Let’s go. Oh, but that is an overly hasty idea, I am told. The afternoon is almost gone. We should not leave now, but instead stay another night at Vyacheslav’s dacha. Sergei and Volodya both strongly favor this idea. What can I do but agree?

“Here we are saying goodbye to Vyacheslav and his wife on the steps of his dacha the next morning. Sergei walks over to the van. Against expectation, it starts. I am glad it has finally been repaired...Of course, the van’s ills were not cured—not then, nor were they ever, really. As we continued our journey, and new problems arose, I sometimes raged inwardly at Sergei for attempting to cross the continent in such a lemon. In time, though, I quit worrying. I noticed that, whatever glitch there might be, Sergei and Volodya did always manage to get the thing running again somehow. When the ignition balked, Sergei found a method of helping it along by opening the hood and leaning in with a big screwdriver from our gear. Soon his pokings would produce a large, sparking pop, the engine would start, and Sergei would extricate himself from the machinery, eyebrows a bit singed.

“Once after Volodya had accomplished a similar maneuver, I asked if he could explain to me just what was the matter with this car. He thought for a while and then said that what was wrong with the car could not be said in words. I recalled the lines by Tyutchev: Umom Rossiyu ne ponyat’, / Arshinom obshchim ne izmerit’:/ U nei osobennaya stat’— V Rossiyu mozhno tol’ko verit’. (Russia cannot be understood with the mind, / She cannot be measured by ordinary measure: / She has her own particular stance— /All you can do is believe in her.)”

Preparing a Vehicle for Traveling in Siberia

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “One day in June, Sergei and I drove to a labyrinthine warren of single-vehicle garages in a far section of St. Petersburg. I had wanted to buy a Russian all-road vehicle like a four-wheel-drive Niva, but I was warned that that was a bad idea, because Russian vehicles constantly break down. (On our journey, after I’d seen the thousandth Niva by the side of the road with its hood up and the driver peering under it, I appreciated this truth.) Instead, with forty-five hundred dollars supplied by me, Sergei had bought a diesel-powered Renault step van. He promised me that this car was far more reliable. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 3, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“In the narrow, low-ceilinged garage where Sergei was keeping it, the Renault struck me as not Siberia-ready. It looked more suited to delivering sour cream and eggs, the job it had done until recently. Sergei backed it out and we went for a quick test drive. Its shocks weren’t much and its stick shift was stiff. Sergei said he would have it running smoothly in time for the journey. He said he planned to put an extra seat in the back, and a place to store our stuff, and a table where we could eat when it rained. I noticed that there were no seat belts, and said that each seat must have one. Sergei conceded that seat belts could be added if I wanted them. He treated this as an eccentric special request. Many Russians do not use seat belts and consider them an American absurdity.

“Early on the morning of the fifth of August, Sergei and Volodya brought the van to the back of Sergei’s building. Volodya, who had arrived the day before, is a slim, broad-shouldered man who usually wears neat work shirts and pants in shades of gray. He was fifty at the time, with a full head of black, graying hair, blue eyes, and the thin nose and chiselled features of his Ukrainian ancestry. We did our final loading, Sergei said goodbye to his wife and grandson, and we climbed aboard. Setting out, I did not think about the enterprise before us or about our destination a third of the way around the globe. Instead I noticed that the rain, which had been sprinkling, had begun to pour, and that the windshield wiper on the passenger side worked only intermittently. The driver’s-side wiper worked all right. The gray Neva River, beside us, reproduced the overcast drabness of the sky, and the speeding traffic threw up rooster tails of spray. By the time we reached the city limits, the oil-pressure warning light on the dashboard had come on. I pointed it out to Sergei and Volodya. They said it was nothing.

“The van had been built with the cargo area in the back lower than the front seats, which rested on a raised platform. In the seat Sergei had installed in the back, one therefore had to sit straight up and lean forward in order to see over the dash. For comfort this was not ideal, but I had no choice, because there were no back windows on the van’s sides. About the time the oil-pressure light came on, I also smelled a strange burning odor, mixed with diesel exhaust. When I mentioned this to Sergei, he rolled his window partway down.”

Camping in Siberia

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: ““Sergei described how he would arrange the back so we could sleep in there if necessary. I didn’t see quite how this would work, especially when I learned there would be three of us—Vladimir Chumak, called Volodya or Vitya, who was a past associate of Sergei’s, had been asked to come along as an assistant. Sergei and Volodya had been in Kamchatka together and had known each other since university. I was told that three men were better than two for safety. That sounded sensible to me. Sergei praised Volodya Chumak as a topnotch alpinist and a great guy. He lived in Sochi, a resort town on the Black Sea, where he employed his alpinist skills in his regular job as a building renovator, rappelling down the façades of buildings he was restoring. I would not meet him until just before the trip began. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 3, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“There are very few motels in Siberia. Most of the time, Sergei and Volodya and I would be camping out, or else staying in people’s houses. Sergei would supply tents, a propane stove, camp chairs, and other gear. I was to bring my own sleeping bag, eating utensils, personal items, etc. I asked if I should buy a travel directory of Siberian campgrounds, and he laughed. Sergei said that I would understand better what Siberia was like once I got there.

“It was the summer of 2001, and we were driving across Siberia in a converted Renault step van that had formerly delivered eggs and sour cream and sometimes didn’t start. Every night, we were camping out. In a country without fences or “No Trespassing” signs, we had an abundance of places to camp, but each one required a certain amount of searching nonetheless. Sergei sometimes spent an hour or more in the evenings looking—stopping, getting out, walking around, then trying somewhere else. He wanted ground that was dry, not too low, not too many trash heaps, near water if possible, away from the road but not too difficult to get to. When he was satisfied with his find, he would pronounce it a “khoroshoe mesto”—a good place.

On one spot: “In late afternoon, we found a good place to camp on its banks. The Ingoda is a pleasant, small river with a brisk flow and a bottom of sand and gravel in the parts I saw. Some boys near our campsite who came by to check us out told Sergei you could catch plenty of fish in it using crickets. I set up my fly rod and tied on an all-around attractor fly. Casting into slack water below some riffles, I got a lot of splashy strikes, but the fish were too small to fit their mouths around the fly. Finally, I hooked a flipping and flopping six-incher. It had delicate yellow markings on its side, like little reef fish I’d caught in Florida. I don’t know what kind of fish it was.

“I showed it to Volodya and he said he’d fry it up for an appetizer before supper. Then I waded back into the river and cast some more. Far downstream, I knew, the Ingoda joined the Onon to make the Shilka, which joined the Argun to make the Amur, which eventually emptied into the Pacific, which extended all the way to Dockweiler State Beach, in Los Angeles, where my sister-in-law brought her children to swim. In theory, from here I could take the all-water route home.”

Mosquitos and Insects in Siberia

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “I have been in mosquito swarms in beaver meadows in northern Michigan, in boreal wetlands in Canada, and near Alaska’s Yukon River. Western Siberia has more. On calm and sultry evenings as we busied ourselves around the camp, mosquitoes came at us as if shot from a fire hose. Usually mosquitoes cluster in a cloud around their targets, but as Volodya made dinner I observed a thick and proximate cloud surrounding him head to toe, and then a whole other sort of candidate swarm around that inner swarm, and then more in all directions, minutely enlivening the sky. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010)]

“With such astronomical numbers, Siberian mosquitoes have learned to diversify. There are the majority, of course, who just bite you anywhere. Those are your general-practitioner mosquitoes, or G.P.s. Then, you have your specialists—your eye, ear, nose, and throat mosquitoes. Eye mosquitoes fly directly at the eyeball and crash-land there. The reason for this tactic is a mystery. The ear mosquito goes into the ear canal and then slams itself deafeningly back and forth—part of a larger psyops strategy, maybe. Nose and throat mosquitoes wait for their moment, then surf into those passages as far as they can go on the indrawn breath of air. Even deep inside they keep flying as long as possible and emit a desperate buzzing, as if radioing for backup.

“The mosquitoes kept tabs on us vigilantly everywhere we moved, indoors as well as out. Because our campsites were just places along the road, the bathroom arrangements had to be of the walk-off-into-the-bushes variety. Tending to necessities while under insect attack was a real experience. I recalled what a Siberian traveller named Hans Jakob Fries had written about this problem more than two centuries ago. Fries was a Swiss doctor, whose book, “Reise Durch Sibirien” (“Travel in Siberia”), described a journey he made in 1776 and, incidentally, became one of the earliest books to use that serviceable title. Fries wrote that during his passage through western Siberia he was bitten on a “delicate portion of my privy parts . . . so severely by a horse fly . . . that for three days I didn’t know where to turn on account of pain, and I had the greatest trouble to prevent the setting in of gangrene.” The recollection of Fries’s misfortune filled me with caution, not to say fear.

Dealing with Mosquitos and Insects in Siberia

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “Nothing short of a good breeze keeps Siberian mosquitoes down. They laugh at organic-based repellents. Strong repellent with deet is disagreeable to them, but they work around it. Thick smoke can be effective, but you have to stand right in it. In past times, native peoples and Russians wove fine netting of the long hairs in a horse’s tail and wore the nets throughout the summer. Members of a tribe called the Tungus carried smoke pots with them wherever they went, while another native people, the Voguls, retreated into smoke-filled huts for the summer months and became dormant, doing most of their hunting and travelling in the wintertime. The sheer volume of mosquitoes might cause an observer not to mention the gnats, flies, and tiny biting insects (known as “no-see-’ums” in America); there are plenty of all those as well. Sometimes in the evenings, I imagined I could hear the great insect totality tuning up all around, a continent-wide humming. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010)]

“Sergei had provided each of us with a special anti-mosquito hat, called a nakomarnik, that was draped with netting and resembled something a beekeeper might wear. When the mosquitoes were worst, we wore those hats, and gloves, and we tucked our pant legs into our boots. Dressed this way, we could move around and perform most essential activities. I found sketching and taking notes to be difficult with gloves on. Also, the no-see-’ums got through the holes in the netting, and were hard to swat once inside. A few mosquitoes always sneaked in as well, and whined maddeningly. As Volodya cooked meals on the propane stove, mosquitoes attracted by the rising vapors flew over the pot, swooned from the heat, and fell in. When we ate our oatmeal in the morning, there were often a few mosquito bodies in it. Most of them we just ate, but sometimes there were ones that had bitten somebody and were full of blood “

“Bugs are just part of the Siberian situation, as inescapable as distance and monotony. That long-suffering traveller Chekhov described a cockroach-infested room in the jailhouse where he spent the night in a tiny settlement on Sakhalin Island: ‘It seemed as though the walls and ceiling were covered with black crepe, which stirred as if blown by a wind. From the rapid and disorderly movements of portions of the crepe you could guess the composition of this boiling, seething mass. You could hear rustling and a loud whispering, as if the insects were hurrying off somewhere and carrying on a conversation.’

“V. K. Arsenyev, the Russian Army officer and explorer who in the early nineteen-hundreds mapped some of the most inaccessible parts of the Primorskii Krai, north of Vladivostok, wrote about flies that fell so thickly they put out his campfire; Dostoyevsky waxed lyrical about the blessed moment in the cool of pre-dawn in the prison barracks when the fleas stopped biting and the convicts could sleep; and John Bell, a Scottish doctor in the employ of Peter the Great, noted that his ambassadorial party, bound for Peking in 1719, changed their route across eastern Siberia partly because they were “much pestered with gnats and muskitoes.” The swarms afflicted animals, too—descending on young foals in such numbers as to kill them, suffocating reindeer in Yakutia by clogging up their nostrils, tormenting cattle on the Barabinsk Steppe so that the herdsmen had to paint them all over with tar. Some of my Siberian notebooks still have squashed mosquitoes between their pages. The Lonely Planet guidebook to Russia that I consulted before I went on my journey states, in the section about Siberia, “By August, the air has cleared of mosquitoes.” From my experience, this is no longer the case.

Trans-Siberian Highway

There is a network of federal highways that cross Russian from St. Petersburg on Baltic Sea in the east to Vladivostok on the Japan Sea in the west. The route is known as the AH6, or the Asian Highway Network. One section is part of European route E30. The section through Siberia consists of seven federal highways, one of which is the Amur Highway (links Chita and Khabarovsk). The Amur Highway, the only Trans-Siberian Highway section still under construction was slated to be open in 2010. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT)]

What is called the Trans-Siberian Highway extends 10,600 kilometers (6,600 miles) from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. Formally opened in 2004, it extends through taiga and across permafrost, dethroning the 7820-kilometer-long (4,860-mile-long) Trans-Canada Highway as the world’s longest national highway. The road is far from complete. Although most of its is nicely paved. Some sections of little more than a roadbed bulldozed through an area of downed trees. Even getting through with a top of the line SUV is difficult.

Describing one section between Ulan Ude and Khabarovsk in the mid 2000s, one Russian motorist told the New York Times, “There is 700 kilometers of no roads. There is no other word to call it — goat tracks. At Some places, it was blocked by rocks from the mountains detonated by dynamite. So drivers had t hire bulldozers working nearby or just crawl atop this rock piles as I did.” In other areas there are large tree stumps and mud layers on permafrost. As of 2004, about a quarter of this section was paved, with most of these stretches in the settled areas. The whole section scheduled to be completed in 2010.

The project has been dogged by various problems from the start. Construction was supposed to begin in 1966 but didn’t begin until 1978. Sometimes the rate of progress was only a few kilometers a month. There are more than 250 bridges. Under Putin it was given a lift. A quarter of al the government road-building budget went to the project and financing was provided by the European Union in the form of low interest loans.

But many wondered if the road was even necessary. Why travel by car on a journey that takes three weeks in rough conditions when you can cover the same distance in a week on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. For long stretches there are no service stations or restaurants. Anyone brave enough to take the road needs to bring their own fuel and food and maybe a gun. Then there are the costs of maintaining a road, parts of which lie atop permafrost and experience a range of extreme weather conditions.

George Kennan and the Convicts Road

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: In 1885,George Kennan, the journalist who became one of the most famous Siberian travellers of that century, went to Siberia to see prisons and interview political exiles. “Siberia and the Exile System,” the exposé he wrote afterward, appalled readers and contributed to the revolutionary spirit that brought down the Tsar. I got interested in Kennan because he grew up in Norwalk, Ohio, where some of my family came from. Admiration for him was one of the reasons I had wanted to travel in Siberia in the first place. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 3, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]
“Because I knew Kennan’s route, I generally had it in the back of my mind. Though the human geography had changed in a hundred and sixteen years, I was confident that Kennan had travelled quite near where I was right now. Kennan and George Frost, his travel companion and sketch artist, arrived in Yekaterinburg on June 12, 1885, and left there soon afterward. During Frost and Kennan’s first day on the Siberian road (also called the Sibirskii Trakt, or just the Trakt), they saw one thousand four hundred and forty-five freight wagons. The Trans-Siberian Railway had not yet been built, so the Trakt then served as Siberia’s main artery. Traffic crowded it, especially tea caravans, which were among its chief nuisances—the great throngs of carts and wagons loaded with crates of tea from China, moving in herd formation all over the roadway at the will of their driverless horses, loosely controlled by a few caravan masters.

“Of course, much of the Trakt’s eastbound traffic consisted of exiles. Shackled or not, sometimes accompanied by their families, always under guard, parties of exiles journeyed to their various Siberian destinations on foot for most of the way. In tsarist times, many thousands of exiles walked the Trakt every year. It officially crossed into Siberia a hundred and fifty miles east of Yekaterinburg, where the province of Perm, a western Russian province, met the Siberian province of Tobolsk. A square pillar of stuccoed or plastered brick marked the spot of this continental transition. One side of the pillar bore the coat of arms of Perm Province, and the other side that of Tobolsk.

“At this pillar, Kennan said, exiles were allowed to stop and make a last goodbye, to press their faces to the ground and pick up a little of the earth of western Russia to bring with them. Beyond this spot they were, in a sense, jumping off into the void...In America, we love roads. To be “on the road” is to be happy and alive and free. Whatever lonesomeness the road implies is also a blankness that soon will be filled with possibility. A road leading to the horizon almost always signifies a hopeful vista for Americans. “Riding off into the sunset” has always been our happy ending. But I could find no happy-ending vista here, only the opposite. This had also been called the Convicts’ Road or the Exiles’ Road. Not only was it long and lonesome but it ran permanently in the wrong direction, from the exiles’ point of view. Longing and melancholy seemed to have worked themselves into the very soil; the old road and the land around it seemed downcast, as if they’d had their feelings hurt by how much the people passing by did not want to be here. Using a place as punishment may or may not be fair to the people who are punished there, but it always demeans and does a disservice to the place. “

Looking for the Convicts Road

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: ““Naturally, I wanted to find this pillar and see what it looks like now. If I stood beside it, I would be in an exact place where the famous traveller had been. I explained about the pillar to Sergei and we kept our eyes open. Kennan had said that the pillar was about two days’ travel from Yekaterinburg, between the villages of Markova and Tugulimskaya. I noted a large town named Tugulym on the map, but Markova was either too small to be included or didn’t exist anymore. Then, about two hundred kilometers from Yekaterinburg, on the right-hand side of the road, there it was: Markova, barely a hamlet, just some houses and a sign. A short distance beyond it, tall markers announced the boundaries of two raioni, or regions. The marker facing westward said Tugulymskii Raion, and the eastward-facing marker said Tapitskii Raion. We got out at the wide place in the road there. Pistachio shells and a Fanta Orange can littered the oil-stained ground, the trucks blew by, the trees leaned overhead. But nothing like Kennan’s fateful pillar could be seen. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010)]

“A woman in a roadside café nearby told Sergei that the road we were on was the new road, and the previous one, the original Trakt, used to run through the woods just to the north. She had never heard of any pillar such as Kennan had described. Following her directions, we went down a brushy lane until it ended at a collection of trash piles, and then Sergei and I continued on foot into deep forest with weeds and underbrush over our heads sometimes. Rain had fallen the night before and our clothes were soon soaked through, while grass seeds covered us all over. The woman had said that exiles who died along the road were buried beside the old Trakt, and you could still see the mounds. We did find mounds on either side of a declivity among the trees, and its barely visible path could once have been a roadway. But the mosquitoes were coming at us so madly that we had to wave our hands before us like windshield wipers on the fastest setting, and I soon decided that Kennan’s pillar, if it did perhaps exist somewhere in these thickets, would not be found by me.

“Back on the road, we drove slowly and asked people along it if they’d ever heard of the pillar—none had—and if they could show us sections of the old Trakt. Everybody we talked to pointed out pieces of the Trakt right away. Sometimes it was on one side of the new road, sometimes the other. Where it crossed grassy fields you could still see the deep depression the road had made in the ground. A man selling carrots on the new road told us that the Trakt had been the main street of a tiny village nearby called Maltsevo. Leaving the pavement and rambling along mud paths, we came upon Maltsevo in its backwater, where the new road as well as the railroad had passed it by. Every one of the dozen or so houses in the village was made of wood, and every piece of wood was the same shade of weathered gray. The houses’ logs, thin pieces of overlying lath, decorative scrollwork, and plank window shutters all seemed to be in a slow-motion race to see which would be the first to fall completely down.

“The single distraction that kept the village from epitomizing a dreary Russian peasant village for all time was the loud rock-and-roll anthem reverbing from speakers somewhere invisible but quite close by. I recognized the song as “It’s My Life” (in English, the original), by Bon Jovi. As we stood on the town’s one street, a small, unshaven, dark-haired man came walking along. He had on two sweaters, whose several large holes almost did not overlap. We asked him where the Trakt used to be, and he immediately said, “Right here!,” gesturing backhand at the ruts at his feet. “Also, there,” he said, and gestured far to the west. “And there!” This final gesture, to the east, was like an overhand throwing motion, and it pantomimed a hopelessness at even imagining how far the road went on.

“I turned to where he gestured—first, back to the west, where the old road came on snakily but straight, a pair of muddy ruts in a wide and worn bed. The ruts entered the village, barely deigning to notice the weak attempt at domestication alongside, and then headed straight out of town. Across another empty field they dwindled eastward to the horizon and forever. I had seen some lonesome roads, but this one outdid them. I stood looking at it with Sergei and Volodya and the man wearing two sweaters. For a moment, I got an intimation of the sadness Kennan had talked about—the deep and ancient sorrow of exile.

“In the ruts of the old Trakt, I tried to picture its former magnitude. This had been a continental highway, after all, a road of empire. I imagined parties of prisoners tramping along it, chains jingling; and sleighs slipping by in the winter, and imperial couriers on horseback bound for Peking, and troops of soldiers, and runaway serfs, and English travellers, and families of Gypsies, and hordes of tea wagons in clouds of dust. If there were a museum of the great roads of the world, the Sibirskii Trakt would deserve its own exhibit, along with the Via Appia and the Silk Road and old U.S. Route 66.

Where the Trans-Siberian Highway Gave Out in the 2000s

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “The road got worse after Krasnoyarsk, and soon deteriorated thoroughly. Long unpaved sections with many big rocks and yamy made for a bumpy and dusty ride. The van’s low clearance underneath, which I’d worried about before, now caused problems as we began to scrape, and we almost high-centered from time to time. A boulder in the path knocked away a foot or so of tailpipe. A worse bump on an uphill grade crushed and scraped away the remaining two or three feet, leaving no pipe extending from the muffler’s outlet to carry off the exhaust fumes. Immediately, the air in the van, which had never been good, became unbearable. Now I could detect an actual blue fog. I tried to remember what the signs of monoxide poisoning were. Sergei, as expected, refused to go to a garage or muffler shop or do anything about the problem. That was not necessary, Sergei announced, sitting beside his open window and its plentiful incoming dust. Finally, Volodya, the swing vote among us, switched to my side and told Sergei that we had to fix the tailpipe right away or we’d all suffocate. Sergei said he would fix it, and with some annoyance he pulled over to the shoulder. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010)]

“He got out. Volodya and I watched. Sergei was just wandering around a weedy patch of ground that paralleled the road, looking down and kicking occasionally at the dirt. After a minute or two, he bent over and stood up with something in his hand. It looked to be a piece of pipe. When we got out to see what he’d found, he showed us a somewhat rusty but still serviceable meter-long piece of tailpipe that must have fallen off another vehicle. It was exactly the same width as the one we’d lost. With Volodya’s help, Sergei scooted under the van and wired the length of tailpipe in place at the muffler outlet and other points leading to the rear bumper. When we started driving again, the fumes were much better, though not by any means gone. Still, I had to praise Sergei for what an ingenious guy he was.

“Beyond Krasnoyarsk, the road also began to run closer to the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railway, crossing it over and back from time to time. Each crossing was watched over by a guard in a small shed. When the guard, usually a short, stout woman, saw a train coming, she would walk into the road, wave a flag to stop the cars, and lower the barricades. If the train was a long and slow one, as many were, the people in the waiting cars would unpackage drinks and snacks, throw their doors open, stretch their legs out, and get comfortable. After the train had gone by, the guard would walk onto the tracks, look both ways to make sure all was safe, raise the barricades, and wave the cars through with her flag. At regularly spaced intervals on the road, piles of snack remains showed where each car had been.

“Sometimes in the evening we camped not far from the tracks. During lulls in the train traffic, I climbed up the stones of the roadbed and looked down the rails to where they disappeared around a distant bend. As on the old Sibirskii Trakt, phantoms thronged along the railway. I pictured the flag-bedecked, celebratory trains that passed by here when the railway was first completed, in tsarist times, and the soldiers of the Czech Legion in their slow-moving armored trains in 1919, and the White Army soldiers dying of typhus by the thousands along the route, and the slave laborers who laid the second set of tracks in the nineteen-thirties, and the countless sealed Stolypin cars of prisoners dragged along these tracks to the deadly Gulag camps of the Soviet Far East. Osip Mandelstam, the great poet, on his way to death at the Second River transit prison in Vladivostok, had gone along this line. The ties and the steel rails and the overhead catenary wires all leading determinedly eastward still had a certain grimness, as if permanently blackened by history.

“The following afternoon, we reached Chernyshevsk, an important point on our journey. I had been half dreading Chernyshevsk, because beyond it the road became undrivably bad for the next eight hundred or nine hundred kilometers. Owing to the swamps and the lack of local population and the difficulty of maintenance, from Chernyshevsk to the town of Magdagachi, a long way to the east, there was in effect no vehicle road. Therefore, all cross-country drivers had to stop in Chernyshevsk (or, if westbound, in Magdagachi) and load their vehicles onto Trans-Siberian car- and truck-carriers in order to traverse the roadless stretch by rail.

“This situation had created a bottleneck at Chernyshevsk, where traffic backed up like leaves in a storm drain. The place was really just a village beside a large TransSiberian Railway train yard, and it offered travellers—who routinely had to wait forty-eight hours before an available transport appeared—almost no lodgings, no bathroom facilities you would want to enter without protective gear, and almost no restaurants. Meanwhile, the trucks and cars kept arriving.”

Amur Highway

Until 2010 the most problematic stretch of the highway was between Chita and Khabarovsk. The first section of this route, linking Belogorsk to Blagoveshchensk (124 km in length), was constructed by gulag inmates as early as 1949. Extended and updated between 1998 and 2001, this road forms part of the Asian route AH31 connecting Belogorsk to Dalian in China. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Chita-Khabarovsk road remained largely unfinished up until early 2004, when Russian President Vladimir Putin symbolically opened the Amur Highway, with great swaths of forest separating major portions from one another. Jim Oliver and Dennis O'Neil rode motorbikes across Russia, along the Trans-Siberian Highway, during the last week of May and the first three weeks of June in 2004:back then, as described in Jim Oliver's book, Lucille and The XXX Road, the section between Chita and Khabarovsk was an extremely challenging undertaking among marsh, gravel, rock, mud (vulnerable to the rasputitsa seasons), sand, washboard, potholes, stream fording and detours of the elusive highway with a noticeable absence of pavement which leads into cases of probable surface tension which can cause the highway to collapse.

In the following years the road, in some places was a modern paved highway with painted reflective lane-lines, while in others a single lane meandering, pockmarked, loose-gravel trail following the route of the early 20th century Amur Cart Road. Completion of a 7-meter-wide highway between Chita and Khabarovsk was slated for 2010: now the road is in very good condition, completely upgraded and enlarged and with a smooth surface. The Amur Highway was fully reconstructed and paved in September 2010.

Ian Frazier’s Book on Traveling Siberia

On Frazier Book “Travels in Siberia”, Alan Cooperman wrote in Washington Post: “Frazier, a staff writer at the New Yorker, took five trips to Siberia and five or six more to western Russia between 1993 and 2009, which he has combined into a rambling travelogue that is entertaining, illuminating and just slightly, charmingly off the deep end in its infatuation with everything about Russia, good and bad. [Source: Alan Cooperman, Washington Post, December 23, 2010]

“Take the trash, for example. On the roads leading out of Russian cities, Frazier tells us, there is no mere litter like what you might see along highways in other countries. No, a typical Russian roadside rest area consisted of “a ground layer of trash basically everywhere, except in a few places, where there was more. In the all-trash encirclement, trash items had piled themselves together here and there in heaps three and four feet tall, as if making common cause.’’

“Or the smell of Russia. Not smells, plural. Rather, a singular “Russia-smell’’ that remains constant from Moscow to the Bering Strait, 5000 miles away: a mixture, Frazier says, of old tea bags, cucumber peels, wet cement, chilly air, currant jam and sour milk, all tied together by diesel exhaust.

“Lest this begin to sound unpleasant, let us not forget – how could we ever? – the women. In Frazier’s view, the Siberian city of Velikii Ustyug has “more beautiful women per capita than any other city in the world’’. Except possibly for Krasnoyarsk, which is like “the set of a science-fiction movie about a city inhabited only by beautiful women’’, who are possibly surpassed only by the ballet dancers and the women in the audience at the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg. The descriptions of these beauties might have been even more captivating if Frazier had actually spoken to any of them. To his credit, he was mindful that he had a wife back home.

“Plus, his spoken Russian was somewhat awkward, and he didn’t drink alcohol, which is something of an impediment to socialising in Russia. So while his two main Russian travelling companions – also married men, though they didn’t seem to care – were frequently off chasing women, he says, “I sometimes preferred to stay in camp and read a book’’.

“Still, Frazier did speak to a fair assortment of Russians, including friends of Russian emigre friends and a number of scientists. He also listened to guides at small museums in backwater towns describing the local flora, fauna, history and geology. These touching museum encounters – along with Frazier’s perceptive eye as he crisscrossed the Eurasian landmass by car, van, train, plane and ferry – flesh out two paradoxes about Siberia that, to my mind, make Travels in Siberia much more illuminating than just a perplexing case of what the author diagnoses as “the dread Russia-love’’.

“The first is that Siberia is both remote and central. Some of its settlements on permafrost in Yakutia are mind-boggingly isolated; metaphorically, “Siberia’’ is used to describe the farthest away one can be, as in “social Siberia’’ or “restaurant table Siberia’’. Yet, as Frazier gradually explains, Siberia is central to Russia’s history (the great shock absorber of invaders from the Mongols to Hitler), central to Russia’s finances (source of oil, gas, gold and diamonds) and central to the planet’s ecology (a giant forest that acts as one of the Earth’s lungs). The second paradox, which is perhaps harder for Americans to understand, is that Siberia is both a place of oppression and a place of freedom. It’s been a site of forced exile for centuries; Frazier’s visit to a former Soviet prison camp, now abandoned, with his attempt to imagine what life was like inside its hand-hewn walls, is the most haunting scene in the book. Yet, as he also notes, Siberia is the one part of Russia where serfdom never existed. Far away from Moscow and St Petersburg, Siberians who were not imprisoned came to see themselves as living more freely than people in western Russia.

“To be a true Siberian man or woman became synonymous with deprivation, yes, but also with self-sufficiency and (relative) independence. Frazier’s travelling companions, and even the vehicles in which they traversed thousands of miles of tundra and taiga, exemplified this paradoxical spirit. The vehicles were constantly breaking down, but the Russians always managed to get them going again – on more than one occasion, by picking through the roadside trash for necessary items. As one Russian told Frazier proudly after fixing a broken carburettor on a remote highway of ice over a frozen river, “the Russian car is the most reliable in the world, because it is possible under necessity to replace any part in it with a piece of wire or with a nail.’’”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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