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Introducing Western Siberia

From the Ural Mountains to the great Lena River, the sheer size of Siberia is hard to comprehend. Fearfully cold in winter, swelteringly hot in summer and with a history of banishment and cruelty - for Westerners Siberia's image doesn't readily suggest a tourist destination. But Russians disagree. Southern Siberia's beautiful peak-tickled underbelly offers world-class rafting, hiking and mountaineering. Amid endless forests are ramshackle wooden-cottage villages, and certain Siberian cities hide evocative historic cores behind their harsh Soviet exteriors. Of these, Tomsk and Tobolsk are the most memorable. Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude also have a certain charm and offer launching points to visit Siberia's greatest attraction, Lake Baikal. Visiting all four cities, plus Omsk and Krasnoyarsk, makes sense by breaking a continental crossing into painless overnight hops using the Trans-Siberian Railway. Away from the railway tracks in Tuva, Altai, Buryatiya and Khakassia, local Buddhist and shamanistic beliefs remain closer to those of Mongolia or Tibet. Here local cultures retain their own sports, passions and languages while their fascinating ancient histories are faintly visible in mysterious kurgany (burial mounds), standing stones, petroglyphs and kameny baba (moustachioed stone idols).

Siberia has friendly inhabitants, rapidly improving restaurants and many new or renovated hotels. Prices are rising but remain much lower than in European Russia. The region remains one of the least touristed areas in all of Asia; you'll really need rudimentary Russian to travel independently as neither museums nor most hotels or restaurants usually have a word of English. However, several cities do have English-speaking tour agencies who can help you out. This is especially helpful for preparing trekking adventures (facilities are minimal in situ) and for arranging peak summer-season bookings around Altai and Lake Baikal.