Travel literature review: Travels in Siberia

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Most people equate 'Siberia' with a freezing expanse of Gulags, or a joyless place to escape from — or maybe just the worst table in your favourite restaurant back home. But for Ian Frazier, author of Travels in Siberia, this region without defined boundaries (and 150 million mammoths embedded in its sea of permafrost) is something of an ultimate destination.

Captured in the early ‘90s by the 'independent force' of 'Russia-love', Frazier spent 17 exhaustive years researching and writing of a land he calls 'both great and horrible'. Ultimately Frazier is left to quote poet Fyodor Tyutchev: 'Russia cannot be understood by the mind… all you can do is believe in her.'

One can begin to believe by reading Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which follows five of his trips to Russia’s wild east (even bumping into Lonely Planet author Simon Richmond at one point). A champion of curiosity (or a slave to it), Frazier takes it on largely through the lens of those who’ve gone before, frequently quoting works by Siberian explorers, jailed poets or Decembrists, curious Ohioans (such as himself) and uppity priests.

It’s frequently breathless and thrilling, though less humorous than some of Frazier’s writings. Readers may breeze over some of the historical passages or obscure quotes after awhile. But several scenes from his present-day Siberia adventures, in particular, defy forgetfulness.

Frazier writes of cross-country drivers being stopped at roadside weddings and detained for days by good-natured revelers, or poachers he met who touchingly gave him their freshly caught salmon after learning of 9/11. He even pegs the unique smell of the Russian continent (a mix of diesel, cucumber, tea bags, sour milk and jam). Most memorable is a full three-page quote from a Severobaikalsk gardener who sweetly recounts a pink flamingo falling from the sky. I’ve never seen a passage that better dismisses the all-too-common misperception that Russians are heartless, grim-faced meanies.

If he leans too often to dusty bookshelves from libraries back home, it’s forgiven by the glimpse of a misunderstood region. And his frequent restraint. While most writers would fill a book out of an ambitious 9000-mile roadtrip in a broken-down Renault van with two Russian guides that finishes on September 11, 2001, Frazier gives it just about a third of the book’s 530 pages.

The book finishes, marvelously, with an unfinished, final passage taken from a Decembrist's diary, perhaps suggesting that Siberia is a destination that’s never really arrived at.

I know the feeling. I too have endured the pleasures and pains of the 'Russia-love' Frazier writes about. My first visit was within a year of Frazier’s, and I’ve since angled my way onto several Lonely Planet titles to satisfy my Russia itch. I’ve seen more of the region than many will, or would want, to see – lost Soviet towns, decaying off of secondary train lines. Each time I come back home feeling bruised, reeling and complaining from a country that’s never easy to visit. And I always want more.

Robert Reid also interviewed Ian Frazier. See the video here:

Based in New York City, Robert Reid is Lonely Planet’s US Travel Editor and author of the Russia and Trans-Siberian Railway guidebooks, and tabulator of ratios: Russian moustache ratios.

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