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A big thaw in Russian Relations

Ask any Muscovite about Sibirskoye Ploskogory, the chances are their eyes will glaze over. They will mutter words to the effect “what the hells in Siberia? Forest, swamp and more bloody forest”.  For most city dwellers, the vast ‘taiga’ conjures images of natures open prison.  When I first made the journey to Siberia in 1975, I joined a handful of  hunters, mineralogists and political observers. We boarded what was known in the old USSR as the ‘Great Siberian’ or the legendary Trans-Siberian Express as the British called the train. Not many comrades under the old communist regime, could afford the £35 single fare to venture beyond the Ural Mountains to Khabarovsk in the Far Eastern sectors. A good many passengers also hailed from the orient and the Antipodes. It was the cheapest method of travel to cover such a vast distance to get home.

Tourists in those days found it hard to meet the average Russian citizen. They were too scared of the consequences, to be seen talking with a Westerner. Having said that, officials at the Soviet Embassy in London, told me I would have ample opportunity to meet local people on the Trans-Siberian Express.  Although KGB agents travelled on the train, after a couple of days along the 5,778 mile journey, they invariably turned a blind eye. What concerned them far more was that we kept the carriage blinds drawn as the express trundled through the Sverdlvosk region. The Soviets had their nuclear silo’s there, which explained the black out. All the excitement of trying to out fox the KGB agents, was part of the fun of travelling across Russia. Today, you have a choice of trains. A luxurious steamer or the traditional diesel electric.  Sverdlvosk is just another stop along the railway and you can converse openly with any Russian citizen.

To get some sense of proportion on Russia over familiar territory, draw a line south of Moscow and you will find the Turkish city of Ankara. Do the same south of Khabarovsk and there is Kyoto in Japan. In between are Iran, Pakistan, India, Burma, China and N/S Korea. The distance represents the vastness of the Russian continent. This epic train journey traverses seven time zones and is long enough to become a way of life.

After four days of breaking bread on the train, visiting people in their compartments, playing cards and drinking the nights away, we pulled into the fur-trading centre of Irkutsk. A city situated along the banks of the Angara River. I left the train to explore the immediate region and eventually find my way to Lake Baikal. For the Trans-Siberian Express, the city served as a point for changing locomotives, a junction for the line into Mongolia and the replenishment of food and drink. The stop also provided time enough for those on board to stretch their legs. It was early April when the air was freezing.  As I briskly walked along the promenade, a mist was swirling off the fast flowing Angara. I found my appointed hotel. After so many disturbed nights on the train, I was pleased to check into a room of my own.

Lake Baikal is situated about 35 miles north of Irkutsk.  It originated about 25 million years ago and covers an area of 28,000 square miles and in places it plummets to a depth of 3,500 feet. I had not come this far into Siberia to try the  Irkutsk bus system or visit a local bar. Customers were served a bottle of vodka for the equivalent of 50 pence, and they toasted ‘death to your friends’ until it was empty.

Siberia is such a massive region. Before leaving England, I had decided upon creating a focal point from which to work out from. The world’s largest fresh water lake seemed ideal. These days you have the option of taking a launch from Irkutsk along the Angara to the lake. I only had the alternative of taking a bus to Listvyanka, a small town on the lakeshore. I sat next to Tanya, a bright Siberian girl who spoke excellent English. She worked at what was then the state owned Intourist Hotel that overlooked the lake. Along the undulating route out of Irkutsk she pointed out the Angara River that is the only river outlet from the lake. Over 300 rivers that span the perimeter of Baikal, feed into the lake. Hence the reason why the fast flowing Angara never freezes over when the lake is covered in ice between January and early April.

Very soon, a darkness descended upon the bus as the dense taiga closed upon the road. Tanya said that same forest to our left stretched for some 1,800 miles west. Now and then there was a tiny clearing, where we glimpsed houses made from huge logs. The window surrounds and shutters were painted with bright patterns or ornamented with various carvings. Tanya suggested the real Siberian men and their families lived in these robust homes. Lumbermen, fur breeders, hunters and fishermen who provide Irkutsk with the essential items that contribute to the cities robust economy.

Listvyanka  is on the south-western shore of the lake, close to the source of the Angara.  Ever since Russian pioneers discovered the rocky location in the 1750’s,  it became a port from which boats set out to discover the true extent of Lake Baikal. Over the centuries, hunters have sold furs and hides to merchants who have shipped them to Kyakhta where they are made into clothing, hats, shoes and rugs to be sold throughout Russia, Mongolia and China. You can purchase this merchandise to take home.

I visited the limnological museum where the sheer weight of statistics about the region are mind boggling. The origins of the lake are believed to have been a massive earthquake. It caused a tremendous fissure to open between the Arctic Ocean and Central Siberia. This awesome tectonic activity now constitutes the Baikal mountain ridges of Eastern Sayan and Khamar Daban. Just staring at the shear faults, splits, pressures and elevations carved into the granite, makes the basin appear a challenge to trekkers and hunters.

Lake Baikal is a mythological place, where every onlooker is an author to his or her own stories. The lake water has a transparency that cannot even be compared to Alpine waters. In the winter, the three foot thick ice is so clear, I was hesitant at walking on the surface because it appeared more like a film. In fact, the ice is thick enough to carry a vehicle. Even during the snap shot summer season when the air temperature is around 25C, the water temperature rarely rises above 15C. Only in the shallows does it get temptingly warm for an ill advised swim. The size of the lake has a huge influence upon the local climate.

High winds can suddenly whip up the water surface into rollers. Small shipping has to make for the shelter of the nearest port. No wonder, because hurricane forces have been known to capsize boats caught in the middle of the lake. I could hardly believe my eyes at the dozens of seals that played on the ice. These ocean based mammals are descendents of those believed to have been swept into the lake from the Arctic Ocean at the time of the earthquake. The fishermen also catch many other salt water fish like the Omul, which is a popular local delicacy. Around the month of March, when the winter frost is particularly intense, the ice cracks with a noise like thunder. Tiny lemon yellow globules appear on the ice. These are the new born seals. As they grow, their coats appear a shimmering white. The fur turns a silvery grey with maturity, which is much sort after by the fur trade.

There are many settlements and small towns around the Baikal shore line. Close by are summer camping facilities and log cabins for hunters. The boundless taiga covers 75% of the Irkutsk region and climbs the high mountains and fills the valleys. There are straight amber pine trees and larches. The conifers take on many shades of yellow and deep orange that reflect in the sunshine. Other parts of the forest, which are densely covered by Siberian pine and silver fir, are often dark and gloomy. The ground is carpeted by an assortment of raspberry bushes, dogrose,  and the sea buckthorn that clasps you like a jilted lover. It has yellow berries that taste of pineapple.

I spoke to hunters who were spoilt for choice. Deer can be seen romping everywhere while flocks of mountain goats graze the lush grass on the steep rocky slopes. Despite being heavily hunted by the local trappers, the brown bears are still common in the forest and should be given a wide berth. Local hunters know where to find the habitats of the numerous sable, lynx and ermine. Game is shot and trapped by visitors on a strictly controlled basis to save many animals from extinction.  Dotted about the Irkutsk region are hunting boxes where amateur marksmen can try their hand at shooting bear during the short season between May and June. Manchurian deer can also be hunted between September and October. The taiga resounds to the loud roars and bleats during the rutting season as the stags challenge predators who visit upon their harem.

One person cannot contemplate taking in the sheer magnitude of Siberia. I found even exploring in the small area within the Irkutsk region totally overwhelming. If you wish to venture off the beaten path, there are carefully organised treks into the forest with armed guides who know how to deal with the ever present threats from the animals.

As for Lake Baikal, there are so many aspects and moods to witness. Away from civilisation, the presence of this amazing stretch of water can be inviting and intimidating.  Viewed from a launch, its rare beauty captivates the imagination. What struck me, was that regardless of the years that separated my visits, Lake Baikal and its formidable terrain is constant. Apart from the seasonal variations between extreme winter cold and the summer warmth, the nature of the place is the same as it has been for thousands of years. Siberia is the last real wilderness that truly challenges the human spirit. Mind you, the Trans-Siberian Express today is a darned sight more comfortable than the bad old days. The food was basic, the company pickled with Vodka and the journey seemed never ending.              

  Adventurous friends who have explored Latin America, Africa and Asia, look with incredulity when I mention Siberia. As a continent that crosses eight time zones, the magnitude just does not fit a pigeonhole. Two-thirds of Siberia is forest, known locally as the ‘taiga’. Within the taiga are rivers, swamps, lakes, mountains, ample wild life and pockets of amazingly resilient people. It would take a brave man to traverse from Irkutsk across to the Kamchatka peninsula in the Far East. There is nothing but wilderness until you reach coldest town in the world at Yakutsk. Then – well, you might clamber over the Cherskogo range. Maybe stumble across the tiny communities of Ostrovnoe or Penehinsk. It will comfort you to know that Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football club, presides over this formidable domain. He knows where the mineral wealth is, you don’t.

I have seen Siberia during mid-winter and in the summer. I think the region has a charm in both seasons. Be advised, the people are extremely grumpy in the winter. If your ear lobes fall off during an English winter, forget Siberia. The short summer is encapsulated between June and the end of August. A month orso either side of high summer is acceptable, but you need warm clothing. Whenever you choose to visit Siberia, you must provide an outline of your intended route, how you wish to travel and where you want to stay. Everything must be booked in advance. A normal tourist visa lasts for 30 days, so it pays to be extremely selective. Irkutsk is a favoured springboard for people making their first visit to the region.

There are British tour operators who do a package deals to Siberia. There is no flexibility to their schedule. Believe me, if you out stay your welcome in Russia, it is harder getting out of the country than making the entry. I have listed two extremely knowledgeable organisations based in London, which are administered by Russians. They know the answers to most questions and will advise you upon transport and accommodation. Just as important, when you have decided upon the season of your journey, they will provide ideas as to appropriate clothing.

Your entry into Russia will not be granted without the appropriate visa. Application forms can be completed electronically on your computer. Simply open the visa page that is applicable to the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. Forms must be filled on-line, then printed out. Hand written forms will not be accepted. You post the form with your passport and appropriate fee. The Russian consulate will also require a copy of your completed itinerary as a form of tourist acceptance. You get these forms from the tour operator who booked your trip.

My advice is to reach Moscow, then travel to Irkutsk by the Trans-Siberian Express. To save time, return to Moscow by flight. Train life over the four day period is totally unique. You meet a range of people. Russians are free to speak and you have a memorable time visiting each other’s compartments that eventually become your home. Some people live in their pyjamas and dressing gown. Others wear track suits, while a minority observe dress protocols with a full suit or appropriate dresses for women. Most people dress smart-casual for the evening meal. You can spend hours watching the world go by. Once you pass the Ural mountains, world watching a continuous forest can get tedious. Many people read, others play cards or simply talk to their neighbours.

Sophisticated cities like Moscow and St. Petersburgh cater admirably to most western tastes. Travelling in such a vast country, people wonder what you mean when you ask for ‘local food’. Gone are the days when you ate crusty bread with a bowl of Borshch soup, that could be either Beetroot and Red Cabbage based with sour cream. You can still have Pancakes or Blini served with caviar or jam with butter or sour cream.

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