For me, the word “Siberia” conjures up images of a vast expanse of wilderness, unbelievably frigid temperatures, and horrific prison camps (gulags) used by the Tsars and (even more ruthlessly) by the Russian leaders who followed the Tsars. (Personal note: My Grandmother Svoboda’s younger brother did not migrate to the U.S. but stayed in Bohemia where he was drafted into the army of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. During WWI, he was captured by the Russians and led off as a POW to Siberia where he died in one of those notorious prisons. Sadly, he met an early death in Siberia, so far from his village in Bohemia.) Siberia has always intrigued me, so when I came across Ian Frazier’s 500 page book, Travels in Siberia, on display in our library here, I eagerly took it out.
The opening pages of the book grabbed me. The map of Siberia at the beginning shows just how humongous Siberia is. It comprises eight time zones. Eight! And it makes up 1/3 of Asia and 1/12th of all the land on earth. The contiguous United States plus most of Europe would fit inside Siberia. Across the middle is the Russian taiga, the largest forest in the world. Frazier’s first sentence, though, surprised me: “Officially, there is no such place as Siberia.” He explains that there is no political or territorial entity that has Siberia in its name.
It took Frazier 16 years to write his book. During that time, he learned the Russian language and read just about everything on the history, science, economics, religion, and politics of the area we call Siberia. He also made five trips to Russia including his drive in the summer of 2001 across the entire 9,000 mile expanse—from the Baltic Sea to the Sea of Japan. He made the trip with two Russian guides, Sergei and Volodya, in an old Renault van that had the habit of catching on fire. The trek took five months and two days—often over terrible roads. When roads became non-existent, the men loaded their van onto the Trans-Siberian Railroad for a stretch. Part V of the book describes the shorter trip Frazier made in winter (starting in Nome, Alaska and traveling west) so he could experience a Siberian winter.
Along the way Frazier visited local museums, monuments (the Russians love to build monuments), and many natural wonders. The three men camped, fished, and ate local food. They encountered memorable people like the elderly woman sitting in a tiny shed in the middle of nowhere, guarding one of the railroad crossings for the Trans-Siberian railroad. When a train comes, she gets out of her shed and waves a red flag for the cars (if there are any) to stop. When the train passes, she stands on the tracks, looks both ways, and waves the flag for the cars (if there are any) to cross the tracks.
Frazier describes the beauty of some of the cities, mountains, forests, and lakes. And he also vividly describes the trash that is everywhere—littering the cities, crowding the roads, polluting the rivers. And then there are his encounters with the giant Siberian mosquitoes that are everywhere–and I mean everywhere. The men wear “beekeeper hats” and tuck their pants into their boots, but the mosquitos find them. When they try to eat their morning oatmeal, for example, dozens of mosquitos fall into their bowls—too many to remove!
Frazier tells of his many moods during the trip: his anger when their van keeps breaking down, his fears, his mistakes, his loneliness. He had a Satellite phone with him and used it occasionally to call his wife. One evening he was in such a foul mood, Sergei yelled at him, “Call your wife!” Which he did.
For me, the most poignant scene occurred the day the three men reached their destination, the Sea of Japan (the Pacific Ocean.) It was September 11, 2001. Cut off from all news that day, he called his wife in the evening. She told him about the World Trade Center. He was stunned. Later he told his two companions what had happened. They expressed their shock and sorrow. They attentively kept their eye on him as he retreated to his tent for a while. Afterwards he walked near the bay trying to process what had happened in his country so far away. The news of the attack soon got around to the people living in the area. Two days later, several men appeared with a freshly caught 9 pound salmon—a real luxury. They told Sergei to give it to the American as “a token of their sympathy for what happened in America.”
I agree with what many of the reviewers have said about Travels in Siberia. Critic David Remnick notes: “Frazier is a master of comic narrative, of landscape, of melding history and the current condition.” The Kirkus Review said: “It is a dense, challenging, dazzling work that will leave readers exhausted but yearning for more.”
Did you learn anything new or surprising in this reflection?
Have you ever travelled anywhere and felt enriched by your journey? If so, where did you go and how were you enriched?
What does a reflection on Siberia have to do with “everyday spirituality”? I’d be interested in your thoughts on this matter!
Today I am offering a 13 minute video from Australia’s version of “60 Minutes.” It’s called “Visiting the Coldest Town in the World,” and it takes us to Oymiakon (population 547) in central Siberia. The video tells (and shows!) just how cold it gets in the town, how cold it has to be to give the kids a free day from school, why many of the inhabitants actually prefer wintertime to summertime, and how you de-ice a horse! I found it fascinating. I thought you might too! (NOTE: -71.2 degrees Celsius is -96.6 Fahrenheit! 32 degrees Celsius would be about 89 degrees Fahrenheit.)
I welcome your responses below to the reflection and/or the video!