In Siberia

“‘I’m looking at Siberia.’
‘And what do you see?’ He gestured out of the window. ‘Anything?’ Into my silence he pursued.
‘What did you expect, Nikolai?’
‘Nikolai, it’s too long ago to remember!’ But I had been looking for patterns, of course I wanted their security. I wanted some unity or shape to human diversity. But instead this land had become diffused and unexpected as I travelled it. Wherever I stopped appeared untypical, as if the essential Siberia could exist only in my absence, and I could not answer Nikolai at all.”

Unlike most of the other travel writings I’ve picked up in recent years, Colin Thubron’s In Siberia isn’t that fun armchair travel romp that I’ve more or less learnt to expect from travel-related books. Instead, Siberia strikes me as such a lonely, sad place full of desperation and despair. One that I probably would never want to travel to, and not just because of the blood-curdling temperatures. The people who live there seem to be barely clinging onto their existence, and all the history and culture of times ago is crumbling or has disappeared due to lack of funds (a clavichord cherished by Maria Volkonskaya, wife of a leading Decembrist languishes in a warehouse in St Petersburg where it had been sent for restoration 3 years before as the town cannot pay its bill). Religion seems to be flourishing today in Siberia, and it’s quite remarkable to read of how they kept religion alive within them under Communism. While the subject matter itself isn’t the kind you’d leap into with joyous abandon, I have to admire Thubron’s adventurous spirit, his eye for detail and his seeming ability to chat up and befriend most everyone he meets. These acquaintances, whether those he lodges with or just meets on the train, come alive with his observations and insights. Thubron’s book isn’t exactly what I might know as a travel book but it is rare specimen of brilliant writing, careful observation, great insight and storytelling.

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