Category Archives: daily telegraph

siberia blog: a dark past

The following is an entry from a blog I wrote for London’s The Telegraph newspaper recounting a journey from England to Japan by train

Looking out on the sun-soaked grasslands and pine forest from my vantage point on the Trans-Siberian railway (we’re currently about half way through our train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok), it’s hard to believe the frightening role this place occupies in Russian history.

Even before the gulag, Siberia had long been a place of banishment. In the first 48-hours of the train journey, we pass through two places with dark pasts that pre-date the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.

Yekaterinburg is the first major town after leaving Moscow and is renowned as the site where Tsar Nicholas II and his family met their gruesome end in 1918. The Romanov royal family was executed by Bolsheviks in the cellar of a merchant’s house in the town before their bodies were dumped in shallow graves in nearby woodland.

Another 12 hours on from Yekaterinburg, we pass the industrial city of Omsk where the writer Dostoevsky spent four years doing hard labour after he was exiled for alleged revolutionary activity under Tsarist rule in the 19th century.

But it was under Stalin that the suffering in Siberia reached its zenith.

A huge system of hard labour camps, known collectively as the Gulag, saw an estimated 18 million sent into exile. Most of the towns we pass through were the location for one or more of these camps where 90 per cent of the inmates died – worked to death, most perishing within two years.

From Omsk, our route dips further south, crossing the mighty Ob river. This waterway meanders the full length of Siberia to the Arctic Ocean.

We pass over the Ob in the late evening to the city of Novosibirsk on the other side. We’re three days into our journey now and the scenery is starting to change.

The tufting grasslands of the steppe have disappeared, replaced by dense forests of pine and birch. This wall of trees is the southern end of the taiga, the world’s largest forest, which begins near to the Arctic Circle and spreads south to encompass an area of over three million square miles. It really feels like Siberia now.

First published on 19 September, 2007


siberia blog: leaving moscow

The following is an entry from a blog I wrote for London’s The Telegraph newspaper recounting a journey from England to Japan by train

At Moscow’s Yaroslavsky train station we get our first glimpse of the Trans-Siberian express, the centrepoint of our journey.

A sky-blue train, each of its carriages decorated with the heraldiclooking insignia of the Russian railways, it snakes into the distance along the platform.

It is late evening and as we climb aboard there is a short fanfare of military music, presumably to herald the train’s departure. I’m not usually in to pomp and circumstance but given that we’re about to embark on a seven-day trek across Siberia, I don’t mind a bit of reverence.

The Trans-Siberian, in actual fact, refers to three separate train routes going variously to Mongolia, China and Russia’s Pacific coast.

The train we’re taking is the Rossiya and if you’re going to pull rank about these things, this is the service that could best claim to be the true Trans-Siberian express.

It was this route that Russia first began construction of in 1891, when the Tsarevitch Nicholas on a royal visit to Vladivostok symbolically emptied a wheelbarrow of dirt on to the ground.

Unbelievably, before the railway came along – it was finally completed in 1916 – it was actually quicker to get to Vladivostok by going via the Atlantic, North America, and the Pacific than attempting to cross Siberia.

The railway changed that, turning Siberia into Russia’s equivalent of the American Wild West, with hundreds of pioneering peasants and adventurers hitching a ride on the train to strike out east.

On board the modern equivalent, we latter-day pioneers cosy into our cabin home for the next seven days.

The welcome aboard is typically Russian, with our two carriage attendants mustering all the joie de vivre of a couple of professional mourners. Still, as seems the case with many Russians, we only need break the cool exterior to reveal a rich vein of humour and warmth just below the surface.

As the train rolls off into the night, we crack open a bottle of vodka and as we work our way through it – running out of things to toast (you must always toast with vodka) I tell my Japanese relatives how a Russian pilot assured me once that real soviet vodka leaves you clear-headed the next day.

Not surprisingly, the next morning I’m nursing the hangover from hell and I have no energy for much besides staring out of the window and cursing the advice of Russian pilots.

Fortunately, the view is captivating. The even farmland of Poland and Belarus has transformed into the steppe, the gently undulating grassland that stretches from the Caucasus to south western Siberia. From time to time, the rolling fields disappear behind forests of pine and birch that flicker past the window, the bark of their slender trunks a silvery grey.

It is all lovely and pleasant and flouts my expectations of Siberia, as a place of extremes of nature, and of human suffering.

First published 14 September, 2007