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What to read on the Trans-Siberian Railway

5 books about Siberia to keep boredom at bay

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7 days and what to do?

What with all that passing taiga sending you delirious, and the 24 hour vodka party you expected conspicuous by its absence, time is something you won’t be finding yourself short of with up to seven days stretching out ahead of you on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Assuming you’ve exhausted all topics of conversation with your Mongolian or Russian carriagemates; given that you had your fill of passing birch trees after day one and can no longer remember how you ever functioned in regular society; you’ll likely find yourself faced with several crucial choices.

You could drink yourself into an alcohol-induced coma despite the absent party. But this probably isn’t the best way to experience the most famous train journey in the world. Maybe you could spend your time doing chin-ups on door frames or inventing other ingenious ways to keep in shape during your new prison-style regime. Though even in this lawless realm such actions may be frowned upon.

Given this predicament, I’d like to suggest a good old read as an alternative and more socially acceptable means of passing the time. Add one of these classic Trans-Siberian books to your long and growing list of must-takes and you’ll need never resort to such questionable recreation again. If you have any other suggestions that give new meaning to the words “longest train journey in the world” for you, add a comment below and I’ll add them to the list.

In Siberia
Colin Thubron

Not just a book about travelling in Siberia, but one of the quintessential books about Siberia. Thubron doesn’t just report, he attempts to reach some understanding of a land so vast, with a history so dark, as to be, in his eyes, almost beyond comprehension.

In Siberia is no jaunt undertaken just for kicks. Thubron travels to the farthest reaches of the Trans-Siberian landscape and encounters the full scope of human hardship, revealing a psyche shaped by a Communist past and how its people hope to emerge from its shadow.

Displaying his customary respect for the places he visits and a Baikal-like depth of research, one leaves the characters within the book and the feelings evoked by their lives, with a similar sense of the brain-numbing inability to understand that Thubron himself seems to have felt when travelling in Siberia – an incomprehension at the extremes that this land of cold and deprivation has inflicted on its people and how hope and stoic determination can survive despite it.

Travels in Siberia
Ian Frazier

“For most people, Siberia is not the place itself but a figure of speech” writes Frazier in Travels in Siberia. The limitlessness, the bleakness, the nothingness, the cold, all working over centuries to shape the character of the region as it is today. From the swamps of the west and the forests of the east, to the cities that scar it, the flats and the factories, the garbage-lined roads and the damage being done, Frazier’s account takes in Siberia as it is, not as it is imagined.

Not by train does Frazier travel, but by road. By Renault delivery van, in fact, bought – but largely unfit – for the purpose of travelling the few thousand miles it will take to reach the eastern coast. Accompanied by his guides Volodya and Sergei from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, through mosquito plagues and rivers, he travels five weeks across the country, taking in its turbulent history, and contemplating it’s impenetrable present in one of the most humourous, informative and hugely entertaining of Trans-Siberian books.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A survivor of Stalin’s forced labour camps himself, Solzhenitsyn’s account of the harsh realities of life and death within the gulag system follows the eponymous inmate through twenty-four hours in which to merely get through the day is considered a triumph.

Governed by the three omnipresent horrors of work, hunger and cold, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich details the struggle to survive inside the camp and the cruelties and petty victories suffered and won by those Ivan Denisovich meets.

“Here, men, we live by the law of the taiga,” the old man Kuziomin states. “But even here people manage to live.” It is through such works as this that the horrors Solzhenitsyn and millions like him faced – and continue to face today – can be brought to light if, when and wherever they may occur again.

The House of the Dead
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Years before Stalin’s more systematic use of Siberia’s remoteness, arguably the greatest writer Russia has produced was also privy to life inside, spending four years of an eight year sentence incarcerated for his involvement in an underground political circle. After being put through the trauma of a mock execution in which his life was spared at the very last minute, Dostoevsky was sent by Tsar Nicholas I to a camp near Omsk, the experience of which he later fictionalised in The House of the Dead.

In it, he details the daily struggle for survival – the cabbage soup and cockroaches, the leg irons and cruelty – and manages to evoke humour and his protagonist’s enduring faith in the essential goodness of men from the least likely of sources.

Dostoevsky later wrote that he considered the four years he spent in prison as “a time during which I was buried alive and shut up in a coffin.” He obviously hadn’t tried spending seven days on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Through Siberia by Accident
Dervla Murphy

Originally intending to travel to Russia’s Pacific coast and engage in some typical two-wheeled exploration of the Siberian east, a slip on a wet floor forces a change of plan and the conception of another of the must-read books about Siberia and life on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Not travelling the Trans-Siberian route itself but the 20mph Baikal-Amur Mainline across Eastern Siberia and back to explore Lake Baikal and its surrounds, Through Siberia by Accident demonstrates Murphy’s thorough grounding in all things Siberian and draws upon her research and the wealth of characters she meets, to paint a picture of a land that is at once changing while at the same time staying immutably, incomprehensibly the same.

70 years old, still going strong, and still showing a fondness for the odd litre or two of beer, her writing remains as fresh as ever and her own character still shines engagingly through the haze of those she meets along the way.

3 comments

  1. I read ‘Driving the Trans-Siberian’ by two brothers who drove from the UK to Vladivostok in 2003. Epic journey! Interview: Meet the Authors of Driving the Trans-Siberian http://ow.ly/10vwCp

  2. ‘Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian’ describes the tragedies and atrocities at Trans-Siberian and Chinese Eastern RR stations big and small from the start of the revolution until the end of the civil war in 1922…

  3. This is all making me terribly nostalgic for my time there — keep up the amazing blogging! Thanks for sharing!

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