The Curious Traveller's A-Z Guide to Siberia
A singular blend of travel writing, musicology and socio-political history, The Lost Pianos of Siberia tracks the remaining eponymous instruments through the frozen Russian wastes. In this exclusive piece, author Sophy Roberts provides a fascinating A-Z of all things Siberian.
‘It lacks a population proportionate to its extent, and wines as well,’ observed Catherine the Great to her friend Voltaire, but that’s not to say one should write off Siberia. In a delightful letter of 1771, she extolls the unique merits of the land, including fossilized mammoths and strikingly beautiful cedar forests. A century later, when a police officer stopped the American journalist George Kennan to ask about the reason for his Siberian travels, Kennan recounted his response, published in his 1891 book, Siberia and the Exile System. Kennan claimed (a little disingenuously given he was there to write about the penal system) that he wanted to discover more about the country and its people.
‘But tourists [with a contemptuous intonation] are not in the habit of going to Siberia,’ replied the officer.
This brief guide is for people like Catherine and Kennan: an A–Z for travellers with an eye for both the magnificent and the banal.
A is for AKADEMGORODOK
A highlight in Siberia’s ‘City of Science’ is a stay in the Golden Valley Hotel – the one Khrushchev took a disliking to when the city architects gave it one too many floors, as if it were an ambitious New York tower rather than a paean to Soviet equality. Anastasia Bliznyuk’s brilliant museum of city memorabilia, the Integral Museum-Apartment, is filled with unlikely stories about everyday lives. In the town’s Museum of History and Culture of Siberian and Far Eastern People, you’ll find an exquisitely tattooed, two-millennia-old Pazyryk mummy in a glass box.
B is for BAIKAL
The hour’s drive from Irkutsk (a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway) to Listvyanka follows an arrow-straight highway cut through the taiga. It was built in expectation of President Eisenhower’s visit in 1960 – an event cancelled in a hurry when Francis Gary Powers’ spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. Listvyanka is Baikal’s tourism epicentre. In winter, it’s where you can pick up dog-sleds, hovercrafts and snowmobiles. In summer, it’s where you start the Great Baikal Trail, a three-day shore-side camping route along a narrow, cliffside path to Bolshoye Goloustnoye.
C is for CRAB
In the basement of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatksy’s Central Market, you can buy some of the Bering Sea’s famous red king crabs. Growing up to one and a half metres across, their exceptionally sweet meat is considered some of the world’s most prized. If the weather is good, head down to Khalaktyrsky Beach for a picnic in the dunes. The Pacific waves are good for surfing, with waves often as high as ten metres. Even in winter, a small band of Russian adventurers braves the ocean.
D is for DECEMBRIST
In Irkutsk, visit Maria Volkonsky’s former home, now the two-floor Decembrists’ Museum, containing her Lichtenthal piano. The modest grave of Ekaterina Trubetskoy, another Decembrist wife – whose home back in European Russia was said to be floored in marble from Emperor Nero’s forum in Rome – stands in the grounds of the city’s Znamensky Monastery. Press on deeper into Eastern Siberia, and there is a second, smaller Decembrists’ museum in the town of Novoselenginsk, where the Bestuzhev brothers settled in exile. The collection’s musical instruments include a nineteenth-century clavichord much like the one Maria Volkonsky dragged behind her to Siberia.
E is for EKATERINBURG
Chekhov’s impressions of Ekaterinburg, the city he identified as the westernmost point of Siberia, were thoroughly mixed. The hotel he stayed in was not so bad – a near-rave review from a notoriously harsh critic. The people, however, terrified him, as if they might at any moment murder him. Chekhov’s far from complimentary depiction of the city has not, however, deterred the modern Russian tourist. Ekaterinburg has experienced a boom in visitor numbers in recent years because of its links to the last of the Romanovs. One of the main draws is the Church on the Blood at the site of their murders.
F is for FOXES
On the edge of Zabaikalsky National Park on Lake Baikal’s eastern shoreline, I had tea with an indigenous Evenk fisherman who told stories about a species of fox with a pelt like fire – a rare, thick-furred creature which can be seen only at night, when its coat sparkles with electricity. This region is richly endowed with wildlife, including the Barguzin sable, which just survived extinction when the last Tsar turned a large swathe of this territory over to state protection in 1916. In the settlement of Ust-Barguzin, arm yourself with a local guide (there are bears), as well as information on campsites and permissible hiking trails.
G is for GREAT DRIVE
The Chuysky Trakt through the Altai mountains runs some six-hundred-odd miles from Novosibirsk to the Mongolian border. The interesting part weaves past the Katun River (good for rafting) and from Mount Belukha to Kosh-Agach. In winter, this magical landscape is the closest Siberia gets to Narnia, with much of the modern road following an ancient trading route mentioned in thousand-year-old Chinese texts.
H is for HOMESTAY
This is by far the best way to experience Siberia: staying with local families, sharing their kitchen table and having a sweat in the family banya – a fiery Russian sauna experience where you whip your body (sometimes your host does the honours) with a fragrant bundle of birch, before leaping into a river or lake nearby.
I is for ICE
Melting permafrost is a very present problem for Siberia – especially in Yakutia, an autonomous republic in Russia’s Far East. (If it were a country, Yakutia would be the eighth largest in the world.) To get a handle on the challenges, visit the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in the capital, Yakutsk, where there’s a small museum open by appointment. For a less cerebral version, head eight miles out of town for Permafrost Kingdom, a hollowed-out, permafrost-covered hill filled with an array of ice sculptures illuminated with neon lights.
J is for JEWISH HISTORY
In the oil town of Tyumen in Western Siberia stands one of Russia’s rare surviving pre-Revolution synagogues. In 1929, the building was expropriated by the state. This is one strand of Jewish history in modern Siberia. Another is Birobidzhan – Stalin’s weird idea of a Jewish Autonomous Region, established in the 1930s. The city is well worth a visit to get a sense of Stalin’s attempt to create a sham narrative (see Masha Gessen’s 2016 book, Where the Jews Aren't: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan). One of the cultural highlights (though less for the repertoire than the architecture) is the Birobidzhan Regional Philharmonic, a 1977 concrete building which feels like stepping inside the zigzag stairwells of an Escher drawing.
K is for KIAKTHA MUSEUM
In my opinion, the Kiakhta Museum of Local Lore of Academician V. A. Obruchev is the best museum in Siberia. The eclectic mix of 120,000 pieces includes Soviet space food from the 1970s and treasures belonging to the town’s nineteenth-century tea merchants. Look out for the Lushnikov family’s chess set and the collection’s 1874 Bechstein piano.
L is for LUCK
Ivolginsky Datsan, the most important Buddhist monastery in Russia, is between Ulan-Ude and Kiakhta, in a thin grove of trees strung with prayer flags. It is presided over by Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, who fell into ‘a deep meditation’ in 1927 (non-believers would say he died). He had a premonition that Siberia’s Buddhists needed to flee the Red Terror for Tibet. Itigilov was proven right when, during the 1930s, Siberia’s Buddhist monasteries and temples were destroyed. Meanwhile, Itigilov lay buried in the lotus position in a casket close to the monastery, with clear instructions for when he wanted to be exhumed. With religious freedoms relaxed, ‘the Imperishable Monk’, as Itigilov is also known, now sits in a green-roofed temple, his plump flesh showing no sign of further decay. This miraculous state of being allows him to spread eternal beneficence to all who stop by, each prayer transmitted via a thin red thread which weaves past the butter lamps and pots of grubby roubles into the monk’s hand.
M is for MAMMOTHS
In 2007, Nenets reindeer herder Yuri Khudi made a rare discovery on the banks of the Yuribei river on the Yamal Peninsula – the most complete mammoth carcass ever found. Estimated to have been no older than one month when she died, Lyuba is on display at Shemanovsky Museum in Salekhard.
N is for NORTHERN SEA ROUTE
As Arctic ice recedes and, with it, the need for ice-breakers to make a safe passage, this Russia-controlled stretch of ocean is attracting occasional cruise ships and yacht voyages on month-long summer trips through spectacularly remote scenery endowed with polar bears, walruses and narwhals. With Russia’s increasing ambitions in the Arctic this region could also lock down as quickly as it has opened up.
O is for OLKHON ISLAND
Crescent-shaped Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal is among the most holy places in Siberia, with a rich indigenous history. It has sandy beaches, storm-sculpted cliffs and sweet-smelling larch forests. Nearly every peak and bay has a legend attached to it, including whispers about Genghis Khan’s burial place. The sound of the shaman’s drum, near-extinguished under the Soviets, is beginning to return in community ceremonies. Tread carefully if you do choose to go along – the spirits are not always benign.
P is for PLANTS
‘If you are curious, Sir, to see the produce of Siberia,’ Catherine the Great wrote to Voltaire, ‘I shall send you collections of various species that are common only in Siberia and rare everywhere else.’ Europe’s nineteenth-century plant-hunters found much to collect in the region – in particular, German biologist Carl Friedrich von Ledebour, whose legacy can be found in the Flora Rossica, the first complete study of flora in the Russian Empire. Siberia’s largest botanical garden is located at 101 Zolotodolinskaya Street in Akademgorodok.
Q is for QUARRY
Mirny, where 25 per cent of all global diamonds are extracted, is a small town in remote Yakutia that is dominated by a 1.2-mile wide, half-mile-deep open-pit diamond mine first excavated when an expeditionary team of geologists found indicators of untold riches in the permafrost in 1955. Visitors to the town can see first hand the effect that diamond discovery has had on the region at the Alrosa History Museum. The highlight is the lookout point over the quarry.
R is for ROERICH
In 1961, the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin described the view of our planet as a Roerich painting, with sun rays splicing through the Earth’s atmosphere and violet skies. By far the largest collection of his work is on view at the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York. In Siberia, there is a more modest gallery, the Roerich Museum in Novosibirsk, which remembers the Roerichs’ journey through the Altai in 1926.
S is for STARS ON BAIKAL
Almost two metres in stature, Russia’s greatest living concert pianist, Denis Matsuev, has been eloquently described as ‘a giant, with the fingers of a fairy’. In Siberia, his colossal reputation is derived not just from his talent but his proud roots: he was born in Irkutsk. Matsuev organizes an annual international musical festival, ‘Stars on Baikal’, which brings together world-class musicians and orchestras for concerts, workshops and meet-the-artist events in Irkutsk and other Siberian towns.
T is for TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY
The Golden Eagle is the fancy tourist train, but expensive. Much better to take the local trains with their samovars of boiling water at the end of every carriage, grumpy cabin attendants and buffet cars serving cheap bowls of borscht. There are two splinter lines that make for compelling detours: the Trans-Mongolian Railway is an overnight adventure running from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar – pop into the Bogd Khan’s former winter palace, where there’s an historic ger covered (distressingly) in a hundred and fifty snow-leopard skins – and then on to Beijing. The Chinese Eastern Railway (also known as the Trans-Manchurian Railway) runs from Chita to Beijing via Harbin. The ‘old Russian’ railway town, now a Chinese megacity, hosts the world’s largest winter ice festival.
U is ULAN-UDE’S OPERA HOUSE
Even if your visit to Ulan-Ude fails to coincide with a worthwhile performance, at least drop in to see the colourful ‘Friendships of People’ plaster frieze – replete with a full-size soldier, in Buryat national dress, and enthusiastic, blue-eyed Soviet workers – found on the second floor of this city’s magnificent Stalin-era opera house. While you’re in Ulan-Ude, don’t miss (it’s hard not to) the world’s largest bust of Lenin in Sovetov Square, a pilgrimage site for communists, including North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il.
V is for VLADIVOSTOK
Vladivostok is where Russia’s Pacific Fleet is harboured, where the Trans-Siberian Railway terminates (or begins, depending on your direction of travel), and the best place in all Siberia for a comforting slice of English sponge cake and pot of Earl Grey tea. The city’s much-loved Five o’Clock English tearoom feels like it should be in a Yorkshire village, not nine time zones east of Leeds. After weeks of pelmeni (Siberian dumplings), their home-made cherry pie is the taste of paradise.
W is for WILD AMUR LEOPARD
It is estimated there are under a hundred of them left between Russia, China and North Korea, so good luck spotting one. The Amur leopard is the world’s rarest wild cat, with 60 per cent of its habitat comprising the thousand-square-mile Land of the Leopard National Park, a short drive outside Vladivostok.
X is for EXCLUSIVE
Russia’s formerly ‘closed’ cities – often home to sensitive strategic (military) facilities – may be opening to tourists. But there are still many places in this vast land which remain nigh-impossible to penetrate. The Putorana Plateau, located in the north-west of Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region, is among them – 2 million hectares of mountains, waterfalls and canyons, with some twenty-five thousand lakes accessible only with special permissions.
Y is for YENISEI
It was to the River Yenisei that Lenin was exiled in 1897 to spend three years in the village of Shushenskoye. He became a popular local figure, dispensing free legal advice and writing pamphlets furthering his revolutionary agenda. Today, Shushenskoye has an extensive museum complex dedicated to his time there.
Z is for ZHUPANOVA RIVER
The remote Zhupanova river helped put the Kamchatka Peninsula’s fishing on the map with its thriving population of prime rainbow trout averaging sixty centimetres in length. The challenge is sharing the river with the bears, who wade in to swipe up salmon by the pawful.
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