Siberia as vast, melancholy and funny in this masterpiece

Ian Frazier is a national treasure. He is perhaps best known as long The New Yorker columnist and feature writer covering pretty much anything that interests him, which is usually the outdoors. But his true genius is as a master of the darkly humorous travelogue. His two most read books are enough The Great Plains and On Rezeach a wonderland of travel writing that hums with Frazier’s charming prose and his unparalleled ability to wring beauty and life out of landscapes that at first glance do not seem particularly exciting.

This talent almost oozes from his best book, published in 2010, Travels in Siberiaa 500-page opus that winds its way through one of the world’s largest and most mysterious pieces of land.

Frazier traveled to Russia only in the 1990s, mostly to Moscow, but something drew his wandering gaze eastward, toward the almost unfathomably vast land that reached from the Ural Mountains clear to the Pacific Ocean; a landmass large enough to fit the continental United States and most of Europe. He was fascinated by the strangeness of Russia, by the harsh climate, the unusual foods, the indomitable people, but mostly he was drawn to the vast vast, more or less eastern plains of Siberia.


So he began making frequent trips to Siberia, sneaking in from Alaska and biting off chunks of territory at a time. Frazier even learned the Russian language. Still, he wanted more, so he decided to go on a grand journey across Siberia by car, train, ferry, whatever. He acquired a battered van, prepared it as best he could, enlisted the help of two Russian guides, Sergei and Volodya, who swore they would be able to repair the van during its inevitable and surely numerous breakdowns. Once outfitted, Frazier ventures into Siberia’s almost unfathomable grandeur and almost equally strange weirdness.

Being with him on the adventure is an absolute pleasure.

Which is strange, really, because almost nothing about Siberia seems appealing in the book. Sure, much of it is wild and untamed, but also much of it is characteristically swampy, impoverished villages or crumbling cities. The weather always seems to be either bitterly cold, as you might expect, or boiling hot, which you probably don’t. There are also insects, lots of them, and they bite. There’s uncomfortable camping, zillions of ill-timed breakdowns, a cast of characters too bizarre to name, and a sense of foreboding hanging over the entire book. Like if at some point Frazier’s small crew will encounter a Russian official who wants to throw them into one of the aging gulags they visit, or their van explodes, a drunken local will get a little too friendly with an AK-47 , or that they will simply succumb to the gray, endless tundra, which, despite a wealth of mining resources, often appears as a kind of waste of space.

Here Frazier explains:

As a landmass, Siberia got some bad breaks geographically. The most important rivers in Siberia are (west to east) Ob, Yenisei, Lena and Amur. I have seen each of these and while the Mississippi can be mighty, they can make it look small…The problem with the great rivers of Siberia is the direction they flow. Most of Siberia’s rivers head north or join others that do, and their waters end in the Arctic Ocean. Even the Amur, whose general slope is to the northeast and whose destination is the Pacific Ocean, empties into the stormy Sea of ​​Okhotsk. In spring, north-flowing rivers thaw upstream while still frozen at their mouths. This causes them to back up. This creates swamps. Western Siberia has the largest swamps in the world. In large parts of Siberia, the land does not do much of anything except gradually sink north to the Arctic. The rivers of western Siberia flow so slowly that they hardly seem to move at all. There the rivers run muddy; in eastern Siberia, with its real mountains and steeper slopes to the Pacific, many of the rivers run clear.

Another bad geographical break is the continentality of Siberia. The country simply stretches on and on; finally you feel you’re in the farthest, extra, out-of-sight section of the parking lot where no one in the history of civilization has ever bothered to go. Only at sea can you travel so far and still be seemingly in the same place. The deeper into Siberia, the further away from the softening effect of temperate oceans, the harsher the extremes of the climate become. Summers in central Siberia are hot, sometimes dry and dusty, sometimes hazy with smoke from taiga fires. In winter, the temperature drops to the lowest on the planet outside of Antarctica. In the city of Verkhoyansk, in northeastern central Siberia, the cold reaches about -90°. When I mentioned this oft-noted Siberian fact to my friends and guides in St. Petersburg, they scoffed, as Russians are wont to do. Then they said they knew of a place in Siberia that was even colder.

The more you read about Frazier’s travels in Siberia, the more the place begins to look like a bizarre-world version of the American West. A place that was never fully tamed by the government forces, locked away in decadent cities. Plains full of no-nonsense people fiercely proud of their self-sufficiency and courage.

It is difficult to summarize Frazier’s travelogue, not only because the book is more than 500 pages long, but because Frazier touches on everything. Russian history, politics, flora and fauna, culture, food, technology, humor, sports, environment – ​​all of it. And each subject of his grand adventure gets Frazier’s one-two punch of subtle comic genius and lovesick melancholic ode to the sheer weirdness of Siberia.

A fairy tale, a love letter, a striking laugh, Travels in Siberia belongs in the pantheon of great travelogues and is a winter must-read.

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