Like someone sampling hot bath water, Ian Frazier eases himself into making the full commitment that writing a book about Siberia would demand. First, he dips his toe into the vast subject by reading a few Siberian travel adventures. Then he takes two short trips to Siberia, one to Provideniya on the Chukotka Peninsula and the other to the Diomede Islands in the Bering Strait. Now acclimated to his topic, more reading follows, along with Russian language study and a trip to St. Petersburg.
A monumental undertaking from the author’s standpoint, once he was fully committed to writing this travel memoir, it took the New Jersey resident 16 years to complete his research, make the actual journeys and then write everything up. Over that period Frazier visited Siberia five times and made an equal number of trips to western Russia.
Since three-fourths of Russia and one-twelfth of all the land on earth is covered by Siberia, there was little chance he would see it all. That was never Frazier’s intent, but he did want to have as authentic and representative an experience as possible as he visited cities and villages and sampled Siberia’s natural wonders, from Lake Baikal and the Ural Mountains to the Pacific coastal area.
Frazier takes great pains not only to chronicle his adventures on the road but also to share what he has learned about Siberian history, the topography, climate conditions and cultural background of the vast region.
Whether it is describing permafrost, delving into the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway or discussing the lives of famous people exiled in Siberia, Frazier manages to share his newly acquired knowledge without being pedantic. There are, however, a few instances where he slips into lecture mode.
The author’s enthusiasm for the Decembrists is a case in point. (The Decemberists were the rebel Russian army officers and soldiers who launched the unsuccessful revolt against Nicholas I’s ascension to the throne in December 1825.) Since he considers them the greatest generation in Russian history, Frazier spends about 14 pages making his case. Fortunately for the reader, this sort of thing doesn’t happen often.
After nibbling around the edges of his topic in the opening 147 pages of the book, the author finally makes the decision to cross Siberia. “I had flown into it and out again, and that was okay,” he writes. “But as I read more and studied the journeys of previous travelers, I understood that Siberia belongs to the category of things (oceans, deserts) that must be crossed, just as mountains are to be climbed.”
Eventually, a third of the way into the narrative, the author climbs into a used Renault van with his two guides, Sergei Mikhailovich Lunev and Vladimir Chumak, to begin his grand exploration of Siberia. This five-week adventure, which would take Frazier from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, began in August 2001, and was funded by a $22,000 advance from The New Yorker magazine.
This was the first of two journeys on which Sergei, a moonlighting college professor from St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University, would accompany Frazier. Although they got along fairly well, the stress of coping with their vehicle’s constant mechanical issues and having to deal with difficult driving conditions placed a strain on the relationship.
Also, a source of continual conflict was Sergei’s reluctance to stop at abandoned prison camps and let Frazier satisfy his curiosity about these vestiges of the past. On their second trip together, this problem was resolved and the author got his fill of the deserted compounds.
Although he is admittedly infatuated with Russia and all things Siberian, Frazier does not gloss over the negatives. He is not reluctant to mention his encounters with disgusting restrooms, piles of roadside trash, unpalatable food, monstrous mosquitoes and days so frigid the ink in his pen tip froze.
Overall, Travels in Siberia is an entertaining read. There are no photos, but the author includes some of the sketches he made while traveling. The reader will probably not mind Frazier’s short digressions on such diverse subjects as mammoth ivory, satellite collisions and the largely defunct Bering Strait Tunnel and Railroad Group.
The book’s primary shortcoming lies in the author’s sometimes awkward transitions. Occasionally, for example, Frazier takes the easy way out and will introduce a lengthy quoted passage with, “Here’s what he said.”
Or he injects comments on the things he did to amuse himself while visiting Novosibirsk. “Things to do in Novosibirsk:” doesn’t strike this reader as a very clever way of moving from a discussion of the collision of Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 over Siberia in 2009 to what the author saw in this city of a million-and-a-half residents.
Armchair travelers will appreciate the time and effort Frazier devoted to this project. While he delivers a satisfying and enjoyable narrative, it is doubtful that many of his readers will be inspired to follow in his footsteps the way he himself followed in the path recounted by writer-explorer George Kennan in Tent Life in Siberia: An Incredible Account of Siberian Adventure, Travel, and Survival.
I, however, prefer to experience the rigors of Siberian travel secondhand.