Tuesday, 13 September 2011


Siberia is not simply a place, its entered our vocabulary as a byword for a forbidding place, banishment & extreme punishment. All of which are true but it is not a Soviet communist concept, of course Stalin took it to extremes with massive penal colonies but originally it was a Tsarist concept. The Tsar's of old Russia were very keen on exiling individuals to work in Siberia's salt mines if they displeased them.

The Decemberists were a group of aristocratic army officers who in 1825 attempted to curtail some of the Tsar's absolute power & abolish surfdom but they failed & were either executed or exiled to Siberia. As aristocrats the exiles were not treated as badly as many others - money & influence followed them; but they are credited with bringing culture & modern education to the Siberian wilderness. The houses of Prince Trubetskoy & Count Volkonsky are now prized museums in Irkutsk.

These houses have an attractive rustic charm & are full of touching family memoribilia, although they would have been considered very grand buildings in their day. Volkonsky's wife Maria followed him into exile & among the many essential objects she brought was her treasured grand piano. As part of the train tour passengers were treated to a concert in the Count's drawing room, played on Marie's original piano.
In the 1850's Dostoevsky also displeased someone about something so he was exiled to Siberia for four years hard labour - but at least he got a book out of it. Jumping forward into the 1970's Solzhenitsyn's Nobel prize, was in no short measure, for his semi-autobiographical novel about his time in Siberian exile. So Russian's have always seen Siberia as a place of banishmennt & where people can be made to disappear.

The Cossacks were Russia's pionering explorers of Siberia & in 1651 they founded Irkutsk which was celebrating its 350th annerversary whilst we were there. Siberia is Russia's Wild West, except it was the Wild East & the indigenous nomadic tribes, like the Buryats, were either ignored or assimilated, rather than being forced onto small reservations as the Americans did.

Lake Baikal is staggering, wider than the English channel & holding 20% of the planet's entire fresh water supply. Its bigger than all of North America's Great Lakes combined & has evolved a unique range of wildlife found nowhere else. Its crystal clear waters are freezing cold & in winter it freezes to such an extent that cars & trucks can drive across from one side to the other.

Passing around the southern tip of Lake Baikal the train squeezes through huge towering cliffs of metamorphic limestone that have been blasted apart or burrowed through so the railway can reach eastern Siberia. I manage to hitch a ride on a hovercraft with the US TV film crew & take some nice shots of the train from the lake.

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