How do you condense one twelfth of the earth’s landmass into 278 pages? How do you possibly capture statistics that surprise, landscapes that stun, and history that shocks in prose that is as sharp and sterile as the land it’s about? Because Siberia, on the face of it, seems quite impossible to pin down in words; it’s just too wide and white and cold; it is a place where the world’s deepest, oldest fresh water lake, cleaves into a never-ending mountainous, snowy earth; where the old are disillusioned by communism, and the young disappointed with capitalism; where mammoths once roamed, gold mines once meant hope, where human lives had no value unless they could perform hard labour in inhumane conditions. It is into this land that Colin Thubron journeys; he takes a train — The Trans-Siberian Railway, ‘slung like a hammock’ along the lower part of Siberia; he takes a boat, a bus, a car, travelling across ‘the emptiness’, which ‘becomes obsessive’, and ‘leaves for certain in the mind’, ‘a bleak beauty, and an indelible fear’. And that’s how we end up with the brilliant In Siberia.
It works because…
Siberia is not just the most savagely beautiful landscape, its history is as chilling and forbidding as its scale and climate. Its dimensions are rounded off to the nearest 100 miles (‘Painted clouds were stuck up in a sky too enormous to register their drift (...) mountains trailed for another four hundred miles through Mongolia’); its permafrost is legendary — white cranes dance on it, mammoths sleep under it. In the dead of winter, Lake Baikal freezes over and becomes a lorry road, until the ice unexpectedly collapses and buries the lorries like it did camel trains centuries ago. The lake, Thubron says, nourishes the strange, and kills the ordinary. And it almost makes you wonder if that’s the nature of the entire region… For, you read about gold miners who laid their lives down — one head for every kilo of gold mined; others died laying roads and rail-tracks in the harshest of terrains; convicts and exiles were sent here, shackled in chains, to populate the icy land, and ‘in the end, the vastness of Siberia was their prison and their grave’. Yet, somehow, it’s not a wholly depressing read; there are moments when the spirits soar… in the taiga where aspens flash orange; by the water, the blue of dreams; under an immense sky, where the Milky Way is just a bright scar. That’s when you’re thankful Thubron authored this book for he transmits not just apprehensions and other people’s anxieties from this fantasy land, but hope as well. Do read the book, especially if you can’t remember the last time you felt dwarfed by the landscape around you.
And this one stays with you…
‘Beyond the village the tundra spread. Its only trees were stunted larches, which showered down a golden dust of needles at my touch. Its beauty was all underfoot, in a quilt of mosses, heathers, lichens, fungi. In late September — in this moment before snow — they shone in a patina of amber and scarlet’.
‘This wilderness girds the Arctic Sea for more than four thousand miles. After the squalor of the village, it spread a cleansing emptiness. I heard only the squeak of small birds and sieving of wind through the grass. When I lay down, I crushed out a lavender fragrance. Everything, I knew, had evolved in response to cold.’