Engagingly written — all the guides from this stable are first class
 — Traveller

The Trans-Siberian Railway: a traveller's anthology

The Trans-Siberian Railway: a traveller's anthology


Contents | Introduction | Foreword | Extract: Preparations for the journey | Extract: Clothing


Best of all, he would tell me of the great train that ran across half the world ... He held me enthralled then, and today, a life-time later, the spell still holds.
                    Lesley Blanch, Journey into the Mind’s Eye

The spell that Lesley Blanch’s ‘Traveller’ cast captured me, too, through her enchanted Journey into the Mind’s Eye; it was her writing that was the inspiration for my initial journey on this railway as it must have been for many others.

I first met Deborah Manley in the studios of the BBC almost twenty years ago. She had just finished compiling the original edition of this anthology for travellers and I’d recently completed my Trans-Siberian Handbook, a practical guidebook. We had both spent long and enjoyable days in the Reading Room of the British Library, then still under the great dome in the British Museum, tracking down many of the wonderful books from which Deborah has selected the colourful pieces reproduced here. How well they wrote, we agreed, these early rail travellers.

Even before the opening of the railway, adventurers had been drawn to Siberia. This was the great age of the Victorian traveller, usually monied and upper-class, who spent the greater part of their lives exploring lesser-known regions of the world, writing long and often highly readable accounts of their adventures and their encounters with the ‘natives’. Siberia attracted almost as many of this brave breed as did Africa and India. The remoteness of the region was one draw, the difficulty in getting there and the perceived dangers were others. To most people in the Western world the word ‘Siberia’ meant only one thing: an inhospitable land of exiled murderers and other ruthless criminals who paid for their sins by working in its infamous salt mines. While some of the first exiles sent over the Urals did indeed toil in salt mines, most of them mined gold, silver or coal. There were actually very few salt mines.

Once travelling across the great Siberian plain by the normal forms of transport of the time, tarantass (carriage) or sledge had been tried, these foreign adventurers resorted to such new-fangled inventions as the bicycle (RL Jefferson in 1896) and the car (the Italian Prince Borghese in an Itala in 1907) but it was the new rail service linking Europe with the Far East established at the turn of the nineteenth century that caused the greatest interest. Readers like Lesley Blanch who had journeyed in their mind’s eye with intrepid spirits such as Kate Marsden through her On Sledge and Horseback to the Outcast Siberian Lepers, could now contemplate making the journey across Siberia themselves within the safety of a railway carriage.

    ‘This Railway will take its place amongst the most important works of the world ... Russia is awakening at last and moving forward,’ wrote one of the first foreign rail travellers, Michael Myers Shoemaker (The Great Siberian Railway from St Petersburg to Pekin, 1903). This was true though he was not to know that a setback to the moving forward would come in 1917 and last until almost the end of the century. The Ministry of Ways and Communications was forward-looking not only in the building of the railway but, on its completion, in setting about a publicity exercise as professional as any public relations campaign of the twenty-first century.

In an attempt to lure both passengers and freight onto the line the Ministry took a large stand at the Paris ‘Exposition Universelle’ of 1900 and also published their own guidebook for travellers, the Russian Guide to the Great Siberian Railway. At the Paris Exposition, amongst photographs and maps of Siberia, with Kyrgyz, Buryat and Goldi robes and artefacts, there were several carriages to be operated by the Belgian Wagons-Lits Company on the new railway. They were furnished in the most sumptuous style, with spacious compartments in the sleeping carriages, each with an en suite lavatory. The other carriages contained a smoking-room in Chinese style, a library and music-room complete with piano. In the two restaurant cars, decorated with mahogany panelling and heavy curtains, visitors to the exhibition could dine on the luxurious fare that was promised on the journey itself. To give diners the feeling of crossing Siberia, a length of canvas on which was painted a Siberian panorama of wide steppes, dense taiga and little villages of log cabins, could be seen through the windows. To complete the illusion, the panorama was attached to a long belt of canvas mounted on rollers and made to move past the windows. Visitors were intrigued and impressed and more than a few soon set off on the epic trip. The reality, they were to discover, was a little different from what they experienced at the Exposition.

The new railway certainly made Siberia more accessible to foreign visitors but it brought a new set of dangers, all of which provided colourful copy for travel writers. It was shoddily constructed: derailments and accidents were commonplace. ‘The engine has smashed up,’ said a jolly Russian sailor in broken English. ‘She is sixty years old and was made in Glasgow. She is no use any more’ ... ‘The poor old engine was now towed to her last berth ... I had whipped out my “Kodak” and taken her photograph, thinking of Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire”.’ (Annette Meakin, A Ribbon of Iron, 1901).

Reading the anecdotes in this anthology one is, of course, struck by how much has changed. When the first Trans-Siberian travellers set out, large swathes of the world map were coloured pink as part of the British Empire, British steam engines pulled Russian trains and communication was by means of telegraph rather than the internet. Yet it’s also apparent to the modern Trans-Siberian traveller how much the overall experience of the journey has remained the same. To quote Annette Meakin again: ‘The Siberian express is a kind of “Liberty Hall”, where you can shut your door and sleep all day if you prefer it, or eat and drink, smoke and play cards if you like that better. ... Time passes very pleasantly on such a train’. Smokers may now have been relegated to the chilly area between the carriages but all the rest remains true.

Another interesting point which the reader and traveller today may discern from excerpts in this book is that some things that were part of the pre-Revolutionary Trans-Siberian experience have now returned with the demise of communism. Travelling in 1901, John Foster Fraser reports, in The Real Siberia, that locals did good business on the platforms selling ‘dumplings with hashed meat and seasoning inside ... huge loaves of new made bread, bottles of beer, pails of milk, apples, grapes, and fifty other things.’ During the communist years this was not the case but nowadays many platforms are lined with babushkas hawking everything from pramfuls of fresh raspberries to piles of smoked omul, the fish found only in Lake Baikal.

In this jet age most of us have lost touch with the travel experience that is slow enough to give us a real concept of the geographical distance we’ve covered. Quite apart from being environmentally unfriendly, to the twenty-first-century traveller air travel has become mind-numbingly routine and unexciting. To embark on a long-distance rail journey, spending days on a train and crossing thousands of miles of the surface of the earth, is just as thrilling now as it was a century ago and in this anthology what comes across is that excitement, the pure joy of doing this on the Trans-Siberian Railway despite the setbacks and hardships. As Eric Newby says, ‘The Trans-Siberian is the big train ride. All the rest are peanuts.’ Nothing can change that.

Bryn Thomas
Hindhead, 2008


The Trans-Siberian Railway: a traveller's anthology


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