Monday, July 22, 2013

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

The first thing that Ian Frazier tells us in Travels in Siberia is that Siberia is not and has never been a well-defined place. It was never an official state of any kind. It is an idea - a really big idea burdened with myths. It is believed by many to be a desolate, forbidding, unforgiving region, frozen in time forever - a place to which people are banished. All of this is true but that is not all that there is to say. Frazier in his numerous trip to and through the fabled region of Russia also found magic.

At the heart of his book is one long trip across Russia from St. Petersburg in the west to the Pacific port of Vladivostok in the east with two guides, Sergei and Volodya, in an unreliable van. Though Frazier had an advance for a magazine article, he was on a tight budget and the trio slept in tents much of the time. He had not allowed for expensive van repairs either. At one point when the tailpipe fell off, Sergei opportunely walked along the littered highway until he found a suitable replacement. After a few twists of wire, a serviceable repair was made and the trip continued. There were many other auto problems, which strained the mood of the companions.

Away from cities much of the time, the roads were rough broken pavement or gravel. To cross some rivers they loaded the van onto ferries. Through one marshy region without any passable road, they drove into a boxcar and rode in semi-darkness for over 24 hours. During six weeks, they met many people, visited historical sites, and fought many mosquitoes. A very well-traveled man, Frazier said he had never seen mosquitoes as plentiful as in Siberia.

In Travels in Siberia, Frazier also recounts several shorter visits, the last being three-week winter trip because all of the others had been hot summer trips. It was only on the last trip that he finally visited a prison camp and drove across frozen lakes and rivers.

Despite the hardships, Frazier, being a great fan of Russian history and literature, remains optimistic to the end of the book. Readers will find him good company, much in the way of Bill Bryson. They may also discover urges to read about the Decembrists, the many czars of Russia, Aleksandr Pushkin, and Siberian energy reserves. If the hardcover book looks daunting, try Frazier's audiobook. He is a great narrator and will keep you well entertained.

Frazier, Ian. Travels in Siberia. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. 529p. ISBN 9780374278724.

16 compact discs. Macmillan Audio, 2010. ISBN 9781427210531.

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