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Heidelberg’s “Holy Mountain”

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There are numerous reasons to visit the Heidelberg area – few, however, are more remarkable than the layers of time and memory still visible on the Heiligenberg or “Holy Mountain”, rising some 439 meters above the river Neckar across from the Old Town itself.

There, archaeologists have found  remains dating back to Neolithic times, as well as a Celtic fort and burial grounds. Nearby, the ancient ruins of St.Michael’s Abbey contain the foundations of a Roman temple to Mercury, a god identified with the Norse/Germanic Odin or Wotan.There was also a second monastery here, St Stephen’s, given to the University after the Reformation, which then razed it to sell the stones. Many of the remaining stones were reused in the 19th century to build a lookout tower on the same spot as the original monastery and in 1905 a beacon dedicated to Prince Bismarck was also erected nearby.

Today, however, the most complete of the structures on the mountain is the Freilichtbühne-Thingstätte, a dramatic amphitheatre/stadium designed by Nazi master-builder Albert Speer and realized by architect Hermann Akker in 1935, built following  a period when rightwing student groups organized the notorious burning of “prohibited” books on the Universitätsplatz in 1933.

Some 40 such open-air theaters were constructed in significant locations across Germany, to be used for Third Reich propaganda purposes. They included one built next to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games stadium and the amphitheater built on top of the Lorelei Rock,on the River Rhine, positioned to face the sunrise.

The Nazis were thus reviving what they imagined to be a truly Germanic way of  living and celebrating, based on sun worship with several of the structures aligned to the rising or setting sun.

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“My father, then aged 8, stood outside our building as one of a long chain of young torch bearers”, reminisced an affable hotelier I once met there. “It was June 22nd. Dr. Goebbels himself arrived to give the opening speech, timed for the summer solstice. The line of torches stretched from the old city, over the Karl-Theodore  bridge and all the way up the Philosophenweg to the top of Heiligenberg. There, the torches surrounded the newly built amphitheatre”. A French writer of the time had stated bluntly that “Fascism is Theatre!” and this certainly illustrated how important that concept was to the Nazis.

Said to originate from early Viking democratic assemblies, The Thingstätte at Heidelberg was an idea of Joseph Goebbels to counter the influence of Christian Churches. Hitler saw Christianity as a threat to the national-socialist regime, so new ceremonies needed to be invented. This was endorsed by Himmler who considered the main task of his elite SS was to be prepared for an ultimate clash between “humans against subhumans”.

A crowd of some 20,000 people gathered on the 56 rows of seats and around the theatre slopes to hear Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, speak to the crowd.  He compared the Thingstätte amphitheater to being “like the Autobahn, National Socialism in stone!”. It then opened with a Summer Solstice celebration that included a musical cantata by Franz Philipp called “Heiliges Vaterland”(Holy Fatherland). The acoustics were excellent and still are today.

Various staged events took place there over many months, before the Ministry of Propaganda dropped the “Thing” Movement by 1937, to concentrate on the Albert Speer-staged and rather Wagnerian Nuremberg Rallies.These were filmed and movies like Leni Riefenstahl’s much acclaimed “Triumph of the Will” disseminated their triumphant message in cinemas instead. The Nazi ideas were then efficiently reinforced through the radio broadcasts that were such a daily feature of the Third Reich.

55F5B41E-9A22-422F-B757-7B5B89EFDC47After the war, and 20 years spent in Spandau prison, Speer moved back to Heidelberg and lived in a villa above Heidelberg Castle. His son was also an architect but the two were estranged until his death in 1981 in London. He was on his way to a BBC interview on his bestselling autobiography. To his death, Speer always denied knowledge of the Holocaust and is said to have donated a good part of his publishing income to charitable Jewish institutions.

The stadium-theatre he designed in Heidelberg remained in use for many more years – hosting events which included several organised by the US Army, an unofficial “witches” night every April and for high profile concerts – the most successful of which was possibly the electronic group Tangerine Dream, leading exponents of the so-called Krautrock movement.Heidelberg_Germany

The tranquil views over the beautiful Neckar valley would alone make a journey up the Heiligenberg worthwhile, but the unforgettable forest setting and the meaningful ruins and monuments make a visit particularly rewarding.

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Heine, Hitler and the Lorelei

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The Lorelei Rock, located at the sharpest, most dangerous bend in the Rhine River, has for ages captured the imagination of those who have gazed upon it – albeit usually out of fear – blaming the alluring song of the “Rhine Maiden” for disasters which include a series of boats pushed by currents onto the rocks lining the river.

San Francisco’s emblematic counter-culture group, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, were to perform there once in the summer of 1978 at the open amphitheater behind the Lorelei. Then, disaster struck. Lead singer Grace Slick (Somebody to Love, White Rabbit ) refused to appear, maybe too sick, probably too drunk. The concert was cancelled and the gathered audience erupted in fury, throwing bottles, setting fire to the stage, and destroying all instruments and equipment. The curse of the Rhine Maiden had struck again and the group never recovered.

Certainly the huge rock, rising over 180m above the…

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On the Golden Eagle Across Siberia (Part XI) – To Vladivostok, and so the end of the line…

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With Ulaan Baataar and Mongolia a pleasant memory behind us, the Golden Eagle continued towards Khilok, Chita, Mogocha, out of the taiga and eventually overnight at Khabarovsk.This gives us time to reflect on all that we have seen, discuss the lectures by Dan Healey and comment on the news headlines before reaching the Amur/Ussuri river junction towards the end of the line at Vladivostok.

The subject of Siberian exile and the Gulag inevitably comes up, in lectures and in conversation. Both Joseph Stalin and Feliks Dzierzhinsky (founder of the secret police) escaped from Siberia twice. On that overnight at Khabarovsk, we hear that a large statue of Stalin is still standing there and that there is nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which had seemed to offer stability after the more recent economic chaos from a rushed privatisation. Engineering delays on the tracks allowed us to study the subject further, with an additional lecture by Prof.Dan on the Great Patriotic War (WWII) and national memory, the central event in Soviet history.

Fear of chaos in this huge land has always been central to Russia’s history.The rise of Vladimir Putin is attributed to his skill in balancing the various competing clans. Ultimately his concern has been more with internal matters than external economics. Much is made of his choosing Siberia to celebrate his 2014 (62nd) birthday, far from the Kremlin and its factions, though local observers are heard to remark ” Why does Putin need friends when 85% of Russians support him ?”. American strategist Robert Kaplan has pointed out that if Putin were toppled, it would be quite possible that a more brutal dictator would emerge to forestall any possible chaos. He sees the breakup of Russia more likely than any emergence of Western-style democracy. It is interesting to realise that, if that were to occur, Siberia would still be the largest country on earth.

Dissenting opinions on the past are still expressed. Recently, award-winning Russian film director Andrei Konchalkovsky, celebrated for his epic film “Siberiade” (and whose father wrote the words to the stirring 1943 national anthem), explains during an interview at the Venice Film Festival, that “Marxism is a wonderful thought if you are sitting with a pipe by the fire, but Marxist ideals in Cambodia give you ten million chopped heads”. Statistics from 2013 estimate that the median household wealth in Russia is US$ 871  while, surprisingly, it reaches US$ 1040 in India. Someone appropriately quotes 19th century historian Vasily Kluchevsky who said “The state grew fat while the people grew thin”.

We already are in Eastern Siberia8230218781_c1274db7af_b, land of the endangered Amur Tiger. There are less than 30 left in China and 400 in Siberia, some of which prey on bears. There is also an Amur leopard, though only about 45 adults remain in the wild. Earlier in 2014, Vladimir Putin released three tagged Amur tigers into the wild in this region. One, a male called Kuzya, made headlines by quickly choosing to cross the river into China, where local officials welcomed the event, promising that “if necessary, we can release cattle into the region to feed it” .Siberia remains in the news…

A final on-board Farewell Dinner, then it is time to prepare for the last stop on the world’s longest railway line, the once closed city of Vladivostok. The journey has been a tremendous survey of Siberia and Russia itself, an experience to savour for long, maybe even contemplate a return journey for a magical winter view. Certainly the words of poet John Keats ring true:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…

 

In London for the January 2014 Stanford Travel Writers Festival, I spoke with writer and traveller Nick Hunt about Siberia. He had recently walked from London to Istanbul, describing the experience in his latest book Walking In The Woods. He told me about French author Sylvain Tesson who had gone to spend six months isolated in a log cabin at Lake Baikal, equipped mostly with vodka, pasta and books. He outlined his thoughts in a memoir, “Consolations of the Forest”. Ah! Thoreau and his famous retreat at Walden, but on Stolichnaya !! Unbeatable !!tumblr_lqu6l1R2a31qb96yeo1_1280

Tesson’s book is at the top of my reading list for 2015 !

 

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On The Golden Eagle Across Siberia (Part X) – Lands of the Great Khan

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It is established that the burial of Genghis Khan was always to remain a mystery. Warriors escorting the body fired arrows at any open windows en route and killed anyone they saw on the way to the burial ground. They then killed those who built the burial tomb, finally committing suicide themselves.

IMG_1619Stories of the great treasure, said to be buried with him, have always circulated among Mongol tribes.The site of his former palace is located about 150 miles from today’s capital, Ulaan Bataar. Despite rumours and many searches (even, most recently, by satellite), nothing has ever been found. In the city itself, the main city square is dominated by the seated statue of Chingghis (Genghis) Khan on the approach to the National Museum.
In the museum, maps show ancient Mongolia as a land between Siberia and the Great Wall of China (while a Chinese sage is quoted as having written of a time when “Mongolians were compared to wolves and the Chinese peopleIMG_1631 to sheep”). Traditionally a nomadic people, they were accustomed to live in relative isolation from each other. Once guided by Shamanism then by Buddhism, they were ruled from the legendary capital of Karakorum, the center of power moved later by Kublai Khan to Shengdu, an event imagined by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his memorable verse

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea….”

In fact, our first glimpse of “pleasure-domes”, from the Golden Eagle, was a traditional Ger-tent, a circular latticewood and sheep-felt structure, in this case adapted to a modern function.. a Burger King outlet !
We had passed the Russian border control at Naushki, all formalities handled expertly by Train Director Tatiana and the Golden Eagle team while we slept. Soon we reached Ulaan Bataar itself, located 1300 metres(4,300 ft) above sea level and the coldest capital on earth.
We are told that new arrivals to the city, which contains almost half the total population of Mongolia ( 1.3 out of 2.9 million), mostly cope in their Ger tents sharing basic services and, in the harsh winter months, a highly polluted atmosphere from their wood burning stoves. Although overcrowded, according to a recent Financial Times report,IMG_0145 the city still has some of the lowest crime rates in Asia.
The modern skyline is dominated (since 2009) by a curved sail-like building known as the Blue Sky Tower.
It has 25 floors and is over 100 meters high, with three bedroom apartments for sale at one million dollars each!! It also contains Louis Vuiton, Ermenegildo Zegna and Loro Piana boutiques as well as a 200-room luxury hotel. Ulaan Bataar is fully up to date! English is in use everywIMG_1584here. A popular restaurant, DGH, is subtitled “Dreams Get Happiness” while another sign reads “DESTROY, Hair and Beauty Salon”?! The largest commercial enterprise is the STATE DEPARTMENT STORE, “All Needs are Fulfilled,100% cash back guarantee”. It is full of Western and UK brands that, according to our British fellow-travellers, are offered at 2/3 the price of Marks and Spencer.
It is a long cry from the days when all modern ideas came from Russia, even when a Mongolian astronaut was sent into Space on Soyuz 39 (in 1981).Vodka also came from there and quickly became popular. It is now a major industry, together with the production of leather goods and, of course, cashmere.

Mongolia is also a vibrant democracy. Near the National Museum, a large but simple black marble monument proclaims in Cyrillic,      Mongolian and English) “NO TO DEATH PENALTY”.

IMG_1618While two of our intrepid travellers, Bob and Geraldine, head out of the city to see the enormous (40 meters/about 130 ft tall) Genghis Khan statue by the Tuul river, the rest of us leave for the dramatic rocky Terelj National Park. The tour is led by our local guide Buyana, whose name, we find out, means “heavenly light”. It is a chance to catch a glimpse of wild Mongolia.

An interesting traditional lunch is included (though not the grilled sheep’s head I hear is popular with the herders for breakfast). It is served at a spotlessly kept GER vacation motel. We also visit and examine a Ger tent where we are told that the two supporting posts represent a man and his wife (the word Ger itself means”home’), while a loose cord is always left hanging for prosperity. Doors must always be south-facing and the inner felt layers are increased from a single one in summer to  2-3 in winter. Fermented mares’ milk is offered to those seeking different flavours and tastes.The host family tell us how Mongolian boys ride a horse as soon as they can walk. We too explore the surroundings with a ride on those famoussturdy Mongolian horses, in a fabulous rocky setting, including a prominent rock resembling a huge turtle. On the way back to Ulaan Bataar we stop to watch Yak at pasture.
The evening dinner is served on the 17th floor restaurant of the Central Tower building. Dishes are Mongolian-modern, the view is panoramic and the wi-fi is not connected for security reasons, as President Putin is coming for dinner next day, on his visit to discuss the oil situation.We are entertained by an amazingly flexible contortionist, then a traditional band demonstrating the unique, haunting throat singing. It is explained that male herders developed these strangely harmonic sounds in a landscape where echoes carry a great distance. It completes what has been an unforgettable day.
So back to the Golden Eagle and a goodnight’s sleep in time to reach Sukhe Bator for the Mongolian passport checkat 6.45 am.IMG_1582

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part IX) – Ulan Ude and towards Mongolia

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The old stories have a life of their own. Leaving Baikal, we discover the old Mongol myth that suggests the grave of Genghis Khan is on a lake Baikal island. His mother came from the local Buryat tribes who believed that they should be buried as close to the lake as possible.
Archaeologists speculate that this really could be the case, so the search continues, most recently through satellite imaging from outer space.This “virtual exploration” particularly coordinated by the University of California San Diego may lead to unimaginable treasure being found…

Before turning towards Mongolia however, the Golden Eagle makes a longer stop at Ulan Ude, a city whose name means the “Red(river) Ude”(while Ulan Baatar means “Red Warrior”). It was, like Vladivostok, closed to foreigners during Soviet times until 1991.Today it is “twinned” with Berkeley, California.
On the main square of the city is the world’s largest Lenin monument. It is a head 7.7 meters (yes, 25 ft !) tall, created using 42 tons of bronze, to celebrate the centenary of Lenin’s birth. This Lenin portrayal, unlike that of the handsome hero we saw on our visit to Kazan University, is closer in intention to the preserved figure in the mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow. It seems to confirm the appraisals of Lenin by Pasternak as the worship of narrowness, or Ossendowski in his 1931 Lenin biography describing him as a “God of the Godless (which made Ossendowski a man high on the wanted list of Stalin’s NKVD secret police). Of course for our UK English travelers, the way the head dominates the rather featureless government buildings on this otherwise empty square, recalls a powerful sonnet by Romantic poet Percy Shelley entitled Ozymandias, which several of our group mention :
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my works ye Mighty and despair !
Nothing beside remains.Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away…

Soon we leave the city for a trip back inIMG_1065to Russian tradition and a fascinating visit to an Old Believer community, exiled to Siberia centuries ago for refusing to accept reforms aligning the liturgy with that of the Greek Church. During the visit we have lunch, enjoy village songs and jokes, admire the colorful painted houses and their gardens. Soulful Russian poet Yesenin, once lover and husband of Isadora Duncan, came from an Old Believer peasant family. We hear about even more traditional Old Believer communities such as those in Estonia that still follow ancient prohibitions such as the one where men who die without a beard have to be buried in an unmarked grave or another about women who, unable to enter a church bareheaded, must have their scarves pinned under their chin for tying a knot is symbolic of the suicide of Judas by hanging. Otherwise the traditional icons are similar, the “onion domes” of churches still represent the flame of a candle, while the lower bar on the crucifix, at an angle to the cross, represents pointers signifying up to heaven, down to hell, a reminder of the choices made by the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ on Golgotha. Another window on the Russian soul.

Back on the Golden Eagle we have time to prepare our visit to Mongolia by considering its origins. A BBC series historical film on Genghis Khan arouses comparisons with earlier and more recent portrayals. “Mongol”, an award winning film by Russian director Sergei Bodrov, was filmed not long ago in Inner Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It was such an artistic and financial success, though thematically placed on the early life of Genghis Khan, that a sequel is being made. Some still remember Omar Sharif in the 1965 Hollywood production made in Yugoslavia. Maybe the closest in spirit, if not historically accurate and actually filmed in Spain, is the cartoon-like “Conan the Barbarian” series, which brought Arnold Schwarzenegger worldwide recognition. His Conan,
when asked how best to live, paraphrases Chinggis/Genghis Khan when he intonesIMG_0125 - Version 2

Crush your enemies
See them driven before you
hear the lamentations of their women.

We find out later that Mongolians ride ponies as soon as they can walk, an ancient tradition. Genghis Khan would lead an army of 100,000 horsemen to found, in 25 years, the largest empire in the history of the world, six times larger than the one it took the Romans 400 years to establish.
An interesting discussion followed, on how they managed to do it wether through superior organisation or the aid of magic plants.Those 13th century Mongol warriors fed Sea Buckthorn (see your local health food store !) to their little horses, to increase their strength and make their coats shine. In no time, their speed made the armoured knights of Europe obsolete. The warriors also ate this plant’s orange berries to give themselves strength for battle, and used them to treat their wounds. This gave them greater endurance and faster recovery than their foes. We were reminded that geneticists today are fascinated that 1 in 200 men carry the Y chromosome (that is some 16 million or 0.5% of the male population of the world) making them in direct line of descent from Genghis Khan, while his grandson Kublai Khan (and protector of Marco Polo) contributed by adding 30 virgins to his harem every year !

Maybe the aura of Mongolia is best conveyed in the words of the legendary Ferdynand Ossendowski in his Beasts, Men and Gods. Describing his escape from communist Siberia through Mongolia he feels that “Mongolia with her rude and terrible mountains, her limitless plains, covered with the widely strewn bones of the forefathers gave birth to Mystery. Her people frightened by the stormy passions of Nature, or lulled by her deathlike peace, feel her mystery”.

Wow, get those passports ready !

 

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia – Part VIII – Baikal “The Pearl of Siberia”

 

 

 

 

 

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Lake Baikal, known in Russian folk song as the “glorious sea”,  is probably the oldest lake (25 million years), it has the clearest water (the Japanese planned to pipe the non distilled living water to Japan in WWII ). On the Golden Eagle we will be drinking it, bottled, all the way to Vladivostok.  It  is certainly the greatest inland sea in volume . Almost 1700 mts. below sea level, it is also the deepest of all the freshwater lakes in the world and an active rift ,a break in the

crust which is still widening by 2 cms per year, with consequent hot springs and earthquakes. Drained only by the Angara river, it is fed by 300 rivers and tributaries and freezes over in the month of January, up to two meters of ice deep.

Apart from the great variety of fish in the lake, the Omon, the Grayling and the Sig in the salmon family, there are  abundant pike and  also the Bull-head which serves as food for the other fish. There are also over 200 species of crustaceans (more than in the sea) and they eat…Everything !..including debris, bodies, skeletonIMG_1243s ! Locals point out Baikal is the ideal crime site, as there is absolutely no evidence left.

Traditionally, the Trans Siberian is considered as the Iron Belt of Russia in which the Baikal railway, that circumnavigates the 630 kms long lake, is seen as (especially cost-wise) its Golden Buckle complete with 33 tunnels and some 200 bridges.

Even now, in late August, the lake is relatively cold but, several determined individuals including our Prof.Dan and Doctor Judy, took a swim anyway.They emerged to be revived by our train life-savers with a stiff shot of Vodka.

We then continue to Port Baikal and the local Lake Museum to better appreciate its geology, wildlife and complicated railroad construction.We see the famous fresh-water seals swimming smoothly from tank to tank in the aquarium, then it is a boat ride across the lake and up, by a steep hike and chairlift, for the spectacular panorama from the Chersky Mount.

Eventually we are back to Port Baikal and the train leaves to make a delightful stop at Serebriansky Kliuch (Silver Springs) for a lakeshore dinner, the culmination of a perfect day in the heart of Siberia.

 

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On the Golden Eagle Across Siberia -PartVII- Music, Revolution and Irkutsk

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With the Golden Eagle leaving for Irkutsk, we have time to consider the landscape, and the fact that Siberian rivers flow from south to north, towards the Arctic Ocean. Russians often say there is “nothing” north of the Trans-Siberian railway tracks, the taiga forests becoming an empty steppe, due mostly to the freezing permafrost (up to 7mts. deep!) where temperatures can fall to minus 70C.

Travelling overnight and all the next day to Eastern Siberia there is time for the various lectures and briefings, even one on a cooking class to be offered later, and a BBC Nature documentary entitled “The realms of the Russian Bear”.

siberiano2a That evening there were cocktails and a special Caviar Dinner. Piano music in the lounge bar brought a discussion on how Moscow composer Boris Tchaikovsky (no relation to Peter Ilyich) was moved to write his symphonic poem on “The Wind of Siberia” (1984), considered a “pictorial masterpiece” by critics. Irkutsk novelist Valentin Rasputin was also mentioned as a controversial environmentalist (maybe stimulated by his own home village, Atalanka, being flooded as part of a major dam project ). He is seen as trying to protect and preserve northeastern Siberia from what Moscow authorities consider as ripe for exploitation or development. We note the stop at Polovina to come. It means “half-way” and is located as a marker station 4644 kms. from Moscow. There are towns with warning names such as Zima (meaning “winter”) before reaching much visited Irkutsk and Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake.

Irkutsk, reached by the railway in 1898, shortly became known as the “Paris of Siberia” for its lively atmosphere and liberal outlook. It is greatly appreciated by the Russians, who do not view train travel as entertaining, find the roads frequently blocked by large, slow moving trucks and prefer to fly in on inexpensive fares. Before the railway, it could take 2-3 years to travel one way from St.Petersburg. Although established as a fort by Cossack fur-trading adventurers, then becoming a raucous gold mining town, it changed greatly after the first Russian Revolt of December 1825. That year, a major Russian generation was sacrificed by deportation,for trying to influence a more liberal Czarist succession. Previouslyirkutsk-city-wooden-houses, inconvenient critics such as Romantic writers Lermontov (“A Hero of our Time”) and Pushkin had been sent to the Caucasus to cool off, but this was a more serious matter. The Decembrists, as they became known, came from the Russian elite. Their main leaders were hanged, but large numbers of exiles from aristocratic families were dispersed over Eastern Siberia. They gradually made Irkutsk their principal centre, at the same time transforming cultural awareness in the whole region. A particularly poignant aspect of their exile was the heroic determination of their wives and fiancées who abandoned great wealth, comfort and even their children, to support their rebellious, liberal spouses and create an island of culture in the wilderness ,an aspect which still influences the city today. It is this which is brought out in our Golden Eagle excursions when we see the paintings, portraits and landscapes at the Irkutsk Art Gallery, before visiting some of the carefully preserved wooden houses, long gone in most other cities.

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A moment of living past is re-created in the late afternoon with a private concert at the former home of prominent exile Prince Sergei Volkonsky. Well presented, it is an echo of that Decembrist isolation and the music can take a subtle hold, making spectators feel briefly a part of that vanished world, so vital for the exiles. Lev Tolstoy, who studied their lives, saw music as the shorthand of emotion (while his contemporary Nietzsche considered that “without music life would be a mistake”). Soon after, Tolstoy began a novel about the liberal movement that eventually grew into “War and Peace”, in which Sergei Volkonsky is the inspiration for Prince Andrey Bolkonsky in one of the greatest novels ever written.

More recently (2009), Siberia music and exile were the theme of a much awarded film “Le Concert”, which approached the story lightly but culminates in a l_1320082_6dc56ca9triumphant rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (it is absolutely worth seeing, at least the final 5 minutes available on You Tube).

Tolstoy, of course, became the hero of Boris Pasternak, himself long considered a “father of the Russian dissident movement”. In his Nobel Prize-winning novel “Doctor Zhivago”, the heroine Lara dies in the Gulag, while, in real life, Pasternak’s companion Olga was sent to Siberia and only released after Stalin’s death in 1953. Pasternak felt that “for so long we were ruled by a madman and a murderer”. He also, speaking as Zhivago, compared the bolshevik revolutionaries taking the law into their own hands as being “like a runaway train”.

So, Irkutsk, with its bustling atmosphere, tremendous variety of lake fish and caviar at the markets, as well as its liberal historical heritage, is one of the most memorable stops on our journey. We have dinner, at a family run country home or “dacha”, based on delicious fresh local produce, then our Golden Eagle departs to stop overnight near Sludianka, perfectly positioned for our full visit next day to Lake Baikal, Siberia’s most acclaimed destination.

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part VI) – The Siberian Capital

photoOn board the Golden Eagle, our ubiquitous Train Manager, Tatiana, conducted almost daily Russian classes.They were both useful and highly entertaining. By the time of the Farewell Evening we were able to join in a vigorous rendering of “Kalinka maya” during our music-bar/lounge evening.

Dan, our Oxford Professor, was also tireless, presenting, explaining, enlightening. His series of lectures, complete with a freshly assembled final reading list, included numerous topics. Among those covered were the conquest of Siberia and the valuable fur trade which drove the Russians towards the Pacific. Other topics were Red Siberia that depended totally on the train as Lenin understood that “if the trains stop that will be the end for the Reds” and pre WWII Siberia, initially beaten by backwardness, yet only 10 years later ready to face Nazi Germany, in part due to the world ‘s largest steel plant at Magnetigorsk. Post-war, the enormous oil and gas discoveries are seen as a source of developing wealth. In turn, the exciting story of the backbone of Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railway, its evolution and importance for freight transportation, gave us understanding to what we could observe daily on the tracks, the roads even today not good enough for regular year-round travel.

photoA final lecture on Siberian exile up to Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet Gulag prison system, explained the tragedy of a region which swallowed 20 million people, even if, in the past for the peasants, Siberia stood for freedom from serfdom. Prisoners still exist and more recent high profile deportees included Mikhail Khodorovsky although his forced exile, currently in Switzerland has rendered him less relevant to Russians today.

Soon enough we reach Novosibirsk created around the Trans-Siberian Railway bridge over the river Ob. The city developed so fast that for a time it was spoken of as the Chicago of Siberia. Now with 1.5 million people, and the Siberian capital, it has one of the youngest populations in the world. These Siberians see themselves as the “purer essence of Russia” and remain warm and hospitable, quite open to outside influences, visitors and fashions (including some of the highest heels on ladies shoes that I have seen anywhere). This is now a wealthy region since the post-soviet privatisation of Sibneft and the largest oil refinery complex in Russia, run by Gazprom Neft. Oil and gas produce 70% of Siberia’s budget, replacing the former local military industries.

photoInevitably the focus of this city is Lenin Square. A solid statue represents Lenin as the Revolutionary Leader facing towards a distant horizon. He was characterised by Pasternak as one so focused as to be “narrow minded to the point of genius”. In the various provincial stations such as Belogorsk where we stop along our journey, Lenin is usually portrayed in full speech, arm upraised in emphasis as at the famous Finland Station arrival, to inspire the Bolshevik revolt. However at the mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, the embalmed figure is closer to Pasternak’s observation that “…for decades after…the spirit of narrowness is worshipped as holy”.

On the square, we visit the Opera House. Larger than the Bolshoi in Moscow, it has a huge stage of 1,300 sq.mts. Sometimes referred to as the “Siberian Colosseum”, it was prepared to accommodate the rousing parades of the Stalin period when at times outside temperatures dropped below minus 40 centigrade. The company also produces a steady stream of excellent ballet dancers. Ballet school studies are free of charge.photo

Our final visit of the day is to the open air Railway Museum outside the city. The exhibits range from ultra streamlined snow ploughs to the barred compartments and cells of the former prisoner transport carriages. Returning to the city and the Golden Eagle, we pass the Akademgorodok, a former concentration of Soviet scientific brain power. Now financed privately by venture capital from Intel and Schlumberger it is nick-named the “Silicon Forest”.

Back on the train our maps show that Semipalatinsk is only a few hours south of Novosibirsk. There, the Soviet Atom Bomb program was developed involving over 450 nuclear tests and accompanying radioactive fallout. It was also the town where, after Omsk, Dostoyevsky was forced to complete his last years of exile, this time as a soldier. His years of hardship and reflection were followed by the great novels, most notably The Brothers Karamazov a book which contains the complex parable of Christ returning to earth but being confronted by The Great Inquisitor, seen as yet another window onto the Russian soul. The parable was a challenge for actors to present on stage but was rendered brilliantly by Sir John Gielgud (and worth looking at on You Tube) making Dostoyevsky relevant for all times.

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part V) – Twenty minutes at Omsk!

photo211So it is an early morning run! Off the train and round the station, up the stairs and along the platforms, in and out of security. The Omsk stop is a brief interlude on a journey through the dense swampy forests of the “taiga” and the many scattered settlements of wooden houses. We have travelled 1400 kms from Moscow. It took Dostoyevsky 25 days to cover the same distance by winter sleigh when transported from St.Petersburg.

Having been spared  execution for his utopian socialism, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years hard labour in one of the Omsk mining prison camps. These provided coal, silver, iron and gold for Imperial Russia. He later remembered “…in summer intolerable closeness; in winter unbelievable cold”. Although the production of minerals and the fur trade dominated, yet it is the image of the salt mines that became notorious. From these times a painting such as Ilya Repin’s famous Realist depiction of “The Volga Boatmen”(1870) gave a fearful picture of penal slavery. Upon return to St.Petersburg, Dostoyevsky went on to write The House of the Dead about life in the camps. Now, in Omsk, there is a commemorative Library/Museum of Literature named after him.

Another exile whose death sentence was commuted to hard labour, was the scientist, journalist, explorer Ferdynand Ossendowski. He described his stay in Russian prisons in a novel entitled “In Human Dust” which Lev Tolstoy claimed to be one of his favourite books. At Omsk, although considered a “left socialist,” he joined Kolchak’s “Whites” after 1917,then escaped to Mongolia. His epic survival adventures are recounted in his memoir “Beasts, Men and Gods” that some have described as being “…like Tolkien, but for real !” (it is available online as a free eBook, due to the efforts of the Gutenberg Project ). It also gives a great inside view of revolutionary period Siberia and inspired what Publishers Weekly called one of the world’s great adventure strips. Created by the Venetian Ugo Pratt,  “…possibly the greatest artist working in the comic world”, the hero Corto Maltese is modeled on Ossendowski, particularly in what is considered asIMG_1482Pratt’s masterpiece “Corto Maltese in Siberia“, a full length graphic film (see You Tube) that adds a different dimension to our Golden Eagle journey, while teasing that “an adult who enters the world of fables, cannot leave it”.

So Omsk, once the “wild, wild, East” with its pickpockets and prostitutes, is today transformed into a city of over a million people where Gazprom oil refineries are the largest employer. The Prof. and I try to get a glimpse of the city from around the train station, but the stop is only 20 minutes and we barely make it back before the scheduled departure. Our relieved train attendants grin upon seeing us, wag their fingers and refer to us as “hooligani!”.photo-3

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part IV) – From the Czars to Stalin

4-Vysotsky-2Reaching Yekaterinburg, another surprise. Not only another modern city, but one with the tallest building outside Moscow, a 54 floor business tower surprisingly named after Vladimir Vysotsky – singer, poet and satirist (“Vodka is our enemy, let’s finish it off”). He was a rebellious and charismatic figure, often seen to discomfort the powerful, who died in mysterious circumstances, aged 42. There is a Vysotsky Museum on the third floor (and he was even quoted by Baryshnikov in his thriller film “White Nights”).

Certainly the “feel” of this city is quite different. The locals in conversation are happy to consider themselves “Eurasians” having the best of both sides of the continent. Rebellious “Ural Rock” music is highly fashionable. Some young people openly say there is no need to discuss a return to authoritarian Imperial rule as “we already have a Czar”. They mention the Pussy Riot incident at the Cathedral in Moscow but refer to it as Russian Performance Art. In contrast,the white cross marker for the murdered Czar Nicholas and his family has been replaced by the Church of the (Spilled) Blood. It makes an important and interesting focus for our city visit.

photo-8 - Version 2The original execution site, the Ignatiev house, was demolished under Soviet rule but the cellar has been faithfully reconstructed within the church. The patriarch of Moscow has a huge house nearby and many people speculate about the close links between the official church and the Kremlin. In any case, a cult is growing around the Romanoffs, who have been canonised. Czar Nicholas is presented as an ideal father and husband and many young people with children are joining the church in growing numbers. The Bible has become a mandatory subject in grade schools. All this is explained to us by locals as being part of the increased search for basic values as, according to them “Russian values today have become money and sex”.

Not far from the Church of the Blood, we noticed a poster advertising performances in one of the twenty city theatres, much patronised particularly during the long winter months.It was a production of “The Master and Margarita”, based on one of the great novels of the twentieth century by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was highly critical of a stifling bureaucratic society. Tickets were sold out.

Returning to the Golden Eagle, we exchange notes with fellow travellers who had gone to stand with a foot in each “continent”, the marker for the Europe/Asia border. They had been subjected to a good-humoured mock “passport check” followed by celebratory champagne.

2442497027_ccd0043b10_zThere is further animated discussion on the train after another documentary film “Joseph Stalin; Red Terror” is shown. We recollect how our Moscow guides had illustrated Stalin’s despotic power with a story, maybe apocryphal, but credible to most, explaining the map of the Moscow metro lines. They mostly run north to south but in the middle is an absolute circle. Stalin insisted on approving all plans personally. When by chance he placed his coffee cup in the middle of the proposed map, it left a perfect circle. No one dared to even point this out, so there it remained and the circular metro line was built. During our debate, someone remembered that a recent Moscow television poll to determine public perception of Great Russians placed Stalin at number three, Tolstoy at number forty!

We go to the dining cars for the evening meal, but not before some enthusiasts ask for a 6.30am wake-up call, anxious not to miss anything as, already well into Siberia by then, the train was scheduled to make one of the short “in-between” maintenance stops at Omsk, Siberia’s second city and once a major place of exile.

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