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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 -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 II) – From Moscow out!

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We began with an assembly at the Royal Aurora Hotel in Moscow. The travelers had gathered from various parts of the world. Some had taken a comfortable river cruise from St.Petersburg, most had been met after arrival at Domododevo Airport. En route to the city we were greeted by numerous hoardings featuring a large Gerard Depardieu, a new Russian passport holder (and 13% taxpayer), advertising something forgettable. Others announced the release of some torrid film called “Sin City 2”. There are many new Orthodox churches with beautifully gilded domes, countered by 7 storey Munich-style glass walled motor car showrooms. Traffic lights on major roads have a 60 second numbered countdown for drivers. We pass branches of  “Makdonalds” (several recently closed down in retaliation for sanctions, though officially on “health and hygiene” grounds). The Dostoyevsky monument stands out  in front of the Russian State Library. Nearby, a flower-selling cabin is offering a 24 hour service.

Unlike the old Soviet days, when even luxury hotels, like the huge Rossyia, were controlled by the floor ladies and it was advisable to bring your own toilet paper and rubber washbasin stoppers, our hotel was fully equipped (while the old Rossyia has been demolished  to be replaced by some complex inevitably designed by the ubiquitous Norman Foster). Like all Marriott managed hotels, the Aurora included a drawer containing a Bible, a Book of Mormon and a company mission book, in which Bill Marriott assures us that “if you treat your employees well, they’ll take care of the customer”. There were magazines offering very complicated watches, and cocktails, also a large catalogue of jewelry by ultra refined Boucheron from Paris (who have a branch in the hotel building). The nearby GUM department store even contains an unofficial but very Apple Store-like retailer.

The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express has prepared drinks, dinner and briefing in the elegant Petrovsky Room. Our fellow participants have come from Montparnasse and Monceau, Ballerat and Peppermint Grove, Hawick and Clapham, Totness and Cardiff. Some others from Anchorage and Manhattan, New Forest, Toronto and even Taiwan. All inspired by the romance of this journey, a rich mix of stories and experience.

We are introduced to our traveling on-board physician, Dr Judy, from the Cotswolds, and even our own Oxford Don, Professor Healey from St.Antony’s (so all aspects seem covered, taking note of Paul Theroux’s warning that travelers may not know where they are going, but tourists don’t know where they have been).

Next morning Golden Eagle have arranged a privileged early entry to the Kremlin Armoury buildings. We walk past President Putin’s office on our way to the building that contains the most important exhibits, including the Imperial Faberge Egg - Trans Siberian Railwayrenowned Fabergé display. This includes a tiny Trans-Siberian train of five carriages, which used to be rolled up inside an egg. It can stand freely, while the little mechanical engine can pull the carriages two whole inches.

On the way to the Kazansky station, we pass near Lubianka square. The ex-KGB building is being renovated. The organisation is now known as the Federal Security Bureau. There is talk of the Feliks Dzerzhinsky statue, removed in 1991, being returned. This founder of the Cheka, set up to counter so-called internal threats, ordered the execution of thousands of political opponents without trial. Now his bust is already back at the Moscow police headquarters. In a 2013 poll, some 45% of Russians would approve the return of the 15 ton monument. At present the memorial to the Victims of the Gulag stands near the empty original plinth. Dzerzhinsky himself was twice sent to Siberia during Czarist days, a reminder of a more recent deportee, the oligarch who developed the Siberian oilfields, Mikhail Khodorovsky, whose ordeal evolved from an economic and political opposition to a simple defense of his human rights. Sent to Siberia near Chita (where our train is scheduled to stop briefly  on the way to Khabrovsk and Vladivostok) in 2005, Khodorovsky was finally pardoned by President Putin and released last December. He is now based in Switzerland.
On the train, regular briefings/talks/debates are scheduled, as well as the 2-part BBC documentary  “Putin, Russia and the West” also providing a background to the Khodorovsky confrontation. Other topics will include a discussion on Stalin and a film on Genghis Khan. We will be fully invophotolved with the different regions every day and will hardly have time to access the comprehensive  and relevant DVD library on board.

For now, champagne awaits us in the Imperial Waiting Room of the station, our enthusiastic young train attendants are introduced, a band plays and we board the elegant blue coaches of the Trans-Siberian Express. There are fifteen carriages: accommodation for our 50 passengers, two restaurant cars, a bar lounge with live music, a kitchen car, a staff car and a generator. Each guest compartment includes private toilet and shower facilities. Secure safe-deposit boxes are a standard feature. The attendants take turns to be on duty 24 hours. Ready to begin our classic journey of over 10,600 kms, the train moves out, towards Tatarstan and its capital Kazan tomorrow.

 

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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 river, is an unmistakable landmark. The Rhine River bends to its narrowest point at the base of the Lorelei and, with a depth of 22m, that narrowness creates an unusually strong current that hides treacherously submerged rocks and sand banks.

Although protected by the “Warschau” warning light signals (operated from the river control headquarters at nearby Oberwesel) and the use of specialist river pilots, numerous incidents still happen. As recently as 2011, a barge carrying 2400 tons of sulphuric acid from Ludwigshafen to Antwerp, capsized blocking the river for days – causing major disruption along what is, in reality, the major aquatic highway of Europe and costing the German economy Millions in damages.

Since the early 19th century, blame for these strings of disasters have been laid on a female river spirit imagined by the writer Brentano and then woven into a dream tale by Germany’s then favorite Romantic poet Heinrich Heine who was fascinated by the Rhine and its ancient Niebelungen myths.

In 1824, Heine wrote the lines to his “Song of the Lorelei” with foreboding:

I wonder what it presages

I am so sad at heart

A legend of bygone ages

Haunts one and will not depart

Heine’s song was captured in his “Buch der Lieder”, which then became one of the most popular books ever published in Germany.  Some years later composer/songwriter Friedrich Silcher added music to Heine’s verse and a popular classic was born – intriguing artists and visitors ever since – not least of which because of the endless cruise ship playlists that feature the song as they pass the rock.

A brief list of the artists inspired by Heine include Franz Liszt (who wrote the song “Die Lorelei” in 1841), a propagandist painting by Oskar Kokoschka in 1941, and more recently a poem by Sylvia Plath (“Lorelei“, 1960) , who reflected on the Rhine Maiden’s actual silence as its most disturbing aspect. For most travelers, however, a bronze statue of the Rhine Maiden combing her long golden hair, created by Natascha Alexandrova (aka Princess Jusupov) placed on a jutting extension to St Goarshausen in 1983, is the most obvious reminder of the legend created by Brentano and Heine.

Heine lived in turbulent times. While studying at Bonn University, he joined the new Nationalist movement. In 1819 the students threw “unpatriotic” books and papers into a huge bonfire. He recoiled in horror, later portraying a character in his tragic play “Almansor” who, reacting to the burning of the Koran and the Inquisition during the Reconquest of Spain , by proclaiming  “where people burn books, in the end they burn people” .  This is now inscribed over the entrance to Yad Vashim Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the US Holocaust Museum in D.C. and the Opernplatz, Berlin.

Despite converting to Protestantism (in 1825) as his “ticket” of admission to European culture, Heine still ended up getting thrown out of Germany by the Nationalists he was once a part of and exiled in Paris, albeit as a celebrity.

Analysing extremism on the Right he wrote that  “Thor will leap to life with his giant hammer and smash the Gothic cathedrals” (painting a picture of the legendary hero destroying the iconic images that were held up as the traditional basis of a German identity).

Later then, after meeting Karl Marx (an admirer of Heine’s at the time), he foresaw that  “the future belongs to the Communists. With fear and terror I imagine the time when those dark iconoclasts come to power”.

ImageHis words were prophetic, essentially predicting the rise of both Stalin and Hitler – with the result that, in 1933, as books were burnt once more nationwide in Nazi Germany, Heine’s books were included amongst those of Einstein and Freud.

Adolf Hitler, like Heine was fascinated by the myths of the Rhine (although as interpreted by Richard Wagner) and often came to contemplate the river. He normally stayed at the picturesque Rheinhotel Dreesen at Bad Godesberg, sometimes on matters of state  (meeting Chamberlain which led to the Munich Peace Pact), sometimes to fantasize on his destiny. From this location, downstream from the Lorelei, he decreed that, although the song of the Lorelei could still be published, it had to be attributed to an “unknown  author”.

When Nazi-led armies reached Paris in 1941, German Radio reported  “on Montmartre, the grave of Heinrich Heine, the famous German Jewish poet, has been desecrated and demolished with no trace of the grave left”. Today the grave has been rebuilt, and monuments to Heine stand in both Paris and Berlin, as well as St Goarshausen by the Lorelei.

Hitler’s fascination with the Niebelung myths continued to his last days in the bunker in Berlin. Original manuscripts of Wagner’s Rienzi and Götterdammering stayed with him to his dying day. He ordered the Siegfried Funeral March, the death of the hero, to be played over the loudspeaker system during his last days in the Berlin bunker that served as his headquarters, and after their suicide,  the remains of Hitler and Eva Braun were burnt, like those of his hero Siegfried, on a funeral pyre.

So the granite rock at Km marker 555 is a major feature of any Rhine journey, with its still present dangers and ghosts, and its anchored dreams and ideas.

Dictators and extremists have always understood imagination as a threat to their society. In a period of instant communication but limited content, it is worth reflecting on Russian Nobel Prize writer Joseph Brodsky’s warning:

“There are greater crimes than burning books, one is not to read them “

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