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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 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 (Part I) – Romantics of the world Unite ! –

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Ernest Hemmingway could not have encouraged us more directly when he observed that “It is good to have an end to journey toward,but it is the journey that matters, in the end”.

So here we are, in Vladivostok, having crossed 8 time zones in 12 days since leaving Moscow, travelled over 10,651 kms, passed through 10 different railway administrations and marveled at world’s deepest freshwater lake – Baikal – which is also known as the “Golden Buckle” of the “Iron Belt of Russia”. This iron belt is the Trans -Siberian Railway, the backbone of the country and considered a window onto the Russian soul.

Vladivostok or “Ruler of the East” is our final destination on this classic journey. Approaching on the blue Trans-Siberian Express we saw the lights of the 4-kilometer bridge over Amur Bay to welcome us (which for some, would stoke up memories of Europe’s own super-long bridge, the Vasco da Gama in Lisbon). Since Khabrovsk,where it joins the Amur, we followed the Ussuri River. It forms part of the border with China and was a major scene of the 1969 conflict over Damanskii/Zhenbao Island. A disabled Soviet tank is still on a trophy-like display at the Chinese Military Museum in Beijing. Our cellphones keep announcing “welcome to CHINA…”. We are not far from North Korea.

photoThis is the last stop on the world’s longest railway line. Our bags were transported to the luxurious modern Hyundai Hotel from where the views of hills and streets are an echo of San Francisco. A last evening event is at a panoramic restaurant, to exchange opinions and ideas with our travel companions. We are warned about the traffic, as a mass import of right-hand-steering Japanese cars adds to the already normal chaos of right side road driving.

On the morning sight-seeing tours we see the spectacular 2 new suspension bridges (similar to Istanbul’s two new additions); the Golden Horn Bay Bridge in the city centre ,and the elegant new link to Russky Island. This last one has pylons which rise 321 mts above the water using cables designed by French company Freyssinet to withstand a wind-force of 250 kilometers per hour. They are higher than the Eiffel Tower.

Surely,we must come back to explore this once closed and secret corner of Russia, now open to the world. But first a break to absorb and digest impressions from what is an unforgettable journey. Truly memories for a lifetime!

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