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Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
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Travels in Siberia (2010)

by Ian Frazier

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5723024,811 (4.03)61
  1. 00
    Dersu the Trapper by Vladimir Kladiyevich Arseniev (rebeccanyc)
    rebeccanyc: Frazier mentions Dersu (the book and the movie) in his wonderfully written story of his five trips to Siberia, a book which encompasses history, natural history, fascinating characters and more. Dersu the Trapper provides a much more detailed look at a narrower segment of Siberia at a time when it was still wilderness… (more)
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This is the only book I have read by Ian Frazier, and I found it frustrating. As travel writing, my interest was rarely held. Frazier took several trips to Siberia, but most were thinly described and suffered from a lack of motivation - what (specifically) was he trying to see? Why? Over and over again he talked about wanting to see 'prisons', overlaying this with commentary about the history, and mythology, of the gulag. He finally visits exactly one in 470 pages.

Frazier's penchant for riding in a chartered van and studiously avoiding unplanned interactions is what doomed the primary trip described in the book. The best of the many trips doesn't start until page 359, and I think it's the most successful passage because Frazier integrates himself with local transportation for a trip from Siberia back to Western Russia. This forces him to interact with people beyond his caretaker (Sergei), these interactions enriching the text.

All that is fine, the book could just be lukewarm and that's not a crime. What turns my opinion negative was the passage starting on page 468 where Frazier describes all the things he didn't see spanning natural wonders, animals and plants, feats of Russian engineering, and places of history. All of them sound interesting! Why didn't he go see them over the course of almost two decades spent writing this book! Instead, we're treated to several pages about a fake mummy museum, and a dozen different passages describing how he saw a prison but didn't go near it, and a chapter on the history of the sable fur trade.

As a historical text, it's incomplete and cursory. As travel writing, it's dull. As a survey of literature/travel books about Siberia - ok, maybe it does that pretty well. The bibliography is pretty nice. ( )
  sarcher | Mar 22, 2018 |
As well-respected travel writer Ian Frazier approached middle-age, he found himself drawn to Russia, particularly Siberia, "the greatest horrible country in the world." Between the early 1990's and 2009, he made five trips to Siberia (in addition to numerous trips to European Russia). This book chronicles, as the title denotes, Frazier's "travels in Siberia." But it is much more, including a history of Siberia, from the Mongol hordes, to the exiled Decembrists, to the Stalin gulags, to the present day Putin's nationalization of the oil companies exploiting Siberia's vast oil reserves.

The book opens with the statement, "Officially, there is no such place as Siberia." For many people, Siberia is not an actual place, but a metaphor. The book's five parts roughly correspond to Frazier's five trips. Part I describes his first trip to Ulan-Ude and Lake Baikul. In this part, he describes the soot, garbage and mosquitos that are ubiquitous, as well as the "unbelievably disgusting" public restrooms. (I travelled to European Russia many years ago and well remember this latter detail.) He also discusses many of the prior Siberian explorers (including Chekov), and quotes liberally from their various journals and memoirs.

Part I also includes his second journey to Siberia, when he flew from Alaska to the province of Chukota on the far northeastern coast of Siberia just across the Bering Strait from America. On this trip, he stayed in the prisoner-built city of Povideniya, now consisting mainly of decrepit and crumbling military installations. He also spent time on the tundra in a fishing camp with some indigenous Siberians.

Part II is mostly devoted to Russia's history, as well as Frazier's preparations for a planned road trip across Siberia.

Part III is devoted to that road trip, from St. Petersburg to Vladisvostok in a tempramental van with Sergei and Volodya, his two Russian guides, who he alternately mistrusts and trusts, and with whom he regularly bickers. He states, "Travel, like much else in life, can be more fun to read about than do....{M}oments of soaring consciousness are rare. Worries and annoyances...tend to deromanticize the brain."

Some of the places visited on this trip:

--Ekatrinaburg--the westernmost Siberian city where the last tsar and his family were killed.

--Tobolsk-the former Siberian capital, where the chemist Mendeleev is from.

--Omsk--"The usual row on row of crumbling high-rise apartment buildings, tall roadside weeds, smoky traffic, and blowing dust." Dostoevsky spent prison time here.

--Novosibirsk--established in 1893 during the building of the Trans-Siberian railroad. Now the third largest city in Russia.

Kuznets Basin--beriddled with strip mines and large scale environmental damage.

Achinsk--where most of Russia's concrete is manufactured. "...an almost dead zone."

--Krasnoyarsk--according to Chekov the "most beautiful city in Siberia."

--Tulun--"When Russian cities are uncheerful they don't fool around, and Tulun was as uncheerful as they come." "...{T}he usual dust and heat and drabness were abetted by a special extramiserable quality...."

Irkutsk--"the onetime Paris of Siberia." Many Decembrists were exiled here.

Chernyshevsk--From Chernyshevsk to Magdagachi there was no vehicle road, and all cross-country drivers had to stop and load their vehicles onto Trans-Siberian railroad car and truck carriers. There was always a bottleneck here, with routine waits of 48 hours.

Volochaevka--where the last battle of the Russian civil war was fought.

Frazier arrived at the Siberian Pacific coast on September 11, 2001. He waited several days (a week?) in Vladisvostok while all incoming air traffic in the U.S. was grounded.

A few years later, Frazier decided that for a fuller experience he needed to travel in Siberia in wintertime. Part IV describes his winter journey in northern Siberia, traveling from east to west. He flew into Irkutsk, and went south to Ulan-Ude. He then drove the Lake Baikul ice road to the railroad city of Severobaikalik on the northern shore of Lake Baikul.

Through-out his trips, Frazier frequently mentions his desire to visit a former gulag camp, only to be discouraged/denied by Sergei, his guide. Finally, at the end of his fourth trip, travelling from Yakutsk to Topolinoe, on the rudimentary road between Tyoplyi Kliuch and Topolinoe, he was able to stop for a short while at an abandoned ruin of a gulag camp. "What struck me then and still strikes me now was the place's overwhelming aura of absence. The deserted prison camp just sat there--unexcused, un-torn-down, unexplained."

In Part V, Frazier discusses his final trip, made in 2009, without guides, to the city of Novosibirsk. Much of this part of the book deals with the state and mood of current (in 2009) Russia--the ascendancy of Stalin's reputation, the vast mineral reserves in Siberia and their exploitation, climate change as it affects Siberia (giant methane gas bubbles and "drunken forests"), Putin, and other issues.

Although Frazier called Russia the greatest horrible country, he states that he no longer tries to reconcile the great with the horrible. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found it to be both fact-filled and entertaining. I did feel that it could have been a bit shorter (with less of what one reviewer called "what the author had for breakfast" stuff). I was also a bit disappointed that Frazier had so little personal contact with former gulag camps, which is the first thing that pops to mind for many of us when Siberia is mentioned. Nevertheless, a fascinating read.

4 stars ( )
7 vote arubabookwoman | Jan 24, 2017 |
Thanks for the rec, Lobstergirl!
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 5, 2016 |
As a lover of all things Russian I was interested in Frazier's take on Siberia. He def. did his homework on history etc but his Russian accent drove me nuts. Also the fact that he was led around most of the time made me feel like he hadn't really "experienced" his travels. ( )
  cygnet81 | Jan 17, 2016 |
I spent one wonderful month in Russia, and this book helped remember every lovely minute of the trip.

QUOTE: "When a wave rolls in on Baikal, and it curls to break, you can see stones on the bottom refracted in the vertical face of the wave. This glimpse, offered for just a moment in the wave’s motion, is like seeing into the window of an apartment as you go by it on an elevated train. The moon happened to be full that night, and after it rose, the stones on the bottom of the lake lay spookily illuminated in the moonlight. The glitter of the moon on the surface of the lake—the 'moon road,' Sergei called it—fluctuated constantly in its individual points of sparkling, with a much higher definition than any murky water could achieve." ( )
1 vote Jasonboog | Oct 19, 2015 |
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Examines the unforgiving region of Siberia, including its geography, resources, native peoples, and history, with stories of Mongols, fur seekers, tea caravans, American prospectors, prisoners, and exiles of every kind.

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