It was only in the twentieth century that the Urals, a chain of low and very ancient mountains running approximately 2500 kilometres from the Kara Sea in the Arctic to the steppes of northern Kazakhstan, became the most widely accepted convention used to define the notional boundary between Asia and Europe. As a result, these mostly unspectacular but soothingly beautiful mountains demarcate no great physical or cultural divide in the Eurasian continent, representing only a subtle transition to the great wilderness of Siberia. Up against the western flanks of the Urals however live a patchwork of non-Russian nations, descendants of the region’s aboriginal inhabitants, now assimilated to varying degrees into contemporary Russian society. This stage of the Odyssey would take me from the western frontiers of Russia through this chain of federal republics strung along the Upper Volga River, into the forested ridges and industrial cities of the South Urals and on to the edge of the Kazakh Steppe. As the long Russian winter finally eased its grip on the land, my 4500 kilometre eastward journey to the edge of Central Asia would complete a fascinating year spent travelling in and out of Russia.
It’s the 19th March 2011 as I enter Russia from Belarus with nothing more than a cursory check of my vehicle registration document from a traffic police officer. As if to confirm my re-entry into Russia the weather, which in Belarus had been showing signs of impending spring, reverts firmly back to winter with snow falling steadily as I drive through stands of mixed forest towards the city of Smolensk. Turning off the main M1 highway in the early evening, I stop in one grimly notorious patch of forest just outside the village of Katyn. Here, in 1940 the NKVD, predecessors of the KGB, murdered approximately 22,000 Poles, both army officers and civilians, in what became known as the Katyn Massacre. To compound this genocidal act, the Soviet authorities long blamed the Nazis, who came across the mass graves early in 1943.
After spending a cold night in the forest, I am the first to enter the memorial site in the morning. Here, beyond a small museum complex, amidst beautifully tranquil pines, walkways pass mass graves, marked by crosses and huge steel-plated memorials bearing the names of some of the deceased. It was not until 1990, following glasnost, that the USSR finally admitted their guilt in the massacre. Katyn represents not only a war crime, but is typical of the kind of official falsification of history which was routine in the USSR. In a country where people seldom reflect on the darker episodes of a brutal past and have been taught a history edited to fit both Marxism and Soviet propaganda, the Katyn Massacre is a rare example of the open revision of Soviet historiography.
A little later in the morning I arrive in Smolensk, which despite the cold, damp weather, I soon judge to be one of Russia’s lovelier cities. Smolensk is set amidst rolling hills astride a young Dnieper River and despite its strategic position on a logical route from central Europe, feels like a gently time-worn backwater. Walking north on Soviet Street, down towards the river through the falling snow, I have in front of me a scene which could be the subject of many a Russian watercolour. My eye is lead down a curve in the street, lined by bare trees and damp, pastel yellow nineteenth century buildings. Beyond the roofs of these lie first the rather plain Trinity Monastery and then the peppermint green of the exuberant, Renaissance-inspired Assumption Cathedral, unusually square in plan with three large porthole windows on each soaring slab-wall. This unusual piece of Russian church architecture took more than a century to complete and according to local legend, was spared harm during Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia, with the French Emperor threatening to personally kill any man who dared desecrate it.
As might be expected of a large and ancient city on the frontiers of a huge empire, Smolensk has a long history of invasion and destruction, having twice slipped beyond the frontiers of the Russian state. Nevertheless, as I walk downhill into one of the city’s small valleys, attractively dotted by dark brown timber houses with colourful wooden-framed windows, I am surprised to find a huge and magnificent sixteenth century kremlin (fortress) looming out of the falling snow on the opposite hill. It’s a beautiful structure with long red-brick walls and defensive towers of alternately square and round in plan, covered by steeply pitched wooden roofs; a real icon of Russian defensive architecture and a symbol of Russia’s western defences. The modern centre of Smolensk somewhat less remarkable, with tall and imposing Stalin-era city blocks, parks celebrating the important role of the ‘Hero City’ during the Second World War, and a grandiose philharmonic hall named after the composer Mikhail Glinka, the father of Russian classical music, who was a born in the city.
As charmed as I am by Smolensk however, I opt to leave in the afternoon, heading east towards Moscow – a city I have very little affection for – in order to visit the Embassy of Tajikistan the following morning. The thought of driving into the vast congested sprawl of Europe’s largest city leads me to stay instead in the satellite city of Podolsk, a rather dull industrial city which is separated from Moscow’s sprawl by just 500 metres of open land. I am hosted here by Katya, a student with impeccable English who lives with her parents in their self-built house, in a slightly unusual middle-class suburbia. My visit to the embassy annoyingly coincides with Nowruz celebrations in Tajikistan, meaning I have to wait several days to see the consul. I spend a day relaxing at home with Katya’s father who is a carpenter and seems grateful for some male company; together we drink beer and watch ‘White Sand of the Desert‘ a classic Soviet film of a chivalrous Red Army soldier set in the deserts of Central Asia during the Russian Civil War. It’s refreshingly free of Soviet propaganda, an innocent and timeless film seen by virtually every citizen of the Former USSR.
I make an excursion from Podolsk to the city of Tula, leaving the truck at Katya’s house and taking an elektrichka, (a short-distance intercity train). The train journey offers an interesting glimpse of Russian society. As we pull out of what are effectively suburbs of Moscow, the train is full of a rag-tag bunch of students (who run from one carriage to the next at each stop to avoid paying the fare), workers and all-sorts. Dark, gypsy-faced Tajiks from around Samarkand pace the train selling fruit; other hawkers sell clothes, toys and other low quality Chinese-made items. We roll through utterly bland, inconsequential satellite towns of Moscow Region, which become ever less prosperous looking. At some point, beyond reasonable commuting distance the towns break into the familiar, unending Russian countryside dotted by occasional damp, tumbledown villages which could be anywhere in the country. The train empties of students and commuters, leaving a crew mainly of drinkers; lone fishermen who board unsteadily at small, half-deserted stations along the line. Here is a peculiar type of Russian drifter; fairly clean-looking, if pallid of face, well spoken, conversing with his neighbour in a string of expletives known as mat (which is at one eloquently poetic and obscene) but whose frayed clothes reveal the underlying poverty and social decay which he represents.
Tula, 180 kilometres south of Moscow is somewhat less attractive than Smolensk. Despite an striking central kremlin housing the beautiful, gold-domed Assumption Cathedral, Tula’s centre feels rather sprawling and its proximity to the capital seems to have infected the city with a rash of unplanned, ugly modern buildings and an excess of advertising boards on every street. Like Smolensk, Tula was one of the Soviet Union’s twelve ‘Hero Cities'; and the heroics and hardware of the forty-five day siege in which the city held out in the winter of 1941, defending Moscow from the south, are remembered in a surprisingly modest Victory Park. Other parts of Tula are quite shabby; walking towards the city’s busy market I descend a street of decrepit wooden houses; a few appear to be well maintained, while others have been deliberately burnt by property developers – the fate of many wooden structures across Russia – in order to build modern houses and thus ruin the aesthetics of an entire street. I also come across the large, wooded All Saints Cemetery which is both a picture of decay and ruin, and an intriguing timeline of Russian history. Ornately carved eighteenth century tombstones sink slowly into the snowy ground; small nineteenth century obelisks lean gently, and twentieth century secular steel grave markers with red five-pointed stars slowly rust away. My favourite however is a memorial to soldiers of the Second World War; a brutal piece of Socialist-realism executed in coarse, rendered concrete which somehow manages to be quite delicately moving in its portrayal of an unknown, falling Red Army soldier.
Back in Moscow I manage to enter the consular section of the Tajikistan Embassy and join a truly unimaginable scrum of people all shouting and waving towards a counter at the far end of the room. Never have I seen such a crush of humanity; these are desperate migrant workers collecting documents in order to renew their residency in Russia; something they must do monthly in order to send back money earned in tough, menial jobs to their impoverished home country. I push through the crowd shouting ‘visa!’ and over the course of several minutes – at one point with a small boy clinging to my leg – I make it a few metres to a door where I am glad to be whisked into the calm of the back-offices. The visa process is a sham, and I end up bargaining with the consul as if I were buying an antique rug, arguing the price according to duration of stay and number of entries. I get a three month, double entry visa for 120 US Dollars, the consul puts the money in his pocket, and I walk out with a visa in my passport. Simple and efficient.
Long ago, before the massive Russian expansion into Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the embryonic Russia state expanded from its heartlands around Kyiv, Novgorod and later Moscow into territories populated by indigenous Finno-Ugric peoples and Turkic peoples who had themselves migrated fairly recently from the east and south. Today a multitude of federal republics exist along the upper Volga and around the Urals; ostensibly home to these various nations, some of whom are culturally and linguistically severely endangered.
Driving east from Podolsk, away from the orbit of Moscow, past the city of Ryazan which was the first to bear the thirteenth century invasion of the Mongols, I am in the Republic of Mordovia by early afternoon. I drive through a blizzard shortly after leaving the main M7 highway and turning north-east towards Saransk, the capital of the republic; it might be late March, but I am still within the depths of winter, which has lasted for around five months so far. I reach Saransk after dark, and am hosted by Stas and Larisa, a couple of young Russian journalists. Mordovia is named after the Mordvin people, a Finno-Ugric nation distantly related to Finns, Estonians and Hungarians. The Mordvins are split into two main groups (indeed the term ‘Mordvin’ may well be an exonym); the Moksha and the Erzya, and like all Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia, they have been heavily russified and are highly assimilated into contemporary Russian society. Although the Mordvins are quite numerous, their language is endangered and little-used by the urban population; their original animistic religion has been largely replaced by Orthodox Christianity and in dress and appearance they are not readily distinguishable from Russians. Indeed, there are no outward signs that Saransk is anything other than a small, if quite pleasant Russian city; only the striking late-Soviet Seat of Government building hints that this is the capital of an autonomous republic in anything more than name.
From Saransk I drive due east through a beautiful wintry landscape of gentle, low hills and patches of birch forest, until I reach the Volga in the city of Ulyanovsk. Established as Simbirsk, a fort during the eastern expansion of Russia in the seventeenth century, it was renamed after its most famous resident; Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. In Soviet times ‘Old Simbirsk’, which amounts to the area immediately around the house in which Lenin was supposedly born, was something of a pilgrimage site, but today its draw is very much diminished. Indeed, I’m surprised to find just a simple street of wooden houses rather than any of the heroic gigantism of which the Soviets were so fond. Aside from Old Simbirsk, Ulyanovsk is a slightly noxious industrial city, albeit with a certain gritty charm and a magnificent view over part of the Kuybishev Reservoir which turns the Volga into a huge expanse of frozen water, stretching in some directions to the horizon.
Driving north-west from Ulyanovsk, I cut across the inside of a large bend in the Volga to reach the city of Cheboksary, several hundred kilometres upstream. Cheboksary is the capital of the Republic of Chuvashia, and I am hosted in the city by Dimitry and his family, who are Chuvash. The Chuvash are of Turkic origin, thought to be descendants of the Volga Bulgars, ad-mixed with indigenous Finnic tribes. The Chuvash are spread widely across this Volga – Ural region and many cities here have their own separate names in the Chuvash language, which branched off long ago from the Turkic language family, is unintelligible to speakers of any other Turkic language, and is closely related only to extinct languages such as Bulgar or Khazar. Unlike the neighbouring Mordvins or Maris, the Chuvash are a majority in their titular republic, regularly use their own language (which is nevertheless considered endangered due to the dominance of Russian), and generally seem more culturally robust. Dimitry speaks to his mother and father in Chuvash, and tells me that there are villages not so far away where people speak only Chuvash, which I find reassuring in the face of centuries of russification efforts.
Cheboksary, named Shupashkar in Chuvash, was established as a Russian city in the mid-sixteenth century, on the site of what was most likely an earlier Bulgar settlement. Dimitry shows me around his native city which is attractively sited on the right bank of the Volga, here an endless white plain across which a few souls make the three kilometre hike from the opposite bank while large snow-clouds move in from the east. Unusually for a Turkic nation, the Chuvash are largely Orthodox Christian (with a minority following the traditional Chuvash animist religion) which results in a proliferation of churches in the city, especially in the now frozen Cheboksary Bay area, though all are purely Russian in style (and rite). While there is nothing in Cheboksary’s urban architecture which obviously distinguishes its non-Russian character, there is nevertheless at least something palpably vital about the Chuvash culture, lying somewhere between the near assimilation of the Mordvins, and the outright cultural assertiveness of the nearby Tatars.
Just east of Cheboksary I drive across the Volga and am immediately in the Mari El Republic. The Mari, together with the Mordvins, are the only surviving Volga Finns (other such as Murom, Merya and Meshchera are now extinct) and like the Mordvins are heavily assimilated. Driving north from the Volga I soon reach the capital Yoshkar-Ola, where I find, as in Saransk, no real sign of Mari language or culture. Indeed, the republic’s president, an ethnic Russian, has been implicated in the closing of Mari language newspapers and the repression of Mari leaders, rights groups and the traditional Mari religion.
I’m shown around Yoshkar-Ola by my Russian host Yulia and am bemused to find a rash of new buildings which remind me of the vulgar urban construction projects favoured by Central Asian dictators. The most striking of these is the mechanical clock on the outside of the National Art Gallery, a garishly coloured and incongruous piece of Venetian Gothic on the city’s central square. As the clock chimes the hour, the Virgin Mary appears in an upper door on the large, square clock-face. Piped choral music begins, and a donkey walks a semicircle with unbending legs from one lower door to another, with Mother and Child finally appearing in the opposite upper door. The whole display lasts over three minutes, during which I fail to conceal my laughter at its crassness. This rash of new development spreads along the banks of the Kokshaga River which runs through the city, and although this does give the capital of Mari El a certain distinctive character, it is in no way representative of Mari culture, reeking instead of being a pet project of the president (no doubt enriching certain of his cronies) which is of no use to the general populace of an economically stagnating region.
Perhaps however, I am being a little naive in expecting to find a series of truly federal republics of different nations living side-by-side. Indeed, what is really more impressive is the fact that these nations – and many others – are blended with the Slavic ancestry of Russians to create the very essence of the Russian nation, whose genome reflects the territorial growth of Russia over the last millennium and shows the true meaning of racial integration.
From Yoshkar-Ola I rejoin the Volga and make some real progress east, through the comparatively distinctive republics of Tatarestan and Bashkortostan; two Turkic nations descended from the Volga Bulgars, both of which have strongly preserved their language and individual cultures. Here Russia begins to change noticeably; mosques start to appear in the villages of colourful wooden houses, where dwellings are clustered around each other more haphazardly in closer communities, as in much of Asia. Physically, the gently undulating fields and woodlands of European Russia start very gradually to gather into ridges and, almost imperceptibly, I enter the ancient folds of the Urals. The M5 highway, Russia’s main road artery into Siberia narrows to single lanes and becomes choked with lorry traffic as it winds across the low, forested mountains, so as I enter Chelyabinsk Region, I turn off and continue on a series of backroads which wind through the small towns either side of the highway.
I make my way east stopping first in Asha, an iron mining city which is beautifully set below steep mountains, with tall outcrops of banded pink and grey limestones running to Minyar, along the Trans-Siberian mainline. Rejoining the highway briefly I pass above the town of Sim which spreads across the snowy landscape in rows of colourful low houses and is the birthplace of Igor Kurchatov, father of the Soviet atomic bomb. Soon after I turn south towards the highest peaks of the South Urals, topped by Mt. Yamantau which can be seen from the road’s end at Verkhny Katav, still completely covered in snow. Further east the land climbs into uplands and a rather indeterminate Europe – Asia border, through more mining and metal-working towns such as Yuryuzhan, Satka and Zlatoust, all established in the eighteenth century to take advantage of the abundant mineral riches of the Urals. The landscape alternates between quaintly colourful lake-side towns and grim, crumbling factories belching smoke from filthy towers into the beautiful landscape.
I stop in the city of Miass, a centre of copper and gold extraction, which is set amongst beautiful mountain scenery. The weather is well above zero and although the crystal-clear waters of Lake Turgoyak are still frozen, with ice fishermen sitting patiently next to their small holes, the surrounding hillsides are yellow with recently exposed grass, and the lakeside pines add some green to a landscape which for months has been a winter monochrome. With my host Sergey I walk up a steep hillside on the eastern side of Miass, through snow-filled forest and onto a broad ridge of basalt dotted with still-bare larch trees. To the east is lake-dotted Ilmen National Park, marking the beginning of Siberia and an inconceivably huge wilderness. To the west a succession of low ridges fade away into the afternoon sky, marking at some point the boundary between Asia and Europe. This quasi-continental divide is in reality, merely a political and cultural concept; a modern-day expression of an ancient Greek conceit. Here it seems faintly ludicrous to call this low and ancient mountain chain deep in the Eurasian continent a cultural boundary between west and east. None of this of course detracts from the beautiful views all around, with the warm air and slightly milky skies suggesting the onset of spring.
I leave the city heading south, past the Miass pond, on the frozen surface of which children are skating and playing ice hockey, backed by colourful, pitch-roofed wooden houses; a slightly timeless scene which might be a century-old oil painting. I cross the M5 one final time, leaving Siberia for a future trip and drive south on a series of small roads, keeping the Urals to to my right, weaving in and out of Bashkortostan. Large rain-bearing clouds sit just above the mountain peaks as I pick my way through Bashkir villages with beautiful wooden mosques, combining traditional Russian wooden architecture with simple octagonal minarets. I’m driving roughly along the Ural River, which here demarcates the Asia-Europe border all the way to its endpoint at the northern edge of the Caspian Sea.
More than 150 years after the Tsarist Russian government started to exploit the mineral riches of the South Urals on a large scale, the area saw a second wave of industrialisation during early Soviet times, boosted especially by both the demand for raw materials and the Nazi threat itself during the Second World War, which caused many industries from European Russia to be relocated here, well away from the front. My next stop is a perfect example of such development; the city of Magnitogorsk. Located on the Ural River, Magnitogorsk was established as part of a system of forts along the Russian frontier, but the potential riches of nearby Magnitnaya mountain were soon realised, and ore extraction began in 1739. Later, Magnitogorsk became the industrial showpiece of Stalin’s five-year plans of the 1930s, which brought in experts from the US and Germany to make up for a lack of local knowledge in building the gargantuan Magnitogorsk Iron And Steel Works, until Stalin’s paranoia grew to the extent that the city was declared ‘closed’, and foreigners expelled in 1937. Today, despite the exhaustion of ore reserves in Magnitnaya Mountain, the metal works occupies the entire left bank of the Ural as it flow through the city; a hideous panorama of smokestacks belching multifarious colours of noxious fumes, so grim as to be quite morbidly attractive. The huge Tyl Frontu monument, consisting of two metal workers holding aloft an enormous sword occupies a promontory over the river from where the metal works may best be viewed and stands in remembrance of the efforts made by workers behind the front line, particularly important for the supply of Red Army tanks.
Metallurgy in the Urals is far from being a modern activity, and out in the sparsely populated steppe where the Urals, the Eastern European Plain and the Kazakh Steppe all come together, a series of archaeological sites of the Sintashta Culture show that metal production was prolific here in the Bronze Age. Far more interesting however are the similarities between burial practices observed by archaeologists here and those described in the Rig Veda, the oldest Indian religious text (in fact the world’s oldest religious text). It is therefore hypothesised that the Sintashtans were speakers of Proto-Indo-Aryan (which may itself have been influenced in part by local Finno-Ugric languages), and may have been a stepping-stone on the migration of the Indo-Aryans from the Lower Volga region to the Indian Subcontinent and Mesopotamia. The best preserved Sintashta site yet discovered is Arkaim, around 150 kilometres south-east of Magnitogorsk. Leaving the Ural River, I drive out into the steppe; that endless expanse of rolling grassland which I find so comforting, past forgotten small towns and villages to reach Arkaim, only to find the area flooded, and the site itself inaccessible. Nevertheless, climbing a nearby ridge I get a good view over the site. It’s truly fascinating to think that these people, from this barren and forgotten area, may have gone on to seed one of the world’s great civilisations, pre-cursors also to many of the cultures through which I have travelled for the past four years.
I make a final crossing of the South Urals, heading east from Magnitogorsk through the Bashkir towns of Abzakovo and Beloretsk, where low cloud boils over the mountains, then through beautiful forest-covered hills, where bare, wispy birch trees grow amongst occasional green sprigs of pine, revealing the snow on the forest floor. After several hours of this glorious scenery, I emerge in farmland just south of Ufa and turn south, passing through the industrial cities of Sterlitamak, Salavat and Kumertau. As I progress southwards, the snow-cover recedes and I enter the yellowish steppe, leaving behind both the winter and the mountains.
My last stop in Russia before entering Kazakhstan is Orenburg. Rather whimsically, the name of this city had long been in my mind and for no other reason I was keen to visit. Orenburg was in fact the name of several settlements initially named after the Or River. The first became the city of Orsk, around 250 kilometres to the east; the second was destroyed, and the current Orenburg is in fact the third incarnation of the city. Established as a frontier fort for Imperial Russia’s expansion into Central Asia, Orenburg lies off the country’s main road and rail conduits, out on the fringes of the windswept Kazakh steppe, though its gas industry and large student population neutralise any forlorn or frontier atmosphere that one might anticipate.
The highlight of my stay in Orenburg is my host Ruslan, a local with whom I immediately strike a lasting friendship. We sit smoking and drinking tea in his kitchen, then go to explore the city. Walking down Orenburg’s elegant, tree-lined main boulevard to the Ural River, which is marked on either side by ceremonial posts labelled ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’. The river is in flood, its surface a huge, glacier-like mass of broken ice and fallen trees, something Ruslan says he has never seen before. Sadly, the famous Orenburg Fortress, from which many of Russia’s expeditions into Central Asia were mounted is long-gone, though there are many charmingly shabby backstreets still to explore. After having another smoke in the ruins of a Tsarist-era electrical supply building, we are driven to Gagarin Park where we happen upon a huge fireworks display to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first man being launched into space, one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet Union. Although Gagarin hailed from Smolensk region, it was here that he spent much of his time training as an air force pilot. The colours are especially vivid, and I feel it’s a fitting celebratory end to my year spent in and out of Russia.
After two very enjoyable, mellow days with Ruslan I have to say farewell to both him, and to Russia. My year-long visa, obtained in Tehran last year has come to an end, and I must finish this ninth trip into Russia which I have made with it. I drive south, past the town of Sol-Iletsk, home to Russia’s infamous Black Dolphin Prison, then turn south east to the border at Sagarchin. Despite a year of travel, I’m sad to be leaving Russia – the north and far east of this country are still unknown to me – but for now I am heading south, into the vast steppe of Kazakhstan, and a summer in Central Asia.
Belarus, whose name derives from the Belarussian Beliye Rosi’ (White Rus’) lies between Russia and the EU and seems to be known largely by negative stereotypes; the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’, an ‘outpost of tyranny’ and a museum of the USSR. While there is truth in these titles, I would find a very charming country of neat, clean cities, beautiful wild landscapes and friendly, worldly people. There are several theories as to why Belarus is referred to as White Rus'; that the area was populated by Christianised Slavs as opposed to the more pagan-influenced Balts of Black Rus’ (Black Ruthenia); in reference to the traditional white clothing worn by the natives, or symbolising the ethnic purity of this region which was beyond the limits of the Mongol and Tatar expansion. What is now Belarus was spared the destruction and subjugation of the Mongol Yoke during medieval times, but the twentieth century was certainly not as kind, with the country seeing almost total destruction during the Second World War, massive ethnic cleansing (particularly of the formerly very large Jewish minority), depopulation and Russian cultural domination during the time that the country was a republic of the USSR. Even today, the Belarussian national identity and language are at best met with official indifference; the country has changed little since independence in 1991 and its largely state-run economy remains somewhat dependent on Moscow. Nevertheless, Belarus survives as a country which is subtly quite different from Russia and an outpost largely free from Western Consumerism.
My journey around Belarus begins on the 19th February 2011 as I cross into the country from Russia. There are no stops or checks on the Belarussian side of the border and straight away I’m driving through small villages of colourful, fairytale wooden houses; the road is much improved compared to the Russian side of the border, free of ice and there is comprehensive signposting. The sun even comes out, making for a very pleasant first impression indeed.
My first stop is the city of Polatsk, allegedly one of the oldest cities of the Eastern Slavs and mentioned in the Norse Sagas. Initially part of the medieval state of Kievan Rus’, the city emerged as the Principality of Polatsk in the tenth century and like much of Belarus, has since come under control of Lithuania, Russia and Poland. My host in Polatsk is Ivan, who immediately invites me into his apartment where he introduces me to some of his friends with whom we have a smoke. Ivan turns the television on to check the sport results, and I get a glimpse of television in Belarus which has all the signs of dictatorship; mind-numbing sports coverage with lame, flag-waving crowds and the odd titbit of news comprising coverage of President Lukashenko (whom my hosts refer to derisively as a kolkhoznik, literally a ‘collective farmer’) making an official visit to some factory among sycophantic crowds. It is informative however to see live, state-fixed prices of fuel and basic foodstuffs scrolling across the screen.
Polatsk is located on the banks of the Divna River, which is still totally frozen and gives views onto the old heart of the city. Most striking is the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, one of three (the others being in Kyiv in Ukraine and Novgorod in Russia) of the oldest Eastern Slavic churches, all modelled on the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, at the time the home of all eastern Orthodoxy. The Cathedral of Polatsk has been heavily modified through the ages and today has an imposing white Baroque facade, though bares no resemblance to its namesake in İstanbul. Nearby, the compact city centre spreads along the north bank of the Divna, dotted with churches and a mix of nicely restored Tsarist-era streets and some fine, if rather faded Soviet Neoclassical buildings, while on the south bank are streets of colourful wooden houses.
I find Polatsk very charming indeed, quite different from the gritty towns of western Russia; it’s cleaner, more orderly and people seem more immediately friendly and smiling, even if there is a slight air of torpor. A few kilometres to the east of Polatsk is the modern and totally Soviet town of Navapolatsk where I go to register with the Migration Police, and where one finds all the vast, grey concrete apartment buildings thankfully largely absent from Polatsk. I do however spot a magnificent Futuristic Soviet Socio-realist mural on a wall here depicting mankind charging forth into the cosmos under the banner of communism, celebrating one of the Soviet Union’s greatest achievements; putting the first human into space in 1961.
On my way south to the capital I stop at the monument complex of Khatyn, a moving tribute built in the 1960s to commemorate the incredible losses which Belarus endured during the Second World War. Khatyn was one of more than five thousand Belarussian villages which were burned and destroyed by the Nazis, in this particular case by a group composed largely of Ukrainian nationalist collaborators who in 1943 killed every man, woman and child in the village by burning them alive in a barn, gunning down any escapees. Twenty-six concrete obelisks symbolise the location of each house in the village which was looted and destroyed, on which the names and ages (in the case of children) of the occupants are listed. A bell tolls every thirty seconds in unison from each of these to represent the rate at which Belarussians were killed during the Nazi occupation. A square memorial consisting of three birch trees and an eternal flame further symbolises that one in four Belarussian Citizens, a total put officially at 2,230,000 people, were killed during the Second World War. In this rueful, beautiful snowy landscape surrounded by birch forest, it is quite staggering to contemplate the abject horrors which were unleashed by the forces of nationalism here.
Minsk, today a city of two million, has its origins as a provincial town under the Principality of Polatsk in the tenth century, becoming an important regional capital following Russian annexation in the late eighteenth century. The city was almost totally destroyed in the Second World War and was reconstructed and greatly expanded during the post-war Soviet Period. Today a city of two million inhabitants, the Belarussian capital is a grand and harmonious city of Soviet Neoclassical buildings, wide avenues and parks. It’s a city which bears its Soviet past proudly, and remains visually much as the original designers must have intended.
I spend several days in Minsk, acquainting myself with what is perhaps the best preserved large city of the USSR, a tantalising glimpse of the Soviet Union complete with much of its architecture, art and symbolism, though lacking the communist political ideology. From my host’s apartment in the south of the city, I walk past the imposing twelve-storey Stalinist city gates towards Independence Square where the city’s main thoroughfare, Independence Avenue begins. Formerly Lenin Square, here there remains (somewhat ironically) a large statue of Vladimir Ilyich, gazing masterfully towards the east, propping himself on a railing with his cap in hand. Behind the Soviet leader is towering House of Government, a fine piece of Stalinist architecture dating from the 1930s, one of the few buildings to survive the war and one which manages to blend Soviet gigantism with a few touches of Art-Deco. Also in the square is the red brick, neo-Romanesque Church of Saints Simon and Helena from the turn of the twentieth century and a recently constructed shopping mall whose comparative vulgarity has been tastefully hidden underground and connected to the Lenin Square station of the Minsk Metro. Other of the metro stations retain prosaically socialist names such as Traktarny Zavod (‘Tractor Factory’) and Pralyetarskaya (‘Proletarian’).
Heading north-east, Independence Avenue passes the beige Central Post Office, then comes upon the pale buff of the KGB headquarters, a perfect example of Soviet Neoclassicism; a mock Roman Temple behind which lies the heart of the security apparatus of what is undoubtedly a repressive police state. Opposite the building, aptly, is one of the few remaining statues of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet Cheka, forerunner of the KGB and a key participant of the ‘Red Terror’ which saw the ruthless pursuit and execution of tens of thousands of counter-revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War. Dzerzhinsky would probably be reassured by the number of uniformed police on the streets of Minsk, who in my experience are unobtrusive, yet still visible from almost any point. The number of plain-clothed officers and informants is of course left to the imagination.
Not far beyond the KGB I reach the Minsk Univermag or department store, a typically Soviet institution which has become largely obsolete in the new market economies of other parts of the Former USSR. Lying in the very centre of the city, the department store has a small attached ground-floor bar; not a pretentious and overpriced street-side cafe where one is waited on and pressured to leave as soon as possible, but a simple bar where one can buy a bottle of beer or a coffee at normal shop prices and watch the outside world go by, something I find myself doing several times during my stay in Minsk.
Despite being the capital of an authoritarian and politically isolated country, Minsk does not have the feeling of being cut-off from the outside world, nor of being trapped in time. While the city remains architecturally true to the Soviet era, there are touches of sophistication; period Soviet shop fronts conceal modern bars and restaurants and the traffic outside consists overwhelmingly of cars of European or Japanese origin rather than Russian. What is lacking here, gladly, is the glaring inequality one sees for instance in Russia or Ukraine where the privatisation of the economy allowed certain individuals to quickly amass great wealth, often through highly questionable actions. It is also highly refreshing to finally find respite from global consumerism, in a city where international brands and advertisements are almost absent and there are shops still simply called ‘Shoes’, ‘Bread’ or ‘Bar’. Belarus is not Turkmenistan, fighting to keep any influence of the outside world safely beyond its borders; it is trying more to distance itself from the vices all around.
Also slightly different from neighbouring Russia are the people, who seem a touch more European in mindset, more like the Poles or Lithuanians who long dominated what is now Belarus, lacking the Russian xenophobia bred by centuries of isolation. In appearance people are also somewhat more European looking, lacking perhaps the Tatar blood of Russians; judging by watching the people passing by, Belarus’s reputation for beautiful women is certainly not undue.
Continuing along Independence Avenue, I pass the post-independence Palace of the Republic, built in 2002 in the old Soviet style on the far side of October Square, which has been filled with water and allowed to freeze into an ice rink on which people can freely come and skate. The avenue then descends past the small, teal-coloured wooden museum-house where in 1898, in great secrecy, nine delegates of various revolutionary parties, including Lenin, held the First Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, then past Yanky Kupala Park to the Svislach River. Crossing a bridge I pass the apartment where Lee Harvey Oswald lived from 1959 to 1961, then climb to the tall granite obelisk of Victory Square, in front of which four soldiers stand guard throughout the day. Bronze reliefs cover the base of the obelisk, depicting the struggle of the Red Army, the population of Minsk and the Belarussian partisans, for which Minsk later received the honour of becoming one of the Soviet Union’s twelve ‘Hero Cities’.
Beyond Victory Square I pass numerous further examples of grand and often elegant Soviet architecture, then walk to the far side of the city where the recently finished National Library of Belarus is located, in a twenty-two storey futuristic blue-glass rhombicuboctahedral building. Many people I would meet in Minsk and in Belarus would sneer at the Library as something of a folly of the President, a hugely expensive project of little use to the average person, a repository of Belarussian literature in a country which actively promotes the Russian language over Belarussian, and stifles national identity in order to appease Moscow from where vital energy subsidies and economic support come. Indeed, despite my overwhelmingly positive impressions of the country, it is clear that many Belarussians are unhappy with the situation the country is in; perhaps feeling left behind in an anachronistic dictatorship with a stagnating, state-run economy whilst its neighbours extract themselves ever further from the hangover of the Soviet Union. My delight at finding a country free from the glorification of consumerism seems not to be shared with its general populace. Nevertheless I leave Minsk feeling deeply impressed, even imagining that it is a place I would enjoy living in.
I drive out of Minsk one morning, joining the old Soviet M1 Highway south-west, formerly connecting Moscow with Brest and Warsaw. Soon turning south, I leave the highway to visit the town of Nyasvizh, home of the Radziwiłł Family whose castle still stands, though has been rather carelessly restored and is currently closed to visitors. North of Nyasvizh I cross the M1 and continue to the village of Mir with its sixteenth century Gothic Mirski Castle which later also came under the ownership of the Radziwiłłs, who added a stately home. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the castle in Nyasvizh) and one of very few historical buildings still standing in Belarus. West from Mir, I drive on good roads through quaint villages and small towns, stopping again in the town of Navahrudak which is located around a small hill. Atop the hill are the desolate ruins of what was once one of the key strongholds of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a fourteenth century which was attacked by the Teutonic Knights, Crimean Tatars and finally the Swedes during the Great Northern War in 1706, leaving the castle in ruins. Today just a few walls and stumps of the towers remain but the views over the snow-covered Belarussian countryside are beautiful, with the colourful wooden village houses of the town receding to snow-covered fields and then thick forest. In the town of Lida, which has another heavily restored castle, I join the highway west to Hrodna, reaching the city after dark.
Hrodna lies in the far western corner of modern-day Belarus and through its long history has been part of Black Rus’, Lithuania, Russia and like much of western Belarus was part of Poland between the two World Wars. The city is attractively set high on the banks of the Neman River, and is noticeably less Russified than eastern Belarus with a strong Catholic influence visible in a number of beautiful Baroque churches and monasteries. The old city and central square have a number of restored and beautiful historical buildings, though together they fall slightly short of creating a genuinely historic atmosphere; the effect of twentieth century destruction and insensitive Soviet urban planning are all too visible.
One most noteworthy building however is the small twelfth century Kalozha Church dedicated to Saints Boris and Hlib, the first saints to be canonised in Kievan Rus’, early in the eleventh century. The church, which is the oldest in Hrodna, stands near the old castle on the edge of a high and steep bank of the Neman, into which its southern wall collapsed in the nineteenth century. Bearing the Byzantine cross-form of early Eastern Orthodox churches, its remaining red-brick walls are uniquely decorated with faceted slabs of blue, red and green stones, sometimes arranged into crosses and it is indeed the only extant piece of Black Ruthenian architecture.
The more modern parts of Hrodna are not the kind of showcase of Soviet architecture that Minsk is, but I do find myself having a quintessentially Soviet experience when eating in a stolovaya (canteen) located on the ground-floor of an office block in the north of the city. The establishment is named simply ‘canteen’, and has a utilitarian decor with touches of 1980s kitsch. Beer is served, but no hard alcohol so as to keep out the sallow alcoholics or men in wellingtons who march into cafes and wordlessly down a hundred grams of vodka before marching back out. There is no menu until one reaches the front of the queue, for this is not a bourgeois restaurant and dishes are typical Soviet staples with a running theme of mushiness; kotlet (rissole), grechka (buckwheat), kartofelnoye pyure (mashed potato) and a thick soup; nothing for which a knife is required, and indeed there are no knives available. Portions are modest and not quite hot, encouraging patrons to eat quickly and return to their work, but the food is fresh, wholesome and tasty. Such institutions are rapidly disappearing across the Former USSR, even becoming novelty restaurants in Russia, but here in Belarus this is another Soviet institution which is still going strong.
Through my host Ivan I am introduced to a number of the city’s residents; young, well educated and intelligent Belarussians and even a British artist who has taken up temporary residence here in this oddly endearing city. One of Ivan’s friends mentions that he is Jewish, which leads me to scratch a little into the city’s history. Jews are thought to have lived in this part of Europe since the eighth century and after the Russian annexation of the late eighteenth century, the area became part of the Pale of Settlement, the area of the Russian Empire in which Jews were legally allowed to reside (in cities). At the turn of the twentieth century many cities in what is now Belarus had majority Jewish populations and Hrodna, which was economically dominated by Jews, was considered one of the Jewish intellectual capitals of Europe.
During the Second World War an estimated 90% of Belarussian Jews, some 800,000 individuals, were exterminated by the Nazis. Most remaining Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union after the 1970s and today Jews make up perhaps 0.1% of Belarus’ population. Hardly any monuments stand to this incredible demographic, economic and cultural loss; even Minsk’s Holocaust memorial is tiny and located out of the city centre. Hrodna’s imposing Baroque Great Synagogue, which was looted by the Nazis in 1941, today sits forlornly overlooking a bend in the Neman River among general dereliction and graffitied walls of other abandoned buildings. Its rendering and plaster are slowly peeling off, windows are barred or boarded-up and one of the six-pointed stars from the rooftop has slumped into the guttering; a somnolent monument to one of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century. The cities may have been rebuilt, the rubble cleared, the landscape healed, the protagonists have died off and the children have forgotten, but this part of Europe will remain forever changed.
I drive south from Hrodna, roughly tracking the Polish border past sovkhozy (state-owned farms) still marked by red stars and hammer-and-sickle signs, then turn onto small roads through beautiful, primeval European forest. Near the village of Novy Dvor I see a herd of what look like cattle in an empty field to my left. Closer inspection however reveals that these are indeed a herd of about thirty wisent, or European bison, the largest wild mammals in Europe, which are slightly taller, though less hairy than their more famous American relatives. Wisent were actually hunted to extinction in the wild with the last populations surviving in these forests until 1919, becoming totally extinct in the wild in 1927. However, as part of one of the oldest programmes of captive breeding from zoo stock, the wisent has since been successfully introduced into a number of countries in the region, with Belarus having perhaps a thousand individuals. It’s a very pleasant surprise to see these magnificent animals in a part of the world hardly famed for ‘big game’ sightings.
Brest is the most westerly city in Belarus, lying just east of the Bug River which forms the Polish border. Here one finds the Brest Hero Fortress Complex, which after Volgograd’s Mamayev Kurgan is surely the most important of the memorials to the Soviet fight against the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War, the celebration and remembrance of which became practically a state religion in the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Polish-Soviet War in 1921 Brest had been part of Poland, until being annexed by Germany, then soon handed over to the Soviet Union as part of the secret terms of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In June 1941 the Nazis attacked Brest and its fortress in one of the first battles of Operation Barbarossa; the Fortress was held under siege for eight days, with the Red Army suffering terrible losses. For this the title ‘Hero Fortress’ was later conferred, as it was to the twelve ‘Hero Cities’ of the Soviet Union.
One enters the fortress through a stylised gate; a huge block of concrete with a star-shaped tunnel covering the walkway, through which one walks past murals and listens to a recording of the 1941 news broadcast announcing the surprise German invasion of the Soviet Union. One then proceeds down a walkway, passing the monument ‘Thirst’ which depicts an injured Soviet soldier crawling towards the river for water. In the central complex of the shrine is the hundred metre high obelisk of the Bayonet Memorial and its centrepiece; a huge, 33.5 metre-high mountain of a concrete Red Army soldier painted grey, sternly bearing down upon visitors. All around are mostly unrestored remains of the red-brick nineteenth century fortress, still pock-marked from the battle and partially derelict. The memorial has the classic Soviet monumentalist pathos, though one cannot help but feel a slight sense of irony given that many of the native population of this region which the Soviet Union only officially reacquired in 1945 would have been shipped into the Gulag system as Stalin’s monstrous paranoia worsened in his later years, seeing anyone who had previously lived under foreign rule as a threat and sending them off to a life of hard labour or premature death far from their homeland.
I find the modern city of Brest rather bland and uninteresting, perhaps a touch infected with consumerism from the West and so begin my journey east towards Russia. Not far from Brest I stop in the tranquil town of Kamyanyets with its famous thirteenth century red-brick tower, the only remaining frontier stronghold of the medieval Principality of Volhynia which is now mostly within the borders of modern Ukraine. It’s a pleasure to drive east on good roads, through a landscape completely devoid of snow; despite the grass being a dull and tired-looking yellow-brown, it’s a great pleasure to see the world without the blanket of snow which has covered it for the past four months.
In the afternoon I arrive in the small city of Pinsk, located where the Pina River meets the Pripyat, both tributaries of the Dnieper. Pinsk is delightfully provincial, a touch faded and rather trapped in time. Soviet mosaics can be found on many of the apartment buildings, and many of the shops still have colourful 1980s window livery and potted plants favoured in the late Soviet period. My host Andrei is a student of German and is extremely keen to show me his home city and introduce me to his friends and classmates. If Belarus has a tourist circuit, then Pinsk is definitely not on it, and I have the feeling of being a rare foreigner visitor, despite being in a city less than two hundred kilometres from the EU.
Pinsk however is an ancient city and its old centre is dominated by restored buildings, most strikingly the large, Baroque Jesuit Collegium and nearby Franciscan church and bell tower set overlooking the Pina. The ice on the Pina has recently thawed and the bare poplars on the far bank whose branches are speckled with green bunches of mistletoe, are reflected in the dark flowing water of the river which runs past the southern edge of town. Among the shop fronts in the streets of the centre are patches of unrestored whitewashed masonry still bearing old Latin-script names of Jewish and Polish businesses, survivors of the war and reminders of the combined efforts of the Nazis and Stalin in ethnically cleansing the region.
As much as I enjoy Pinsk and the genuine friendship I make with Andrei, I must continue my journey east towards the Russian border. Heading south from Pinsk I am immediately in the wild Pripyat Marshes, which lie around the Pripyat River as it flows east through Polesia in endless meanders. The marshes are one of the largest wetland areas of Europe and are conjectured to be the place from where the Slavs originate, as a tribe of shifting cultivators in the fifth century. The road east is a beautiful succession of thick, primeval woodland, mires and open marshland which has been drained in places for agriculture. I watch a couple on a horse cart taking a path parallel to the road and come across small, isolated villages in woodland clearings, places untouched by time which are easy to imagine as a Slavic homeland.
I stop in the small, sleepy town of Turau, seat of the medieval Principality of Turau (which once included Pinsk) and famous for its mythical stone crosses, one of which I find in a local graveyard, and another in a small church. The crosses, which look rather pagan in form, apparently floated upright up the Dnieper and then Pripyat Rivers from Kyiv following the forced baptism of the populace of Kievan Rus’ in the late tenth century. The crosses were allegedly thrown into the river in the 1930s to save them from destruction by the Soviet authorities, only to float to the surface some years later. Two were stored in the local church, while another, which was buried in a local cemetery has since allegedly emerged from the ground of its own accord, and is said to be continually growing in size.
I stop for a night in the city of Mazyr, attractively located on a hill overlooking the Pripyat River which is in flood, flowing through a beautiful landscape of birch and pine forest. Like Pinsk, Mazyr is something of a provincial backwater, but a very likeable city focussed on the Pripyat River where there is a wonderfully kitsch Soviet port building. In the city’s central square is a monument consisting of a single block of polished black granite carved into the number ‘1986’ in memory of the Chernobyl Disaster, when on the 26th April 1986 a fire and explosion at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what is now Ukraine caused a reactor meltdown and the release of large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. With the radioactive dust heading initially north, Mazyr was one of the first cities which the radiation reached.
East of Mazyr I leave the Pripyat River, which turns south towards Kyiv and drive to the edge of the Polesia State Radiation and Ecological Reserve, the Belarussian extension of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. With the dust cloud moving north, the Soviet Airforce was deployed to seed clouds and rain out radioactive particles over this sparsely populated area, resulting in the modern state of Belarus having received far more of the radioactive fallout than either Ukraine or Russia, with two highly radioactive hotspots in the country’s south east. Entry to the reserve, which seals off one of these hotspots is of course restricted, but I do wander into the village of Brahin on the reserve’s edge, where most houses are abandoned. There’s nothing to see of course; if anything the unmolested nature is more vital than elsewhere with an abundance of storks nests on top of the telegraph poles and the locals who I meet are warm and friendly souls.
In the evening I reach Homyel’, the second city of Belarus, which is located on the Sozh River, another tributary of the Dnieper. Homyel’ is architecturally elegant in places, with the striking Neoclassical Homyel’ Palace complex on the riverside and some nice pieces of Soviet architecture, but the city feels much like a provincial Russian city, and lacks the charm of, for instance, Hrodna or Pinsk. Altogether more charming is my Belarussian host Masha, born in 1986 shortly after the Chernobyl Disaster, whose mother works in the local nuclear institute.
On my second day in Homyel’ Masha and I, armed with a dose-meter borrowed from her mother, drive together north-east out of Homyel’, through Vetka to the centre of the second radiation hotspot in the country. Instead of a total exclusion zone, here the main road remains open, but the villages lining it have been evacuated, and in most cases destroyed to prevent anyone from returning, leaving just a few foundations, or a poignantly overgrown graveyard. In a few of the villages, such as Bartalameyowka which is identifiable only by its bus-stop on the main road, buildings still stand: crumbling concrete shells of apartments, clinics or administrative buildings where we defy the ban on entry and furtively park the truck to explore. Many of these villages were not evacuated until years after the accident and it is interesting to see just how localised the radiation is; in some areas levels are almost at natural background, while a few metres away doses may be several microsieverts per hour; less than having an X-ray and not a short-term exposure risk, but unsafe for continued inhabitation. Very little remains of the homes and lives which were once here. The devastation of the Chernobyl Disaster is one legacy of the Soviet Union which Belarus has no option but to preserve.
I’m deeply grateful to Masha for indulging my curiosity, especially given that she is a so-called ‘Child of Chernobyl’ and has lived with the effects of the disaster throughout her life. After a morning looking around Homyel’ alone, I drive north through beautiful dark, wintry pine forest to the city of Mahilyow. Here I’m hosted by Alex, who shares some photos and experiences of summer trips driving around Belarus in his Soviet Ural side-car. Mahilyow however has little of the charm of western Belarussian cities and feels heavily Russified, not surprising given how close it is to the border. In the morning I drive due north to the town of Orsha where I rejoin the M1 Highway and drive straight into Russia.
I’ve fallen in love somewhat with Belarus; perhaps for its engaging and worldly people, or for being so quaintly clean and orderly, perhaps for its well preserved Soviet architecture, or for the gently beautiful rolling landscape of forest, fields, rivers and marshes. Or perhaps it is just the sheer surprise at finding somewhere unexpectedly different, right against the borders of the EU.
Ordinarily, the frontier with the European Union marks the western boundary of my area of interest as a traveller. While the countries west of this line are generally more prosperous and stable than those to the east, their dull, over-regulated order, numerous tourists and high prices make them far from inspiring travel destinations to me. However, compelled by their former incorporation into the USSR, I decided to briefly pass through the three independent Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on my way to the rather intriguing Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. In the context of the Soviet Union these three countries seem insignificantly small, yet they were instrumental in its collapse, with all three regaining independence before the union was formally dissolved. Having been incorporated into the USSR only in 1940 as part of the secret terms of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, Soviet occupation here was brief (and never formally recognised by most Western governments) but has left the region with simmering demographic problems. Personally, while I would not find anything as compelling as the rugged wildness of Russia, the Baltic states made a pleasant break from the rigours of winter driving as I waited out the worst of the weather, waiting to head east once more through Belarus, the Urals and into Central Asia for the summer.
It’s the 28th December 2010 and I have just crossed the Russia – Estonia border and am in the city of Narva. Throughout history, Narva has been a trade and border post between various states and empires; Danish, Swedish, Russian and Estonian, and today remains one of the principal border crossings between the EU and Russia. The two empires even face off architecturally across the Narva River, with the originally Danish, thirteenth century Hermann Castle looking across to the somewhat larger Ivangorod Fortress in Russia, built by Tsar Ivan III in the fifteenth century.
I am unable to buy car insurance at the Estonian border, and here my problems begin. Being in the EU with an EU-registered vehicle, I may only purchase a policy issued in the country in which the vehicle is registered (i.e. the UK). However, in order to purchase a valid insurance policy for the truck, it must be in the UK at the time at which the policy is taken out. By exercising my right of freedom of movement, one of the founding principals of the EU, and the right which I most cherish as an individual, I am stuck in a dead-end; my circumstances do not fit in any of the pre-described tick-boxes or spreadsheets by which Western life must be organised, the computers cannot process me and I am in fact, by driving at all in Estonia, breaking the law. Fuck the EU.
I drive cautiously for a kilometre or so to the home of my host Alexander, an ethnic Russian whose parents moved to Estonia during the time that it was part of the USSR, and now finds himself in a country where he does not speak the local language, and has little wish to integrate into Estonian society. For Alexander, his EU passport allows him far greater travel opportunities than most Russians but nevertheless his cultural homeland is undoubtedly east of the Narva River. Alexander is quite typical of the generation of Russians who now live in the independent Baltic states, a demographic anomaly which raises politically sensitive questions of citizenship and equal rights.
On New Year’s Eve I take a bus to the capital, Tallinn, located on the Baltic coast just across from Helsinki in Finland, a country with whose population ethnic Estonians have both cultural and linguistic ties. I spend the evening in the company of my Estonian host Barbara and a number of other people from across Central Europe. It’s a very enjoyable New Year’s Eve, watching fireworks in the central square, then joining a house-party thrown by a member of the US Embassy in Tallinn, back in Western culture for the first time in more then three and a half years, but it simultaneously feels very odd indeed; I feel I have very little in common with people around me and my mind seems still to be somewhere in the wilderness of inner Asia.
Tallinn is a strikingly attractive city. Whilst Narva still has strong echoes of the USSR, feeling like a cleaner, more tranquil and less policed version of Russia, Tallinn is absolutely European and the attractive, tall and narrow buildings of the city with their steeply pitched roofs are beautiful pieces of Hanseatic architecture, quite reminiscent of northern Germany. Long known as Reval, Tallinn came under the influence of the Teutonic Knights during their Northern Crusades of the thirteenth century, and became the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League in 1285. Coming under (albeit rather loose) Russian influence early in the eighteenth century, Reval eventually became Tallinn in 1920 when Estonia was formally recognised as an independent country, something which would last just twenty years. It was in the Baltic capitals such as Tallinn that some of the most vehement protests emerged in the 1980s USSR, calling for the legalisation of national flags, recognition of national languages, non-communist leadership and ultimately full independence from Moscow. There are virtually no signs of the Soviet Period visible in central Tallinn and with its crowds of tourists and souvenir shops, it feels rather tame. After a couple of days of exploration, I’m ready to leave.
I take a bus south across the centre of the country to Viljandi, a neat and charming small town of multicoloured wooden houses on narrow streets filled with around a metre of snow. The elegant, cream-coloured Lutheran St. John’s Church, whose crisp and simple lines contrast with the extravagance of many of the Russian Orthodox Churches I have seen over the last few weeks, serves as another reminder of just how culturally different Estonia is from Russia, for here I am already in a traditionally Protestant area. Estonians are clearly not like many of the other non-Russian minorities of the USSR who have been assimilated to various degrees into the modern Russian State; this is a vibrant and clearly wholly independent nation both in culture and in language.
I’m hosted here by Silja, who works at the Viljandi Culture Academy which revives traditional Estonian music and theatre, earning Viljandi its reputation as the country’s cultural capital. It is with her brother however that I indulge in a more universally Nordic tradition; having a long session in their integrated bathroom-come-sauna, eventually getting very drunk and rolling around naked on the snow-filled balcony. Altogether this makes Viljandi a very pleasant and relaxing stop.
I take another bus, south again to the cross-border town of Valga, whose Latvian half is known as Valka. Here I board a train and slip into northern Latvia without anything more than a sign; I am back in the Schengen Zone whose borders have been dismantled; a great pleasure for someone who regularly spends hours crossing borders. Immediately I hear a difference in the language, with the distinctively long vowels of Latvian coming over the train’s announcement system. Latvian and Lithuanian are the only two surviving members of the Baltic languages, only very distantly related to Slavic languages and seemingly retaining elements of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language, though their precise evolution is unclear.
I get off the train in the town of Cēsis, described as ‘Latvia’s most Latvian Town’, which I have chosen over Riga as my one stop in the country. As I step out of the station building, I notice for the first time in roughly two months that outdoor temperatures are above zero, though the prospect of spring is still depressingly far off. Cēsis is an immediately likeable place however, located in the hilly Vidzeme Upland and noticeably less manicured than Viljandi, with a centre full of colourful, pleasingly faded (or decrepit) pre-Soviet buildings, and in fact the town bears no architectural trace of the hated occupation whatsoever.
While Tallinn seemed strongly Germanic, Cēsis has a more medieval Central European charm; a damp, brooding town of cats flitting into doorways and shabby courtyards glimpsed through street entrances. This atmosphere is enhanced by the Lutheran St. John the Baptist Church, a towering, buttressed thirteenth century basilica with a Gothic bell tower and spire which pierces the damp, grey clouds which hang over the town. Cēsis also has one of the Baltic region’s most impressive castles, dating back to the early thirteenth century and constructed by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, German warrior-monks who would eventually merge with the Teutonic Order and become the semi-autonomous Livonian Order, ruling what is now Latvia until the Polish-Lithuanian takeover in the sixteenth century.
I find Cēsis an atmospheric and charming place to visit, and it also feels very slightly more Slavic-influenced than Estonia, more Polish than Finnish. But I also find that people are a little cooler here than in Estonia, and far more so than in Russia; people seem to prefer to stay out of each others’ business, often looking away if one catches their gaze.
On my way south to Lithuania I need to spend a few hours waiting for a connection in Riga, which gives me ample time to reflect on the misery of using public transport. Riga’s bus station is as foul a place as I have found myself in for quite some time. It has the air of villany and seediness that such places have in Russia, though partly disguised with an (admirably) efficient cover which would be utterly out-of-place in Russia; clear information, internet access, no queues, helpful service, and no police. Still, this façade of decency somehow makes it all the more repellent. It’s full of pigeons, flapping up to ledges under the roof, males chasing females, presenting the ever-tantalising prospect of having one defacate on my head. Each dustbin has a sullen, puffy-faced tramp rifling through its contents which I can only imagine are far too meagre to support much of a drinking habit. Inside is the gentle smell of the unwashed; gaunt heroin-addicts patrol around looking for unattended bags; most of the non-vagrant / addict patrons of the waiting room (including myself) appear to be dressed from charity shops, and a good number have the pasty grey-yellow appearance of career alcoholics. Very few people here look like particularly decent individuals.
Perhaps this is normal for bus stations and not a reflection on Riga in particular, but it further embitters me towards the EU and the bureaucratic black-hole it has put me in. I take my scruffy self and my woven nylon bag (which I had to purchase in Narva to carry my belongings) into a shop and purchase a can of larger to further camouflage myself into the human environment.
It’s cold and damp when I arrive in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. In contrast to Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania has a long history as a major regional power (largely in union with Poland), and to an even greater extent than modern Poland, is today only a small scrap of its former self. In the thirteenth century, enduring raids and Christianisation by the Teutonic Knights and Livonian Order, the Grandy Duchy of Lithuania emerged in this region of the Baltic coast, spreading southwards into the eastern lands of the early Eastern Slavic state of Kievan Rus’ as it was fragmented by Monogl and Tatar attacks. Later, the Grand Duchy declared a union with the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, creating in the fifteenth century the largest state in Europe, covering modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and parts of Estonia, Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Moldova. This union persisted as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until the very end of he eighteenth century, when it was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Since this time, the history of Lithuania has very closesly followed that of the other two Baltic states.
Vilnius is a fairly attractive city, though it seems rather depressing; a city where nobody appears to smile, an aspect hardly improved by the grey weather which hangs endlessly above the entire region. It’s a grim fact that Lithuania has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, though social and economic problems are usually cited as the cause. As capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for more than 450 years, Vilnius has a centre whose scale and grandeur are slightly striking in a city with a population of little more than half a million. From the remains of the ancient castle complex which occupies a hill on the banks of the Neris River, one has a most impressive view of a sea of terracotta-tiled town buildings around Vilnius University, tree-lined avenues and grand plazas such as that in front of the Neoclassical Presidential Palace and Cathedral. What is also evident is the influence of Catholicism here, with the gaudy, candy-coloured Baroque façades of basilicas such as the Church of St. Catherine giving the city a splash of colour.
After Vilnius I spend a few weeks in Poland, firstly with Karolina (whom I had last seen in Kazakhstan in July) in Warsaw and then with Maciej (whom I had last seen in Mongolia in November) in Gdańsk. It is from Gdańsk on the 14th February that I take a bus east, crossing into the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad which makes up something of a fourth Baltic ‘state’, and a very intriguing little region of Russia.
Kaliningrad was long known by its German name of Königsberg and was founded in the thirteenth century by the Teutonic Order, becoming capital of its Lutheran successor state, the Grand Duchy of Prussia following the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Königsberg became a thriving, multi-ethnic port city and cultural hub, passing into the German Kingdom of Prussia, then the German Empire and into modern Germany. By the outbreak of World War II, save for a five-year occupation in the mid eighteenth century, Königsberg had no historic connection to Russia whatsoever. However, the city was something of a spoil of war granted to the Soviets at the Potsdam Conference, and was renamed in 1946 to Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, one of the most senior of the Bolshevik cadres who also had no connection to Königsberg. Following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the small region of Kaliningrad has found itself a tiny exclave of Russia, wedged inside the EU between NATO members Poland and Lithuania.
My first impression of Kaliningrad is of a standard Russian city with a few more European touches; there are fewer Soviet cars on the streets, for example and a better range of goods available in the supermarkets. Very soon however, I realise that Kaliningrad is actually a very unusual place indeed. The upheavals of the twentieth century are all too evident in modern Kaliningrad; visibly there is virtually nothing physically remaining of Königsberg, which was very comprehensively bombed by the British, during the Second World War. Even for a fan of Soviet Architecture, the modern cityscape of Kaliningrad is not easy on the eye; rows of peeling, pale-grey apartment buildings, broken pavements and the all too visible ‘House of Soviets’ an ugly pile of an unfinished administrative building which was recently painted ahead of a presidential visit. Some of Königsberg’s old gates have been rather carelessly restored, but there are only faint vestiges, in the occasional old apartment building or factory walls, of the old red-brick cityscape.
Certainly the most impressive building in the city is the very well restored Königsberg Cathedral, located on a lovely, tranquil island (formerly known as Kneiphof) in the Pregolya River. Kneiphof was once a central district of Königsberg, containing amongst its narrow streets the University of Königsberg where Immanuel Kant, one of the key figures of Western Philosophy and a native of the city, both studied and taught as a professor. Today only the red-brick Gothic cathedral remains, originating in the fourteenth century, left a bombed-out shell in 1945, only to be restored in the 1990s following Kaliningrad’s declassification as a closed city. Kant’s grave and mausoleum still remain, adjoining the cathedral.
Equally as striking as the physical aspect of the city are its demographics; any and all Germans unlucky enough to find themselves in the region at the end of the war were soon expelled from Soviet territory, and Kaliningrad repopulated with Soviet citizens. Since the fall of the USSR, Kaliningrad has been designated a Special Economic Zone and has become something of a manufacturing hub, encouraging further inward migration of Russians from further east. With its tragic history, fall from grace, devastated cityscape and glaring and absolute demographic change, Kaliningrad has a very deeply melancholic air.
I make a short trip west to the Baltic coast, to what was the westernmost settlement of the USSR, the port of Baltiysk, main base of the Russia Baltic Fleet. It’s a cold but sunny day and I enjoy a short walk along the coast which is covered thickly by large concrete tank traps, themselves partly coated in ice from sea-spray. Like many previously heavily militarised areas of the USSR, Baltiysk has clearly experienced a period of decline; rotting old watchtowers and rusting barbed wire attesting to the financial cutbacks in the Russian armed forces. Nevertheless, as Russia’s only true ice-free port on the Baltic, Baltiysk remains a vital strategic asset and the Baltic Fleet continue to occupy part of the town, including the crumbling, star-shaped seventeenth century Prussian Pillau Fortress which Napoleon stormed in 1807. Elsewhere in town I see old German houses, now owned and lived-in by Russians, giving Baltiysk the same odd, melancholic air as Kaliningrad. I can’t think of anywhere else I’ve been which has witnessed such a sharp demographic change.
I take a night bus out of Kaliningrad to Kaunas in Lithuania, then north to Tallinn and east to Narva where the truck has been parked. My plan to wait out the worst of the winter cold has backfired however and I catch a cold-snap in Narva, with temperatures dropping as low as -33ºC at night. Clear, sunny days of around -20ºC are not unpleasant, but are far from ideal for the car maintenance I need to carry out. The truck has been sitting outside for over seven weeks and is just a large pile of snow when I return and it takes a couple of hours of digging to clear the area around it. I then need to purchase a blow-torch from a hardware shop in order to melt the thick crust of ice and open the rear tailgate and load covers in order to extract my tools. I’m waiting for a shipment from the UK, which will contain a new radiator and new front springs, things which broke beyond repair during the months of rough driving in Mongolia last year, but this involves quite a few days of waiting.
During my days in Narva I come to rather like the place, which seems much like Russia but with a few civic improvements. I’m graciously hosted by Sergei, an ethnic Russian and I spend several days with him smoking and drinking great Estonian beer. On one very mellow afternoon we drive out with a friend of his to the nearby seaside town of Narva-Jõesuu. It’s a perfectly clear, bitingly cold day and the colours of the fresh sea ice and low, reddish sunlight, the crisp fresh air and the light crunching of my footsteps on the ice are especially vivid and memorable impressions.
I meet a number of Sergei’s friends in Narva, all Russian but in different social circumstances. Some, like Sergei hold Estonian passports and are happy integrate into the culture, speak the language and generally seem to be prosperous and worldly. There are also those who choose to take a Russian passport, speak only Russian and are far more like the Russians I know in Russia. There are also members of a third group who I meet; those with neither nationality, but with grey ‘Alien’s Passports’ of a stateless citizen. These are invariably ethnic Russians who do not qualify for naturalisation in Estonia (often due to a lack of language competency) and make up a little publicised human-rights issue in the EU (the situation is actually worse in Latvia which has a larger Russian minority), another demonstration of the demographic problems which the Baltic region has been left with.
Eventually the terrible cold relents somewhat, my parts arrive and I fit the radiator despite the still freezing conditions. I charge the truck’s two totally flat batteries and then fire it up after eight weeks of being in the freezer of winter Estonia. It catches first on two, three and then four cylinders, shooting out clouds of unburned diesel until the engine smoothens out. I say my farewells to the numerous people who have hosted and helped me in Narva and head back to the Russian border, relishing my exit from the EU and the end of my stint using public transport. There is a queue system in operation at the border and a toll for entering (the first on my trip) and after waiting my turn I proceed to the border compound. My passport is very carefully inspected for twenty minutes before I am allowed to proceed back into beloved Russia.
I clear Russian customs at around 02:30 and drive south through the night roughly parallel to the Estonian border, reaching the attractive city of Pskov early in the morning. The snow here is thinner than in Estonia and I have a (quite false) glimmer of hope that spring might be on its way. Beyond the city I join the only toll road I have ever encountered in Russia, which is icy, extremely rough in places and outrageously expensive, an unpleasant re-acquaintance with the traditional Russian fact that the legalised mafia which runs so many private industries have almost limitless potential to screw the common man. There are no immigration procedures at the Russia – Belarus border just beyond the village of Dolostsy and after a brief look inside the truck by a customs officer, I am waved through into Belarus.
On this six thousand kilometre journey from the rugged mountains of western Mongolia to the Baltic Sea, I would pass straight through the very heart of Russia: into the centre of southern Siberia, over the Ural Mountains, along the Volga and through the most ancient heartland of the country to cities dating from a time when Russia was a far, far smaller entity. The trip would consist of a harsh and at times terrifying drive over several weeks through the onset of the infamous Russian winter, interspersed with the warmth and good company of the Russian people whom I would meet and stay with. As I slowly made my way ever westward, I would at once be effectively travelling backwards in time through Russian history, but at the same time would begin to see something less welcome come across the country; namely the increasing influence of more western values of commerce and consumerism replacing the wildness and rugged beauty of the east. Nevertheless, this winter crossing of a considerable slice of Russia would provide me with a greater understanding of the country’s historical and cultural roots than perhaps any other.
It’s the 23rd November 2010 and late in the day on by the time I clear the Russian border post at Tashanta and make my way to the district capital of Kosh Agach. The temperature is around -20ºC and falling, and after having dinner and filling the truck up with fuel I decide to continue driving, descending the glorious, winding Chuya Highway. Despite icy conditions and darkness and in full knowledge of the stunning mountain scenery which lurks in the dark, I continue driving cautiously through the night without stopping and by dawn I am in the snow-covered but comparatively warm lowlands of Siberia, reaching the small city of Biysk by mid-morning. After weeks of travel in Mongolia, my sudden arrival into the familiarity of urban Russia is something of a culture-shock, though a positive one, for it marks an end to the fear of becoming stranded in the trackless, snow-covered wilderness of Mongolia.
Biysk is a pleasant backwater, an eighteenth century trading post typical of the small Siberian cities which found themselves off the Trans-Siberian mainline when it was completed at the turn of the twentieth century. Time here appears to have moved more slowly than in the dynamic cities on the rail and road-conduits to the north, and there are plenty of examples of Tsarist-era buildings; timeworn structures of decorative whitewashed brickwork or of pastel coloured wooden panelling. Some, such as the City Library appear to be on the verge of collapse, but the city manages to retain a fairly dignified air nevertheless.
After two nights in Biysk I move north towards Novosibirsk, en route encountering the dangerous driving conditions which would underscore my journey all the way to the Baltic. It is in this early winter season that Siberian weather may be particularly unstable as weather systems clash from both north and south, bringing wild swings in temperature. I briefly encounter a phenomenon known as freezing rain: supercooled droplets of liquid water which freeze immediately upon impacting a surface; within minutes my windscreen becomes a sheet of solid ice.
I stop in the city of Akademgorodok, a suburb of Novosibirsk, location of Novosibirsk State University and the educational and scientific capital of Siberia. Rather than being an intriguing, previously classified Soviet research centre as I had perhaps imagined, Akademgorodok is little more than a large university campus, but my hosts would make my stay extremely memorable. They are Ilyas, a Kazakh from Almaty; Ivan, a local of Novosibirsk and his girlfriend Sasha who comes from the Commander Islands, the last of the Aleutians and surely one of the most remote places in all of Russia, lying well off the eastern coast of Kamchatka.
I am invited into the spacious apartment of my three student hosts and am immediately treated to a tea ceremony by Ilyas. Taking its roots in the Taoist-influenced cultures of China and east-Asia, the tea ceremony is a ritualised preparation and presentation of tea designed to bring out the best flavour of green tea and although certainly not native to Russia or Siberia, there are undertones of the New Age spiritualism which has a nascent following in the post-Soviet world. My three hosts are in fact members of the Tea Club, a social club based somewhat around tea ceremonies, and I am very glad to be invited to one of their meetings in central Novosibirsk one evening. This takes place in a dedicated cultural venue, where I form one of my fondest memories of Russia and Russian people. A small circle of friends gather, mostly academics and artists, bringing musical instruments and relaxing on cushions in a large open room. Tea is made ceremoniously and music played; the atmosphere is totally unpretentious, welcoming and relaxed, and I am infused with a very natural feeling of heightened awareness, something I have hardly felt before. It’s more refined and wholesome than typical western social activities which almost always revolve around drinking alcohol, and a perfect antidote to the stereotypical views of Russians being invariably heavy drinkers. I imagine that most people in the room refrain from drinking alcohol altogether. The music is earthy, imperfect and soulful, played at a volume which does not stifle conversation, and occasional mistakes are laughed off or ignored. Performers are not trying to prove themselves or fit into any pre-described social movement; it is simple, joyful socialisation of a kind which I have only ever experienced in Russia.
I’m sad to have to leave my hosts in Akademgorodok, but I am constantly hurried by the impending depths of winter which could leave me stranded (due to diesel fuel waxing, leaving the truck unusable). I drive west through the night on the M51, the western part of the Trans-Siberian Highway which crosses the snow-covered clearings and patches of now bare birch forest of southern Siberia, to the city of Omsk. Omsk lies on the Irtysh River which here is almost frozen solid and is Siberia’s second city, once briefly acting as the capital of the Provisional All-Russian Government, a final attempt to counter Bolshevism in the chaos of the Russian Civil War. During the Second World War, Omsk (after Samara) was prepared to become the Russian capital in the event of a German occupation of Moscow. Despite these brushes with greatness, Omsk has long-lived in the shadow of Novosibirsk and remains a city of very modest attractions. Temperatures of -25ºC don’t deter some of the locals from drinking vodka at tables outside the market, but I prefer to wait for warmer temperatures, and foolishly set off at midnight, westwards towards Chelyabinsk.
A couple of hours into the journey, out in the endless Siberian plains as I am driving along a nearly empty road at perhaps sixty kilometres per hour, the rear of the truck suddenly slides gently to one side, then immediately pirouettes 180º. In the moments that I am travelling backwards I anticipate disaster, but I merely leave the road and sink with a gentle impact into a snow-drift a few metres below the elevated road surface, without any damage at all. Every car which subsequently passes offers assistance, another admirable trait of Russian people, and after little more than an hour a large truck finally arrives which has the power to pull me back up onto the road. No money is asked for; I am merely wished luck in my onward journey. At this point I realise that the sudden increase in temperature to just above freezing has made the road surface a polished ice-rink on which I can barely even stand still without sliding. My summer-rated tyres have almost no grip whatsoever on such a surface.
With great caution and the truck now engaged in four-wheel drive, I resume my journey. The road is rough in places, coated in ice pounded into washboard-like ruts by heavy trucks. Through the day the temperature drops which has the advantage of reducing the amount of dirty brown slush being thrown out by vehicles. I detour via Tyumen through beautiful pine forests, avoiding a section of the M51 which crosses what is now the northern tip of Kazakhstan, rejoining it in Kurgan after dark where I encounter and the very first ripples of the Urals and yet more treacherous driving conditions; the roads are regularly lined by wrecked lorries which have spun off into the thick Siberian snow. At around 01:00 I finally reach Chelyabinsk, at -26ºC. In my state of hyper-awareness following spinning-off the road, I have driven twenty hours non-stop, my personal endurance record.
I’m hosted in Chelyabinsk by the Mayarov Family in their large lakeside house. The Mayarov’s are a good example of ‘Old Money’ in modern Russia, living in a self-built house with a front door like a bank vault and a heated underground garage. The welcome is typically Russian however, with long meals in the family kitchen, great home cooked food and only a little vodka. Chelyabinsk is a large industrial city typical of the Ural region to which industry was evacuated and subsequently developed to counter the threat of a Nazi invasion of western Russia, and I spend five days in the city relaxing and making friends before continuing my journey west.
West of Chelyabinsk is the infamous M5 Highway which winds over the low ridges of the Urals into European Russia. The road is choked with lorry traffic and is a mess of brown salty snow and slush, creating endless visibility problems for me with my windscreen washer bottle having frozen solid weeks ago somewhere in Mongolia. The trip is however largely uneventful and I arrive without incident in Ufa, capital of the Bashkortostan Republic. I am hosted here by Alina and Milya, two beautiful, intelligent, English-speaking mixed Bashkir/Tatar sisters who live in the city with their mother. The Bashkirs and their neighbouring Tatars are the two dominant nations of a heterogeneous group of Kipchak nations, Turkic nomadic groups with both Caucasian and Mongoloid features who spread into the Ural and Volga regions in the 11th and 12th Centuries and subsequently became swept up in the Mongol and Turkic nations which made up the Golden Horde, led by Ögedei Khan, second son of Chnggis Khan, who invaded and conquered ancient Rus’ (the forebear of modern Russia) in 1237-40.
The Golden Horde subjugated Rus’ for almost 250 years, until a new generation of Russian tsars (ceasars) emerged following the breaking of the Tatar Yoke, with leaders such as Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) ruling over a new Russian Empire which began to reconquer lands inhabited by the various Kipchak groups. Despite merely extracting a tribute rather than being a fully occupying force, there was naturally a degree of inter-marriage between the occupiers and the natives of Rus’ and hence comes the expression ‘scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar’. Today the Tatars are, after Slavs, the largest ethnic group in Russia and are well-integrated into Russian society, as demonstrated by Ufa, the vibrant and dynamic capital of the Bashkirs. Here there is not the atmosphere of racial animosity one finds in parts of the Caucasus, instead there is a more genuine blending of Tatar and modern Russian identities. Such is the extent of assimilation however that, despite concessions to national identity such as the Lala Tulpan (flowering tulip) mosque, the third-largest in Russia, one wonders how long an independent Tatar identity will survive in the modern Russian state before facing total assimilation, perhaps the ultimate reversal of the haunting Tatar Yoke which remains, deeply, in the Russian people’s collective psyche.
From Ufa I drive south-west towards the Volga, to the city of Samara which sits on a long, looping bend of the river, on its left bank. In the late sixteenth century Samara was established as an eastern border post of the Russian Empire and in the Soviet period, renamed as Kuybyshev, became a major industrial centre for the manufacture of aircraft and firearms. Today, despite being the country’s sixth largest city, Samara retains a slightly faded charm and comes as a pleasing surprise in a country where many western cities have been architecturally marred by bland and inconsistent modern architecture. The old centre, which spreads down to the sandy beaches of the Volga has a slightly untouched feel with Tsarist-era wooden houses with elaborately carved window frames, often showing a distinct lean and once grand apartment buildings in pastel shades of yellow, pink and green, decorated with often crumbling stucco architraves and balconies. The streets are lumpy, with the asphalt pushing up between the tram lines, and there is a general air of classy neglect.
Samara’s riverside setting also lends it a slight air of port-city seediness, with a long embankment running above sandy beaches packed with sunbathers in summer, past occasional clumps of trees and a number of ferry terminals from where boats depart on pleasure cruises. Across the river are the low Zhiguli Mountains, occupying the inner radius of the Samara Bend, a large loop in the Volga once famous as the redoubt of pirates who would prey upon river traffic. These mountains give their name to the ubiquitous Zhiguli car made in nearby Tolyatti, as well as the Zhigulevskoye Beer which was universally famous in the USSR and was first made here by an Austrian in the red-brick riverside brewery, where locals queue to buy beer in large plastic bottles and can even take river cruises from a dedicated brewery-jetty. Now, in mid-December the river is still unfrozen but the beaches and ferry terminals are quiet and there is only a gorgeous, deep-red sunset behind the smokestacks of nearby Novokuybyshevsk to admire. Samara, lacking the flimsy ostentation of many of the country’s more westerly cities feels authentically Russian, an easy-going, unpolished worker’s city, and quite possibly my favourite in Russia.
After four days in Samara I continue west and then north one afternoon, cutting out a large dog-leg in the Volga and driving via Syzran, Saransk and Arzamas through the night to arrive in Russia’s fifth-largest city, Nizhny Novgorod, one morning. Lying at the confluence of the Volga and Oka Rivers, Nizhny (Lower) Novgorod was newly-founded at the time of the Mongol invasion, and like Moscow and Tver manage to avoid destruction on account of its insignificance. As the medieval state of Rus’ slowly detached itself from the economically draining Tatar Yoke throughout the fifteenth century, Nizhny Novgorod served as a bulwark in the Russian expansion into the Khanate of Kazan, one of the successor-states of the Golden Horde. Later, in the crisis and chaos which followed the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 with no real successor (he had murdered his only intellectually-able son in a fit of rage) known in Russia as the Time of Troubles, it was from Nizhny Novgorod that Minin and Pozharsky rode to remove the Polish from Moscow, restoring the dignity of the nation once again and ultimately establish the Romanov Dynasty, which lead Russia until the Bolshvik takeover in 1917.
At the centre of Nizhny Novgorod, as in many Russian cities, lies a kremlin (fortress), here one of the country’s oldest; a bulky, red-brick sixteenth century structure which seems to convey well the medieval power of the emerging state of Russia, and still houses the city administration. From the kremlin there are pleasant views over the Oka to the heavily industrialised right bank where during Soviet times, when the city was known as Gorky, the presence of military research and production facilities caused the city to be closed to outsiders. Outside the kremlin however, the city is thoroughly modernised and while by no means unpleasant, it lacks the antiquated charm of Samara.
It’s under 250 kilometres west from Nizhny Novgorod to the city of Vladimir, which marks my entry into the ancient heartland of medieval Russia, an area now known as the ‘Golden Ring’, and more traditionally as Zalesye (‘beyond the forest’) in Russian. Here lie the cities of the ancient principalities of Rus’, which defined the protoypal Russian state between the times of the earliest waves of Slavic migration from Kiev until the Mongol invasion. Vladimir is one of Russia’s oldest cities and together with the nearby town of Suzdal made up the Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, one of the successor states to Kievan Rus’ and the forerunner of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, from which the modern Russian state was born. Vladimir is an unusually beautiful city set on a number of hills, separated by bare deciduous forest now dusted with fresh snow.
From this white landscape rise the famous White Monuments of Vladimir; the spectacular Dormition Cathedral with its golden domes so typical of Russian Orthodox architecture and the nearby Cathedral of St Demetrius, both masterpieces of the twelfth century, carved in fine white stone. St Demetrius is particularly eye-catching; a restrained, single-domed cross-Church with the simple, neat proportions and hemispherical dome heavily borrowed from the Byzantine Church architecture which apparently so awed the first Slavic envoys to Constantinople in the ninth century. The walls of St Demetrius are covered in beautiful stone carvings of saints performing miracles and of mythical animals, whose survival through the Mongol invasion, subsequently tumultuous history of Imperial Russia, and often callous destruction of the Soviets is most surprising. The cathedral is almost certainly the most beautiful building I have seen in Russia and must rank with the finest masterpieces of Armenia as one of the world’s finest pieces of Christian architecture.
I make a day-trip from Vladimir to the small nearby town of Suzdal which was part of various principalities during the early stages of Russian history, eventually joining the Grand Duchy of Muscovy (like nearby Vladimir) in the fourteenth century. Suzdal subsequently became something of a religious centre and remains packed with churches, cathedrals and monasteries, mostly from the eighteenth century and notable more for their sheer number and diversity of form and styles than for the beauty of any particular example; certainly there is nothing to compare to the cathedrals of Vladimir. It’s also something a tourist trap, quite unusual in a country where domestic tourism is rather under-developed, and foreign tourism hardly encouraged. Nevertheless on a cold weekday the number of tourists is modest and it’s very enjoyable to walk through the surrounding countryside, taking in the myriad examples of Russian religious architecture.
From Vladimir I continue west until I just enter Moscow Region, stopping in the town of Sergiev Posad which lies just off the outermost of Moscow’s five concentric orbital roads. Sergiev Posad (posad referring to a usually fortified settlement attached to a kremlin or monastery) is famous for the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, today the most important Russian monastery and home of the Russian Orthodox Church. Built initially in the fourteenth century, then rebuilt during the fifteenth century following destruction in a Tatar raid, the lavra (a type of monastery complex) was patronised by Ivan the Terrible who heavily fortified it in the sixteenth century as part of the defences of Moscow. The grounds of the lavra throng with pilgrims and visitors who come to see the relics of St. Sergius of Radonezh, the ancient painted icons and take away bottles of holy water. Architecturally it is an impressive fortified complex, marked by its soaring baroque bell-tower and the iconic blue onion domes, painted with golden stars, of the Assumption Cathedral. This gaudiness combined with the fervour of the pilgrims seems to have as much in common with the dazzling, colourful faïence and ritualistic shrine-worshipping of the Islamic cultures of the east, as it does with the grey and restrained Protestant rite of much of Western Europe. After years of Soviet repression, the Russian Orthodox Church has made a considerable comeback, with its higher members closely linked to the Russian government and priests all-too-often mimicking the new Russian business-class, conveying themselves in black SUVs with blacked-out windows.
Not wishing to get any closer to Moscow I make my way anti-clockwise around the city, through Dmitrov and Klin (where Tchaikovsky spent his final years) on terrible roads lined with spun-off vehicles, onto the M10 Highway which links Moscow to Saint Petersburg. I stop for the night in the city of Tver, another once powerful principality in Medieval Russia, only to be eclipsed in importance by Moscow like Nizhniy Novgorod or Vladimir. The Soviet period robbed Tver of the last of its remaining ancient monuments, though the distinctly faded travelling palace of Catherine the Great remains, harking back to a time in Imperial Russia when Tver was a rest-stop on the road between the two great cities. Tver is also the final city on my route which lies on the Volga, whose source is around 150 kilometres away to the west. Here the Volga, already almost two hundred metres across, has frozen solid, allowing me to walk across the surface of Europe’s largest river, just a week after leaving Samara where it was still completely open.
Beyond Tver I continue on the M10, covered in snow and packed with impatient lorries whose drivers take particular exception to my self-imposed speed limit of fifty kilometres per hour. One flings a plastic bottle at me as he passes, another sounds his horn angrily while overtaking, though I see him crashed head-first into the forest soon after. This endless carnage of twisted wreckage, the long hours of intense concentration and the constant proximity to disaster are starting to show on my nerves, and driving becomes rather wearisome. In one small town a policeman stops me and holds out his radar-gun, showing a reading of eighty-one kilometres per hour. My incredulous laughter seems to immediately dampen his hopes of a pay-off, and I continue my fifty kilometre per hour journey north.
My destination is the city of Veliky Novgorod, the most historic city in Russia proper. It was in this region that Russian civilisation began; where the earliest Eastern Slavic state emerged from an area populated by tribes of Slavic and Finnic / Uralic people. While the precise events of the Russian foundation myth are lost in semi-legendary and sometimes controversial histories, the balance of evidence suggests that a ruling class of Varangian (Viking) origin established the earliest settlements of Rus’, lead by a cheiftan known as Rurik who quickly assimilated the customs and language of the native Eastern Slavs, and whose successor Oleg of Novgorod went on to found Kievan Rus’, the cultural foundation-stone of modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The original settlement in the region was known as Holmgard, which was superseded by nearby Novgorod, thus explaining why the name of Russia’s oldest city ironically means ‘New City’. In 1136, when Kievan Rus’ was in decline, the city-state known as the Novgorod Republic was established, stretching from modern-day Estonia to the Urals and constituting one of medieval Europe’s largest states. Novgorod also survived the Mongols, but would eventually lose its power when absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in 1478 by Ivan III, forever to live in Moscow’s shadow.
Novgorod is a beautiful city, in some ways one of the nicest in Russia, filled with ancient monuments to attest to its long history. Particularly striking is the central Kremlin dating from the late fifteenth century and very finely executed in red brick, my favourite kremlin in the country. Within the Kremlin is the Cathedral of St. Sophia, burial place of Yaroslav the Wise, a leader of the principalities of both Novgorod and Kievan Rus’ dating from the mid-eleventh century, making it the oldest Russian Orthodox Church in the country. Also within the kremlin are Russia’s oldest palace, bell-tower and clock tower, and a huge bronze sculpture dating from 1862 and known as the ‘Millenium of Russia’, which glorifies a thousand years of Russian history. Opposite the kremlin, beyond its moat and a small forested park is the city’s modern central square and a huge, imposing Soviet regional administration building, adding an example of Soviet gigantism to the catalogue of Russian architectural styles.
Despite all its historical appeal, it is in Novgorod that I start to feel in earnest the insidious approach of Western Europe, with dull, imposed order replacing the natural spontaneity and disorder of life, over-manicured spaces taking the place of the endless wilderness intrinsic to much of Russia. The buildings have been restored to perfection and there is a touch of soullessness which rather negates what could be a highly atmospheric city.
My next and final destination in Russia is perhaps the country’s most celebrated city, the physical embodiment of Russia’s western, European face. The unsettled period of Russian history known as the ‘Time of Troubles’ ended with the establishment of the Romanov Empire in 1616, a dynasty who would rule the country for 301 years, transforming it into a vast empire even larger than today’s Russia, building the Russian economy with the introduction of serfdom which bound the previously wandering peasants to their landowners for life, thus greatly increasing agricultural output. Perhaps the most important scion of the Romanovs, and one of the few uncontroversially great rulers in Russian history was Peter the Great, a driven and ambitious young king who was captivated by the West and by the people and ideas of the Enlightenment. Peter was particularly obsessed by shipbuilding and the idea of naval power, and devoted immense resources to the establishment of year-round ports on the Black Sea and the Baltic. Employing the kind of ruthless militarism which permeates Russian history, Peter seized a swathe of the Baltic Coast from Sweden during the Great Northern War and built his own capital from scratch: Saint Petersburg.
Saint Petersburg, Russia’s so-called ‘window to the west’ is unique among Russian cities; an elegant and harmonious imperial capital poised on the Baltic and looking outwards towards the wider world. Peter the Great was the first monarch to leave Russia, and true to Russian style, his extravagant capital was built to be larger and grander than anything in Western Europe, including Versailles. The city would become synonymous with the Romanovs, and only lost its status as capital in 1917 when Lenin returned from exile in Finland and led the Red Guards in the October Revolution, soon having the entire Romanov family murdered, and moving the capital back to Moscow. Nevertheless, Saint Petersburg remains in many ways Russia’s cultural capital and is a far more appealing city than the dismal sprawl of Moscow.
As I drive into Saint Petersburg late in the evening, a city different from any other in Russia emerges with tall, long avenues of Baroque buildings instead of the standard Soviet apartment blocks, built in long, continuous rows set aside wide, gently curving roads and elegant canals. Immediately I feel a slight atmosphere of iniquity, a touch of fallen empire, a city with plenty of character. My hosts Alexei and Ksenya live in the very heart of Saint Petersburg, alongside Griboyedova Canal, very close to the location of the old woman’s house in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. From the exterior, the apartment building is a fine example of faded grandeur, damp-looking and raffishly unkempt, but the interior is comfortable and modern with high ceilings and in all likelihood better build-quality than the elsewhere ubiquitous Soviet apartment buildings. Alexei and I step out into the street together the next morning; him cursing the the mayor for not clearing the knee-high mounds of filthy snow from the streets, and me cursing the appalling cold. Despite being just -11ºC, the damp air from the Baltic is truly numbing and feels far colder than -25ºC in dry, continental Siberia.
With only a few days to spend in the city I limit myself to an overview of the centre; passing the imposing Baroque Vorontsov Palace, now the Museum of Russia; onto Nevsky Prospect, named after Alexander Nevsky, a Grand Prince (later saint) of ancient Rus'; looking down the far end of Griboyedova Canal to the slightly gaudy Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, named for and built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Turning north I cross the Neva River, looking back to a magnificent view across a frigid expanse of wind-sculpted snow and ice to the vast Winter Palace and Hermitage, seat of the Romanov Tsars and Tsarinas. The damp, bitterly cold wind makes the waterfront almost unbearable and together with the short, dark days where the sun hardly seems to climb above the rooftops, I decide that Saint Petersburg would better be visited one summer in the future, and I am soon ready to leave.
I leave Alexei and Ksenya one morning, ready to drive the very final stretch of my trip across Russia to the Estonian border. Shortly after starting however, in the middle of rush-hour traffic, the truck starts to splutter and lose power as if it is running out of fuel, then finally comes to a halt. In over 120,000 kilometres of often rough travel during the last three and a half years, this is the first time it has ever stopped. After trying in vain to locate the problem, I tie a rope to the front of the truck and wave it at passing traffic. Within minutes a van driver stops, tows me several kilometres across the city, helps me get the truck off the road and then refuses even the suggestion of payment. Saint Petersburg may be an outwardly Western city, but this single experience demonstrates that here, the spirit of the Russian people which so sets them apart from Westerners is clearly still present.
Despite having my faith in humanity confirmed, I am still left with the prospect of an immobile truck, and after a little more diagnosis, some beer-drinking and a little anxious thought, I suspect that my fuel has started to gel and has blocked the strainer in the fuel tank. My solution is Russian; to burn Alexei’s petrol stove under the fuel tank in order to melt the wax. It is whilst watching the roaring stove under the tank that I notice the real cause of my breakdown; a long, aftermarket copper brake pipe which has been poorly fitted by a previous owner has somehow fouled on the rubber fuel hose and starved the engine of fuel. I straighten the kink and am utterly delighted when the truck fires straight back to life.
Two days later than intended I leave Russia’s second city and drive the final 160 kilometres to Ivangorod, a Russian fortress established in the late-fifteenth century by Ivan III which has at times been part of Sweden and later Estonia. Across the Narva River is modern-Estonia and a beast perhaps more daunting than the Russian Winter: The European Union.
It’s the 10th October 2010 and I have just crossed the remote border crossing from Russia into Mongolia at Ereentsav, immediately followed by Finns Toni and Marjo in their ancient green Lada Niva. We face no problems in initially entering Mongolia at this crossing, despite the quarantine measures in response to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak still being in effect here in Dornod Province, the easternmost of Mongolia. However, due to the Mongolian consul in Ulan-Ude having misspelled my middle name on my visa, the Mongolian immigration officer initially refuses me entry, and it takes some patience and persistence to convey to him that I am not making a 2250 kilometre round trip journey due to someone else’s incompetence. We are delayed even further by the customs office who upon learning of the Finns’ intention to sell the Niva in Mongolia, spend so long calculating import duty that by closing time the car is still not cleared into the country and has to stay at the border, with the three of us staying in the house of the customs officer a few hundred metres from the border, which turns out to be quite a pleasant and relaxing evening. The following day, upon hearing of an exorbitant import duty amounting to more than the car is worth, Toni abandons his aim to sell the it in Mongolia and begins to plan a return journey through Russia, allowing us to begin our journey.
We only get two kilometres along the track to the sum (district) centre of Chuluunkhoroot, nothing more then a few buildings from a former collective farm, before our progress is halted again, this time because of the quarantine. We spend several hours obtaining special quarantine permits to allow us to proceed south, and it’s early afternoon before we leave. The route should be a simple straight-line following the old railway line built during the Second World War to facilitate the war with Japan, but we take a diversion due to quarantine measures which significantly slows our progress (and during which another leaf breaks on the front right spring). In the late afternoon we stop and camp by the limpid waters of Khokh Lake, the lowest point in Mongolia, watching a pink sunset sky falling over the very gentle undulations of the steppe towards the Chinese border to the east. Without any shelter or a roaring fire the night is long and cold, immediately making us miss the thick, cosy forests of Siberia.
Moving south from the lake, we parallel the railway line through magnificent rolling grasslands known as the Dornod Mongol Steppe, which is subtly different from any other landscape I have seen in Mongolia, and forms one of the very few intact grassland ecosystems in Asia. We pass a small abandoned village on the railway, a few concrete skeletons in which at least one family is squatting, then continue into the pristine wilderness, a sea of waving dry grass under deep-blue skies. As we make our slow progress south through the grassland, we startle several herds of wild Mongolian gazelle up to around one-hundred strong, whose white haunches flash against the brown steppe as they race past us and turn towards the north. This magnificent sight, perhaps unique in modern Eurasia, is of the largest ungulate herds in the continent; an unexpected experience that can perhaps only be rivalled in Africa. More encouraging still is that despite local poaching of gazelle, the population here in Mongolia (as opposed to that in China) is thriving in this sparsely populated area.
In the early-afternoon we come to a couple of gers (yurts) set-up by the roadside; not as a home for local herders, but as a disinfection station. What follows is another bizarre and unique Mongolian experience. A large tent has been set up and covered in plastic sheeting, which is used as a fumigation chamber for vehicles. We park the cars inside the chamber which is sealed and then filled with an unknown agent. After they are deemed to have been sufficiently gassed, we are handed gas-masks which we don in order to retrieve our vehicles, an act which has us all in fits of laughter, and is conducted in good spirits by the officers of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. A few hours later we reach the northern edge of the city of Choibalsan where we are hosted by Trinh, a Peace Corps Volunteer who very kindly lets the three of us invade his small apartment.
Choibalsan, the capital of Dornod Province and the fourth largest city in Mongolia, is named after Khorloogiin Choibalsan, an illegitimate son of a herder who was born nearby, and came to be the only autocratic ruler in modern Mongolian history. Choibalsan was nicknamed the ‘Stalin of Mongolia’, for his ruthless purges of the Buddhist clergy, intelligentsia and dissidents on the orders of Stalin, and was responsible for making Mongolia the first satellite state of the USSR. Like its namesake, Choibalsan the city has a strong Soviet influence, having become the economic centre of eastern Mongolia in the twentieth century. Today the city hosts plenty of crumbling and rusting industrial areas and has certainly seen better days, but the centre is remarkably pleasant and vibrant. Through Trinh, we meet many of the city’s Peace Corps and VSO volunteers and spend days drinking heavily and gorging ourselves on Chinese food; I am particularly gluttonous in the knowledge of the weeks of eating mutton which are likely to follow.
We visit the lively bazaar, where we meet a few rogues; life-long drinkers who seem to have degenerated to a state of dementia from drinking toxic substances; toothless, red-skinned and having seemingly lost the ability to even speak, they beg and sleep among piles of rubbish like stray dogs. Amidst such squalor I tend to a couple of pressing maintenance issues on the truck; three leaves have now broken on the left-hand front spring, and while no suitable spares are available, I manage to jury-rig a couple of leaves from a Korean light-truck, and have the crack in the mother-leaf welded to make a very satisfactory repair. Far less successful is a ‘repair’ attempted on my radiator by a local which if anything makes the leak (which has been intermittent since the start of the journey) worse.
On the morning we wish to depart, we must join a scrum of people outside the Ministry of Emergency Situations (near the displeasing sight of a new Mormon Temple) to obtain yet more quarantine permits, and it is not until late afternoon that we finally head out of town on the track across the steppe to the west. We follow the Kherlen River, the farthest tributary of the Amur, here almost five thousand kilometres upstream from the point where it enters the Pacific. Just before dark, with the Finns trailing behind I reach the ruins known as Kherlen Bars which are little more than the remains of a twelfth century Buddhist stupa; a rare ancient structure in Mongolia, and one of very few traces of the Kara-Khitan Khanate. The Kitans were the last of Mongolia’s pre-Mongol states, known as the Liao Dynasty in China, the remnants of which set-up the Kara-Khitan Khanate, a Central Asian state which lasted less than a century before being overrun by the Mongols. The stupa at Kherlen Bars is indeed the first and only structure I see in Mongolia which pre-dates the eighteenth century.
Well after dark we stop in the sum centre of Bayan-Ovoo and have dinner, then continue along the Kherlen, leaving it finally in Öndörkhaan where Jacob and I had split ways last month. Here we reach blessed asphalt and drive on into the night, though we separate and upon entering a cold Ulaanbaatar the next morning I receive a message that the Niva has had a small breakdown during the night, but that the Finns will arrive in the evening. We spend a somewhat debauched six days in Ulaanbaatar, during which time I come to like the city even less, particularly at the point when I am pickpocketed (for the first time in my life) by a group of feral-looking men in the notorious ‘Black Market’. I am however delighted when Maciej, whom I travelled with for more than two weeks in Iran in 2009, flies in and joins us (also bringing my -40ºC sleeping bag and winter parka). Resisting alcoholic dissipation, the four of us leave one morning, ready to cross the Northern Route towards Ölgii in the far west of the country.
Leaving the city’s western outskirts we head north on the road to Russia, turning west just before Darkhan and camping near the sum centre of Khutul. The night is cold, below freezing and we are of course out in the open, drinking vodka ostensibly to keep warm. I get to try out my cold weather gear and am pleased to find that despite being well below zero, I am still too warm in my sleeping bag, lying out in the open on a thin mattress without a tent.
In the morning we reach the historical Orkhon River, flowing north from the traditional heartland of the country. We join the Orkhon briefly and head north, leaving the asphalt and then turning north-west away from the river, reaching the isolated Amarbayasgalant Monastery which sits in a wide grassy valley dotted with patches of recent snow and backed by bare hills. Amarbayasgalant is one of just three major monasteries to have (partially) survived Stalin’s purges, with 28 of 40 temples surviving. Whilst lacking the significant location of Erdene Zuu in Kharkhorin or the vibrance of Gandantegchinlen in Ulaanbaatar, eighteenth century Amarbayasgalant has a genuine feeling of age (even slight neglect) and a graceful harmony of architecture which sets it apart. We enter the walled compound, walking among the light crimson Manchu-style temples with glazed terracotta tiled pagoda roofs and intricately carves beams and lattice panel doors. Visibly we are alone at the monastery, but from within one of the temples in the west of the complex we hear the rueful chanting of monks reciting the centuries-old mantras of the Mahayana rite of Buddhism, continuing an ancient tradition which was very nearly wiped out by Stalin with his ruthless murder and incarceration of the clergy.
Returning to the highway we continue west to Erdenet, Mongolia’s second largest city, built in 1974 to exploit the nearby deposits of copper ore and contributing a significant proportion to the country’s export earnings. Just an hour beyond Erdenet, continuing on smooth new asphalt we reach the town of Bulgan, capital of the province of the same name. Here we stay for three nights with another Peace Corps volunteer, Eric, from Wisconsin. Despite Eric’s wit and erudite conversation, we fall back into drinking and general debauchery, and the days and nights pass with just snapshots of vodka drinking, a karaoke bar, and an odd encounter with an openly (in fact optimistically) bisexual Mongol. We do manage to make one fairly lucid excursion, twenty kilometres south of Bulgan and back to the Orkhon River, to a group of Deer Stones (megaliths carved with stylised reindeer) in a landscape of grassy hills which must have been grazed for millennia by successive nomadic civilisations. It’s a beautiful spot and reminds me of the wilderness of ‘true’ Mongolia which we are about to enter, away from the asphalt roads and cities. Winter is impending and it is with a slight sense of foreboding that I imagine our journey east over the plains and highlands of the north.
The following day our journey into the wild begins, leaving a freezing Bulgan and returning to the dirt tracks which weave their way across the entire country. We move west and then north through a brown landscape of dry grassy hills with drifts of snow and patches of golden-brown larch trees, joining the Selenge River late in the morning and then crossing into the province of Khövsgöl, the most northerly in Mongolia. We see small wooden huts on the landscape alongside the ubiquitous white gers, and there are unexpected patches of wheat cultivation on the plains, now with only stubble remaining on which flocks of sheep are being grazed by shepherds on horseback. We spend a cold night camping near the sum centre of Tarialan, climbing the following day through barren mountains and dropping down to the provincial capital of Mörön for lunch, then continuing north to the sum centre of Khatgal where we reach the small wooden house of our Peace Corps host Patrick well after dark.
Khatgal is a small lakeside settlement with some attractive wooden houses, located at the southern tip of Lake Khövsgöl, the so-called ‘Little Sister of Baikal’ which is also one of the world’s oldest lakes and reputedly the cleanest with ultra-clear, unpolluted water. We make a short walk up into the hills of bare larch trees near town which offer spectacular views across the sapphire-blue water towards a snow-peak to the north. This region of Mongolia is renowned for its shamanistic traditions and in the forest we see signs of this; an old horse’s skull hung on a tree, and votive prayer flags wrapped around a tall, solitary larch in a small forest clearing. We drop down a snow-covered hillside to the lake shore where boats are moored around a small jetty awaiting the thick winter ice which in previous years has pushed a few of them almost completely onto the spongy lake-side grass, which is dotted with bleached tree stumps washed ashore over the years.
Returning to Patrick’s house the drinking starts once more and the evening is lost in a blur of beer, vodka and peach-flavoured ice tea, leading to a rather hideous awakening in the morning. Despite this melancholy we manage to make it out and drive around the southern shore of the lake on a snowy and very rough track through the hills, reaching a patch of wintry forest on the far side of an inlet. We set-up camp and walk amongst the bare larch trees which grow amongst broken, lichen-covered granite boulders, looking over the steely-blue lake to the snowcaps on the far shore. It’s an austerely beautiful spot, utterly still, quiet and with no trace of other human presence. After dark however, the forest is full of night-terrors; Maciej lays awake in his sleeping bag wet with sweat and I, further away from camp in my sleeping bag on the forest floor, am gripped by terror each time I close my eyes, at one point forcibly holding them open to prevent myself from falling asleep and being dragged into the dark depths of the forest in my sleep.
The morning is cold and grey with clouds arriving from the northwest, and we spend the day uneventfully retracing our steps to first Khatgal and then Mörön where we have dinner and a shower, then continue west out of town after dark to camp out in the open near the Delgermörön River. This is our coldest night so far at -12ºC, and sleeping out in the open in my sleeping bag, I awaken with ice in my facial hair. We drive west out of the Delgermörön Valley, climbing from the sum centre of Bürentogtokh over a 1650 metre pass, on top of which is a large ovoo (shamanistic cairn of votive stones) whose prayer rags are thrashing in a bitter westerly wind. On the far side of the pass, we descend and then climb steadily to almost two-thousand metres, soon reaching what looks almost like a different world; a vast and empty plain covered in fresh, blindingly-white snow. A few vehicles have recently passed and we follow their tracks, but in places the wind has already scoured away the snow from the surface and obscured them, leaving us with the menacing prospect of being lost in this featureless white desert. Thankfully however there are telegraph lines which we follow, once blindly plunging into a dry, snow-filled gulley, but eventually reaching the sum centre of Tsagaan-Uul. The Finns arrive after some delay, reporting difficulties in climbing the pass in their ailing Niva, now reduced to rear-wheel drive only.
After eating a good lunch and finding fuel for the Niva, we leave Tsagaan-Uul and re-enter the wilderness. The Northern Route, one of Mongolia’s principal east-west roads is here at best an ill-defined set of tracks, but with the fresh snow cover it is almost impossible to find our way and inevitably we become lost. I drive up a small ridge and stop to sight a distant track; after waiting quite some time, and with the Finns approaching in the Niva and the sun getting lower, I make the mistake of pressing on before they have reached our position, anxious to find the main track before dark. It would be the last time we saw the Niva, or the Finns.
As Maciej and I drive over the snowy highlands and the sun sets, a brooding pink fills the sky, and in the last light of day we see the storm coming straight for us; an indistinct grey blizzard of snow. We push on, now well off-course to reach the next sum centre of Tsetserleg, but with little choice but to follow the single track. We cross a small wooden bridge, heading south-west and eventually coming to a small mine where we get some directions. We push on a few kilometres hoping to find a track to take us back on course and even finding a lone ger at the edge of some low mountains, in a spot called Mogoyngol. We get some vague directions from the occupant who is more than surprised to have two foreigners appear in a car out of the darkness, but I rashly choose to try to reach Tsetserleg rather than accept his instantaneous invitation to spend the night in the ger. Within minutes we are mired in the snow and disoriented, but manage to retrace our path to the ger using the GPS and belatedly accept hospitality.
Inside the ger is a world removed from the bitter cold and snow of the huge landscape which surrounds it. Whilst we have been battling with the most extreme conditions we have ever encountered, our hosts, a young Mongolian man and his rather attractive wife, are perfectly at ease in their native environment. The ger, perfectly honed to its function over many centuries (and basically unchanged from the time of Chinggis Khan) is fantastically warm inside and totally insulated from the howling winds, heated by a stove fuelled by animal dung to the point where our (male) host happily sits bare-chested. We experience a kind of raw hospitality driven more by necessity and the harshness of the environment than by politeness or etiquette; we are accepted in without a moment’s discussion, fed and given a place to sleep in the male section of the ger, on the left as one enters from the front door.
In the morning we emerge into a world of ice; the temperature is somewhat below -20ºC though the sky is clear and the sun pleasantly warming. Large crystals of rime have grown on exposed objects such as the nearby hitching post or the front of the truck, which splutters into life, running roughly on fuel which I worry has started to thicken due to the cold. After breakfast we thank our hosts profusely, leaving them a bag of groceries and heading north through the mountains on a path which we can barely recognise now, and would have been impossible in the dark. After a couple of rather tense hours we are relieved to drop down into Tsetserleg, but there is no sign of the Finns. We send them a message but receiving no immediate answer, decide to continue west through a vast, two-toned landscape of white snow and deep blue sky.
We follow the track west through a frozen world; trees are not just covered in snow, but beautifully coated with ice, forming into bare, white skeletons. Horses graze, shifting the snow with their muzzles, and the landscape seems more beautiful and less hostile, so long as we have tracks to follow. Shortly after noon we come across a marvellous, timeless sight; a man leading a train of four Bactrian camels loaded with the components of a ger, totally unfazed by the trackless, snowy wastes around us. Here the Mongols are really in their element, away from the squalor and materialistic trappings of the cities, strong, vital and confident. Here I start to see the kind of endurance and resilience which must have driven these people ever west and south in the thirteenth century to form the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever seen.
Near this point, and despite asking directions, we seem to get tracked off-course, somehow losing the main track and continuing through mountains as we cross into Zavkhan Province, following what eventually becomes just a single set of tyre-tracks. We begin to worry about fuel; too long a detour, or having to backtrack could see us close to running out. Happily, the tracks eventually lead to a group of gers on a snowy hillside belonging to a very friendly extended family who have just moved to their winter home (though quite what possesses them to chose a bleak hillside in the coldest part of the country is rather baffling). We are invited in to have some celebratory vodka, take hits of very pleasant snuff from an elegant carved-bone snuff box, but turn down their offer of further hospitality to continue to the nearby sum centre of Asgat. We are driving through an initially trackless expanse of fresh snow, but the directions given to us by the family are good and in time we find some tracks in a glorious landscape of distant snow-covered hills. In the afternoon we reach Asgat, finding a small motel where we have dinner and sleep in a communal room, awoken late at night by a group of Tuvans coming from the south and heading to the nearby Republic of Tuva in Russia. We are just fifty kilometres from Tudevtei, where Jacob and I had camped in a warm, sunny landscape of wildflowers just three months earlier.
From Asgat we drive north towards the sum centre of Tes, where we urgently refuel and rejoin the Northern Route once again after our second unplanned deviation. We also receive a message from the Finns; the Niva had given out completely on the night we got separated, and they were rescued in the morning by some locals travelling to Ulaanbaatar, from where they are now planning on continuing their journey south on the Trans-Mongolian Railway to China. West from Tes the land drops and opens up, and to our great relief the snow-cover starts to thin as we enter the province of Uvs. We cross a flat plateau dissected by low but sharp fins of mountains, grazed by herds of horses. The track is good and we press on into the evening, arriving in the sum centre of Baruunturuun well after dark. Through asking a local who is driving back from a shop, we find a homestay with a family in their concrete house, far more comfortable than our motel in Asgat.
West of Baruunturuun we stop in Züüngovi for one of the better meals we have in Mongolia; fresh, hand-made buuz (meat-filled dumplings), then decide to make a short side-trip to Bayan Lake; a deep-blue oval of still unfrozen water surrounded by the very unusual sight of sand dunes covered in snow. Maciej and I stop and have a beer here for an hour or so, admiring the fantastic view and feeling quite satisfied at having made it through two rather tough days in the wilderness. Ironically, just west of Züüngovi we have another brush with disaster as we once again lose the track, and I foolishly drive onto a frozen stream, only for the front left wheel of the truck to break through the ice and leave us stranded. After a couple of hours of futile attempts at extracting the car, a local arrives in a Mitsubishi, the same man who had led us to the homestay in Baruunturuun, and pulls us straight out. We’re glad to be free but his asking for money leaves a bitter taste, contravening an unwritten law of the road and being something he would not have asked from a fellow Mongolian. It’s getting late and we have no chance of reaching the provincial capital of Ulaangom the same day, so having safely crossed the frozen stream on the nearby bridge, we continue into the night for a short distance, encountering another small snow-storm and then camp by the roadside; a particularly cold night for Maciej.
After driving for a couple of hours west the snow disappears finally and we reach Uvs Lake, in terms of area the largest in Mongolia, running all the way to touch the Russian border. Beyond the dull, peppermint saline waters of Uvs are a formidable range of mountains and beyond that lies my goal: the western border to Russia. Early in the afternoon we reach Ulaangom, which is attractively located but otherwise rather charmless and serves only as a lunch-stop. Instead of driving straight to the border however, I wish to make a final diversion to Khovd which lies almost 250 kilometres to the south. By Mongolian standards this is a huge distance to cover in an afternoon, but we are spurred-on by promises of asphalt and cans of Borgio lager. Progress is fairly slow and we drive into the night; despite the complete darkness we manage to stay on course, though the asphalt does not materialise until we reach the Khovd River, two hundred kilometres from Ulaangom. Our host Cameron, a Peace Corps volunteer from Detroit graciously receives us just after 23:00 and we collapse into our beds, exhausted after days of tough travelling.
Maciej has to leave after two days to get back to his native Gdańsk via Novosibirsk and Kaliningrad in Russia, while I settle down to join the clique of volunteers who live in Khovd, a small slice of Middle America out in deepest Mongolia. There is of course lots of drinking and partying, but I also witness some more wholesome American activities such as celebrating Thanksgiving with members of the local English-learning club, and organising a basketball game in the local primary school where many of the volunteers work. Generally however it is a time for me to relax, away from the rigours of travelling, and organise my forthcoming journey west across Russia.
Khovd, like nearby Uliastai is a Manchu-era city and amongst the oldest in the country, dating from the time when the Qing Dynasty linked present-day China and Mongolia on important trade routes. Although much of the city is the usual sprawl of style-less concrete boxes and ger suburbs, there are a few hints of a long-gone elegance on the northern edge of the city where the heavily weathered remnants of the eighteenth century Sangiin Kherem, a Manchu fortress occupied by the Khovd amban (high official of the Qing Government) until 1912 can be seen, alongside the occasional street lined by tall, aged poplars.
After nine days however I must begin a final drive to the Russian border before the worst of the winter arrives. The road heads north from Khovd through more fresh snow, this time thankfully marked by plenty of vehicle tracks and crossing a bitterly cold mountain pass where I ask some directions from a very hardy Kazakh family in their winter house. It’s so cold here that the truck engine is starting to miss occasionally, due I imagine to the diesel starting to wax in the fuel lines. I descend to Lake Tolbo; in July a glorious turquoise but now a grey-blue expanse of ice, and reach Ölgii in the afternoon. The following day I drive the final strip of asphalt out of the city, then over the harsh ranges of mountains, with the leak in the radiator worse than ever, to the border post at Tsagaannuur where the temperature is frigid. An exit stamp is made in my passport ’32-11-2010′ and then I am at the Russian border gate with just one other vehicle, a Russian fuel tanker. My three-and-a-half month trip through Mongolia has come to an end, at exactly the same point at which it started.
Mongolia has been utterly enthralling, a country unlike any other I have visited. Travel has often been tough, with communication and navigation constant problems, fickle weather, bitter cold, terrible food, insects, drunks and a host of tribulations that make travel wearisome on an almost daily basis. However, the chance to experience the kind of freedom which comes with travel in Mongolia, to adapt to the wilderness around and to meet people who in the modern age continue to live in real harmony with their surroundings, as our ancestors must have done for thousands of years, far outweighs these annoyances. With the friends who joined me on this journey; Jacob, Toni, Marjo and Maciej, I shared a kind of camaraderie (despite losing the Finns) which would be hard to imagine in most other places. I leave Mongolia with a great sense of satisfaction, having intimately glimpsed a country, culture and way of life which is surely set to change as the ugly, faceless bureaucratic forces of conformism to modernity seek to undermine the freedom and individuality of the Mongols, forcing them into a mould of settled, registered tax-paying citizens whose lives may be neatly entered into spreadsheets, along with all the others. I hope, perhaps as I do for myself, that the Mongols may show sufficient resilience to subvert this awful process.
The north of Mongolia fades gradually into the huge expanse of Siberia, an immense wilderness which occupies three-quarters of Russia and much of the Eurasian landmass. Lake Baikal, by far the largest, deepest and most likely oldest freshwater lake in the world, the ‘Pearl of Siberia’, marks the centre of perhaps the most beautiful part of the region where the endless taiga meets the northern steppes and hardy Russian settlers (and exiles and prisoners) have for generations lived among the native Siberian tribes. East of here, beyond Baikal and many thousands of kilometres from the Russian capital, this very sparsely-populated transition zone fades into the great grasslands of China and the region Russians simply call the ‘Farthest East’. In the more than two months which I would spend looping through this region on my way back west to Europe, I would encounter both the stunning beauty and fierce harshness of this environment as the brutal winter abruptly began. Most of all however, I would enjoy the camaraderie of the friends who accompanied me, wilderness camping in what were at times quite harsh conditions.
On the evening of the 16th September 2010 I am the last to leave the Russian customs post at Kyakhta. I’m unable to buy car insurance, so being very cautious I decide to park the truck in a grassy clearing a few hundred metres from the post and sleep the night there. In the morning I walk to a nearby shop where a friendly lady directs me to the town centre, which I reach by minibus. After weeks in the wilderness of Mongolia, the Russian town of Kyakhta is a stark change in environment. Pastel-coloured Tsarist- and Soviet-era buildings form an orderly, if distinctly faded centre, including a ruined cathedral with two roofless octagonal towers and the rather charming trading arches, which have disappeared from many larger Russian cities. It’s a cool autumn morning and light rain falls from a grey sky. Puddles form on the old asphalt of the main street and I am struck by the familiarity of a grey, mundane European scene, despite the fact that I am in deepest Asia, almost six thousand kilometres by road from Moscow.
Though looking quite forlorn today, Kyakhta is in fact quite a historic place; following the signing of the Treaty of Kyakhta in 1727, the border between Russia and Qing-Dynasty (Manchu) China was formalised and the town set up as a trading post on the ‘Siberian Route’, also known as the Tea Road. For almost two centuries goods passed through this trading post; with tea, silk and cotton heading west and furs, hides and textiles heading south towards China, until the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway which bypassed the town. I buy a month’s car insurance in the post office, and then drive north out of town, soon finding myself back in the familiar wilderness of rolling hills dotted with stands of pine trees; but there is a difference from Mongolia. Here is a country with modern infrastructure; a road network, signposts and towns with strong hints of European culture and architecture. I no longer need to continually read the landscape in order to decide which way to proceed, or search for locals to quiz for directions, nor do I need to keep an eye on the weather and hope for kindly conditions for camping. It would take a few days to switch-off from the rigours of travel in Mongolia, and re-familiarise myself with the comforts of civilisation.
I arrive in the afternoon in the city of Ulan-Ude where I am hosted by Vladimir, who lives in a quaint and typically Siberian wooden house of dark-stained wood with light-blue window frames and roof gables, and a kitchen-garden with a simple outhouse and banya (Russian sauna). Ulan-Ude came to prominence as a major stop on the Trans-Siberian mainline which reached it in 1900 when it was still known as Verkhneudinsk, but like all Siberian cities is of little obvious historical interest. The city centre is nevertheless quite charming; a neat grid of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century wooden buildings, only occasionally marred by modern glass-fronted structures. Ulan-Ude is also the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, and the republic’s flag flies along the Russian tricolour on the roof of the Republican Council building. Immediately in front of this, in Soviet Square sits a forty-two tonne head of Lenin, the largest in the world (who here has slightly narrow, Asiatic eyes), built in 1971 to commemorate the centennial of the man’s birth.
Ulan-Ude is a pleasant place to unwind for a few days and between wandering around the back streets, watching the fishermen wading into the Selenga River from the overgrown naberezhnaya (embankment), and drinking beers in small cafés, I get a new Mongolian visa (on which my middle name is spelt incorrectly) and meet a few other travellers who are passing through town on the Trans-Siberian. After ten days however, seeing a break in the recently rainy weather, I head north on a crisp autumn morning to the real jewel of the region; Lake Baikal. The road heads north from the city’s suburbs, plunging straight into dark spruce forest as it winds over successive ridges before dropping into a rolling, wide valley and passing isolated settlements such as Baturino where the gleaming whitewashed Holy Candlemas Nunnery sits amongst tumble-down wooden village-houses. In Gremyachinsk the road reaches the lake shore and suddenly reveals a truly stunning vista of inky-blue water beyond a clean and pebbly shore dotted with larch trees whose needles are now striking shades of yellow and vivid orange. On the lake’s far shore, under crystal-clear skies of deep blue filled only by the occasional wisp of cirrus clouds is a long range of distant mountains whose upper peaks are dusted with fresh snow.
The road runs along the lake shore for one hundred beautiful kilometres, through dense forests, along sandy coves and past small, wild peninsulas before climbing briefly into the hills once more on a rough unsurfaced pass, emerging in the small town of Ust-Barguzin on the mouth of the Barguzin River. It is on this short stretch that I pass a green Lada Niva travelling very slowly, with foreign licence plates that are too dirty to identify. I have supper in a simple stolovaya (canteen) in Ust-Barguzin, with traditionally frosty service and as I am driving out of town to find a campsite I spot the same Niva parked at the side of the road and stop to offer assistance to the two rather lost-looking occupants. They are Toni and Marjo, two Finns who were total strangers before jointly buying an old Russian 4×4 and driving east from Finland with the aim to reach Mongolia. After a few minutes’ talking we decide to camp together and so begins almost six weeks of travelling and wild-camping together.
We find a clearing in the forest from which locals are emerging pushing bicycles with hoes and other implements attached. We make a small fire and enjoy a night of fireside drinking; a pleasant contrast to camping in the barren and often windswept Mongolian landscape, though the nights here are already becoming cold with the temperature dipping below freezing. In the morning we continue east, away from Baikal, crossing birch-lined streams of dark, tannin-rich water towards the wide and glorious Barguzin Valley, an idyllic slice of rural Siberia, far from the main rail and road axis to the south. We stop in the village of Chitkan first, with its rustic Tsarist-era church, patchily whitewashed and sprouting grass from the cupola on its bell-tower. Later in the afternoon, a little further north we reach the very bucolic village of Suvo, a picture-perfect scene of tidy wooden cottages among dazzling golden birch trees on a green riverbank lined with leaning wooden fences, overlooked by the jagged, snow-dusted peaks of the Barguzin Mountains which separate the valley from Baikal.
These small villages have the feeling of a timeless Russia; outposts in the Siberian frontier almost untouched by the trauma of Bolshevism or the unchecked capitalism and consumerism which has followed. In spite the formidable isolation and harsh climate (or perhaps because of it) the locals are especially friendly, such as the old gentleman in Chitkan who animatedly tells us about the village and shows us his coin collection, or another in Suvo who greets us with genuine interest, asks for his photo to be taken, then presses two roubles into my hand. This, together with the sublime autumn scenery makes the Barguzin Valley immediately one of the most beautiful and enchanting destinations I have come across in Russia, and by far the most friendly and charming of Siberia’s mountainous republics.
We camp near Suvo in the evening, establishing a routine which we would follow across the forested wilderness of Siberia all the way to the Mongolian border. We are somewhat out of season, having escaped the insects and tourists of the summer, but the nights are becoming long, with temperatures dipping below freezing. After arriving at our chosen site, we collect perhaps ten to twelve fallen trees and drag them towards the cars, which we park at right-angles for some form of shelter. We dig a pit and then burn several of the tree-trunks at a time over the pit, building up a large, hot fire which warms us all night. The night is divided into three shifts to keep the fire going; 11:00-02:00, 02:00-05:00, and 05:00-08:00 when we get up and prepare to leave. Temperatures dip to -10ºC but with the continuous fire we can sleep on the ground in summer sleeping bags, and burn several hundred kilos of wood each night.
In the morning as we leave Suvo, we pass one of the few clear traces of Buryat culture which I have seen; a roadside animist shrine consisting of a sacred rock surrounded by a small wooden fence which is tied with sky-blue votive prayer rags identical to those seen at holy sites across Mongolia. Buryats are a northern tribe of the Mongols, linguistically and culturally very close though having both Turkic and Siberian roots and traditionally living in the forested valleys around Lake Baikal. Highly integrated into Russian society, as seen by the mixed populations across the republic from the capital to small villages such as Suvo, the Buryat language is classed as severely endangered with Russian very much the lingua franca. Next to the shrine is a stack of discarded vodka bottles and near that, a friendly village drunk sits slightly dazed-looking waiting for a lift, and when I drop him at his house a couple of kilometres along the road, he thanks me as if I’d rescued him from certain death.
To the north-east of Suvo the road, now an unsurfaced track, crosses the Ina River on a beautiful wooden bridge, then enters a large plain of golden grass dotted with rivers and small lakes, an area of truly exquisite beauty. All around, wooded hills are textured by the contrasting yellows of larch trees with the green of pine, spruce and fir, overshadowed in the north by a range of gleaming snow-peaks which lie beyond the northern tip of Baikal, on the edge of the trackless taiga. Our northward progress is eventually stopped by the Argada River which we chose not to cross, instead turning west back towards the Barguzin River and the string of villages which lie on the far side of it. However, by mid-afternoon we end up on a long wooden bridge which has recently collapsed just short of the river’s western bank, and so camp for the night in a patch of pine forest near the village of Elesun, enjoying a relatively warm evening after a very pleasant day.
In the morning, we find a bridge slightly further south and cross the Barguzin River, then head north on the asphalted road through large villages of neat Siberian houses largely untouched by modernity, to the small town of Kurumkan. Here we spend the afternoon employing three Russian mechanics to replace the front wheel bearings on the Niva, then camp in thick forest a few kilometres north of town. We drive back down the valley the following day, stopping in the quaint town of Barguzin with its beautiful two-storey wooden town hall, then crossing the Barguzin River once again on an old ferry and driving through some unexpected sand dunes to camp on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal. Clouds begin to form in the sky to the west, but the afternoon and evening are glorious; we are alone on a long, sandy beach dotted with pine trees and logs of washed-up driftwood. It’s a beautiful setting and a nice ending to our time in the area, though by morning clouds have rolled in and the spell of perfect autumn weather comes to an end, making us yet more grateful for the enchanting few days we have spent in the Barguzin Valley.
After returning to Ulan-Ude for a night, we set-off east on the Trans-Siberian Highway, on the M55 which runs to Chita. The road winds south and then east, crossing low passes and driving through patches of multicoloured taiga, soon leaving the Republic of Buryatia and entering Zabaikal (literally ‘beyond Baikal’) Territory. As we leave the surroundings of the lake, the country starts to feel wilder, the traffic thins and the villages go from being very attractive, with ornately decorated and colourful wooden houses, to being run-down, depopulated and forgotten, causing one to wonder just how, and why European Russians came to live in such a harsh and fantastically isolated area. Although the Trans-Siberian Highway (and Railway) are the modern conduits of Siberia, along which nearly all the population now live, Russian settlers have been in the region since the sixteenth century when Cossacks (a militaristic Eastern Slavic people from southern Russia and Ukraine, formerly loyal to the Tsarist authorities) rapidly subjugated various native Siberian tribes and established Russian control all the way to the Pacific by the mid-sixteenth century, using a series of small west-to-east river routes connected by short portages.
We spend a night camping in a forest clearing, following a long valley north-east the next day to the capital of Zabaikal Territory, the city of Chita. Historically overshadowed by nearby Nerchinsk, a centre for trade with China, the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway marked a decline in the latter’s fortunes, and importance shifted to Chita, a large garrison strategically close to China and starting point of the Trans-Manchurian Railway. The three of us are hosted here by Anatoly, a generous local businessman who shows us around his native Chita; to the beautiful cream-coloured wooden post-office, the bustling market full of Chinese traders where one hears Mandarin as much as Russian, to the colourful and elegant Neoclassical building of the intelligence services, and the striking all-wood eighteenth century Decembrists’ Church which now functions as a museum.
Chita, like all of Siberia, has a modern history synonymous with exile, imprisonment and hard labour in brutal prison camps, culminating under Stalin in the infamous Gulags of the USSR to which millions were sent, and where many hundreds of thousands perished under unimaginable hardship. This dark tradition in fact goes back much further in time, to the mid-eighteenth century when the Tsarist government disposed of petty criminals and political opponents in this harsh and far-flung end of the empire. Later, this exile was used alongside forced migration as a method to settle and develop this territory which lay thousands of kilometres from the capital, far closer to Peking than to Moscow. Perhaps the most famous group of Tsarist-era exiles were those convicted of supporting the Decembrist Revolt of December 1825, when a group of Army officers and soldiers failed to pledge allegiance to Tsar Nicholas I following the abdication of his brother Constantine. Consisting of many formerly high-standing members of society (often followed by their wives), the largest group of Decembrists were settled initially in Chita, and had a gentrifying influence in Siberia, in some cases becoming landowners, embarking upon philanthropic vetures and later pressing for reforms in the Russia such as the abolition of serfdom. This new Siberian intelligentsia came to be widely respected by natives, and even glorified in the anti-Tsarist rhetoric of the USSR.
After three nights in the very pleasant company of Anatoly, his wife and daughter, we pull ourselves from the comforts of the family apartment and resume our journey. To the east of Chita is the M58, leading to the Pacific at Vladivostok, via Khabarovsk, and at Magadan via Skovrodino and Yakutsk; all destinations I would love to visit, but which I sadly have to postpone to a future journey (currently planned for 2017-18). Instead, the three of us head south, leaving the Trans-Siberian Highway and following the road towards the Chinese border. We cross more forested ridges, leaving the edge of the taiga and entering a more bleak and windswept landscape of grassy valleys dotted with occasional trees, where we see our first real accumulations of snow. We pass through sleepy small towns, reaching the district capital of Aginskoye in the afternoon where we camp in a patch of birch trees on the edge of town and drink Toni’s expensive and coveted bottle of Russki Standart Platinum vodka.
In the village of Amitkhasha, a few kilometres west of Aginskoye is the Dechen Lhudubling Datsan, a Buryat Buddhist monastery of the Tibetan tradition, functioning as a centre of education similar to those in Tibet or Mongolia. We visit the datsan in the morning; a surprisingly well-maintained and vibrant complex of temples, stupas and service buildings dating from 1811 which, though closed during much of the Soviet Period, managed to survive Stalin’s religious purges and is now the oldest datsan in Russia, older and more impressive than the completely rebuilt Ivolgin Datsan near Ulan-Ude which is considered to be the more important. The new main temple is a large and imposing structure of brick with a wooden balcony and pale green roof; a very rare example of a graceful modern construction. Other, older buildings in the complex show a more charming architectural syncretism; a two-storey whitewashed temple with strong Tsarist echoes below a yellow pagoda-roof, and a quaint yellow classroom building similar to a typical Siberian cottage, but with a simple tip-tilted roof. Pilgrims and monks mill around the buildings making for an unexpectedly vibrant atmosphere in this otherwise quite austere and neglected region.
Just over one hundred kilometres from Aginskoye, in the village of Tsugol lies the Dashi Choypelling Datsan whose main temple, the Tsogchen Dugan comes unexpectedly into view as we drive up on a muddy track from the highway. The sight is rather compelling; more picturesque by far than anything at Amitkhasha, the authentic nineteenth century shrine has panels of Mongolian script, preserved glazed-green brick columns and a beautifully intricate external staircase leading to the upper levels of the temple. There is fresh snow on the ground and the yellow, three-tiered pagoda-roof contrasts sharply with the deep-blue of the late-afternoon sky, making me think that after the gompas of Spiti and Ladakh in India, this is the most beautiful Buddhist structure I have ever seen.
Just south of Tsugol, we cross the Onon River, a distant tributary of the Amur River which delineates much of the Russia – China border on its course to the Pacific more than 3500 kilometres from here. The landscape becomes increasingly snowy, but we are glad to find a small patch of forest on the final ridge of mountains before the road descends onto steppe. The snow is about fifteen centimetres deep, but the Finns are in their element here collecting birch trees while I dig a fire-pit, and we have a comfortable final night in Russia around a raging birch fire.
South of our campsite we roll down onto the edge of the steppe. The snow soon disappears and we drive across a undulating landscape of dry grass. During Soviet times, this region was heavily militarised, particularly after the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s. We drive past the crumbling remains of military-industrial complexes aside the Trans-Manchurian Railway, even passing a small ghost town. These decaying concrete skeletons of buildings seem to add to the barren terrain to give a feeling of remoteness and desolation, though trade and traffic is these days thriving with China at the nearby border crossing. Our goal however is a remote and very seldom-used border crossing into the far east of Mongolia, into a region I had been unable to access last month due to a quarantine following an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which I suspect to still be in force. We nevertheless choose to attempt to cross the border here.
In the small junction town of Borzya, at 116.5º east of Greenwich, I reach the easternmost point of my journey, nearly one third of the way around the world from the UK, on roughly the same line of longitude as Beijing. We have lunch in Borzya and stock up on supplies, then drive the final eighty-five kilometres on an arrow-straight gravel track to the isolated border post at Solovyevsk. Here we enter the true steppe; a flat expanse of waving yellow grass, the northern fringes of one of Asia’s most ecologically important grassland areas. Puffy cumulus clouds rack up in the huge sky, and turquoise Zun-Torey Lake appears on the horizon. At the tiny barracks of Solovyevsk, we surprise the Russian border guards, though they are friendly and by mid afternoon we have left Russia, ready to begin the crossing of northern Mongolia.
It’s the evening of the 12th August 2010 when Jacob and I, driving from Kharkhorin on the only continuously paved road I have encountered since entering Mongolia more than two weeks ago, reach the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. The suburbs are predictably rather squalid, a mass of chaotic traffic, large areas of seemingly moribund industry, mindless, aggressive drivers and a stench of raw sewage and animal muck. We stop in the pouring rain to have another late lunch, here consisting of buuz (meat-filled dumplings) rather than the dreaded tsuivan (greasy mutton lumps and noodles). The city gradually smartens as the traffic careens headlong towards the centre, and we see used Japanese cars, flashy new SUVs and beat-up Korean saloons instead of the ubiquitous Russian 4x4s of the countryside. We start to pass a succession of shopping malls and seedy karaoke bars advertising ‘VIP Rooms’, eventually finding ourselves in a tidy, smart and superficially modern and very westernised city-centre. By the time we reach our host Elena, a Russian Buryat who lives in a modern high-rise in the centre, the transition we have made today from the pre-modern countryside to the neon lights of the capital seems positively surreal.
Ulaanbaatar is not an old city, the site having been chosen in 1778 to be the permanent location of a previously nomadic, roaming monastery-city. It was not until the communist era that the city was modernised, and apart from a few temples which survived Stalin’s purge, and the glut of new buildings in the flashy centre, the city is architecturally purely Soviet in style. Indeed, the city’s name, which means ‘red hero’ is clearly of Bolshevik / Soviet origins. Almost half of the Mongolian population of three million live in Ulaanbaatar, with the population ever increasing. This urban drift may have something to do with the country’s recent mining boom, but is largely the result of poverty, exacerbated by harsh winters knows as zuds where thick snow and extreme temperatures devastate livestock and can leave families totally destitute. The previous winter of 2009/10 counted as a zud. Away from the orderly centre, the city is a mess of unplanned building, broken streets and general neglect which reminds me of Kathmandu, and in the farthest western slums one can almost watch the process of urbanisation. Migrants arrive with their gers (yurts), find a patch of land at the city’s edge and set up home, erecting a simple picket fence around their claim. A latrine pit and small outhouse are made, then an electricity hook-up and ultimately a fixed house. Following the slums towards the centre, the gers, unsuited to being continually erected in one spot, slowly vanish, and thus the urbanisation is complete, with nomad turned into city-dweller. Many of these unskilled migrants live in abject poverty and the city has a noticeable underbelly of petty crime, alcoholism and domestic violence.
At the same time however, there is a truly modern, urban Mongolian society, a well-dressed, attractive, educated and sometimes well-moneyed class. While Mongolian society in the countryside is undoubtedly traditional, these are not people who are restricted by the backward mores of a medieval social system, and the urban young of Ulaanbaatar live a life not much different from their contemporaries in Almaty or Moscow, though a world away from their countryside cousins. To me this is more evidence of the great adaptability of Mongolians, and while the urban class owes much to the communist era, there are also clearly parallels with the air of religious tolerance and pragmatic secularity for which the vanished ancient Mongol capital of Karakorum was famed.
Jacob and I enjoy ourselves in the capital; eating good food, not constantly at the whim of the landscape and elements, and living an easy sedentary life. Ulaanbaatar’s sights are very modest; a few surviving old monasteries such as the large, whitewashed Tibetan-style Gandantegchinlen and otherwise just the Soviet and post-independence monuments and squares, though the National Museum is surprisingly good. One night we visit a rather seedy night club, dancing with very attractive young women but narrowly escaping the violent intentions of young Mongolian men; not the only example of deep-rooted xenophobia in the urban population, in stark contrast to the genuine hospitality of the people we’d encountered on the steppe. I’m also surprised by just how many tourists there are here – in stark contrast to the remote steppe we’ve driven through to get here – and from their accounts of rather superficial encounters with Mongolia on the train between Russia and China, or on contrived jeep-tours, I yearn once more to be free, out on the steppe. I wonder how many of the Mongolian urban migrants soon come to feel the same way after spending time here. After spending a slightly shocking twelve days in this uninteresting and rather unlovable city, Jacob and I depart, aiming for the Gobi Desert.
We leave the sprawl of Ulaanbaatar and head initially south-east, loosely following the Trans-Mongolian Railway which links the Russian city of Ulan-Ude (close to Lake Baikal), with (Chinese) Inner Mongolia and Beijing. Soon after leaving the capital, the low, green-brown hills flatten and after forty kilometres we are on empty steppe. We enjoy an asphalt road for much of the day, and in the late afternoon reach the small town of Choir. Once a Soviet military cantonment, Choir is the capital ‘city’ of its own small province, Govisümber, though is today little more than a large village and a near-deserted station on the Trans-Mongolian. We buy cold beers and ice creams and then head west a few kilometres and camp on the flat steppe. The temperature is pleasant and as the sun sets and a brilliant full moon rises against the day’s small drifting cumulus clouds, we revel once more in the wonderful feeling of freedom we have out on the steppe.
In the morning we continue westwards, aiming in the next few days to skirt the northern fringes of the Gobi Desert before plunging south to the sandy wilderness close to the Chinese border, from where we aim to move steadily eastwards to the easternmost part of Mongolia. While we have left the asphalt road and are back on more familiar dirt-tracks, the land here is flat and usually dry with very little traffic, meaning that our progress is relatively steady. Far more than the rocky west, this is the Mongolia I had imagined before coming here; rolling green plains dotted with yurts and cattle under huge, deep-blue skies with sparse ranks of clouds. Soon enough however, the land changes dramatically as we enter an area of red-basalt outcrops known as Ikh Gazriin Chuluu, a first taster of the Gobi Desert. We scramble around the dramatic, isolated piles of rock for a few hours before stopping for a meal and provisions in the provincial capital Mandalgovi on our way further west.
Our destination the next day is Erdenedalai, a small, nondescript sum (district) centre which would be wholly unremarkable were it not for the beautiful late-eighteenth century Gimpil Darjaalan Monastery. The monastery consists of a single, surprisingly large Manchu-style temple which combines an outer perimeter gallery colonnaded with ornately painted wooden beams, with a large central hall, topped by a very elegant two-tier, meticulously tiled pagoda roof. The monastery somehow escaped Stalin’s purge, serving as a storage area until independence in 1990. Its presence is rather baffling on this otherwise totally featureless plain.
West of Erdenedalai, the landscape becomes drier, subtly more desolate and hostile. We pass some ancient stone-topped kurgans (burial mounds) marked out with a square of perimeter stones, lying totally anonymously in the semi-desert, traces of a long-forgotten culture. We lose the main track and, while Jacob snoozes, I drive through low, almost trackless valleys, past isolated gers and shepherds for several hours before reaching the tiny sum centre of Sant, from where we find a small track due west. Shortly after, we come upon the abandoned settlement of Dolgon, a small, communist-era agro-industrial complex now heavily looted for scrap and building materials. We wander into what must once have been an administrative building, a lone two-storey structure amongst the Mongolian wilderness investigating old office records, rather puzzled as to what the purpose of this factory might have been, and why it is situated away from any town or road.
Later we come to the Ongi River and have a very welcome bath, then fording the river to join the asphalt of the ‘Southern Route’, Mongolia’s main east-west highway. In the morning we explore Arvaikheer, the capital of Övörkhangai Province which is a little smarter than most Mongolian provincial capitals. Rather than the usual crumbling communist-era concrete, here the provincial administration building has been smartened up and is positively elegant, sat behind a concrete slab-paved square with a stele bearing the Mongolian coat of arms. There is even a patinated bronze sculpture of what I assume to be a miner, though his features are clearly, and rather patronisingly Caucasian.
West of Arvaikheer, the asphalt soon ends and the highway reverts to a heavily wash-boarded dirt track, making for rather unpleasant driving. I’m looking for a decent-sized track heading south which will take us deep into the Gobi Desert. The philosophy of driving and navigating in Mongolia is quite different from anywhere else in Eurasia. Aside from perhaps two highways worthy of the name, there is no single defined route between any two places, and certainly no signposts. Instead, one relies on bearings, finding a set of wheel tracks heading in one’s chosen direction, and following them, switching to others when necessary to maintain an approximate course. This method can be rather trying in the wetter and more mountainous areas of the country, where deep rivers, cliffs or steep mountains may put an end to one’s progress, but out here in the dry, wide-open plains, it becomes a very pleasant way to travel, almost like navigating across an ocean.
Around one-hundred kilometres from Arvaikheer we leave the Southern Route for good (I break a leaf in the truck’s front-right spring coming down a steep bank too quickly) and proceed south-west, passing Bayanteeg shortly after. Quite quickly the landscape changes again, to the Gobi proper. The Mongolian term gobi literally refers to land which is too poor to support sheep, but on which camels may be grazed. In practice however, the Gobi Desert occupies a vast tract of inner Asia, stretching from here to the Tibetan Plateau and occupying much of northern and western China, encountering a wide range of environments. Beyond Bayanteeg the vistas become huge; we can clearly see Ikh Bogd Mountain on the horizon, despite it being sixty-five kilometres away. Occasional gers can be seen next to dry, ephemeral riverbeds, and we wonder what must draw (or force) people to live in such areas. The land becomes a hard-baked undulating plain, and we course at full speed along a winding gravel track, leaving a huge dust plume in our wake.
In the late afternoon we arrive in the small sum centre of Bogd, and find a very pleasant campsite in the small valley of the Tüin River. Now being late summer, the river, one of many which runs from the north and dissipates into the desert, is more like a warm pond but we join the camels who are (downstream) taking a dip after a long, dusty day. Some local children find us and are delighted when we teach them to line up empty vodka bottles and take aim at them with stones; a hobby which Jacob and I have taken up in order to break up long, monotonous drives and break down some of the innumerable vodka bottles which are ubiquitous in the Mongolian landscape.
Progress the next day is slow as we must navigate around the boggy land adjacent to Orog Lake and then cross Ikh Bogd Mountain in an area with no vehicle tracks. After tracking a gulley to the point where it no longer becomes drivable we have to turn around, but find a local to ask and finally make it up onto the southern ridge of the mountain. Here we drive east a little to Tsagaan Agui (White Cave), whose walls are lined with sometimes very large, glistening multicoloured quartz crystals and gemstones, and which was inhabited by Stone Age humans. Late in the afternoon we make it to the sum centre of Bayanlig which sits on the edge of a vast expanse of flat, utterly featureless desert into which we will drive tomorrow. The highlight of the day however is finding that the local guanz (canteen) has the best buuz we would find in Mongolia, and it is with full stomachs that we find a campsite just outside of town.
In the morning, before heading into the true desert, Jacob and I drive on a bearing south-west to a range of low, black hills of desert-varnished basalt rock. Our target is Bayangiin Nuruu, a complex of petroglyphs tucked deep in the ephemerally watered valleys which dissect these dark volcanic stands. As so often happens, we lose the track and just two kilometres from target the truck is in a plain of large stones. Jacob scouts ahead, soon finding the right track and I slowly crawl around a small cliff and over to his position, from where we are soon at the mouth of a small valley. We walk up passing boulders, some with single, crude petroglyphs, wholly unprepared for the amazing prehistoric gallery which we find after half an hour or so; a cliffside of fissured black basalt, with multiple panes of several square metres filled with bright orange petroglyphs. Dated at around 3000 BCE, they are younger than the petroglyph complexes I had earlier seen in the Altai Mountains, but here the concentration in such a small area is overwhelming. There are depictions of wild sheep, aurochs, gazelle, reindeer with elaborate, stylised horns, camels, snakes, asses, large cats and boars. Human hunters are shown with longbows, either mounted on horseback or free-standing, and it is theorised that such petroglyphs are some kind of tribute to the spirits of the animals which were the hunter’s prey. There are fantastical, mythical beasts, and depictions of hunters in congress with women, even one of a male figure in posing in tumescence, suggesting a link with early fertility cults. Such petroglyph sites, almost always found in remote outcrops of volcanic rock always raise the question of whether these places specifically were sacred in some way, or if it was simply that the art of such early cults is only preserved in places such as these.
We return to Bayanlig in the afternoon to eat more buuz, then head east into a vast, flat, sandy plain. The sand is not deep and it makes for very pleasant driving, though there are well over one-hundred kilometres of almost trackless desert between us and our next destination, making us somewhat anxious not to lose the track we are following. Soon the tracks start to diverge off into the nothingness, but far ahead we spot the small, extinct black volcano of Khatan Suudal, and reasoning that most people will naturally be drawn to this visually striking feature, we simply drive straight over the desert, disregarding the tracks of others. Such driving gives me a sense of absolute freedom, something simply impossible within the narrow confines of Western Europe, and strikes me as being one of the essences of my endless motivation to travel. We camp at the very bottom of the volcano and are of course totally alone in this glorious desert. We climb the volcano the next morning; I half expect to find some petroglyphs on the summit, but there is only a large slate cairn. However, despite being just one-hundred metres above the desert floor, the view is nonetheless spectacular; below us the truck is but a speck, and alongside a single dusty track, is the only sign of human existence we can see in any direction.
Our next target is known as Khongoryn Els, a small sand-sea in the neighbouring province of Ömnögovi, in the driest but most spectacular region of the Mongolian Gobi. We follow tracks for several hours, crossing flat gravelly plains, sparsely-vegetated sands, red yardangs and desiccated mud-flats dotted with saxaul plants. In the early afternoon however, the track we’ve been following leads to the edge of the els (sand-sea). The truck soon bogs, and after one brief spell of digging it is clear that we need to find another way round. We must make a decision however; either to skirt the els to the north and go straight to the spot we intend to camp in, or to drive around the south, close to some nearby mountains and the small sum centre of Sevrei, then crossing the els at a point where the map indicates a track. We have enough fuel to go by either route, but we might not have enough to return and try an alternative if we find our chosen route impassable.
The northern option would be more direct, but the area is totally trackless and may therefore be impassable, making us choose the longer but safer southern route. After a few rather tense and rough kilometres tracking south amidst small dunes, we are relieved to find a track and even see another vehicle; the first since leaving Bayanlig the day before. By late afternoon we’re climbing up a rough wash towards Sevrei, but once again lose the track and end up cutting across tortuous goat paths, reaching the tiny settlement after dark.
In the morning we wish to buy some diesel but the laziness of the fuel station owner exceeds my patience and we descend back to the dunes, letting some air out of the tyres and driving over the sandy edges of the els where beautiful Bactrian camels are nonchalantly grazing in the sparse shrubbery. We find something of a cleft in the els, a narrow, silty wadi which to our amazement is filled with thick, muddy floodwater from recent rain. After walking around on the nearby dunes and confirming that there is no alternative route, we have no option but to wait for the water to recede and the ground to become firm enough to drive over. This only takes a couple of hours however, and with Jacob once again scouting ahead, I carefully drive over the riverbed, which has been eroded into deep gulleys in places, then power through a long section of deep sand until I reach a firm area clear of the far edge of the els, and wait for Jacob to walk over.
It’s a joyous moment when we get the truck through; we’re relieved not to have got stuck or worse, and thrilled at having finally almost reached our destination after a particularly strenuous journey from Bayanlig. We’re also noticed by a van full of Mongolian men who stop and of course start drinking vodka, inviting us over to join them. They’re a rough but good-spirited and generous bunch, but after a few bowls we manage to excuse ourselves before things get too wild, and drive south to our camping spot at the foot of Mongolia’s highest dunes, hoping to be far enough from the tourist jeeps and ger camps to have the desert to ourselves. In the late afternoon we haul ourselves up to a high ridge in the els, lying on our backs against the steep slipface of a dune in a rather blissful state. We are sitting atop a beautifully sculpted sea of yellow sand which extends around fifteen kilometres to the north-west, behind which, in the very far distance are black ridges of desert mountains close to the area we passed yesterday. The temperature is perfect, and watching the sun set from here is one of my absolute favourite moments of the trip, one that I will never forget.
The Gobi Desert is the world’s fifth largest and also one of its coldest, and it is therefore on a warm September morning particularly pleasant to walk among the dunes, in the absence of blazing sun or scorching heat. We spend the whole day at the els, though sadly a storm passes in the afternoon, covering us with wind-blown sand and ruining any chances for another beautiful sunset view of the dunes. On our second and final morning I walk east along the els, reaching a small area of lush green grassland on which happy Bactrians graze below small mountains of golden sand. On my walk back I’m so deep in thought that I overshoot our campsite by more than a kilometre, and finding myself slightly disoriented, only recognise our campsite from the profile of the large dunes which I know to be right behind it.
We continue our journey east, travelling on a good solid track past the els and on to an evening stop near the sum centre of Bayandalay, then passing the following morning close to the ‘Flaming Cliffs’ where American palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews famously discovered the first dinosaur eggs in the mid-1920’s alongside many other dinosaur remains, and where of course there are no bones for the casual visitor to see today. We stop in the provincial capital of Dalanzadgad and make use of the bathhouse, guanz, well-stocked shops and fuel station, then press ever further east. Here the land starts to revert to true gobi as the desolate sands and black mountains of the south start to blend into lightly vegetated plains.
The tracks are very sparse and we are relieved to reach the coal-mining town of Tsogttsetseii in the evening, where we camp. Here we see the incredible scale of mining operations in the country; throughout the night we can hear a steady drone of mine machinery and there is an extraordinary, never-ending convoy of trucks carrying coal – at a rate of several trucks per minute – along a dusty desert track, straight to the border crossing with energy-hungry China, around two-hundred kilometres away. We have lunch in a guanz full of noisy Chinese mine engineers in the sum centre of Khanbogd, the nearest town to the huge Oyu Tolgoi Mine. This controversial mine is the largest investment ever made in Mongolia; a joint venture between Rio Tinto and the Mongolia Government, a boon to the Mongolian economy and a potential disaster for the delicate Gobi environment, it’s flora, fauna and water resources. While mining is set to potentially transform the Mongolian economy into one of Asia’s most dynamic, many Mongolians feel understandably resentful towards such projects; spelling and end to the traditional nomadic way of life and a threat to the beautiful, pristine landscape of Mongolia to which they are deeply and spiritually attached.
In the late afternoon we finally leave Ömnögovi Province and reach our target, a small black outcrop of basalt known as Suikhent Mountain. Millions of years ago the area was a boggy forest, and the trees which fell in this bog have been preserved and mineralised into petrified wood; rocks with the original form, texture and internal structure of trees. We camp in a small valley filled with intriguing petrified logs and tree stumps. It’s the warmest evening we’ve yet had and we sit out wearing only shorts, late into the evening drinking tea and savouring the setting, for there is hardly a trace of human presence in the entire area.
It’s a long drive the next day, passing the huge, eerily ruined complex of Ölgii Monastery, then heading north-east through almost totally unpopulated, largely flat territory as we aim for the tracks of the Trans-Mongolian once again. We camp just short of the town of Sainshand and are met shortly after stopping by a pair of curious Mongols who arrive on an ancient Soviet motorcycle. After making a few gestures to each other, our visitors retreat a few steps and calmly watch us for an hour or so as we cook some pasta and make tea, before slipping away into the night. We reach the railway town of Sainshand in the morning, capital of Dornogovi Province, and by evening we are in a large area of odd volcanic outcrops. Darkness and a howling storm close in on us before we can reach our intended camping spot, and it is not until the following morning that we reach the striking and locally famous natural rock arch known as Senjit Rock.
As we continue ever east into Sükhbaatar Province, the landscape changes very slowly as we leave the desert and enter the grasslands of the Mongolian East, passing sum centres such as Delgerekh, Bayandelger and Ongon; places which even by Mongolian standards feel isolated and forlorn, though the people are friendly and welcoming, if extremely surprised to see two outsiders arrive. Turning south-west towards the Chinese border we must employ some subterfuge, for we are in a restricted border zone for which permits are required. Having tried but failed to obtain them in the capital, we instead resolve to avoid settlements and be totally self-reliant in fuel, food and water for the next few days. Our first stop is in the sum of Dariganga, where the extinct volcano known as Altan Ovoo is considered a holy mountain. In a fenced enclosure near the deeply weathered volcano are three Mongol-era balbals (anthropomorphic megaliths), two of which are decapitated. All three are swaddled in long, sky-blue votive cloths, and offerings are made at their bases; sweets, vodka, trinkets such as miniature boots and most bizarrely, a tea set consisting of three porcelain pigs straddling a sugar bowl. Pilgrims leave such offerings here before climbing the mountain and circumambulating its simple white-washed ovoo (shamanistic totem or altar).
We spend the evening camping amid small trees on the very edge of Moltsog Els, a small and vegetated sand-sea just to the east of Dariganga. We’re discovered by some locals on horseback, but they soon disappear and we slip away in the morning unnoticed. East of town begins the Dariganga Volcanic Field, consisting of over two-hundred Quaternary lava and cinder cones, a flat area of grassy steppe now yellowed from the long, dry summer and dotted by sculpted volcanic mounds. Entering a very subtle, open valley known as Khurgiin Khundii, we spot an odd, basalt balbal of a gaunt and naked man sitting on a rock, his right hand holding a votive cup, his left on his genitals. Equally striking is the totally unannounced cave of Taliin Agui; rather than a conventional cave in a mountainside, this cave consists of a void-space in a lava flow and is accessed from the table-flat steppe through a small hole in the ground. Despite being late summer, temperatures in the cave remain sub-zero; the cave roof is a sea of white filigree ice crystals, while the floor is dotted with smooth ice-stalagmites.
Our destination for the day is the highest of the volcanic cones; Mt. Shiliin Bogd, a sensual, crescent-shaped eroded cinder cone, long-dormant and covered in long grass. The mountain is just five kilometres from the Chinese border and considered amongst the most sacred in Mongolia. The soul of a man (and only a man; women are not allowed) who walks anti-clockwise around the mountain’s summit (especially at dawn) is said to be restored. We drive part-way up the side of the mountain, where we strike camp and then set off around the crater rim. The view from the top is utterly magnificent; a true moonscape of craters and ridges extending to an indeterminate horizon, particularly beautiful in the low-light of sunset.
In the night we are rather startled by a lone pair of headlights jolting across the steppe, aiming straight for us; we kill our lights and keep a close eye on the approaching vehicle, worried that it might be the local border patrol coming to apprehend us. The vehicle stops some distance away at the foot of the mountain, and we discover in the morning that a group of Mongolian businessmen from the capital have come to on a pilgrimage to the holy mountain to restore themselves spiritually. We walk up together, the Mongolian men (one of whom speaks good English) wearing expensive traditional deels (coats) and offering us a nip from their snuff bottles. At the summit, the men circumambulate around the huge ovoo which is covered in offerings such as sweets, hard bread and alcohol and tied with long blue prayer pennants which are thrashing in the stiff morning breeze. We drink bowls of vodka together and marvel at the sublime view as the rising sun catches the profiles of the long-dead volcanoes. I’m impressed that these men, like me, seem genuinely enchanted by their surroundings, more so that despite being wealthy and urbane, they have made the long and arduous drive down from the capital just to perform this ritual. Clearly despite money and a modern life, the age-old shamanism of the steppes endures in them.
We leave Shiliin Bogd feeling spiritually revitalised, and as we pull away from the border and leave what we imagine to be the border zone, we are rather pleased with ourselves; we’ve sneaked through and seen what we came to see, which turned out to be more beautiful and interesting than we had imagined. All this comes abruptly to end however as we reach the sum centre of Erdenetsagaan and are immediately apprehended my a man on a motorcycle who takes our passports and brings us to the local police station. Here we are ordered not to move the car, though we are not technically under arrest it seems, as we are free to move around in the small town. One man speaks some English and keeps repeating the word ‘animation’ to us. Slowly it becomes clear that we are not in trouble for being foreigners in a border zone, but rather that there is for whatever reason a total ban on travel in the region, which I suspect might be an outbreak of livestock disease.
The man who speaks some English turns out not to be a police officer, but is also in custody. Balykcha and his young assistant are eagle-hunters from the north of the country who sell the birds on to the Gulf States where eagle hunting is a popular pastime amongst the oil sheikhs. The four of us slip out of the police station on the first evening to the local bar-come-nightclub where we get blind-drunk; Balykcha has to depart the premises on all-fours, the rest of us later staggering back to the Police station rather late without even settling the bar-tab.
It’s not a bad life at the police station; Balykcha cooks good meals for us with the contents of a huge food parcel he has received from ‘his’ sheikh in Bahrain, there is a comfortable and warm place to sleep, a village bathhouse and of course the bar, but on the third day (Sunday) I manage to speak to someone in the British Foreign Office, explaining that I am being held and am not even sure for what reason. Our plans to visit the very furthest eastern reaches of the country (and sneak through another border zone) are of course scuppered, but my visa is due to expire in a few days, and it is clear that my only option is to get up to the capital and then move straight on to Russia.
On Monday morning the police officer gets a call from the British Embassy; his manner visibly changes whilst on the phone and a member of the embassy staff explains to me that there has been an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Soon after this the police arrange special travel permits to allow us to escape the province-wide curfew, and by late afternoon we say farewell to Balykcha, the Policeman and Erdenetsagaan as we are escorted out by the provincial head of customs, who is driving from the customs post on the Chinese border to the provincial capital Baruun-Urt with his attractive assistant Bayarmaa. We stop at the edge of town and have several rounds of baijiu, (lethal Chinese fire-water) before heading off. The Chief soon speeds ahead and leaves us to find our own way, though we have to stop and disinfect the tyres a couple of times at make-shift decontamination points.
We reach Baruun-Urt after midnight and camp in a patch of open ground in the centre. In the morning Bayarmaa, who is very apologetic for the predicament we have found ourselves in, helps us get our permits to drive to the capital, then even buys us lunch and introduces us to her family. The road out of town starts off as a dirt-track, but after a few hours becomes the asphalted main highway which will one day run right across the country. Jacob and I drive on into the night and have a final dinner together before stopping in the town of Öndörkhaan, capital of the province of Khentii from which Chinggis Khan is said to hail, where we part. Jacob has been a fantastic travel partner and I’m truly glad to have had him along for the seven weeks we’ve spent touring nearly the entire country. It’s a sad parting but my time in Mongolia is up (for now), while Jacob will continue to explore the north of the country before heading on to China and Pakistan.
I drive right through the night, during which I see my first frost of the year, pausing in Ulaanbaatar at dawn to refuel, then taking the road north to the Russian border. Soon after the road forks north at the westernmost edge of the capital, the landscape changes to one far more reminiscent of Siberia than anything I have yet seen in Mongolia; stands of yellowing larch trees stand on the grassy hilltops, farmers cut and gather grass from fields and birch trees, tied with colourful votive rags, line the roadsides. Occasionally a marvellous golden carpet of wheat covers the hillsides, and I see mechanised farming for the first time. The air is crisp and the sun’s rays long; autumn has begun here already. It’s a world away from the austere but magnificent plains of the Gobi, which I immediately miss.
By early afternoon I reach the small city of Darkhan, built from scratch by the USSR in 1961 as a second centre of manufacturing in Mongolia. It’s a nicer place than much of the capital though of no real interest, and after having a good meal I continue north. I camp alone near the roadside in a field; it feels rather odd without Jacob and I realise that without company, my experience in Mongolia would have been rather lonely – not a word I use very often at all.
In the morning I continue my journey north through the rolling, almost bucolic landscape of Selenge Province, named for the river which flows north into Lake Baikal. Approaching the capital, Sükhbaatar, I lose my patience behind a crawling Mongolian driver and pass him on a railway crossing right in front of a traffic cop. The fine is just a few dollars and I have no grounds to argue it, and it thus becomes the first and last traffic infraction I would pay for on the entire journey. I’m actually laughing to myself about this as I drive out of town, only for a shepherd boy who is sitting by the roadside to notice this and, perhaps feeling self-conscious for a moment, raises his middle finger; not the nicest finale to my first trip across Mongolia.
The border at Altanbulag is busy and Mongolian Customs are so slow that there is a considerable jam of traffic. I am on the last day of my visa and so make another call to the British Embassy, and am soon waved to jump the queue. I have been very pleasantly surprised by how useful the Embassy has been in the last few days and finally feel I’ve recouped some of the swingeing embassy fees I paid for my passport in Islamabad two years earlier.
And so with just an hour left, I slip out of Mongolia. Fascinatingly different from any other country I have visited, stunningly beautiful but continually challenging and frustrating, travel in Mongolia is an almost addictive experience, and my first goal when entering Russia will be to obtain another Mongolian visa, and make a second pass across the country.