THROUGH SIBERIA BY ACCIDENT
Dervla Murphy (1931-...)
In the 13th century, Russia and Siberia were over-run by the Mongol hordes who decimated the population and the countryside, but left the church untouched by order of Gengis Khan, on the condition that they offer up prayers for the Mongol leaders. This instituted a tyrannical style of government that united the indigenous peoples for the first time, and established a cultural acceptance of dictatorship that lasted until the present day. Under what eventually became the Orthodox religion, the vast majority of the population became peasants laboring for the welfare of the few religious figureheads, who lived lives of luxury, dealing in trade goods, establishing laws, and dominating the daily activities of the kulaks. Toward the beginning of the 19th century, revolutions against the czarist government (which grew under the aegis of the church as a sort of political bureaucracy) became a serious concern, and fervor related to the eradication of the totalitarian regime became widespread, culminating in the 20th century Russian Revolution that offered hope for a few years until political infighting resulted in the repetition of the old pattern: a single leader of the country who acted as a king, the ultimate authority and ruler of the country in all its aspects. As we know, Mr. Gorbachov changed things once again in 1992, but the pattern repeated itself, with the current power-mad figure dominating once more the entire country from the Ural mountains to the eastern edge of Siberia.
The above is just a note describing in part the world that Ms. Murphy entered when she left her native Ireland to go for a bike ride in Siberia, north of Lake Baikal. In September, 2001, she caught a plane to Moscow and arranged for a BAM train-ride to Tynda, near the fore-mentioned lake. BAM stands for the Baikal-Amur-Mainline, an alternative to the Trans-Siberian line that ends in Vladivostok. Conditions on the train were a bit primitive, the coaches being divided into large rooms in which several families or collections of strangers shared food and spent the five and a half day journey talking or playing games. The average speed of the train was about 20 mph. As the passengers came closer to the destination, Dervla suffered an accident: she slipped on a wet floor and ripped some tendons in her right knee.
This incident promised to cancel or limit her proposed bicycle route, so she resolved to spend some time in the area, sight-seeing and getting acquainted with the locals. After exploring Tynda, making friends, picnicking and partying, she entrained again to the Lake itself, curious about the largest fresh-water lake in the world. It's longer than the country of Ireland. Once more she made a lot of friends even though she didn't speak the language, and became familiar with the uncertain lives of the people living there, who often lost their jobs or weren't paid due to political maneuvering in high places. One of the most impressive observations she made was the common sight of giant cranes, tractors, bulldozers and other heavy equipment littering the landscape. Apparently when the Communist state ended in "92, wages for the contracted workers vanished, so the equipment operators vanished as well, leaving all their tools and machines to rust where they stood. Consequently almost all Siberian cities are decorated with monstrous brown preying mantis figures hovering over the often crumbling and partly constructed ten story apartment buildings.
Lake Baikal itself, in the northern region, has pure water. It is home to myriads of microscopic animalcules that clean the water of pollutants and contribute to the rather unearthly blue glow of the lake. Swimming, boating and fishing are the main activities of the citizenry, in addition to whatever remaining government, social or technical positions they might hold. This part of the lake is only lightly populated, being surrounded by high mountains filled with bears and other wildlife. Unfortunately, the lake is probably doomed to die in the future due to the heavy contamination introduced by saw mills and developing industries in the southern part of the area. Environmental regulatory laws exist but are ignored in practice by enthusiastic and greedy business persons.
Dervla had another accident: she rented a little cabin by the lake and one night decided to go for a swim but she stepped into a four-foot deep hole on the way, spraining her right ankle and re-damaging her knee. So she gave up the idea of bicycling entirely and took a boat ride instead, up the Lena to Yakutsk, a large city in northern Siberia. She had more interesting and informative experiences on the way, noting in particular the extensive drug trade that permeates the culture, and the lack of reliable transportation of all types. Engines for cars buses and trucks are antiquated and unreliable, requiring experienced do-it-yourself mechanics to keep them running. Returning by bus from the northern city, she recorded the five breakdowns along the way that were repaired by the driver and his helper with either baling wire or parts scavenged from the many abandoned vehicles alongside the rubbly highway.
Finally arriving safely back in Tynda, Dervla went on a few more visits and excursions, then rode the BAM back to Moscow.
This was the second book i've read by Ms. Murphy. She remains a very intrepid person, the only human i'm aware of that actually bicycled across Afghanistan. Of the account i've read of around the world bike rides, all of them either detoured around the country or crossed it by airplane or train. It's a dangerous place. In spite of leaving school when she was fourteen, she is an excellent and informative author and has, indubitably, the Irish gift of gab. She's spent her whole life traveling and observing the world's peoples and her comments and opinions are well worth the reader's attention. I liked the book a lot - it was packed with information about the little-known area - and i plan to read more of her work: she wrote at least 25 books...