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on 30 September 2016
heavy going, very interesting but need a lot of concentration to follow through. deft not easy reading
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on 5 December 2014
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on 30 January 2016
I do not write reviews.
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on 10 May 2013
For me is the best book of siberia's travelling. Great description of the Siberian city and the siberian people. I dream a trik like this.
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on 17 January 2000
His writing is often so lovely I turn the page back just to read it again (doesn't happen often). Sometimes it wants to be poetic but is oblique and impenetrable. But the man can write far, far better than most. I spent three months in Siberia and I recognise all his characters, he conveys the desperation of the place beautifully, the shabbiness, but also the pride and the physical dimensions. Towards the end, the travel writing framework got wearying - not another priest drinking in a hut - but then he delivers the final chapter, which is superb and shocking and serene, and he is forgiven the slight tediousness or tiredness leading up to it. And for once, a travel writer who speaks the language of the country he/she is visiting, and doesn't pretend to by neglecting to mention translators. All in all, readable and memorable and a far cry from sunday supplement travel puffery.
10 people found this helpful
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on 14 November 2014
I read the review on the basis of the awards and the overwhelming amount of five stars and recommendations on the back of the book. In fact, though its hard to put my finger on why, I didn't find it that captivating at all. Though travelling Siberia, delving into its history and meeting a myriad of people, I feel the ambition to give an insight into the people of Siberia is actually lost. All the time the author projects his own views of the people onto them, what he thinks they are thinking about, what he thinks is troubling them, what he thinks are the effects of their past, what he thinks lies ahead in their future. The account is rarely of the actual people he meets but, more often, his own thoughts about Siberia projected into the lives of these people.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 August 2017
Siberia is a land haunted by the past, millions of ghosts from the past. They refuse to be quiet. Those who were enslaved, tortured and killed seem to hover above it at almost every turn and corner, never quite resting, which may explain much of the unease that permeates the landscape. This is the part of the world where three centuries of the Romanov dynasty, came to a definitive and violent end when the remaining royals were executed in 1918, even though they had abdicated a year earlier. Siberia is also a place that conjures up a series of bewildering statistics. Bigger than the US and Western Europe combined. It is also home to the coldest city on earth and the largest fresh water lake too. Siberia covers almost 10% of the worlds’ land surface.

Thubron slips in between the cracks of Siberia, making his way through a hidden world of hardship, uncovering it in all its cruel forms, meeting vagrants, hermits, geologists, fantasists, mafia and babushkas with back stories. These are mostly the people who got left behind by the oligarchs, the ones who remain forgotten. The serfs may have been emancipated back in 1861, but out here most people remain downtrodden and exploited, by a succession of self-serving leaderships, the leaders and the systems may change names, but the pain and suffering for the majority always remains. Corruption is as common as the cold in Russia and Siberia is no exception, most people suffering from the fallout, resign themselves to a life of crime, violence and vodka.

Our narrator ventures to and through such places as Yekaterinburg, Norilsk, Akademgorodok, and Irkutsk as well as many others. He brings the history faithfully alive and pulls it together with conviction, bringing alongside the present to give us a haunting picture of this vast, inscrutable place. It’s almost as if the more he sees the less you understand, such is the nature of this vast puzzle. He manages to uncover much of the mystery, magic and misery of the places, like when he finds himself on the mighty Lake Baikal where, “Its waters seem to cherish the strange, but kill the ordinary.” Although more than 300 rivers and streams fall into Baikal only one flows out, the Angara. He also tells us that, “It harbours nearly one fifth of all the fresh water on the planet: equal to the five Great Lakes of America combined, or to the Baltic Sea. If Baikal were emptied and all the world’s rivers diverted to its basin, they would not fill it within a year.”

He talks about the roots of the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan, “In 1928 the Jews were allocated this wilderness along the borders of China. Larger than Palestine, it was conceived as a propaganda counter-blow to Zionism. It would attract Jewish finance from the West, while populating the Soviet East against Japanese expansion.” In the first decade around 43’000 settlers arrived from America, Europe, Palestine and Argentina. They found a derelict, mosquito ridden land without the proper tools or equipment. Eventually more than half left and as Thubron says, “By 1990, during emigration to Israel and America, the Jews dwindled to fewer than 10,000 just 6 % of the inhabitants, and Yiddish vanished from the streets.”

He speaks to countless disillusioned and suffering inhabitants, “I don’t know what policy drives our government, or even if it has one! Science is now as cut off from the State as the Church used to be. As far as I can see everything’s run by mafia!” So reflects the general secretary of a gravely underfunded institute. At times, Thubron’s command of language is quite striking and profound, his ability to speak Russian gives him a huge advantage over most other travel writers who have ventured to Siberia, and it’s through this, that he manages to dig out some great stories, facts and inside knowledge. What is an impenetrable permafrost for other non-Russian speakers becomes a gold mine for Thubron.

With an almost desultory whim he pulls out one mind bending horror and statistic after another, like, “In 1939 the SS Indigirka went to the bottom with her freight trapped inside. In 1933 the SS Dzhurma mistimed her sailing and was locked in pack-ice for nine months while her 12,000 prisoners all froze to death, and half the crew went insane.” This is the notorious region of Kolyma, where as someone explains, “Kolyma is the land where the sun is without warmth, the flowers without scent, and the women without hearts.”

Thubron illustrates that Siberia is a place where often beauty and horror collide in a confusing yet compelling way. He goes from spellbinding tranquillity to nightmarish horror within the same page and yet maintains a measured balance throughout. This is an unforgiving part of the world that can never be tamed. He shows us that it’s a place that is reluctant to give away its secrets, but one which is even more desperate for answers.
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on 13 December 2015
I did find this book fairly heavy going, though not without interest. At just under 300 pages, it was certainly enough. To be honest, you could have picked and read any one chapter and got a pretty good overall flavour. Many of my pre-conceptions about Siberia were re-inforced – bleak, cold, areas of pollution, hardship, poverty, drunkenness, suffering, crime, religious sects, bureaucracy, tribal history, hopelessness, gulag past, vodka, etc. Of course, there are some positives, acts of kindness, etc. However, this book would not have done much to sell Siberia as a tourist attraction.
The author painted a very good picture of the history, the people and their lifestyles; less so the geography and scenery. It would have been invaluable if some photographs had been included. The map and the route were a great inclusion, and made the trip more imaginable. I rather wished that he had also included an introduction which mentioned the logistics of the trip, e.g., the planning, costs, languages required, etc.
One or two amazing facts - I hadn’t realised that several of the longest rivers in the world are in Siberia (which I regret to say I had never heard of), and Lake Baikal contains more water than all the Great Lakes added together! I also enjoyed youtubing “Tuvan throat singing”!
Of course it is over 15 years since the book was written, and it would be interesting to know if much has changed.
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on 18 October 2015
The second half beats the first, and I wondered whether the sheer bleakness of the place had originally gotten the author down. He's at his best describing the monstrous history of the dark and cold eastern leg of his remarkable journey, one that only a Russian speaker could achieve, of course. Don't try this at home.

He likes his similes and metaphors, and if this kind of creative writing lights your fire, then you will like this book. For me, it was occasionally too much. And nowhere does he describe in detail why he embarked on this journey, or whether his expectations were fulfilled. I also struggled to see the joins between chapters - was it one long journey or were there breaks? How long overall was he in the field?

For me, the best travel writing is when it feels that I'm listening to the account delivered by a friend at first hand; with this one, it's as though I'm listening in on someone else's conversation; still good, and worth the time.
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on 30 November 2012
Siberia fills one twelfth of the land-mass of the whole Earth, the much area is considered to be the wastelands, and it is the place where many people wouldn't wish to visit, as a consequence of political corruption and industrial ruins in the Siberia.

Colin Thubron completed the 15,000 mile epic, travelling with defective trains and buses and meeting with various people, e.g. descendants of religious shamans, Gulag survivors. He grips the reader with his first impression of Siberia: "A bleak beauty and an indelible fear". His precise and haunting prose matches the subject perfectly and gives the reader picture of the life of people who have lived in the most desolate and dispiriting places on earth, blending the stories of the past and present of Siberia. His findings include a number of moving and uplifting accounts people who have lost their distant and close families, relatives, and friends being murdered and executed by the political affairs, killed by work-related incidents and illness caused by the cold and inhospitable weather, and the people who have demonstrated strong determination to continue to live with their life despite the ordeals that they have to live with industrial ruins of Soviet Union in the wide areas.

This travel writing will greatly affect each reader and keep him/her haunting of series of dire memories.
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