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Newby's Educational And Comedic Train Saga
on 28 June 2012
In his 1978 book The Big Red Train Ride, celebrated travel-writer Eric Newby traces the 5900 mile journey from Moscow to Nakhodka (on Russia's Pacific coast) that he made in 1977 on the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway. Rather like his successor travel writers Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson, Newby's writing is a compelling mix of historical detail and lighter, more whimsical passages - the latter often arising as a result of Newby's attempts to circumvent the strict rules and regulations (which, for example, banned the opening of train windows!) imposed on foreign travellers in Soviet Russia which were in force at the time of his journey.
For the trip, Newby was accompanied by three fellow travellers - his single-minded Slovenian-born wife, Wanda (whom Newby met whilst escaping from captivity in Italy during WWII), a German Jew who is obsessed with photography, Otto, and the trio's Soviet-appointed minder, Mischa. Newby's writing is never less than interesting, combining a mix of easy-to-read chatty prose, with some passages of beautiful and lucid descriptive writing covering the terrain and environment through which he passed during his 192-hour train voyage. Newby had clearly undertaken extensive research for the trip (as well as having some prior experience of travel in Soviet Russia), and the book provides extensive (and much astonishing) detail of the history of the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway during the latter part of the 19th century, and of the history of the various inhabitant races over the preceding centuries. Of course, one of the most memorable (and tragic) elements in the history of Siberian Russia was the extent to which the ruling regimes (both in Tsarist times and under Stalin) banished large sections of the population to exile in this most remotest of locations. The book is certainly not all doom and gloom, however, and Newby includes many hilarious anecdotes to lighten the mood, such as where his small travelling party are forced (in order to comply with Soviet protocol) to gorge themselves with food and drink at a surprise feast during an official visit (having already eaten on the day in question), and where Newby, despite his protestations to the contrary having had similar experiences previously, is obliged to undergo a mind-numbingly tedious tour around one of the many Soviet wire factories.
An enthralling read, and highly recommended.