A Dazzling Russian travelogue from the best-selling author of Great Plains.
In Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier trains his eye for unforgettable detail on Siberia, that vast expanse of Asiatic Russia. He explores many aspects of this storied, often grim region, which takes up one-seventh of the land on earth. He writes about the geography, the resources, the native peoples, the history, the 40-below midwinter afternoons, the bugs.
The book brims with Mongols, half-crazed Orthodox archpriests, fur seekers, ambassadors of the czar bound for Peking, tea caravans, German scientists, American prospectors, intrepid English nurses, and prisoners and exiles of every kind - from Natalie Lopukhin, banished by the czarina for copying her dresses; to the noble Decembrist revolutionaries of the 1820s; to the young men and women of the People’s Will movement whose fondest hope was to blow up the czar; to those who met still-ungraspable suffering and death in the Siberian camps during Soviet times.
More than just a historical travelogue, Travels in Siberia is also an account of Russia since the end of the Soviet Union and a personal reflection on the all-around amazingness of Russia, a country that still somehow manages to be funny.
Siberian travel books have been popular since the 13th century, when monks sent by the pope went east to find the Great Khan and wrote about their journeys. Travels in Siberia will take its place as the 21st century’s indispensable contribution to the genre.
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier and read by the author could very simply be described as “Siberia: history of, people of, remoteness of, mythology about, and travels in”. This description would not, however, do justice to the mixture of joy, comedy, and incredulity with which Frazier reads his book.
The author goes to great lengths to explain why he became fascinated by what he calls “the greatest horrible country” in the world. It certainly was not the smell of Russia the olfactory amalgam of sour milk, cucumber peels, wet cement, and mud that slapped Frazier in the face whenever he first stepped from an airplane into any Russian airport terminal. Nor was it the extraordinary amount of trash that befouled every town, village, and roadside rest stop he visited. Those were merely minor distractions as Frazier continued to try and learn the language, read more books, and visit by car, train, and plane Siberian destinations even more remote and more physically taxing than those on his previous trip. Frazier’s infectious wonder at the breadth of the land and the scope of its history, his wry observations about the incongruities of normal life lived at degrees far below zero, and his hapless and frequently acrimonious adventures with his occasional Russian guide, Sergei Lunev, leave the listener equally enthralled with Siberia.
Frazier has a talent for comically pointing out aspects of Siberian life that are most different from what Americans consider “normal”. For example, curiosity turns to puzzlement then to all-out disbelief as Frazier realizes that couples are holding their weddings literally alongside parts of the trans-Siberian highway. The reality of what is taking place only sinks in as one boisterous celebration spills onto the highway and stops traffic in either direction. Then there is the airport in the town of Providineya, where the rusted wreckage of helicopters and airplanes at the end of the runway greet visitors who, presumably, consider themselves lucky for their safe landing. And there’s the only hotel in the isolated village of Khanyga with its 20 guests but only one bathroom.
Ian Frazier infuses the historical parts of Travels in Siberia with passion for characters from Siberia’s past, such as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, the American adventurer George Kennan, or the anarchic Decembrists, each providing delightful counterpoints to Frazier’s musings about the eccentricities of modern-day Siberians. Throughout his travels Frazier ponders the concept of “Siberian exile” and how that notion became imbued into the psyche of Russian people. Through his own insights and the words of others, Frazier pulls no punches as he describes the soul-shattering despair of those who endured Russia’s ultimate punishment for charges ranging from the criminal and political to the completely capricious. Having experienced the almost incomprehensibly stark and unforgiving landscape spanning thousands of frozen miles in every direction, Frazier soberly recounts the cataclysmic mental and physical agony consuming those exiled to Siberia.
The author’s enchantment for his subject matter is so consistently enjoyable that all who indulge in the listening experience will be profoundly grateful for Ian Frazier’s love of Siberia while remaining relieved that they did not make the journeys themselves. Carole Chouinard
"Ian Frazier caps his travels through Siberia's vastness by narrating his own account of them, another enormous undertaking. The author doesn't have the polish or range of a professional voice actor, but soon we appreciate how this somewhat pedestrian tone suits both the crude reality of Siberia and the deadpan humor that pervades his book. How could anyone doubt that this is the voice of the actual man who, as he admits, had a 'chronic fear of being run over while asleep in my tent' or who was annoyed that his tea tasted like the shaving cream someone had mixed in his cup?" (Washington Post Book World)
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I Loved This Book
I don't know if my overwhelming love for this book will transfer to other readers but Ian Frazier's obsession with travel and all things Russian were infectious. I found the story laugh out loud funny with some beloved interludes striking me with the giggles randomly during the day while I sort socks and cook soup long after I finished the book. It was banned as bedtime listening because my laughter kept my husband awake! It may be that the author's stories about the Soviet ethos reminded me of my own trips through Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It brought my travel memories and personal brushes with the quirkiness of the Soviet/ Russian worldview into clearer focus. But, whatever the reason, to me, Ian hit the nail on the head and captured that world perfectly. I can't recommend the book more strongly. It is wonderfully engaging and funny as all get out. Listening to Travel's in Siberia is the next best thing to being right there with Ian Frazier on his next trip to Russia.
- Novie E. Lee