Sunday, February 24, 2008

Through Siberia by Accident

Dervla Murphy is a beer-swilling cigar-smoking travel writer with more than 20 books to her credit. She is also an eccentric Irish granny who prefers travelling by bike. She does not own a car, microwave, washing machine, computer, TV, or central heating.

The misfortunes she has suffered during her travels are many:

Afghanistan – broken ribs, scorpion bite
Albania – three attempted robberies
Cameroon – “triple tooth abscess”
Ethiopia – dislocated knee, robbed by bandits
India – heat stroke, mumps, brucellosis (brucellosis!)
Laos – torn tendon in right foot
Madagascar – gout, more broken ribs, Hep A
Nairobi-London flight – life threatening clot in leg
Pakistan - amoebic dysentery
Rumania – robbed by police, concussion, fractured coccyx, broken foot
South Africa – tick bite fever, shattered left arm
Zimbabwe - malaria

In 2002 she crossed the Russian Federation by the Baikal-Amur Mainline, her intention being to cycle through a portion of Siberia. In this she was prevented by a couple of injuries that occurred before her starting point was reached. Instead she continued to travel by train and boat in the Baikal and Sakha areas.

She extols the friendliness of Siberians, and falls under the spell of Lake Baikal and the Lena River. Her observations are intelligent, well-informed, and contain none of the usual whining often found in travel writing. She complains about toilet facilities only once. She is gutsy, pragmatic and open-minded.

My sole complaint is her continual fussing over pets. No incident is too trivial to report on:

As I drank, the pup farted – potent farts which at first provoked only laughter and comically expressed disgust. Then, as they increased in volume and frequency, filling the cabin with asphyxiating fumes, the consensus was that he should be exiled. Tears gathered in the little boy’s eyes. But I had finished my beer, and thawed, and was returning to the platform where the pup could sit on my lap because Baikal’s wind would disperse his wind. When I had found the most sheltered corner he gazed up at my face with a puzzled expression. No doubt I smelt wrong, foreign. Soon he struggled to be free, loudly relieved his bowels behind a milk churn and thereafter farted no more.

Murphy undertook this trip in 2002, when she was in her early 70s. A few years later she returned and completed it, the results being published as Silverland: A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals.