Thursday, April 9, 2009


A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals

"A typical old Irish Leftie" is how Dervla Murphy was once described.

A grandmother in her 70s, she embarks upon her second journey through Siberia. She travels alone, speaks no Russian, and stashes money in her vagina.

This trip seems a little grimmer than the first one. The openness and generosity of many people are counterbalanced by the rudeness and xenophobia of many others. The word "Nyet!" is heard far too often, and there are sad examples of poverty, alcoholism, bureaucratic tangles, and "pollution on a truly sinister scale." Towards the end of the book she is robbed at gunpoint.

Murphy is an engaging, well-read, and plain-speaking traveller. She suffers the occasional hangover, provides apt historical asides, and collects interesting observations from others, such as support for the US invasion of Iraq, the reason for gigantism in Soviet architecture, and the opinion that Russia is "too big for democracy".

For me, two lines sum up the book:

I met no one who could honestly express optimism about Russia's future.

Siberia's uninhabited vastness mesmerizes me; as I write these words I long to return.


1. Silverland is a companion volume to Through Siberia by Accident, which recounts the author's abortive attempt to bicycle through the Russian Far East in 2002. She returned in 2004, drawn by Siberian hospitality and such natural wonders as Lake Baikal (a "Hallowed Sea").

2. She travels almost entirely by train -- from Cologne to Moscow with an awkward interruption in Belarus, then over the Urals with stops in Severobaikalsk, Tynda, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, and Vanino. Her return journey takes her through Khabarovsk, Ulan-Ude, and Rostov-on-Don, with a final week in St. Petersburg.

3. She airs some personal views. Bicycle helmets are "wimpish," the IMF has caused "despair and death on three continents," and crematories release dioxins into the air and mercury vapour from dental fillings. She recommends a "woodland" burial -- no coffin, just a winding-sheet of wool or cotton.

4. The book contains a map, bibliography, and four pages (eight sides) of B&W photos.

More Quotes

electric "butter-lamps"

tea sweetened with blackcurrent jam

the sordid engine room of the capitalist ship

that notorious Soviet mix, zealotry and incompetence

a society dazzled by but not fully comprehending the workings of capitalism