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day tour of Siberia from St Petersburg

Time:2018-05-14 00:57wine - Red wine life health Click:

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Lena Pillars, bank of Lena river, Yakutia.

Lena Pillars, bank of Lena river, Yakutia. Photo: Alamy

Siberia is the final frontier. It exists like a phantom in my consciousness, a mythical concept rather than an actual place. It is white and gauzy and indistinct, an allegory for bleak skies flecked with sleet and grasslands painted with frost. It is a mystery that inches towards me with every click of the train's wheels. 

I've placed my books in a neat stack on the table beside my bunk in compartment No.11: Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn; notebooks in which to record my impressions of the journey that lies ahead. The train pulls out of St Petersburg's Ladozhskaya Station and gains swift momentum so that soon it has shaken off the city's brutalist apartment blocks and low-slung powerlines and is barrelling through copses of fir trees.   

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Dostoyevsky made this journey, too; but where he was shackled and hauled upon a sled to a prison camp in Siberia's Omsk, I'm travelling unregulated by second-class sleeper train to the remote outpost of Salekhard. From there I will venture northwards to the Yamal Peninsula to a camp as unfettered as Dostoyevsky's was incarcerating: a huddle of chums (tents) casually erected on the tundra by one of the world's last remaining traditional cultures, the indigenous Nenets reindeer herders.

Lake Kucherlinskoe in the Altai mountains.

Lake Kucherlinskoe in the Altai mountains. Photo: Alamy

Our provodnitsa (carriage attendant) delivers fresh linen to our compartment, and my three cabin-mates and I arrange ourselves as comfortably as we can within the confines of this narrow, double-bunked space. Our food supplies are tucked beneath the table – instant noodles and mashed potatoes that we prepare with hot water from the samovar at the far end of the carriage; condensed milk with which to sweeten our coffee. 

Outside, scenes blur one into the other, bright-painted houses framed by pink fireweed, rusted rooftops protruding from waves of sky-high grass, rotting boats washed upon a river's shore. The train's soporific rhythm is broken occasionally for stops at stations marooned upon the emptiness. Hawkers await us; we buy fresh bread and buckets of berries and forest mushrooms from their stalls.

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After sunset, in the rudimentary dining car, locals greet us in a hard-edged flourish. An immaculately dressed miner is getting smashed on Baltica beer. A muscular scrap metal dealer is guzzling broiled chicken. A teary-eyed Estonian is reminiscing about the years he spent working in Siberia during the Cold War; this will be his first visit there in 34 years.

VELIKIY USTYUG TO SALEKHARD  

It's taken 22 hours to get here, and we've made but the tiniest of incursions into Russia's eternal heartland. The Estonian was sleeping when we disembarked this morning, but he'd placed a gift in our compartment: a bottle of Estonian liqueur wrapped in a page torn from a soft porn magazine. 

The suffocating snows have melted to reveal a vista of cow bream and wildflowers. They lap at the estuaries converging at the ancient fortress town of Velikiy Ustyug, waterways once thick with explorers and traders. By the 1990s they'd thickened with silt, and when the rains came the rivers spilled into houses and across farmland. The Sukhona River has been dredged since, says local guide Lyubov Nalyotova.

"It looks calm, but it has changed its bed many times," she says, gazing across its silken surface towards a copper-domed monastery on the opposite bank. "It is perfidious."

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The town escaped an altogether more disquieting perfidy during the communist era, when the destruction of religious and cultural icons stopped just short of its perimeters. The railway doesn't reach Velikiy Ustyug (we journey there by road), and so structures that might otherwise have been razed – shiny-domed cathedrals, flaking belltowers – rise exultant from their ragtag foundations.    

TRAVELLING THE DEATH ROAD

So much of Russia's history is contained in the railway line that stretches from nearby Kotlas – where we reboard the train – to Salekhard. Prisoners flocked to the Gulag Archipelago of which Solzhenitsyn writes; indeed, they laid the very rails on which we now turn. The clacking wheels evoke more recent memories for our Intrepid guide, Ksenia Martynova, who was a baby when communism fell. Her parents lost their jobs overnight; her mother would journey by train to Moscow and St Petersburg to buy goods to trade back home in the Ural Mountains.

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