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The last place on earth

Colin Thubron has called Siberia ‘the ultimate unearthly abroad’, the ‘place from which you will not return’.

23 July 2011

12:00 AM

23 July 2011

12:00 AM

White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia Jacek Hugo-Bader, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Portobello Books, pp.323, 16.99

Colin Thubron has called Siberia ‘the ultimate unearthly abroad’, the ‘place from which you will not return’.

Colin Thubron has called Siberia ‘the ultimate unearthly abroad’, the ‘place from which you will not return’. Many millions have not — Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn were lucky — but these days quite a few do, and most of them seem to write books about it. The latest is Jacek Hugo-Bader, a Polish journalist who, as a 50th birthday present to himself, travelled from Moscow to Vladivostok in an old lazhi (‘tramp’, a Soviet jeep), driving 12,968 kilometres in 55 days, at an average speed of 43.8 kmph.

That’s when the girls stop walking along the streets arm in arm, the boys no longer stand outside the shop with a beer… and the cars stop moving. The shock-absorbers freeze, the suspension goes stiff … and all the electrical wires become as fragile as twigs.

If your car breaks down after dark no one will stop to help, for fear of bandits. Out in the taiga, you sometimes have to sleep in your car anyway, for which you need food, drink and bedding, an axe, a shovel, a spare battery, an independent heat source, an alarm to wake you every two hours to run the engine and, to heat it up if it freezes, a flamethrower-like device (in lieu of a fire on your shovel). Most drivers also consider a gun essential, for shooting bandits and road signs, but Hugo-Bader bravely eschews one.

He also bravely eschews a linear narrative, which is unusual in a travel book, and refreshing. The brief paragraph that begins with his departure from Moscow ends with his arrival 1,700 kilometres away in Irkutsk, and he never quite gets round to Vladivostok.

White Fever is journalistic, in a good way. Each chapter resembles a samizdat magazine, a collage of short articles, jokily headlined and leavened with interviews, diary entries and random observations on a given subject — the Aids epidemic, for example — and ending with a quotation from Report from the 21st Century, a work of Soviet propaganda published in 1957, the year of Hugo-Bader’s birth, predicting the glories of the USSR in 2007, on the 90th anniversary of the Revolution (Cancer will be as trifling as a cold).

There is an amusing chapter on the history of Russian hippiedom, presented as ‘a small and impractical Russian-English dictionary of hippy slang’ (zabivat — to roll a joint, perenta — parents, flet — a flat). Bep, a hippy patriarch, is officially shiz (schizophrenic), as dissidents were diagnosed by the Soviet regime. After its collapse, the authorities apologised and offered to withdraw the diagnosis, but Bep declined, so he could keep his disability pension: ‘I’m the last person to be suffering from an illness that doesn’t exist.’

Such bitter jokes — of which there are many here — are typical of Russia under any regime, as heavy drinking has been since Peter the Great. Alcohol has a chapter of its own, but also features strongly in nearly all the others. The average citizen consumes 16 litres of spirit per annum, and 40,000 per annum die of it. Russia also tops the league in murder and suicide, and Siberia tops the Russian league. There are two million indigenous Siberians, of nearly 50 races, and they are drinking themselves to death. Only 235 Enets remain, 12 Alutors, and eight Kereks. ‘White fever’ is their name for the DTs, for which the only remedies are fried reindeer brains or suicide.

Hugo-Bader is an excellent and intrepid reporter, and seems to have enjoyed his hellish odyssey, but is understandably upset about his hosts’ ‘languid way of waiting for disaster to happen’.

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