Lewis Jones

The last place on earth

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’.

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.

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