Time and Motion Day 1Sun 03 Feb
In the dining car of the mighty Rossiya we sped through the steppes of Siberia. A young Dutch woman told me and a retired English couple her life story. She was a tour guide with several elderly Dutch people in her care. They were taking the Trans-Siberian Express through Siberia and into Mongolia. Adele was an inveterate traveller she told us. She could not stay still but when she did she went home to her parents in the Dutch countryside. Her father was in his eighties. Adele was the 28-year-old product of his second marriage to a much younger woman. Her half-siblings were in their fifties and sixties with children close to her own age. I pictured her at home with her indulgent father and placid mother in a Dutch suburban setting. She would soon get restless I guessed. She needed to travel, she said. She had been to the former Dutch colonies on many work trips. On her last trip she had met her current boyfriend who was Indonesian. I was surprised. I thought the patrician influence would guide her towards an older, more established man. But no, her partner was working as a cleaner in a Butlin’s holiday camp in Minehead, Somerset. She was planning to visit him later that year.
It struck me as an incongruous pairing. Even as she told us about it her eyes betrayed the knowledge that this was a transitory romance and she would be back home with her parents soon enough. Who knows where my itchy feet will take me next, she said.
The retired English couple were from Kent. They too were travelling to Mongolia and then on to China and Vietnam. They looked at me expectantly. What was my story?
What was my story?
There are lots of gaps in it so it’s hard to find where to start. I thought about a film I’d seen recently that had struck a chord with me. It was about an alcoholic who never knew his parents. I echoed what I’d heard in that film:
I know three things about my father.
- He was Italian.
- He smoked Chesterfields.
- He didn’t like England.
I could have added
- He left when I was 12.
But that would have sounded maudlin so I changed the subject.
Past six in the evening on the last day of the summer season, after a schvitz in the banya-on-the-beach I climbed the high rim of the Baikal Canyon. From where I stood, high plateaus, in soft, drizzling light, seemed to stretch forever westward to the Urals. Facing east, my companion, the descendant of Bulgars, spread her long arms. Far below was Baikal, the most ancient lake on earth. It was shrouded in mist that drifts up the steep slope as if in search of us. The canyon rim on which we stood is a mile or more above the surface of the lake, whose greatest depth is 6,300 ft, or 1.2 miles, with an additional four miles of sediment above the bedrock. The great Baikal rift is seven times as deep as the Grand Canyon, by far the deepest land depression on the planet. It was only when I started writing about my trip to Siberia that I realised what I had been looking for.
Departure and Arrival
Hilton Garden Inn, Heathrow Airport
In the Seventies, when I was a child, Russia was the enemy. It was vast and incomprehensible; everything about it, even the alphabet, spelled mystery and mystification. I was intrigued. I wanted to know more. I wrote to the Russian embassy and asked them to tell me about their country. They sent me pamphlets and brochures. I was disappointed. I had thought they might send me an invitation. Perhaps if I had told them I didn’t feel at home here in England, that my dysfunctional family was squeezed into a small flat when other seemingly non-dysfunctional families lived in spacious villas, they might have offered me free passage. I wished then that I had told them that I liked the sound of Communism where everyone was dealt the same hand. Maybe they would have listened. Maybe they would have sent me that ticket to a far-off land.
In 2018 I was still living in a small flat, albeit alone, and I was still surrounded by villadom. With the strange goings-on at Salisbury, cyber attacks and election interference, Russia was still the enemy, and I still wanted to go to there.
Russia summons up the prospect of a land which represents the unlimited, the uncontrollable, the Europe that is estranged from itself, far from occidental civilisation and its concerns. I needed to dispel my infatuation with Russia’s otherness or confirm it.
The bureaucracy of arranging visas and accommodation proved to be formidable so I hired a travel agency to smooth them away. This is probably not in the spirit of people who go on pilgrimages. You’re supposed to revel in the blisters. But that’s not my way. I would spend a few days in Moscow before taking the Trans-Siberian Express over the Urals into Siberia. At the end of my train journey was a destination I had invested with magic powers. It was so foreign it out-foreigned Russia herself. It was the kind of place that sucks me in: a borderland containing a multiplicity of mysteries.
The largest and reputedly most beautiful body of fresh water in Asia; a rift lake bordering the Republic of Buryatia and Irkutsk Oblast, invested with geographical significance, ecological significance, holding one fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water, it had already been granted divine authority by a millenium of Buryat shamans. Lake Baikal was going to be my Mecca. The Buryats would be my conduit to the source of the immensity that eluded me.
This lake lies at the heart of Russia’s extravagant promises to travellers. It is a meeting place for East and West. It contains ethnicities that bring with them strange customs and unfamiliar facial features. The Buryats are just one of the myriad ethnicities in Russia. They are a northern subgroup of the Mongols, directly descended from Chinghis Khan. Lake Baikal, as well as Olkhon, its sacred island, is of great importance to them because Chinghis and their other great ancestor, Tamerlane, came from the mountain region touching its southern borders. It is the source of their lost power.
“1630: Arrival Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport. Transfer by private car with an English-speaking driver to hotel.”
Russia had hosted the World Cup football championships a few months before I arrived. The smiley warm buzz England fans had experienced had worn itself out. I was in a post-World Cup, deflated Moscow
My driver Dmitri was, as his bearing suggested, ex-army, now hiring himself out as a guide. He was pleasant and obliging. He smiled like a mother at her child when I shouted with joy and relief at the sight of a Café Costa. He withstood my demands for soya milk and decaffeinated coffee with patient fortitude. Behind the wheel of his car he was more bullish.
“You believe all the bullshit on CNN and BBC?” he said. It was more of an assumption than a question. I felt like saying hang on a sec, I’ve only just landed and I’m still getting my head around my decaf soya latte. I spluttered something vague about the importance of keeping an open mind. But Dmitri wasn’t letting me wriggle out of this one.
“It’s all bullshit, but you Westerners, you believe it,” he insisted. Since I had several friends in London who were entertaining the prospect of the British government’s poisoning of the Skripals, I was in the happy position of being able to prove him wrong. The alternative narrative went that MI5 had poisoned the luckless father and daughter and pinned it on the Russians in order to distract the British public from the horrors of austerity. The storyline was convincing-stroke-confusing because it was straight out of BBC’s Adam Curtis, and he says, and I believe him, that nothing is true anymore and what is real is made up.
It’s a long drive to Moscow from the airport and there was nothing much to look at apart from new-builds that reminded me of Croydon. So Dmitri got my attention.
“Gorbachev opened the gates,” he told me. “Brezhnev sold everything. Putin is making us great again.”
Hotel Budapest, Ulitsa Petrovskiye Linii, 2
Dmitri unpacked me onto the pavement outside the Budapest and rolled me into Reception. The streets of central Moscow have a calmness to them; clean stone facades, rhythmic detailing of balconies. Some of the wider thoroughfares have central aisles filled with trees and grass-covered lanes for pedestrians. This is a gracious city made for people to walk in – and they were, leisurely commutes or promenades under leafy canopies. The motor traffic was less gracious. We sat in a lumpen mass of unregulated Kazikstani taxi drivers and other ferrymen.
Hotel Budapest was built by the architect Boris Freidenberg, one of the most acclaimed Viennese architects of the 1870s. He was invited to Moscow by the celebrity owners of the old Sanduny baths. His mission was to rebrand them as a luxury VIP hang-out. Moscow was in the midst of an artistic renaissance known as “Russian Revival”, closely modelled on the Viennese Secessionists and French Art Nouveau. After the liberation of the serfs in 1861 and the Great Reforms of Tsar Alexander II, new private capital drove the new style, and Freidenberg gave value for money.
I could have been in Diaghilev’s Moscow. Serried rows of white stone were pinioned with lamp-posts of cast iron and frosted glass globes. As I entered the lobby, a graceful, dark-eyed woman was winding herself around a lamp-post, unfurling her smile for an invisible audience. Passersby and hotel staff seemed to be oblivious to this one-woman show. But then her audience materialised: the inbuilt camera of a mobile phone.
She had lit on the Budapest as a suitable backdrop for her latest update on social media. The Revival style, which seems to combine the gothic, the monolithic and the classical, smacks of lamp-lit flaneurs and dawdling rapporteurs. So I could see how she was referencing a noble tradition.
By contrast, a brass plaque on the exterior of the hotel bore Lenin’s face in stark, square-planed Deco relief. I’d just witnessed the western influence in action. Here was something of the East in Lenin’s slanting eyes and the Cyrillic script that gave the dates he came to the Budapest. The receptionist translated for me: 26th November 1918 and then again on 11th April 1919. But what had he done here, I wanted to know. Was he having a break from revolution? Did he have a continental breakfast?
“He made a speech here.”
To whom? About what?
“… Uh … a speech to some workers …”
Article by Lilian Pizzichini