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Watching history go by
Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok

By Amir Khosrow Sheibany
December 11, 2001
The Iranian

Summer of 2001 looked to be the first in 8-years that I would be sitting at home without any work. So, what to do? How about visiting the other side of the world, slowwwly? Taking the predecessor to Reza Shah's railway, the Trans-Siberia Railway, from lake Baikal, the Caspian's more impressive little sister, past the home town of Rasputin (Russia's Ayatollah Khomeini -- NOT!!), past Genghis Khan's neighborhood to Vladivostok, a mystery town at the other end of the world?

Travel along the Trans-Siberian Railway is usually undertaken from west to east, though it is quite possible to go in the opposite direction. The usual route taken by travelers is the Trans-Siberian line (7-day duration), which runs from Moscow to Vladivostok. A second primary route ends in Beijing. Photos here

I thought I would skip Moscow, having seen it before, and fly from New York straight into Siberia to the major industrial city of Yekaterinburg for the start of my journey.  At $330, the plane ticket was a great deal. However, I had often joked the only times I pray to God nowadays is when I am compiling my own software code. Well, one trip on Aeroflot and I found a second reason. Their regional planes are like creaking 1960's buses with wings, and jet engines strapped to the back. The 21st century version of Russian Roulette.

For those who travel for the pleasure of the journey, those who believe that getting there is as much fun as being there, Russia's Trans-Siberian Railway has long been considered an experience with mythological proportions. It is the longest continuous rail line on earth, each run clattering along in an epic journey of almost 6,000 miles (or about 10,000 kilometers) over one third of the globe.

The Trans-Siberian journey is an experience of almost continuous movement, seven days or more of unabated train travel through the vast expanse of Russia. A great part of the pleasure of such a trip is simply sitting back and watching the land go by. Furthermore, the interaction with other passengers, both Russians and tourists, makes the trip an unforgettable experience.

Russia's longstanding desire for a Pacific port was realized with the gradual rise of Vladivostok in the middle of the 19th century. By 1880, Vladivostok had grown into a major port city, and the lack of adequate transportation links between European Russia and its Far Eastern provinces soon became an obvious problem.

In 1891, Czar Alexander III drew up plans for the Trans-Siberian Railway and initiated its construction. Upon his death three years later, the work was continued by his son Nicholas. Despite the enormity of the project, a continuous route was completed in 1905 (three decades before Reza Shah's railway), having been rushed to completion by the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War the year before.

Arriving in Yekaterinburg the first thing I saw was a molla republic cargo plane parked on the airport tarmac. What was it doing there? Only God knows -- and mollas.

I had held a special interest for Yekaterinburg. I was pleased to find it quite a beautiful and peaceful city. The town was founded in 1721 by Catherine the Great as a fort and metallurgical factory, its position having been chosen for its strategic proximity to the great mining operations of the Urals and Siberia.

(Iran's comparable town was called Arya-Shahr, close to Isfahan. Also build in a strategic location, for the workers involved in Zob-Ahan, Iran's steel mill. Unlike Yekaterinburg however, Arya-Shahr's master-plan was published in the architects' encyclopedia, having won the top prize in city planning from the gathering of the world's architects in Brazil in 1975.)

It was in Yekaterinburg, in a house that once stood on Liebknecht ulitsa, that Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed on the early morning of July 17, 1918. Although the house no longer exists, a plain wooden cross marks the grounds. There was a large memorial in the city center, and it was clear in discussions with the locals that this is still a sensitive subject. The deaths had heralded the start of great misery, wars, gulags and snowy graves for the Russian people.

I had not realized how gruesome their deaths were and how many of the intricate details are public knowledge until I came across a memorial. They were shot, the girls bayoneted, and then there was a botched up attempt to blow up the bodies so that monarchist don't have the corpse's as a nostalgic icon to rally around.

This did not work, so the remains were put at the bottom of a mine shaft and acid was poured over the remains followed by more grenades, which the local revolutionary commissar again messed up, and because of this there is still some of their remains left. The mastermind behind the attempt to get rid of the bodies, Yakov Sverdlov, then had a city named after him!

Now as a forced exile from the Islamic Republic, all this sounds so-oo familiar :-). Standing there made me wonder, what would have happened if Jimmy Carter had succeeded in returning the Shah and his family to our Islamic and Marxist revolutionaries.

What is interesting is that many years later the very building in which the Tsar was killed was becoming a symbolic threat to the communist regime and a local Communist Party boss called Boris Yeltsin demolished it. Later still, as the new President of non-communist Russia, he gave them a formal burial in St. Petersburg with all the pomp and ceremony befitting a tsar.

After a five-day rest here, I boarded the train, on my way to the next major stop near lake Baikal. The train went by Pokrovskoe village, the birth place of Grigory Rasputin. You probably know about him, and how he charmed his way to the royal court of Russia and help the hemophiliac crown prince.

What you may not know is that in his hometown he was known as the "Sex Priest" and quoted as saying "Sex is nothing more than an itch." He claimed he had visions of the virgin Mary, and believed sinning (especially the sexual kind), then repenting, could bring people closer to God. His magnetic personality was apparently heightened by what the French ambassador called "a strong animal smell, like that of a goat." Hmmm. Promiscuity bringing redemption!? Food for thought for our Islam and democracy ideologues.

I arrived in Irkutsk two days later. Its attraction for visitors is supplemented by its proximity to Lake Baikal, the Pearl of Siberia. The border between Siberian Russia and Mongolia is a natural divide here, with rugged hills, vast evergreen forests and mountains forming series of wrinkles between the sprawling Russian forests to the north and rolling grasslands to the south.

About midway along this border, in a gigantic stone bowl nearly four hundred-miles (636 km) long and almost fifty-miles (80 km) wide, lies more than one fifth (22%) of the all the fresh water on planet earth -- Lake Baikal.

Baikal is easily the largest lake in Eurasia, and it is just as easily the deepest lake in the world (1,620 meters). On the merits of magnitude alone the lake is renowned as one of the earth's most impressive natural wonders, and rightfully so -- Baikal is so large that all of the rivers on earth combined would take an entire year to fill it.

In the summer, Lake Baikal's crystalline blue waters are transparent to a depth of forty meters, and its shores are ringed with the brilliant colors of seasonal wildflowers. The lake region is home to an enormous variety of plants and animals, most of which -- like nerpas, the lake's freshwater seals, and its trademark delicacy, the omul salmon -- are found nowhere else in the world. Bears, elk, lynx, and sables abound in the surrounding forests.

It was here that I wrote this letter to Iranian.com  It is also here that our ever so smart communist friends decided to build a paper factory and dumped its chemical waste into the drinkable water.

Irkutsk also has the cultural heritage of its aristocratic exiles, known as the Decembrist. They were Paris educated liberals considered "Westernisers", who bungled a revolt against militaristic Tsar Nicholas 1st "a conservative Slavophile". Five were executed and 116 sent here for a term of hard labour. This experience made some of them into anarchists who loathed all authority and upheld the virtues of the village commune.

Many Polish intellectuals were also exiled here after Napoleons defeat. There presence had a marked effect on the educational and cultural life of their adopted town. Here again I could not stop but to think about Iran.

Despite the members of the Shah's regime being hounded out of office as corrupt and incompetent thieves, and being exiled penniless in foreign surroundings, or being tormented and unfairly treated at home, they still made good of their conditions. In just 20 years they became prosperous and surrounded by all the comfortable signs of a cultured human being.

As for the revolutionaries (including the anti-materialists following the Ali Shariati line, or Afghani's Islamic revival), who took our homes as "war booty" and let it fall into disrepair, after 20 years they have found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder they are supposedly in charge of.

Back aboard the Tran-Siberian train, I would spend four days going past Ulan Ude, a center of the Buddhist Buryat culture, Khabarovsk on the Amur River, and ultimately end up in Vladivostok. A picture is worth a thousand words, so rather than describe these days I shall show them to you, what you won't see is the wonderful smell of fresh nature, laced with burnt wood from little villages, and the ever so lively Russian music (Dance, Winter, Guitar, Old Soviet national anthem).

As headquarters of the Russian Pacific fleet Vladivostok was closed both to foreigners and to Soviet citizens lacking special entry permission. The city was opened once again to visitors in 1992. I had no idea what to expect from this town, but I must say I was surprised at how advanced it was compared to the rest of Russia. In fact after Moscow and St. Petersburg it is the next most expensive place to live.

Asides from the infuriating and despotic Russian bureaucracy and Soviet style concrete-hive hotels, this town was a nice place to stroll around and take it easy. 

Comment for The Iranian letters section
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By Amir Khosrow Sheibany

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