Watching history go by
Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok
By Amir Khosrow Sheibany
December 11, 2001
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.
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
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 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
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
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.