Think Siberia and think cold. Think hoarfrosted faces, howling wolves, frozen mountains, salt mines, human chain gangs and exile. Maxim Gorky once called it a ‘land of chains and ice’ and, until recently, the description still held good. Tsars and Party apparatchiks might have had opposing political ideologies but they were of one mind when it came to Siberia.
It was the ne plus ultra of natural prisons; any criminal or persona non grata could be dropped off in its inhospitable snowbound vastness, never to be seen again. Attempts at escaping back to civilization usually met with a chilly end. But it wasn’t until the Stalinist purges that Siberia and gulag became synonymous with human atrocity, moving Solzhenitsyn to write his illegal and death sentence-attracting novel, Gulag Archipelago.
Siberia’s history left a scar on the Russian psyche, but gradually its reputation is changing. Its vastness – it takes up nearly three quarters of Russia or one third of the entire northern hemisphere – and uninhabitability make it a rewarding challenge. More and more foreigners are attracted to its virginal spaces and complete lack of Contiki Tour predictability. Travelers do not do a tour of Siberia as much as complete a mental and physical odyssey.
While much of Siberia is taiga – dark and brooding forests of birch, pine, spruce and larch – the real desert of eastern Russia is the Siberian tundra. The tundra falls almost completely within the Arctic Circle. Most of the ground has frozen over; it’s the geological equivalent of the faulty freezer that no one can be bothered defrosting. In some places the permafrost reaches a depth of 1450m (4760ft). There are very few trees or bushes at all, and for nine months of the year the little bit of greenery that survives is buried beneath a carpet of snow.
The only animal hardy enough to survive out here in the howling wilderness is the hidebound reindeer and the hard luck lemming (suddenly, the whole ‘jumping off cliffs’ thing makes more sense). All in all, it’s not exactly anyone’s paradise. But if you’re looking for the exotic and the unspoiled, Siberia is it. A trip on the famous and fabulous Trans-Siberian railroad will take you across the tip of the steamy Gobi desert, through the deepest heartland of Russia and right up to the very tip of the icy wastelands of the tundra.