After this, he visits Nome, Alaska, which he describes in some wonderful passages, but which is not Siberia. There are also brief trips to the Chukchi Peninsula, right across the Bering Strait from Alaska, and the nearby Diomede Islands—but these places, too, have a fairly tenuous connection to the essential, Russian-flavored Siberia. Many pages are spent on the history of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, with the narrator hardly present, and on earlier accounts of travels in Siberia by other writers, of which there are many. Frazier focuses on one such chronicle by an Ohio telegraph operator named George Frost Kennan (after his distant relative, George Kennan, the twentieth-century diplomat and Russia expert). The untutored Kennan had some interesting travels and wrote a good book. But by the time Frazier, who was born in Cleveland and grew up in Hudson, Ohio, gets around to noting the many other Ohio-Siberia historical connections (“That’s five people from Ohio visiting and writing about Siberia in the space of fifteen years, or an average of one Ohioan every three years,”), the conceit has worn a bit thin. We want to hit the road!
We finally do on page 178. In St. Petersburg, on an earlier visit, Frazier has introduced himself to officials at the Museum of the Arctic and the Antarctic, and asked for their advice on how to drive across Siberia. They hook him up with a guide, Sergei, who brings along an assistant, Volodya—“tough and competent-looking” men who belong to a nationwide emergency rescue organization called the Ministry of Extraordinary Situations.
Frazier stakes them $4,500 for the purchase of a vehicle, and remarks on their odd choice when he returns and sees it in Sergei’s garage: a Renault delivery van. The van strikes him “as not Siberia-ready. It looked more suited to delivering sour cream and eggs, the job it had done until recently.” But with Sergei at the wheel, the trio crosses the Urals and heads toward the Pacific. At last, the travels in Siberia have begun.
It is a boon to the story that the van is prone to breakdown—and a boon to the trip that Sergei has an almost magical ability to get it fixed. There being few motels in Siberia, the group mostly camps out. In what becomes a recurrent pattern, the guides establish camp at night, cook dinner, let Frazier set up in his tent . . . and then take off to meet women. Frazier’s Russian is not very good and he doesn’t object to this abandonment, which is both understandable and kind of sad. In the daytime, though, he’s more in charge. His readings in Russian history and travel literature have prepared him with a list of places he hopes to stop and explore. Frazier’s Siberia is intimately connected to history; he collects buildings and locations that may not seem too important in today’s world, but which once had profound meaning.
Early in the journey, for example, he tries to find a brick pillar that he read about in George Kennan’s book. The pillar, 150 miles east of Ekaterinburg, marked the boundary between the western Russian province of Tobolsk and the Siberian province of Perm. It stood on an old road, the Trakt, along which, during tsarist days, thousands of prisoners passed every year. At the pillar they were allowed to pause, look back, pick up a little of the dirt of western Russia, and say goodbye before “jumping off into the void.” Like many other things he’s looking for, the pillar has disappeared. Yet the legacy of exile is palpable to Frazier, who believes that a landscape can be permanently marked by human sadness.
Of course, the seriousness of Siberia is almost a priori: its use as a place of banishment dates to the time of the tsars. Frazier wants to stop at prisons and former prison camps on the drive, but time and again it doesn’t work out. He finally concludes that’s because Sergei and Volodya, out of a mixture of pride, prudence, and perhaps a faint sense of shame, would rather he focus on other things.