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.
More typically, Frazier will describe the feel of a city or town, what’s cool about it, and what’s in its museum. Always, always, Frazier must stop in at the museum. These visits make sense for an historical travelogue like this, but by the end I could see them coming: another town, another museum. Frazier’s style, of course, accords honor to the quirky and the serendipitous; readers of his earlier works will recognize his interest in ravens and trash. Siberia turns out to have plenty of both—and from the reader’s point of view, too much.
On the other hand, when the right balance between seriousness and humor is struck, which is more often than not, there is a magic in the book that is Frazier’s alone. Travels in Siberia is full of marvels. One is the steklyannyi plyazh, or glass beach, near Vladivostok, composed of an infinity of bottle shards. “Green and amber and blue and pink and brown and clear glass fragments lay ankle-deep everywhere and lifted and fell in the waves,” Frazier recounts, “sand slowly returning to sand.” We learn the true tale of flamingoes that fell from the sky, on two separate occasions, near in the village of Verkhnemarkovo, and survived. On a more sobering note, there is the remote Topolinskaya Highway, built by slave labor under Stalin. The road, writes Frazier, “appeared to have been beaten into the earth by hands, feet, and bodies. Almost unaided, human beings had forced it through the wilderness. To the right and left, the roadside showed none of the healed-but-still-visible gouges you see along roads built by earthmoving machines.”