Sent To Siberia
Allan Boroughs, is a Grange Park resident and a man of many talents. Allan, a business adviser and writer has his first children's book Ironheart published by Macmillan in Jamuary 2013. In March 2013 he made a 5,500 trip to Siberia, as part of his research for his book.
Picking myself up from the Siberian forest floor for the third time I reflected that a dog sledge was possibly the most wilful mode of transport I had ever encountered. The seven dogs pulling my sledge only understood instructions in Russian and were far more interested in exploring interesting smells than anywhere I might want to go. (Imagine driving a car that was constantly trying to sniff the butts of all the other cars and you have the general picture).
When I first broached the topic of taking a trip to Siberia, my wife was very understanding given how it sounded when I said it out loud. "I want to go to Siberia," I announced. "I want to make the journey without getting on an aircraft to gain a true sense of the size of the Earth. I want to travel from our house in Grange Park and go all the way to Beijing by train!"
"I think you may need to change at Finsbury Park," she said. She was right too. Grange Park, Finsbury Park, Kings Cross, Brussels, Koln, Moscow, Irkutsk, Ulan Bator and Beijing – a total journey of about 5,500 miles and definitely outside the Oyster zone. Along the way I planned to research an adventure story for children and have an authentic adventure of my own.
So why go by train? Well, I like trains. Not in a geeky sort of way but because trains travel more slowly and give you a much better sense of how the world is joined up. Viewing the world through a train window reminds you that countries rub up against each other, they have border regions where languages and cultures mix and the changes in landscape and architecture happen gradually.
My journey took me on a slow ride through Eastern Europe watching the scenery change into snow draped forests and stark mountain ranges. As the train slipped across the Urals into Siberia proper we passed Soviet era factories, lumber yards and remote villages and the temperature outside dropped to minus 30C. (Interestingly we were warned of the dangers of remaining seated whilst flushing the toilet as a blast of sub-zero air has been known to freeze unsuspecting passengers to the toilet seat.)
Siberia itself is a land of extremes, much of it covered in frozen forest (or Taiga) – there are more trees in Siberia than in the whole of the Amazon. The country has a population less than half that of the UK in an area twelve times the size and the temperature ranges from -60C in the winter to plus 45C in the summer. Despite such hostility in the landscape, the northern and eastern regions are still home to large groups of ethnic Siberians, living in nomadic tribes who have survived years of persecution and the encroachment of commercial interests on their lands.
I also had the privilege of being able to meet so many more of the people than I would have done travelling by plane – the burly lady furnace stoker, gold-toothed Babushkas selling dubious-looking smoked fish on the stations , a horse master of the Mongolian plains who shared my interest in conjuring tricks and a soviet-era school teacher who had only recently been allowed to read 'Animal Farm' were just a few I shall always remember.
The trip was also not without its bizarre moments – it will be a long time before I forget entertaining three very large Belarus border guards and their sniffer dog in a sleeper cabin the size of a telephone kiosk or indeed the unexpected meal of deep fried scorpions and ice cream that followed shortly afterwards.
And then, of course, there was the dog sledging. Actually, once you manage to stop the dogs from licking themselves and peeing against trees they can get up a fair bit of speed. And with a clear Siberian sky and a fresh wind blowing across Lake Baikal I think I have scarcely seen a more beautiful country.
At the end of a three week journey I clambered off the train in Beijing looking and smelling like something that had been lured down from the mountains with a piece of meat. I boarded my plane for home reluctantly – torn between the need to see the family again and a strong urge to board the very next train to who-knows-where. Arriving back in London was something of a culture shock after my slow journey East – the city seemed unnaturally crowded, fast paced and intense compared to the beautiful desolation of the previous few weeks. I spent much of the year that followed writing the novel that I used as justification for the journey and I was delighted last year when it was accepted for publication.
So what now? I confess I am bitten by the travel bug and the desire to make interesting journeys without being overly concerned about the destination. This year I wrote a second novel inspired by a trip to Antarctica and I have further trips planned (though they may require some careful domestic negotiations). Of course I have only been able to do any of this because other people have encouraged me and I shall remain eternally grateful to everyone who covered for me, supported me and allowed me to believe that doing something just because it sounds bonkers is reason enough on its own.
More pictures can be viewed on Allan's travel blog here
Ironheart, a classic adventure story for children, is published by Macmillan on 2nd January 2014
"I want to go to Siberia," I announced. "I want to make the journey without getting on an aircraft to gain a true sense of the size of the Earth. I want to travel from our house in Grange Park and go all the way to Beijing by train!"