I make no secret of my interest in Russia, and as I browse the shelves I could probably focus that on the distant, the isolation, and the hardship. Peninsulas like Kola or Kamchatka feature. But above all is the vastness of Siberia; the land of the gulag, of icy wastes and outcast lepers; The Trans-Siberian, the BAM and the Amur. And Baikal.
Baikal holds one fifth of the world’s entire stock of freshwater. Just take a few seconds to let that sink in. It is longer than the road from Glasgow to London, and 50 miles wide. Water flows in from 334 tributaries, but only one river, the Angara, flows out, west and north to the Yenisei and thence to the Arctic. If the inflow was all diverted it would take 400 years for the Angara to drain the lake.
In the depths are creatures found nowhere else on the planet. In winter ice forms to a depth of four feet. Railways and roads have gone where ships steam in the summer, ships built on the Clyde.
So when I find a book on Siberia, centred on Baikal it grabs my attention. And when it promises something along the lines of Guy Grieve’s Call of the Wild, I sit up. A man seeking wilderness, changing his life, escaping, surviving.
I heard Sylvain Tesson on the radio a few weeks ago. He is French, and speaks English perfectly, Russian too I suspect. His book had arrived a few days earlier, and has tempted me from the shelf whilst I indulged other places and other times. I escaped into sword & sandal – grateful as always to Manda Scott – for a few days, and that cleared the mind for Tesson, and Baikal.
He was no stranger to the area, and I find that a decade ago he walked from the gulag in Yakutsk to India, in the footsteps of one of the great escapes and survivals of all time. I’m assuming here he had Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk as his inspiration, which is a wonderful tale in itself, and I’m hoping that Tesson’s Axis of Wolf may be available in translation. The search is on.
But meantime I’ve joined him in a hut, it is no more than that, 10ft by 10ft, in the middle of the taiga, where he spent six months, alone, voluntarily. If he wants to see another face, hear another voice, he has a five hour trudge. Heading south it would take all day. There are no roads, no village; and much time and space for introspection, and discovery; for reading, and for writing
He took some books with him, seventy of them; real books, with pages and covers, to sit on a shelf. Now there’s an exercise. What books would you take with you? His list is interesting. He did try some electronic assistance but the solar powered computer imploded in the first couple of days, unable to cope at minus 30.
I’m going to enjoy this one. I may tell you more later.
There is landscape, climbs above the tree-line, and water to be walked on. Hunting is prohibited and the woods play host to wolves, and to bears when they begin to wake. He threw half a dozen bottles of vodka into the snow, to recover in a few months when he might need it, as the snow melts.
But his first decision was a tough one. How many varieties of Heinz ketchup are available in your supermarket? They make 15, and all of them are on the shelf in Irkutsk. He selects only one, eighteen bottles of Super Hot Tapas. 15 varieties, it’s what drove him away from the world. He’s going to be good company, and that’s why my eyes are nipping these days.