Skip to Content

To Siberia by rail on a literary quest

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on September 13, 2006

Sarah Anderson travels on the Trans-Siberian Railway and stops in Russia on a trip inspired by a host of literary greats

A journey to Siberia by train in search of Shamans, Old Believers and following – albeit in relative comfort – in the steps of the Decembrists, was an alluring prospect.

The way of life on the Trans-Siberian Railway is seductive: “You wake up in the morning. Your watch says it is eight o’clock; but you are travelling east, and you know that it is really nine… Your berth is comfortable. There is no need to get up, and no incentive either. You have nothing to look forward to, nothing to avoid. No assets, no liabilities … But on the Trans-Siberian Railway there are neither ups nor downs. You are a prisoner, narrowly confined” (Peter Fleming, One’s Company).

We disembarked at Irkutsk where we stayed at the functional Academical Hotel used by visiting academics. Our first encounter with the Decembrists was in Maria Volkonsky’s house, now a museum: “… a large two-story house of fine seasoned timber, with attractive hand-painted decorations around the windows and the front door. The rooms were large and well proportioned, with high ceilings and tall porcelain stoves built into the walls; light poured in …” (Christine Sutherland, The Princess of Siberia).

An impromptu concert at the nearby Trubetskoy House consisting of music that would have been listened to by the Decembrists rooted us firmly in the early nineteenth century.

Visiting the Ministry of Extreme Situations on the shores of Lake Baikal brought us temporarily back into the 21st century. This organisation trains men (and one woman) to deal with any kind of disaster including earthquakes, fires and mountaineering and diving accidents. All have to be proficient in every kind of rescue before specialising, and they welcome people from all over the world as trainees.

On the way to our ferry for Olkhon Island, at the border with Buryatiya, we performed a Buryat ceremony scattering milk north, south, east and west. “[The Buryat]… Possessors of a written language, firearms, metals, tribute-paying Ket and Nenets vassals, vast livestock herds and powerful clan leaders, they were the first formidable nationality, after the Tatars, the Russians encountered on their march across Siberia” (Anna Reid, The Shaman’s Coat).

Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Baikal, is 72kms long and 15kms at its widest point. We stayed at Solnechnaya (Sunny) ( in three-bedded wooden cabins that looked down to the lake over sand dunes and pine trees. I knew I had to swim. I’d told everyone about the joys of swimming in Lake Baikal and drinking the water as you swum (I had been to the northern part and had an encounter with a bear in 1990) and so I felt duty bound to try again. I did – twice – and it was bone-numbingly cold.

Meeting the local shaman, Valentino, and sitting in the sun on a mountain overlooking Shaman’s Rock was a far warmer option. Born with two thumbs on his right hand, Valentino had worked as a builder and on the BAM Railway before becoming a shaman aged 30. Dressed in yellowy-green satin robes and covered with talismans he told us about his life and beliefs (he considers Genghis Khan the greatest shaman who has ever lived). With a Black Bull on one shoulder and a Blue Wolf on the other and with a White Eagle behind his head, he heals by making people aware of their own potential.

In his book Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination Ronald Hutton cites another Buryat shaman whose method of healing “was to move his hands over a person’s body from head to foot, cleansing it of evil spirits”. All the rocks at the very beautiful northern tip of the island have legends attached to them and the wild flowers where we picnicked on fresh-fish soup were glorious.

Founded in 1666 Ulan-Ude, on the eastern side of the lake, is the capital of present-day Buryatiya but the giant head of Lenin in the main square belies its Buddhist connections. There are Buddhist monasteries, temples and museums full of interesting artefacts – one of the more astonishing being an extremely life-like wax model of the Dalai Lama.

South of Ulan-Ude is Khyakta on the Mongolian border: “Trade at Kyakhta was devoted to luxury. Furs and ginseng from Siberia, carpets and precious gems from central Asia and Persia, wines from France, German china, English wool, and goods from Japan and America were exchanged for Chinese silks, velvets, silver, porcelain, ivory and, above all, tons and tons of tea” (Stephanie Williams, Olga’s Story). Today it is a run-down place with a wonderfully old-fashioned museum. However not as run-down as Petrovsky-Zabaikalsky, the third and last place where the Decembrists were imprisoned. The dilapidated Hotel Siberia stood on a hill above the town, rather worryingly referred to by our guides as a ‘criminal town’.

The Semeisky Old Believers ( gave us a wonderful welcome in Bolshoy Kunaley: “Religious rituals were at the heart of the Russian faith and national consciousness. They were also the main cause of a schism in the Orthodox community that split the Russian nation into two … (the most contentious reform altered the manner of making the sign of the cross from two to three fingers)” (Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance).

Lunch with them was possibly the best meal of the entire trip: cucumber, salted tomatoes, potatoes with sour cream, beetroot in sugar, spinach pie, carrots, waffles – everything homegrown in the short three-month growing season. Learning archery, listening to a Russian throat singer and dinner in a yurt were just some of the other things we did – all made possible by our wonderful Russian guides.

Need to know

Sarah Anderson was guided by Alyona Vorobeva and Pavel Lebedev from the International Centre of Culture, Economics and Tourism Baikal in Irkutsk ( and Yelena Polyanskaya and Natasha Borisova from Baikal Piligrim in Ulan Ude (; email:, who will do their utmost to cater to individual and specialist needs.

The trip was organized from England by Russian Journeys; Frances Howard-Gordon, Russian Journeys, PO Box 2568, Glastonbury BA6 8XR, Somerset; email: