Monday, October 30, 2000

The blessing of sadness

The blessing of sadness

Siberia may be rich in dark resonances - gulags, starvation, eternal snows - yet it has hidden pleasures, too. And Listvyanka, a kind of Siberian Balmoral on the shores of Lake Baikal, is the best place to find them

by Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 30 October 2000

Autumn is on the point of death. Yesterday, I noted tattered birch leaves clinging to a memory of summer; today the first winter snows are gathered in freezing clouds above the lake. And from the forests, I smell edible berries, rotted trunks, strange gods: the fears and unquenchable hopes of old Russia.

But have I only travelled for 90 hours by train from Moscow? It feels like 90 years. Right now I am gazing over Lake Baikal, the deepest, oldest lake on Earth, and beside me my guide Elya is speaking. With her furry headband and expensive sunglasses, she might have arrived straight from St Moritz, though her eyes are blue as Baikal ice and her voice is of a Tolstoyan princess.

Unless it is the plunging Russian accent that renders her English aristocratic... "Where most lakes date back a few thousand years," she declaims nasally, "Baikal is at least 20 million years old. By its shores live bears, musk deer, lynx, fresh-water seals, wolverenes; and the rare sable, in search of whose fur the first Cossacks came exploring here four hundred years ago..."

I don't want this to stop. Can she show me real bears at Baikal? "I'm sorry," she sighs, collapsing into a smile worth all the sable in Siberia. "You can't see bears until they come to the lake in the spring."
As I write these words, it is only October, but the feathery larch trees are already golden. Whole hillsides are changing colour before my eyes. I jump down onto the shingly shoreline to stare at mist-rooted, unearthly mountains, hovering snow-white on Baikal's closest eastern shore, 60 miles away. This is Listvyanka, microscopic beside a lake hundreds of miles long.

But is it really lost in the endless taiga? In fact, it may be the most touristed village in Siberia. Boris Yeltsin had Helmut Kohl here to stay a few years back, for saunas and vodka at the presidential dacha; by Siberian standards, it is a kind of Balmoral. But then again, this is not saying much.
I am lodging in the one-storied wooden house of a Russian babushka named Valentina and her daughter Rita. Like much about Listvyanka, the household is not quite ordinary. Rita, with her copper-dyed hair and refined reticence, once worked as a microbiologist in the Crimea; in the current economic climate, she now finds that providing borsch and stuffed cabbage-leaves for tourists is more rewarding.

Valentina, though, when I meet her, looks as Russian as Chekhov. She is the eternal babushka. I find her stooped over the chrysanthemums, booted, headscarf tied grimly under chin. "Depressed about a bit of snow?" she is exclaiming, picking up her shovel with determination. "What? Why should I be? The colder the better."

She begins tossing snow ruthlessly over the fence, fiddling with the well pump, inspecting the garden flowers. At 76, Valentina is well past the national average life-expectancy, but she has the battling body frame of a worker. And her latest career is hosting tourists.

"My father's family used to be well-to-do before 1917," she explains in a nonchalant voice, later, at lunch. "My grandfather owned a shipyard on Baikal. I remember my father taking me to the local workers' club and sitting me down beside the piano. He couldn't say it out loud. But he told me the truth: that piano had once belonged to us."

I gaze around her simple wooden house with surprise. This place is certainly older than the revolution; it was built with carved lacework round the window frames. But what kind of people bring a piano to Listvyanka? While Rita cuts up a fish pie and Valentina shoves logs into the kitchen stove, I find myself transported back to an another world: of clavichords in drawing rooms, of libraries bulging with the works of Racine and Voltaire, of princesses in mink hats reciting the poetry of Pushkin...

Or am I getting carried away? Princess Elya, as ever, is sitting beside me, translating every word with effortless class. When I ask Valentina if she has any old photos, she immediately produces an envelope full of black-and-white images taken from the turn of the last century: women with strong faces and beautiful dresses.

"Old aunts," she says, carelessly. "Some went to America at the time of the revolution. Others went to Europe. They lived how we would have lived without Lenin." In the 1930s, people were sent to gulags for lesser offences than keeping photographs like these.

But Valentina's family has a history, all right, as I am soon finding out over frequent vodka toasts and little pieces of smoked fish and pickled cucumber. Her own grandmother, she declares with force, was born all the way back in 1866 - the year before Russia sold Alaska to the USA. She was 104 when she died and she had still not accepted the revolution.

We smile at our plates. Toughness, I see, is in the family. Valentina is getting her old Russia back. It was the USSR that was new-fangled and unintelligible; now life is reacquiring its logic - a logic half-remembered from sitting beside a piano, many years ago, on a father's knee.

Valentina says: "If people are hard-working, they can survive. Not like all these young drunkards nowadays. There's plenty of food in the forests for anyone to help themselves." A jar of pickled wild mushrooms is held out for my inspection. Valentina later lifts up the floorboards with glee to show me her newly harvested potato-store: all 500 kilos of it, brought in by hired labour. After a 70-year pause for the Communist experiment, she is picking up the threads of bourgeois life again.

Is this Siberia, then? Not so much the tragic land of exile, as a shining illustration of human optimism and endurance? I think back over the thousands of miles that I have travelled from Moscow and to the capital's churches and opera houses, its stuccoes, its columns and pediments, its Pushkin and Turgenev, its drunkenness and its sorrows. Yet it is Siberia that carries Russia halfway round the globe. It goes beyond India, beyond China. At its uttermost end, it is within walking distance of America itself...

Now I really am getting carried away. Under the influence of vodka, the millions of dead swallowed up by Siberia in the 20th century come to seem like a trifle: a mere detail. But Listvyanka was not immune to Stalin's terror. "Yes, one uncle of mine disappeared," Valentina grunts, wearily, when I remember to bring the subject up. "Nobody ever knew what happened to him. He was just a worker." She might say, but doesn't: it wasn't his fault that his father had owned a shipyard.

What bothers Valentina more, I feel, are the broken threads she has not yet been able to pick up. Munching heartily on little red Siberian apples, she speaks of a young American tourist who recently stayed with them. "His parents were Russian. And you know, he was more Russian than we were! He knew the church liturgies! He knew our old customs." For the first time, she looks vaguely regretful. "Our parents wouldn't have dared tell us so much about the old ways. Children would have talked... we wouldn't have understood... "

I walk again that afternoon along the shores of the lake, past the sprinkling of wooden houses with their picket fences and snow-filled cabbage patches, past beer shops, bars and the tiny harbour. Cows are grazing on the verges, under pine-clad hills. Baikal itself is moody: one minute its waters are pallid and oil-smooth, the next they are black and restless. They will be frozen solid by January, and not free of ice again until June.

Now there is nowhere much to go, nothing much to do. We catch the old ferry to Port Baikal on the other side of the Angara River, where the remains of the old Trans-Siberian railway is rusting slowly into oblivion, and where a lone factory draws untreated Baikal water from the depths of the lake to bottle for drinking.

But walking home at dusk, I suddenly feel the harsh power of Siberian cold. The last traces of warmth in the air are as evanescent as sunlight itself. Bitter winter is forming over our heads.

"Are you ready?" Princess Elya now asks by my side. I am. Even on days of unbearable melancholy like these - the last, dying moments of a Siberian summer - a secret pleasure awaits. Valentina's house has no running water or bathroom, but it has something better: an out-house in the garden, of clean, soft wood! A traditional sauna! Oh, to be hot and naked in the eternal birch forest! Under Siberian steam, on Siberian wood, I retire to cleanse my body, and (I feel) my soul, before dinner.

Drowsy with warmth, we sit at table later that night eating cheese pies and smoked sig, a kind of Baikal salmon. We are tiny - cosy - in the heart of eternal Siberia. Outside a wind begins to howl and hard, dry snowflakes scuttle on the windows. Rita puts on Cossack music and now proposes a rapid series of toasts, to an open Russia; to friendship; to love.

But old Valentina is already intoxicated by the oxygen of freedom. She leaps around with the spirit of a 20-year old, urging us young things to dance. "The most marvellous thing of all is to have real foreigners in my house!" she whoops, grabbing me round the arm and spinning me almost off my feet. "Old Brezhnev would never have let us do this. It's amazing."

Outside in the darkness, I picture old flowers poking through the snow. Siberia may be the saddest country, I smile to myself. But perhaps this is Siberia's blessing: that when its pleasures do come, they are the most beautiful in the world.

Jeremy Atiyah travelled with The Russia Experience (020-8566 8846, Similar 12-night trips cost from £650 per person, including accommodation, train travel between Moscow and Beijing, a half-day guide, activities such as walking and sauna, and a stopover in Listvyanka. The company can also arrange the necessary visas for you. An open-jaw plane ticket, flying into Moscow and back from Beijing, currently costs from around £370 through agents such as STA Travel (020-7361 6262,

'Something strange is going on'

'Something strange is going on'

Where is the dirt and the smoking? This place has come over all new-tech and polite. Is this really China?

Published: 30 October 2000

I've just spent a couple of days trundling across China on a slowish sort of train. This country has become so smart since I was last here that I can only assume the Ministry of Propaganda of the People's Republic of China has got wind of my presence.

Not that I'm getting ideas above my station, of course. I was travelling second class for example (honest), but the train itself was brand new. Fresh out of its wrappers.

Usually, Chinese trains are a sooty-green colour and look as though built by convict labour in the 1950s. But my train had blue and red stripes and clean windows. The toilet was immaculately clean. The windows were sealed and the temperature controlled. Even the communal Thermos flasks weren't decorated with chrysanthemums and peonies. They were made of chic stainless steel.

Could I have been been the victim of an extremely elaborate PR job? Was that woman hurriedly sweeping the platform as we rolled into Lanzhou railway station a party stooge? In the old days, (that is, until five years ago) everyone in China used to carry a jam-jar full of tea around with them whenever they travelled. But now everyone seemed to have purpose-designed flasks of brushed steel with screw-on lids, with words such as "exquisite craftsmanship" written on them. They had also replaced their splitting canvas bags with executive luggage with wheels and pull-out handles, and spent much of the journey talking to their relatives on mobile phones that miraculously worked - even when you could see nothing but desert and distant mountains all around you.

The first time I used a Chinese train the man in the sleeper next to mine spent the night spitting out a huge pile of phlegm on to the floor. Now, I found people looking askance at me for dropping bits of peanut shell on to the floor. And not only was nobody spitting: nobody was smoking. Instead, they were sipping tea and reading newspapers.

I've never met such model citizens. "Oh you Westerners are so clever compared to us," they kept saying. "And you are so young-looking as well."

When I pointed to my own bald-spot as a sign of early physical deterioration, they immediately responded by saying that baldness was a sign of intelligence. The man who said this the loudest was the man with the thickest brush of hair I had ever seen. My lingering suspicions of a set-up would not go away.

Anyway, I'm now in the far-off city of Jiayuguan, which has its points, but (believe you me) never claimed to be the Paris of the Gobi Desert. Last time I was here, five years ago, I was beaten up by a woman with a mop in my hotel for locking the door while trying to sleep. But look at it now! The internet cafe where I am writing these words contains a couple of dozen super-fast computers. Here,I am listening to Radio New York, beamed straight to Jiayuguan via the web.

Pavements have been remade in smart red and yellow tiles, as if in preparation for my arrival. Trees seem to have been planted, and are lit from beneath. Trendy people with platform shoes and foppish haircuts drift around on bicycles.

What else could be behind these extraordinary changes, except a cunning desire to hoodwink foreigners ? Could it possibly be true instead that the Chinese are trying to please themselves? Without us? What a shocking thought.

Sunday, October 22, 2000

Don't be fooled by Mongolia

Don't be fooled by Mongolia

No matter what they tell you, it really doesn't seem like a proper country, more like a corner of Russia

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 22 October 2000

Just got off the train again - in an alleged country called Mongolia. But I'm not falling for it. I'm pretty convinced that I'm still in some little-known corner of Russia. According to my map, after all, Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator, doesn't look like a place you should be able to get to by train, even if it did exist. Why would anybody build across a country a railway which will take you 24 hours to ride but contains only this one stop worth speaking about?

The whole thing looks to me like a put-up job, to persuade the few tourists who choose to ride this train that they have come to the remotest place in the world. Take the shenanigans at the so-called "border" between Russia and Mongolia, for example.

It's the same old show, every night. A group of men looking like Samoan wrestlers - who pose as passengers - suddenly materialise to hide electronic goods, powdered milk and ladies' boots in secret compartments under corridor carpets up and down the train. Russian drunkards called Boris and Ivan look on, bewildered.

Everyone is then made to wait half the night while a sequence of uniformed actors take it in turn to investigate the smugglers. (These include the man who checks our customs forms who, as I recall, wears a wing collar and a monocle.) Occasional shouts and the sound of running and dragging interrupt our sleep. And in the end, to make it all seem more plausible, the most respectable people on the train get evicted.

But once you are inside, Mongolia - as a country - becomes no easier to believe. Its countryside makes Siberia look like the Garden of Eden. Before you get to Ulan Bator, all you see for hours is dead grass, ice, goats, nomads' tents and occasional distant horsemen riding to nowhere. And Ulan Bator itself? Well, it is the kind of place where the building that looks like your old primary school turns out to be the ministry of foreign affairs. As for that old ice cream parlour next door - that will be the state bank.

The other thing worrying me about this place is its recent history. Despite the (supposed) throwing off of the Russian yoke nearly 10 years ago, no Mongolian has yet got round to removing the statue of Lenin from the square in the middle of town. And why do the people still use the Russian cyrillic alphabet?

It's no use. I have even been out on to the steppe to stay in a nomad's tent (for tourists), on the grounds that the only fact any foreigner knows about Mongolia is that Genghis Khan rode out of here on a horse faster than the wind. Perhaps I could find there the proof that this was the country it purported to be.

Well, the tourist tents are certainly in a wild and remote place. But then again, mine did have an electric socket, and heating, and a shower block round the back. Later I was put on a horse, after being warned that it was liable to fly off faster than the wind at the slightest shock or provocation. In the end, no matter how fiercely I kicked and bellowed, my horse refused to do anything faster than a slow trot in three-second bursts. I did not have the sensation of following in the footsteps of Genghis Khan.

Don't get me wrong. This country's people - whoever they are - are charming. It's just that I haven't found out anything verifiable about their country yet.

Mongolia is excellent as a bench mark for remoteness. But I don't think it is the kind of place you'd try to go to.

Sunday, October 8, 2000

192-Part Guide To The World: Guinea

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 08 October 2000

Official NameRepublic of Guinea.
LocationOn the western end of the bulge of West Africa.
LanguageOfficially French, though Malinke is spoken by at least 40 per cent of the population. Fula and Susu are among the other major languages.
SizeAbout 246,000sq km, or between seven and eight times the size of Belgium.
PopulationJust over seven million.
National DishThe usual West African specialities of grilled fish (the well-off) and rice with sauce (everybody else).
Best MonumentNobody would visit Guinea for its monuments, as opposed to its green, mountainous landscapes, but the Palais de l'OUA, in the capital Conakry, is the grandest building in the country. It is just a pity that the conference for the Organisation of African Unity in 1984 - for which it was built - was cancelled after the death of Guinean President Sekou Toure.
Most famous citizenOf the many famous Guinean musicians, Mory Kante is best known, especially in France, where he now lives. His speciality is fusing rock and soul with traditional African music.
Worst moment in historyPresident Toure, who led Guinea's drive for independence in the late 1950s, was to become a dictator who was more in the mould of Josef Stalin or Mao Tse-tung than General Charles de Gaulle. By the 1970s his rule had degenerated into a reign of terror that saw a quarter of the population forced to flee the country.
Best moment in historyProbably the 1977 "market women's revolt" which involved market women rioting in Conakry after Toure decreed that all agricultural produce be delivered to the state-run co-operatives. The riots then spread around the country and the governors of Kindia, Faranah and Boke were killed. Toure, remarkably, was forced to mend his ways.
Essential accessoryConakry is one of the wettest cities in the world, receiving more than four metres of rain per year. Take an umbrella.
What not to doDo not go wandering around the Palais de l'OUA at night. According to the travellers' grapevine (so it must be true) such behaviour will provoke security guards to shoot you.

Sunday, October 1, 2000

192-Part Guide To The World: Guatemala

192-Part Guide To The World: Guatemala

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 01 October 2000

Official NameRepublic of Guatemala.
LocationThe first Central American state you reach, moving south from Mexico.
LanguageSpanish, and many Mayan languages.
SizeAt 109,000sq km, this small country still manages to be more than three times the size of Belgium.
PopulationEleven million. Very crowded, by American standards.
National DishMeat. Lots and lots of it.
Best MonumentThe Mayan ceremonial centre at Tikal, near the town of Flores, comprises tall stone pyramids deep within a jungle full of parrots and monkeys. The ruins include an acropolis and temples.
Most Famous CitizenRigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work opposing the repression of native peoples by white colonialists. It was her book I, Rigoberta Menchu - documenting the experience of growing up in conditions akin to slave labour - that brought her international fame.
Best Moment In HistoryThe so-called Early and Late Classic Periods of Mayan civilisation lasted from around AD250 to 900. These years of great prosperity saw fabulous temple cities being constructed, first in the Guatemalan highlands, and later in the El Peten lowlands.
Worst Moment In HistoryIn 1523, Pedro de Alvarado came to conquer Guatemala for the King of Spain. The highland kingdoms of the
Quiche and Cakchiquel Maya were crushed, their lands divided up into vast estates and their people exploited by the new landowners.
Essential AccessorySpare wallet. Beware armed bus- and car-jackings, especially at night.
What Not To DoTry not to expropriate peasant lands or violently suppress anti-government elements - particularly if you come from the United States