A one-way ticket to Siberia

The stroll from the Hotel Vladivostok down to the waterfront is a pleasant one but not without hazard. First you have to escape the baleful glare of the ground floor hotel staff whose job consists of alternately ignoring or sneering at their guests. Next you have to avoid the deep cracks in the pavement as you make the way past the carpark where the Far East's Russian "mafia" gather. Out here in the provinces the mafia staff car of choice is a Mitsubishi Pajero but the very successful chose 12-cylinder Mercedes. Each seems to be supplied with a chain-smoking lithesome blonde girlfriend perfectly designed to stop traffic - or at least passing Australian tourists.

The seemingly endless railway line from Moscow, 9300 km and four time zones away to the west, comes to a full stop down at the Vladivostok docks. Cheerful street stalls sell everything from the ubiquitous Mars Bars and Coke to souvenirs, Belgian chocolates and superannuated copies of Playboy and Marie Claire magazines. Rattling old trams disgorge workers into the city centre. Even on a sunny day the view is discouraging as the once proud Russian Pacific naval fleet settles in rust at anchor around Golden Horn Bay.

Vladivostok with its population of about 700,000 residents is both a clear first impression of modern Russia and unrepresentative of the Russian Far East. That may sound like a paradox but what else can you expect of a country that Winston Churchill most accurately described as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."?

Perhaps more relevant to travellers is the statement of Hubert Griffith in 1932 that "what one knows before one goes to Russia is not worth knowing. In Russia one learns a truth every minute." That remains true today. I didn't expect to be able to put my credit card into a Russian automatic teller and have it ask me if I wanted the withdrawal in roubles or US dollars. I didn't expect to eat at Vladivostok's Hare Krishna restaurant or spend an afternoon at a funfair in a park, eating fairy floss and watching bungy jumpers.

Nor did I expect to be surrounded by so much serene beauty on the faces around me. When I mentioned this to our interpreter who was a good representative of Russian good looks her reply was "that's only true in the cities. As you travel across Russia, look at the faces in the villages where life is so hard that every 25 year old looks old and wrinkled." Her male boss was more sanguine: "Russian women are so beautiful as compensation for Russian men leading such hard lives," he told me with a perfectly straight face.

Most people leave Vladivostok on the west-bound train. The Moscow-Vladivostok route is just one of several trans-Siberian offerings. The other two end up in Beijing via Mongolia or via the eastern Chinese city of Harbin. We, on the other hand, shipped motorcycles from Australia -I had ridden from Antarctica to Alaska some months earlier.

A rule for all travellers in Russia is that the people you meet will be nicer and more hospitable than you can ever imagine. Even after the time I've spent around the islands of the Pacific and on the Indian sub-continent I think Russians are the most genuinely warm hosts one will ever meet. The huge exception to this rule is Russian officialdom, be it immigration officers, petrol pump attendants or hotel staff, who are invariably rude and unhelpful. If you arrive with a motorcycle be prepared for a paper chase of labyrinthine proportions.

When planning the world ride, I considered Russia as the place where we were most likely to be robbed, by the omnipresent mafia. What a joke! One has more chance of being mugged by Kerry Packer - Russian mafiosi have Swiss stashes counted in millions of dollars and they certainly aren't interested in grubby Australian motorcycles - though they do run car parks where your vehicle is absolutely secure.

The journey across Siberia is a great step into the unknown. "What's it like?" is the question most frequently asked of returnees. Well, you'll certainly see a lot of birch trees, dappled silver trunks gleaming in thousands of kilometres of forests. And, in summer, most visitors are impressed by Siberia's endless expanses of rich farmlands uninterrupted by the fences essential in the capitalist world. For the rest, you visit one remarkable natural feature and several important cities. Towns are marked by the rusting hulks of failed soviet factories and mothballed military equipment.

The long, narrow body of water that is Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world with a depth of1,620 metres. It's about 636 km long and averages 50 km in width and contains about 20 per cent of the fresh water on the Earth's surface. One most unusual feature is that 336 rivers flow into it but only one flows out, the Angara River near Irkutsk. This is Siberia so the lake freezes in January and thaws in May. Perhaps the most special feature of the lake is its clarity and lack of mineral content. There are more than 1200 animal species here - and 75 per cent of them are found nowhere else.

We intended to stay in Irkutsk and visit the lake for a day. But we soon decided that the city was a blend of the least appealing features of Russian cities: pollution, crowds, collapsing roads and endless apartment blocks even greyer and more featureless than elsewhere. So we fled 65 km to the east to the lakeside town of Listvyanka. It was a good move as, not only did we have our first cappuccino since Vladivostok, but the fog-shrouded shores of the lake were beautiful and the museum at the Limnological Institute of the Siberian Department of the Academy of Sciences here is fascinating. Lake Baikal is a welcome break from the largely urban experience of Siberian travel.

However, the cities of Siberia are enjoyable, too. And, as we discovered when we stopped at Khabarovsk (north of Vladivostok) they are unexpectedly pleasant and relaxed. Khabarovsk is on the banks of the Amur River and in summer its sandy shores are crowded with sunbakers so it looks more like the French Riviera than Siberia.

Our next extended stopover was at Ulan Ude, just before Lake Baikal. This is the stepping off point for Mongolia to the south and it is very socialist in appearance. Life is orientated around the main square, the ploshchad Sovietov dominated by a huge head of Lenin on a plinth. The true wonder of Ulan Ude is found in the crumbling Hodigitria Cathedral where a very dedicated attendant will show you through a remarkable collection of pre-revolution Buddhist artefacts taken from surrounding monasteries before they were destroyed. These are intermingled with some astonishing Russian kitsch such as 1950s aluminium sputnik lamps and propaganda toy tractors.

It is history that draws visitors to Yekaterinburg at the edge of western Siberia. For this city, built by Peter the Great (and named after the empress Catherine) was where the Romanov family was murdered in July 1918. Russia rewards effort and you'll need it to get anything out of tracing the Romanov saga. The tsar, tsarina and their children were killed in the basement of the house in the centre of town where they had been sent in exile after the revolution. The house was torn down in 1977 to stop it becoming a place of pilgrimage. Its demolition was ordered by the then mayor of Yekaterinburg, Boris Yeltsin.

If you are really keen you can try to locate the mine shaft where their bodies were thrown. It is far from the city and even those living nearby deny knowledge of its whereabouts - it's a   hollow full of brambles referred to locally as the "Romanov holes".

Still, finding this forest site is easier than obtaining entry to Yekaterinburg's Military History Museum where the staff always seem to claim closure for remodelling. The only reason to visit is to look at the small section of metal that is all that remains of the U-2 spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers that was shot down here in 1960, an incident that brought the US and Soviet Union to the brink of war. The grey twisted lump isn't worth the effort but look at the nearby photograph of Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov who gave his name to the AK-47 assault rifle much beloved by authors of spy stories.

Only a short distance west of Yekaterinburg one climbs into the rolling hills that are the Ural Mountains. A small monument marks the dividing line between Europe and Asia.

For most travellers to Russia, there's only European Russia or (more specifically) the Moscow-St Petersburg axis. The rest of the country, particularly Siberia, is dismissed as empty wasteland. We had spent more than two months in Asian Russia and found Moscow to be fast, expensive and avaricious in the extreme. The open hospitality we had enjoyed throughout Siberia seems to have disappeared in the big city battle for survival.

The last outpost of hospitality was the city of Kazan, a day east of Moscow. This city of a million people has a history stretching back over 800 years with strong connection to the Tatar Golden Horde with links to Genghis Khan. There's a Kremlin, cathedral and museums but I saw little of these as it was hard to tear myself away from the summer street scene. Kazan soon eliminates any lingering preconceptions of Russia as a dour, joyless place.

Kazan's main shopping plaza is ulitsa Baumana. I entered it via a dingy side street so the shock of transition into a pedestrian mall lined with bright café umbrellas shading laughing diners eating pizza and drinking beer was all the more dramatic. We joined the good-humoured throngs listening to sidewalk jazz musicians, eating ice cream and largely turning the end of the work day into a fiesta.

It was originally said that "the sun never sets on the British Empire" (a wit added that was because God didn't trust the English in the dark) but the same applies to Russia, in summer at least. When the sun is rising in Vladivostok it has yet to set in Moscow. The world's largest country is slowly coming into the light after the failure of soviet communism. Travelling across today it is one of the most enlightening experiences available to the modern traveller.

Travel Facts

Getting to Vladivostok: The most direct route is with Korean Air from Sydney via Seoul but in summer there's also a ferry from Japan. We took the more interesting route of flying to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific and onwards to Beijing and Harbin then by train to Vladivostok.

Information: Russia requires a lot of planning. A good first step is to buy Lonely Planet's brick-sized and aptly-named "Travel Survival Kit: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus". In particular, study the section about visas.

You will need to consult a travel agent that specialises in Russia. I used Russia and Beyond in Sydney - they are at level 3, 191 Clarence St, tel. (02) 9299 5799 or (1-300) 363 554, fax (02) 9262 3438.

David McGonigal can be contacted at davidmcg@zip.com.au.

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David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd