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If you are braced for being bugged, stalked or interrogated by the KGB you’ve left it a bit late. Moscow’s message now is ‘If you don’t like us that’s your problem not ours’; the body language is friendly enough even if there are occasional nostalgic throw-backs to the bad old days. The Russian double-headed eagle looks both ways for a very good reason, much as why the capital of by far the largest, longest, country in the World is also Europe’s most easterly one. Thus expect of this city, so different from St.Petersburg, a powerful aura of the orient.

A good way to start an affair with Moscow is to look out from Sparrow Hills across Moscow River to the panorama of the city beyond.  Easily seen and often picked out in sunshine are the golden domes of the Kremlin and the shiny new Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.  Over there too is the utterly delightful  cluster of multi-coloured onion domes that is ancient St. Basil’s with Red Square beyond. Glittering with every luxury consumer brand is the GUM shopping mall, glumly opposite is the black marble box that’s Lenin’s mausoleum  while a more poignant  moment is to be had at the eternal flame by the Kremlin Wall. It doesn’t say, it doesn’t have to, but it speaks of the sacrifices made defending the motherland.
 Kremlin means fortified citadel, and to ‘The West’ just that one word was enough to imply the dreaded menace of Soviet Communism. Still Russia is ruled from within this awesome compound of mismatched buildings – The Hall of The Supreme Soviet, the Patriarch’s Palace, the Cathedral of the Assumption and the anything-but-proletariat, mind-boggling, vast exhibition in the Armoury, a treasure trove far beyond extravagance.

And if you ever wondered if communism was ever inspired, wonder no more, take the Moscow Metro, to nowhere in particular.  The platforms and the linking corridors themselves are the point; magnificent subterranean vaulted halls and chambers, an early 20th centenary utilitarian response to decadent and obsolete palaces and cathedrals.

If you think it’s tiresome changing a wheel on your car then imagine changing every wheel on every car in the street. Or changing all the wheels on an entire trans-continental express - for that is exactly what happens at the Mongolia-China frontier. The Russian gauge rail extends across the Mongolian steppe, but on reaching Mongolia’s border with China progress, and any perceived risk of invasion, was long ago made deliberately more difficult. Each carriage of the train is craned up off its pair of Russian bogies and, using the parallel narrower track, Chinese ones are rolled underneath. The clatter and resounding hammer blows echoing inside the hanger-like shed are sort of reassuring. In recent years silly security has been relaxed and usually one can walk around and take pictures. You can also remain on the station platform some 500m away, or simply stay on board. Unsurprisingly the whole procedure takes an age and in empathy with the fact that the Gobi Desert lies just to the south and with a ubiquitous sense of the back-of-beyond there is usually no trace of railway personnel to tell us of timings nor indeed anything at all about this uniquely bizarre operation.

For reasons that the excellent Baikal museum guide will explain, the world’s deepest lake lies here surrounded by the taiga in central Siberia. The volume of water is more than all America’s Great Lakes combined. . . . and here its drinkable – as it has been for 25 million years - making Baikal by far the oldest lake on Earth and a laboratory which still hasn’t yet thrown up all the answers like how did fresh-water seals get here, 3000kms from their nearest relatives. The early route of The trans-Siberian Railway required a train ferry across the lake, or the track laid across the metre thick ice in winter; one of the original ferries can still be seen moored at water’s edge, and from January to April it is the world’s biggest skating rink and ice-topped motor circuit. Pine constructed lodges where taiga and lake meet (and where the simple church seems to celebrate nature itself rather than any particular dogmatic interpretation of it) are a favourite stay for Sundowners Overland.

Even before Irkutsk was a key stop on the railway it was the arch-typical penal and exile colony, the precursor of Stalin’s gulags.  It is neither large nor industrial and it has sites of interest, strollably apart, that together help make sense of life as it must have been and not always hopeless or without inspiration in the back of beyond.

Mongolia no longer has aspirations to bring the world’s citizenry under its control, though it is determined to entice as many of them as possible to its sumptuous realm, where the Central Asian steppe, taiga forests, blue lakes, the Altai mountains and the Gobi Desert meet in a high landlocked plateau between Russian Siberia and northern China’s plains. Of the mighty array of attractions there is none more potent than Naadam, one of the most dramatic and exhilarating events of its kind in the world. A summer festival believed to have existed in some fashion for centuries, it is a Grand Final of sorts, a summit playoff of horseracing, archery and wrestling events (the ‘Three Manly Sports’) staged during the year throughout a country the size of Alaska peopled by only two and a half million. But more importantly it is an affirmation of the Mongolian spirit. To witness ranks of riders surging into the central stadium of Ulaanbaatar on the same compact, sprightly horses that the great Genghis rode into battle – surrounded by athletes, monks, dancers, soldiers, musicians and nomad herders – is to glimpse the grandeur of a civilisation that shaped the world as we now know it. Then to see horses race, at ferocious pace, in their hundreds through vast valleys, while tens of thousands cheer them on; and to observe rotund but almost balletic wrestlers trounce an opponent and then prance across an arena in a traditional victor’s Eagle Dance, is to be enveloped in a culture of extraordinary strength. - Glenn A. Baker

The Taiga is simply tract after tract of endless forest stretching away to the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea and although the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway merely fringes the Taiga, there is along its way  this powerful, brooding, sense of permanence and presence.  This is the stuff of legend, the cold soul of Siberia, the adversary of travellers on the old Post Road that the trans-Siberian Railway relegated to history, and by far the biggest concentration and expanse of temperate woodland on our planet.  It’s as if the large cities of Siberia are grudgingly tolerated and almost irrelevant to the dark, moss and lichen filled world of firs and larch and pine, spruce and silver birch that flicker past the train window. Through the less dense parts of Taiga both an early dawn and a late twilight sun rises and sets and humble farms still have the stamp of the pioneer.  Surely then it is the rivers of Siberia  that are the Taiga’s spouse, most notably the River Ob that is crossed at Novosibirsk and the broad, noble, Yenisey dramatically spanned at Krasnoyarask.  From here the river-system, already 700kms from its beginnings at Lake Baikal and in Tuva’s  Sayan Mountains, flows ponderously through the Taiga  - or freezes thickly – for more than 2,000 kms north to the Arctic Kara Sea.

Stand in Tiananmen Square a while and some vague questions are at least vaguely answered. What is modern China?  Who today are the Chinese? The square with The Great Hall of the People and Mao’s mausoleum is where you will sense it and will see them posing for the photos they will frame on return, along new highways, to fast-growing towns or to a million villages.  Then explore Old Peking - where the thrilling names, as on a luxury wine-list, are only a clue to the delicious experience. The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven, The Summer Palace.  But this is not a wine-list so you can have it all; expect to be a bit giddy by the end!!

The other Wall, Berlin’s, lasted about 40 years, China’s since the 5th Century BC. However they performed pretty much the same purpose. A bit different in proportion though, there being over 5000 kms of wall across the northern quarter of empire forever threatened by Mongols and Manchus. During the Ming period in the 1400’s The Wall north of Beijing was reinforced on a daunting scale and this granite serpentine bastion of turrets and towers is the usual perception of it. Much further west however, as where, beyond Lanchow, the rail route heads to Central Asia, a more primitive older mud and rock barrier would have held back the desert tribes.

What a perfect start to what will be an amazing journey.  Or what a climactic conclusion. No longer being the capital of Russia has not hindered St. Petersburg from taking on the airs and graces of a truly great city. From being Leningrad (the name associated with the heroic, horrendous and unbelievably destructive siege of nearly 900 days by Nazi armies in 1941/4), it reverted to its historic name at the end of the Soviet era.

It was Peter the Great’s inspiration to create a city of grand and romantic proportions to state Russia’s right to sit with the most sophisticated and enlightened societies in Europe and, although there is certainly a brilliant sense of the Baltic Sea, the cultural and architectural influences have been French and Italian and Austrian and yet determinedly Russian. It is no wonder at all that you hear this city, home of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky and of canals and grand boulevards and of forts and cathedrals and museums and palaces, called one of Europe’s best kept secrets.

Here is the great fortress and cathedral of St.Peter & St.Paul, utterly magnificent and now the final resting place of the last tsar. (see Etkaterinburg page 41). Part of the great palace built by Catherine the Great houses one of Russia’s two museums of world renown; The Hermitage - icons, jewel-encrusted treasures from every era of Russia’s past, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Goya, Matisse, van Gough,  Gauguin, to name but a very few, leave one lost for words. The golden dome of St.Isaac’s unabashedly intends to rival Rome’s St.Peter’s and London’s St. Paul’s, while the grandeur of Nevsky Prospect strives to make it one of the most stylish and opulent avenues in all Europe. And there is so much more and even then there is still, an hour’s drive away, the Summer Palace of the tsars and tsarinas. It’s comparisons with Versailles are predictable but benefit neither. The palace is sublime elegance, a perfect promise to end all drudgery and to escape life’s tread-mill – only of course for the exceptionally privileged, and that, for a fleeting moment anyway, includes you and I.

When riding the rails, the full length of them, eventually ending after 9289kms through seven time-zones of mountains, steppe, semi-desert and taiga, the Trans-Siberian Railway traveller has arrived in Vladivostok where nothing is quite so evocative as the name except perhaps the fine sweep of the bay. It was here that in May 1891 work on the railway to Moscow began and it was the section between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk that was first completed. The name incidentally for years appeared on no Soviet maps; for the home of the Pacific Fleet and most notably its nuclear subs, had no public existence and travellers – all but the most vetted  –  would use nearby Nakhodka. Today the naval port’s significance is brought to life as one scrambles around inside one of the classic S-56 class submarines of WWII that lays claim to sinking ten enemy vessels.

TUVA  ‘The spiritual heart of Asia’
Within the Russian Federation, the stridently independent Republic of Tuva, adjoining north-western Mongolia, creates for us a unique diversion. At Krasnoyarsk we leave the trans-Siberian and head south into the beautiful harmony of steppe and forest, rivers, lakeland and mountains of which the many ethnic groups of the region are so determinedly proud. All but obliterated by the Soviets, much of their culture and tradition celebrating simplicity in the bosom of nature has returned; the mysticism of the Shamans, ageless Buddhism, the nomads who with their yurts again roam beyond the borders of the republic. Poetry and story-telling thrive among very diverse tribal peoples. Their guitar-accompanied throat singing and the Tuvan Naadam festival now flourishes in this secluded backwater quite happily referred to as the lost and forgotten republic.

Peter the Great, one of the first of the Romanov tsars, commissioned a factory-fort in 1723, which on 16th July 1918, was to see the barbaric end to the dynasty.  Named after Peter’s wife Catherine, the Ekaterinburgers like to ensure that you do not suppose this is Siberia, no, but that, yes, it is in Asia for it lies just East of the gentle slopes of the Urals which are the continental divide. Apart from early trade in furs and as a bridgehead for Russian expansion into Siberia, it more recently owes its prominence to the military requirement of being safe from invasion and maybe safer from 1st generation NATO missiles. It is a surprisingly elegant city though not entirely comfortable with notoriety as the place of slaughter of the Russian Royal Family. The place of the brutality - responsibility for which the Communist regime always shied away from - is just recently built over by the great white and gold edifice of a church. It is of course in commemoration of what by some devout royalists is seen as martyrdom, though a little euphemistically the new church’s full title is Church of Spilt Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land.

The next scene was of the corpses of the tsar Nicolas, the tsarina Alexandria, of the crown prince Alexey and of the princesses Olga, Tatyana, Maria, and Anastasia being hauled away in a cart to a disused shallow mine-shaft hidden in the forest, with, for years, only rumour fuelling what had befallen them. When political circumstances finally allowed, the rumours were answered with diggings and the newly devised techniques of DNA. The bodies have quite recently found a last resting place in the beautiful Cathedral of St.Peter and St.Paul in St.Petersburg while around the wretched mine has grown up a colony of impressive log churches and a monastery and with them that typically odd and lucrative mix of pilgrimage and tourism. It is a heart-rending story of high drama and tragedy – and it just happens to be true.

Apart from The Himalaya, there are few natural boundaries of any repute in all Asia but the Tien Shan Mountains are the classic exception.  The pearl in the midst of the Tien Shan is Lake Issyk-Kul, the lyrical land of fruit and honey is the Fergana Valley and to the north is the Kyrgyz steppe undulating away as a vast expanse of nothingness. The Tien Shan is a crazy crinkled mountain mass shared by the three adjoining ‘Stan states’ populated by the distinct tribes after whom each republic is named. At the same time the Tien Shan’s boding physical presence announces to China that, in encroachment terms, enough is enough. In particular two seriously remote passes that we take convey the essence; the Irkeshtam Pass (3005m) up and over from Kyrgyzstan down into the tribal centre of Uighars that is fabled Kashgar - always and still the epitome of a Silk Road bazaar. And then the pass of Torugart (3752m) which means that we can reach the caravanserai of Tash Rabat which  lives on to tell of centuries of Silk Route drama.

INDIA ‘The rail experience’
Exploration of India by rail is almost as much about delight in the distances between the fascinating places as it is being off the train surrounded by them, even though that’s quite a claim when they are such as the temples and ghats on the Ganges at Varanasi, the Himalayan hill station of Darjeeling, the fortresses and palaces of Rajasthan,  the splendours of Old and New Delhi, the Indian Ocean of balmy Goa and the zephyr breezes of Cochin. And by train too to the incomparable Taj Mahal.

The mainlines, all electrified now, are ‘broad gauge’ (though there are four track widths on this massive 65,000 kms network). The iconic intercity expresses – the legendary Madras Mail included – travel at a comfortable 120kph and 1st class and air-conditioned rolling stock is pleasantly designed with services to match (if a little over-modeled on lessons learned from air travel with which it now has to compete).  It’s all a far cry from days when every maharaja would have his own state railway; his palatial carriage (or entire train) and his pleasure in the idyllic fit of steam-driven modernity and enhancement of his traditional regal status.

Perhaps it goes without saying that as a way to the heart of one’s next destination train travel in India really has no equal. And not only is rail the way to see the varied countryside and the passing scene, the incredibly colourful life of India, but also, if there is a more relaxed way to meet people and chat (most fellow passengers will speak English) then we don’t know it.

It must also be said that in a country somewhat famed among visitors for its’ hassle factor’, pre-booked and forearmed rail travel with accommodation removes, or greatly dilutes, any angst and leaves one with the stuff that is the manageable, if sometimes inscrutable, ‘wackiness’ that is India. More than in any other country, rail travel here is the definitive way to feel the pulse of the nation and to collect a thousand snapshots and impressions and memories each one of which speaks of the Indian experience.

XIAN Eastern terminus of the Great Silk Road & the Terracotta Army.
Where ever else in China traders eastwards of The Silk Road were finally headed, after long months of caravan existence, Xian would have been the point of arrival where the emperor’s protection held sway inside the western extremities of The Great Wall. The imposing city wall, its four huge gates, the grandeur and authority of the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower all asserted the authority of The Inner Kingdom. The labyrinthine back streets still speak of the frantic comings and goings of camel trains swaying with exotic merchandise; these ‘ships of the desert’ (bactrian camels) helping to suggest similar dynamics to great medieval sea-ports,  though of course pre-dating them; for global sea-routes had yet to be explored. In the old city’s heart The Great Mosque is an oasis of quiet courtyards sacred to the Muslim faithful who may have journeyed from Samarkand, Bukhara or The Levant. With no minaret and more reminiscent of a Chinese temple, its expedient low-profile has ensured it has lived on through the ages.

So, some time in 1974, just like any other day, one is digging one’s field - except that today one is going to hit upon an archaeological find, incongruous and par excellence. Now the whole world has a notion of them in its minds-eye, the row on row of 2,200 year old life-size warriors, all part of ensuring the emperor’s position and security throughout eternity but actually robbed and wrecked within years. They are a mind-boggling must-see.

The Great Game became the generic label in both Britain and Russia for the latter 19th Century maneuverings for political and territorial control of Central Asia. Both powers had seen major set-backs, the Russians in The Crimean War, the British with the close-run Indian Mutiny, both felt vulnerable and concerned for the others’ expansionist intentions – perceived or otherwise. It was an epic stand-off of espionage and proxy wars summarized thus by Lord Salisbury at the time. . . . . ‘There is the double danger that they, (anyone of several local rulers) ‘may play us false or, remaining true, may blunder into operations which will bring them into collision with Russia’.

The Great Game was serious Imperial power-play and yet, one has to suppose, mainly from the thrilling and exotic, ‘boys own’ personal accounts from larger than life individuals on both sides – which also brilliantly bring to life the local protagonists - the romantic image of The Game remains of a gentlemanly, oh so chivalrous, encounter of two Christian nations in ‘unconverted’ lands, and thus Samarkand and Bukhara have remained names to conjure with. Just one example will have to serve here; Lt. Richmond Shakespear (Bengal Artillery, seconded to the British Mission in Herat, Afghanistan) finally convinces the notoriously ‘blood-thirsty’ Khan of Khiva to release 416 Russian prisoners/slaves with whom he eventually reaches Orenburg in Russian Territory. The British intention was hardly humane but rather more to remove Russian justification for an Invasion.  What one wonders did the Tsar make of that? Not that the Russian Empire’s potential for expansion south-east, aided by the new marvel of railway with not a single tunnel called for between Moscow and Tashkent, ever went away.

Although largely inconclusive – indeed if ever having a planned end-game – the broad bush intentions and effects of the two super-powers of ‘containing’ all the diverse powers of the region (not least Persia/Iran) and in Russia’s case annexing and then creating client Soviet republics, sort of worked. Of course many realities are now quite different, and yet some of the judgments and decisions of national (or even global social) concern and interest can perhaps be seen reflected in events of our own times.

Although we are not wrong to find Soviet policies and conduct mostly lacking in genuine respect for other cultures, the Islamic gems of Tartary emerged from that 80 year control ready to be beautifully restored to their full glory. This is exactly what has happened and there are no better examples than Samarkand and Bukhara. While being at the centre of things not only as the hub of the Great Silk Road but at the geographical centre of Eurasia, they are long long distances from anywhere really – except from each other of course which is the elementary explanation for their rivalry and for each one’s epic tales - true, embellished or plain fantasy – but, whatever, all part of the story-teller’s use of tyrannical emirs and khans and of gossamer-veiled heroines and the derring-do of turbaned heroes.

The rivalry showed in many ways, religious, military, and trade predominance, but clearly the present is the beneficiary of each city’s legacy of exquisite architecture, tile-work, magical carpets and other fine-art, all of which is awesome, inspirational and everywhere.

Though examples can put others in undeserved shadow, here are some. Samarkand: owes much to Tamerlane (unlike most cities which rued the day) – The poetic proportions of the Registan and it’s lyrical spaces. The pleated dome of Tamerlane’s sepulchre, The Gur Emir.
Bukhara: Like a desert light-house, the Minaret of Kalon with its brick motif as intricate as any local carpet. The magnificent Ark, for an entire millennium the fortress home of emirs and their internecine scheming. The Koran-inspired and intricately diagrammatic, harmoniously coloured, tile-work and simple but beautifully proportioned façade of the madrassa.