A guide to the New East

Off-road in Siberia

Step into the untamed expanse of Russia’s wild heartland

There are many reasons not to go to Siberia. Temperatures are below zero for most of the year and the locals are renowned for their frosty demeanour. But as a rule, those who decide to take the journey don’t regret it.

Siberia is where the Tungushka meteorite fell in 1908, devastating hundreds of square miles of forest. A never-ending stream of psychics and amateur spiritualists visit the Kashkulakskaya Cave, where, legend has it, they are inevitably seized by an uncontrollable panic. Nowhere else on earth can match the Putorana Plateau for its waterfalls. Lake Vivi, which enjoys a cult following among Siberians and marks the geographical centre of Russia, could have been created especially for all those dreaming of their own seven years in Tibet.

Unfortunately, the primeval wilderness goes hand in hand with inaccessibility. There are no transport links and the tourism infrastructure is almost non-existent. These astonishing places can only be visited with an experienced guide, who will still need to be persuaded. As a result, very few people make it to the limitless Siberian expanses.

One form of extreme tourism is trainhopping, which is growing in popularity. Trainhoppers cross Siberia on suburban trains, long distance passenger trains and even freight trains. Encounters with fellow travellers in open carriages are worth more than a thousand guidebooks. And the landscape seen through the window, rushing along the route of the Trans-Siberian railway, will stay lodged in your memory forever. In a letter to Cherry Vanilla in 1973, David Bowie described his journey across Siberia in an old Soviet train: “All day long, we were travelling along the majestic forests, rivers and wide plains. I could not have imagined that there are still spaces in the world filled by such virgin wilderness.”

Visiting shamans is another Siberian curiosity. Shamanism is a traditional belief system and practising shamans can still be found in the republics of Tuva, Khakassia and Altai. Focused on man’s attainment of harmony with himself, shamanism seeks to restore lost links between nature and culture.

All day long, we were travelling along the majestic forests, rivers and wide plains. I could not have imagined that there are still spaces in the world filled by such virgin wilderness

Some scenic sites have begun to serve as locations for events. Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal has become a Siberian eco-mecca, playing host to events like the Sibirskaya Rampa theatre group festival, summer poetry festivals and ethno-cultural gatherings. You can even organise your own open air exhibitions here, enlisting the support of the local art community.

Abundant nature reserves cater to those seeking silence and seclusion — and there are more reserves in Siberia than anywhere else in Russia. The Altai nature reserve is the country’s largest and the Azas nature reserve is like an oversized version of Iceland, complete with volcanoes and wellsprings. The Central Siberia nature reserve provides a habitat for many endangered plants and animals.

Siberia scores top points for its ubiquitous wild beauty though it doesn’t score so highly on service and comfort. Which is more important? That’s for you to decide.

Text: Sasha Philippova
Images: Olya Ivanova, Danielle Ryan
Cover image: Anton Petrov 

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