Dog sleds and snowmobile safaris are becoming popular for winter tourists on a frozen Lake Baikal. The main town for accessing these activities is Listvyanka, on the lake’s western shore. credit Michael Turek
© Michael Turek | Tourists on a frozen Lake Baikal

The clip of iron on track beats out the rhythm of my journey east from the Ural Mountains. The landscape flickers across the windows, the train passing lazy trails of chimney smoke and layers of snow stacked like bolts of silk. It is winter, when Russia is at its best: the hush of silver birch forest, the slow pink dawns, Siberia’s huddled villages brittle with morning frost.

I’m travelling along the Trans-Siberian railway, hopping on and off the trains that make the 5,700-mile run between Moscow and Vladivostok. In the fashionable railway sketches written before the Russian Revolution, travellers aboard the Train de luxe Sibérien described music from a Bechstein piano, and a busy restaurant panelled in mahogany. French-speaking waiters came and went with Crimean clarets and beluga caviar, pushing through carriages filled with passengers who wore diamonds that made one’s eyes ache.

These days, the experience is more mundane: acid-green bar stools in sticky leatherette, samovars with boiling water at the end of each carriage, passengers in Nike sliders, and stern-faced cooks serving lukewarm soups. The Trans-Siberian still retains some of the old lures — the ice-spangled taiga, the train’s slow gait, the cinematic romance of an unhurried journey dipped in limpid moonshine. But given the region’s size — defined by the old imperial boundaries, Siberia is bordered by the Arctic Ocean, the Mongolian steppe, the Urals and the Pacific — the train is also not the be-all-and-end-all to travel in Siberia.

It is just one thread through an eleventh of the world’s landmass, through an almost-country perceived to be so remote that when some kind of meteor destroyed a patch of forest twice the size of Moscow in the “Tunguska event” of 1908, no one bothered to investigate for more than a decade. Before air travel reduced distances, Siberia was too remote to go and look — a wilderness which made it a good place for banishing “undesirables” under the tsars. This penal system has informed the world’s view of the region ever since: “The very word Siberia is enough to make the blood run chill,” wrote the Scottish traveller Sir John Foster Fraser in 1902. “It smells of fetters in the snow.” Later, under Stalin, it was the location of some of the most feared Gulag labour camps in the USSR.

The taiga forest outside Khabarovsk, home to the rare Siberian or Amur tiger. Only an estimated five hundred of these animals survive in the wild. Michael Turek
The taiga forest outside Khabarovsk, home to the rare Siberian or Amur tiger. Only an estimated five hundred of these animals survive in the wild © Michael Turek
Novosibirsk is the de facto capital of Siberia, and the third largest city in Russia. When the Siege of Leningrad began in 1941, the entire Leningrad Philharmonic orchestra was evacuated to Novosibirsk for the duration. Over the next three years, the orchestra played more than five hundred concerts in Siberian exile. Michael Turek
Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia, is the de facto capital of Siberia © Michael Turek

But this long-held view of Siberia could be on the verge of change. A growing number of adventurous visitors are beginning to discover another, profoundly beautiful side to the region, its magnificent potential implied in those glinting, curling waterways seen from the air. As Siberia casts its spell, unfamiliar names begin to pull you in: Lake Numto, Chukotka, the Putorana Plateau.

These days, accessibility isn’t an issue; in Siberia, there’s always someone with an Mi-8 helicopter, amphibious truck, icebreaker or snowmobile-for-hire. The challenge, therefore, isn’t how to travel Siberia beyond the railway — except, that is, in border zones where red tape needs expert assistance — but deciding where to begin.

Helicopter landing in Numpto . Michael Turek
A helicopter lands in Numto © Michael Turek

Nick Laing, founder of UK-based tour operator Steppes Travel, visited the Russian Altai for the first time in 1988. “I fell in love,” he says. “I understood exactly what early travellers meant when they said the Altai could supersede the Alps as the playground of Europe.” At first, his tours relied on rudimentary infrastructure. Now his clients use the fancy Golden Eagle tourist trains, as well as a functioning network of modern airlines such as S7, headquartered in Novosibirsk.

“Siberian travel is an evolving niche,” says Douglas Grimes, founder of MIR Corporation, a Russia-specialist tour operator which has been organising trips here for 33 years. “We’re seeing a steady year-on-year increase of travellers. There is still some trepidation, and stereotypes which need breaking, but by the time our clients are on their third visit to Russia, they’re easily persuaded to visit Baikal and beyond.”

Siberia’s out-of-the-way towns may still lack comfortable hotels, but there is growing demand from adventurers willing to pay large amounts for difficult logistics and still rough it, says Tom Bodkin, co-founder of Secret Compass, whose trips include volcano-hiking expeditions in Kamchatka. “You’re getting access to what the rest of the world doesn’t have any more, which is seeing no one else,” he says.

Wildlife tourism is also expanding. Will Bolsover, founder of Natural World Safaris, launched Amur tiger spotting trips in the Khabarovsk region in 2016 and is now promoting bear-focused tours in eastern Siberia. In 2018, Wild Frontiers, another UK-based tour operator, started offering snow leopard safaris in the Altai. Meanwhile, Siberia’s sea routes are opening up, literally, with the Arctic melt. Last year, Silversea began expedition cruises along the Northeast Passage. Rodney Russ, a New Zealander whose company Heritage Expeditions pioneered exploratory cruises in the Russian far east, has built a new 12-berth yacht, Strannik, which this year will begin to cruise the region’s Arctic and Pacific rim.

I tethered my travels to a very particular diversion: in the summer of 2015, I got sucked into searching for an instrument on behalf of a Mongolian concert pianist — a quest that led me (a non-musician) to appreciate the power of music in the last place I expected to find it. I became obsessed — by the history, people, place and landscape — spending 158 days on eight different trips in Siberia to track down instruments from Kamchatkan homesteads to the basements of Soviet opera houses

reindeer herding on snowmobile with Nenets near Numpto Michael Turek
Game wardens tracking snow leopards in the Altai mountains © Michael Turek
The young generation of indigenous reindeer herder, photographed in Khanty-Mansiysk. The Nenets people are struggling to hold on to the old ways given the rapid resource extraction now affecting the region. Michael Turek
The young generation of indigenous reindeer herder, photographed in Khanty-Mansiysk. The Nenets people are struggling to hold on to the old ways given the rapid resource extraction affecting the region © Michael Turek

If it was an odd journey, I wagered I had just as good a reason to travel Siberia as some of the travellers who’d come before me. There was the blind Englishman, James Holman. In 1823, he got as far as Irkutsk before he was sent home under suspicion of acting as a spy. My favourite, though, was Kate Marsden, a spinster nurse who left Victorian England in search of a cure for leprosy in Yakutia, a central region about the same size as India, taking with her supplies that apparently included 18kg of Christmas pudding. On her hand-drawn map, the path she took from St Petersburg is marked as “accomplished”; her other route, a line over the top of Siberia into Kamchatka’s narrow neck, is marked with a wistful “contemplated”.

The young generation of indigenous reindeer herder, photographed in Khanty-Mansiysk. The Nenets people are struggling to hold on to the old ways given the rapid resource extraction now affecting the region. Michael Turek
A Nenets child with a herd of reindeer in Khanty-Mansiysk © Michael Turek

That’s the trouble with this part of the world — the alluring possibility that out of this expanse, a little marvel might appear. “Siberia has the virtue of not startling or astonishing you right away but of pulling you in slowly and reluctantly, as it were, with measured carefulness, and then binding you tightly once you are in,” wrote the Siberian nature writer, Valentin Rasputin, in 1991: “And then it’s all over — you are afflicted with Siberia . . . For a long time after being in this land a person feels hemmed in, sad, and mournful everywhere else, tormented wherever he goes by a vague and agonising sense of his own inadequacy, as if he’s left part of himself in Siberia for ever.”

I’ve left parts of me behind in all sorts of places where I didn’t expect to be convinced. There was the wooden hut in Khanty-Mansiysk, where I slept close to the family’s stuffed bear’s head — a sacred totem among the indigenous reindeer people. The local shaman revealed a way of life which is disappearing as quickly as the oil and gas folk are moving in. At the Holy Nose on Lake Baikal in Buryatia, I watched the wind slip under a thin skin of ice. The surface of the lake rose and fell like the belly of a sleeping monster. Nor will I forget standing at the foot of a frozen waterfall in Kamchatka, hemmed in by a ring of huge volcanoes and the echo of my own voice. But if I were to pick one place to return to, it would be the Kuril Islands, the so-called Fog Archipelago, a long way out to sea from the Trans-Siberian’s final stop on the shores of the Pacific.

To get to the Kurils, I sailed south from Kamchatka with a group of birdwatchers on a Russian expedition vessel operated by Heritage Expeditions. This is where the Asian continental shelf rubs up against the Pacific’s mighty sea trough, the pressures of subduction inducing all manner of freak waves and unpredictable eruptions. Bleeping dials flickered on the ship’s bridge, which was furnished with buttons marked with Cyrillic script. At the back of the bridge, the first mate worked with protractors and rulers to mark our line on a paper map pooled in light. Someone had written in pencil “whale” in the fold-line, as if it were always there — a Moby-Dick forever loitering in the chasm.

My cabin share was an 80-year-old Australian woman called Mary who laughed in her sleep. She was doing this trip with five clumsy stitches across a knee she’d recently slashed in a fall. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t scramble up to the puffin nests. What an adventure this is, she said every time I offered her a hand getting up and down the stairs in a lurching Pacific swell. Mary, I decided, was how I wanted to grow old.

A Nenets child in a House of Culture close to Lake Numto, in the oil-rich Khanty-Mansiysk region of Siberia. During the peak years of Stalinist repression, indigenous people were persecuted, and their children sent to special state boarding schools. Michael Turek
A Nenets child in a House of Culture close to Lake Numto, in the oil-rich Khanty-Mansiysk region of Siberia © Michael Turek
A member of a Nenets family in Khanty-Mansiysk where the author and photographer lodged in a local homestay.
A member of a Nenets family in Khanty-Mansiysk, where the author and photographer lodged in a local homestay © Michael Turek

Each day, the islands’ conical peaks appeared and disappeared. Sometimes their rocky spires were ribbed with snow, and sometimes they were bruised from lava. Then the mist closed in again and I could barely see more than a few metres in front. It was mesmerising, like being locked inside a dream as I stood alone on the ship’s foredeck. Then out of the silence, a gull looped in, wings stretched, coral-pink feet luminous in the melancholy glow. The bird almost struck me with its wing, before it tipped back into the gloom of the Pacific Basin.

Sophy Roberts and Michael Turek on train in Siberia
Sophy Roberts and photographer Michael Turek on the Trans-Siberian railway © Michael Turek

On the seventh night, we anchored off uninhabited Yankicha Island. With inflatable boats, we slipped through a narrow mouth into the flooded caldera. When I saw a wild Amur tiger early on in my travels, I thought nothing would beat those dazzling stripes, the crystal snow falling off his back. This experience, however, had a new intensity: hundreds and thousands of auklets started to fly in under the dusky light, in flocks so thick, they eclipsed the sun.

Then the following day, we stopped at an island which felt like the opposite of Yankicha’s hidden Eden. Simushir was a former Soviet submarine base. Receding into the land behind was a long run of apartments with their windows blown out. They looked like skulls with empty eye sockets. Vehicles and barrels picked up by storms had been tossed into hollows in the land and drowned in thickets of brush. Metal guts were hanging out of rusted jeep bonnets.

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In what must have once been a military briefing hall, a lectern stood above a room of toppled chairs as if the audience had just got up and left, tossing their seats to one side. Wild roses broke out of patches of disturbed concrete. In front of me, there was a fading mural in bubbled paint. It depicted the Simushir caldera with a rocket launcher pointing in the direction of America.

As I sat in silence taking it all in, I was conscious of the profound stillness I’ve come to think of as essentially Siberian. And then, out of nowhere, the silvery tones of birds. In that tiny moment, it seemed a lmiracle of life, the young nuthatches safe in a bed of catkins and electric wires, their song cradled by these strange, enigmatic islands where the long reach of Russia finally runs out.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts is published by Doubleday on February 6. Siberia, a book of Michael Turek’s photographs of the region, will be published by Damiani in March

More Siberian adventures

Mammoths and diamonds in Yakutia
Among numerous Siberian itineraries, specialist tour operator Mir Corp runs a two-week guided trip that takes in Yakutia, the remote northern republic known for its diamond mines and the 40,000 year-old mammoth bones that are being found with increasing frequency as permafrost melts. From $7,695;

Bears in Kamchatka
Photographer Andrew James is leading a 12-day trip to watch wild brown bears. Guests will tour Kamchatka by boat and helicopter (despite an area larger than the UK, the peninsula has fewer than 400 miles of paved roads) staying in remote camps and guesthouses. Departs July 29; from £9,595;

Heli-skiing south of Lake Baikal
Heli-skiing south of Lake Baikal

Skiing in the Khamar-Daban range
The proximity of Lake Baikal brings huge quantities of powder to the Khamar-Daban mountains, just to the south, in November and December. Elemental Adventure offer a week’s heli-skiing there from €6,900 for a week;

Through the Altai along the Chuysky Tract
Passing through the Altai Mountains in Siberia’s far south, the Chuysky Tract (or, more prosaically, the P256) is among the world’s most beautiful roads. Wild Frontiers has an 11-day guided trip that takes guests along it by minibus, 4x4 and old Russian military vehicles, staying in homestays and guesthouses along the way and stopping to trek among the high valleys and glaciers. From £3,095;

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