We drive out of Khabarovsk, the last major stop before Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian railway in the Russian Far East, and head for Durminskoye Reserve, a 20,000-hectare wildlife sanctuary three hours drive south-east. In the wing mirror I get a glimpse of the Amur River. Its frozen surface, sparkling as if studded with diamonds, winds past the Khabarovsk cityscape topped with the gilded onion domes of the Transfiguration Cathedral. Grey smoke hangs in streaks like worry-lines across the sky. We pass a shopping mall where in October, a Russian brown bear wandered in. The traffic peters out, and the taiga takes over.
We are travelling the extreme edge of Russia, close to the Chinese border, a place seven hours ahead of Moscow in the same timezone as Sydney. Ghostly swamps are frozen over; golden reeds threaded with hoar frost occasionally drop their icy load. When we turn off the main highway, there are no people, not even at the stall selling axes and white Siberian honey. Today it’s -10C, but it can slip to -30C. There are no tourists, nor signage indicating any might come even when summer wakes the region from its winter slumber.
Khabarovsk has little history of attracting visitors, or at least willing ones. Under Stalin, there was a gulag on the outskirts and many more prisoners were sorted here before being sent on to the gulags of Magadan. The wilderness, however, has its redemptive qualities, says Alexander Batalov, my guide and driver, and chief among them, the rare Siberian or Amur tiger. It is why I have come all this way, to stay at Batalov’s research base where, since last year, he has begun welcoming paying visitors. This tourism element is still being trialled and so far only a handful of people — 10 to 15 each year — have come.
I ask Batalov when he last saw a tiger; with only an estimated 500 left in the wild, the Siberian tiger is one of the most endangered of the six remaining tiger subspecies. He doesn’t answer my question, which makes me wonder if the only thing I’m going to see is wind-torn cloud and a billion birch and alder. Before 1995, there was less than an hour’s footage of the Panthera tigris altaica in the wild, according to Sooyong Park, a Korean documentary film-maker and expert on the species (having spent 20 years staking out the animals in neighbouring Primorsky Krai).
I press again, but Batalov won’t be lured into wagering probabilities. Instead he tells me about the Siberian shrew which he has just narrowly avoided running over. He also talks about a friend who spent 30 years in a Magadan labour camp. “If it wasn’t for the gulag, he would never have become one of Russia’s great ornithologists,” he says. “There were a lot of birds around the camp. He told me it was studying them that stopped him going crazy.”
Batalov, 64, has grey eyes and wears hunting camouflage and military felted snow boots given to him by a Russian colonel. We chug along at 40mph in his old 4WD, travelling in convoy with a deliciously Bond-like, olive-green Russian UAZ-452 van carrying Batalov’s son (and chief game warden), and a chain-smoking Siberian with a hard-lined face straight out of a Dostoyevsky novel. I try to buy some vodka en route, thinking it will help me through the next four nights out in the bush, but there’s nowhere to get any before 10am, which is Khabarovsk’s policy to control the endemic alcoholism. Batalov, who doesn’t often drink, thinks my attempts amusing. Slowly he starts to unravel his motivations for living in the forest protecting a species he sees in the flesh about two or three times a year. The rest of the time he is following its traces, watching for poachers, and trying to reason with the loggers who remove the habitat on which not just the tiger, but its prey, depends.
He was born on the western side of Siberia and brought up in a riverside cabin in the Altai Krai region, 350 kms from Novosibirsk. It was a happy 1950s childhood. He lived for the wildlife, including rabbits, hares, birds, roe deer, foxes and wolves. Aged five, he spied on a family of cranes. “I hid myself in the pond so only my eyes and nose were above the water. But the cranes got angry, and attacked me.”
In 1976, he moved to Khabarovsk to work in conservation. It was a good region to be based in, with a high proportion (about 10 per cent of the territory) under state protection. Like North America’s national park system, which inspired Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s first state protected areas are now in their centennial year. Under the Soviet regime, land continued to be put aside for wildlife. Now there are more than 100 zapovedniks across Russia — sanctuaries that can’t be used for any exploitative purpose, including tourism — and 48 national parks.
Batalov’s reserve, however, operates under a private 25-year lease, which he bought for £1,000 in 1993. Any money he makes is spent on running the base — the tiny budget must cover a staff of two part-time game wardens and a part-time accountant, and pay for one vehicle and two snowmobiles, which drag sleds carrying the odd chilly tourist through the forest. Visitors stay in four simple wooden cabins with toasty wood-burning stoves. So far guests have included a Catholic priest from Oregon and a cruise ship captain. There is a kitchen-diner where everyone eats together — endless raw fish and thin soups — and a Russian banya.
The comforts are minimal, but in metre-deep snow, the cluster of cabins is curiously romantic. Batalov also runs a short hunting season (November 1 to December 30) with the take-off, of sable, Manchurian wapiti, roe deer, brown bear and wild boar, strictly determined by an annual census. He supplements these small profits with the photography and articles he sells, and uses the money to buy camera traps.
I have one in my bag, supplied by the specialist tour operator who has brought me here. Will Bolsover is a Brit who runs African safaris and wildlife-spotting trips worldwide. He came out to Khabarovsk for the first time last year and, though he didn’t see a tiger, was hooked. For a week, he tracked the tiger’s prey — weasels, boar, deer — and set camera traps at the so-called “Tiger Post Office”, a silver rock in the forest where tigers leave scent-marks, like love letters, to attract a mate.
“In terms of conventional photographic wildlife tourism, the Siberian tiger provides one of the lowest hit rates you will find in the industry,” says Bolsover. “But the experience of setting the camera traps, and receiving the results over time, is worth it. To be lucky enough to walk in the footsteps of the biggest feline predator in the world, to be in their environment and know that they are here, is incredibly exciting.”
When we cross the boundary of the reserve, I’m hoping I too will be as satisfied as Bolsover with the discovery of tiger faeces rather than the animal itself, all the while berating myself for not managing to buy that vodka. But at least the pristine white taiga is pretty out here; I like the spirit of possibility.
There has been fresh snowfall overnight. When we turn off the road from the village of Durmin, the track is a blank carpet stretching ahead. I’m getting into the rhythm of travelling through nothingness, when Batalov catches my hand, and squeezes it. Look, he whispers, pulling the car to a halt. Catching the first sun to break over the trees is a line of pugmarks. They follow the track’s spine to its vanishing point.
We get out to examine them. The front paw pad, its shape crisply drawn in the snow, is vast: 9cm at its widest point. Batalov says it belongs to a tiger about six-years old, weighing 160 to 180 kilos.
“I’m a materialist. I don’t believe in these things, but sometimes I ask for help, and something happens.” I ask what he means. “It’s difficult to explain, but last year I was setting a camera trap with some tourists, and I had this strange feeling. When I went back to get the footage, it showed a tiger passing the same spot less than an hour later.”
To see these imprints in the snow creates a tug of expectation and fear. The tiger’s presence is everywhere; it seeps through the forest with an almost spiritual weight. “He passed here about four hours ago,” says Batalov.
We get back into the car and for another kilometre, the tiger’s pugmarks follow a straight line. I’m thankful when Batalov explains that he won’t track tigers more than a few metres off the thoroughfares he has cut through the forest. He doesn’t want to interfere with them. Tigers, he says, are clever; they can discern the difference between Russian hunters, and the indigenous Udege, who carry walking sticks. (According to the film-maker Sooyong Park, tigers can also tell the difference between men, whom they find threatening, and women, whom they don’t.)
He may be conscientious about non-interference, but Batalov is also clearly as excited as a small child. On three occasions the pugmarks veer off the track and loop into the forest. The tiger has gone to add his scratch marks to a tree — long, vertical engravings. Then back on the track we see where he has lain down. I picture his sphinx-like profile, his head held high. When I look closer, I find golden strands of hair embedded in the white. And a few steps beyond, scarlet specks of blood.
This would have been enough — an hour into the reserve, and I’ve touched the blood of a Siberian tiger’s kill — but when we turn a bend in the track, my heart lurches quicker than I can bring a camera to my eye. The tiger is up ahead, perhaps 80 metres distant, sleeping in the snow. He sees us, and we see him — the thick, simple stripes. He gets to his feet. In a matter of five, six seconds, we have lost him, the flash of black and orange disappearing among the skinny tree trunks.
“You just became the first tourist to come here and see a tiger in the flesh,” says Batalov, breaking the silence.
None of us caught a decent picture on camera. But one of the traps did. We pore over the footage that night in Batalov’s cabin in a forest clearing beside the research base. We watch video clips not just of our sighting, but the footage that comprises Batalov’s life’s work. There is a tigress clipping her cub around the ear. There are two young males playing in the winter’s first snow. And there is our tiger, crossing a bridge a few minutes ahead of our car.
We look for our cat again in the days that follow. I jump at every sound — the crack of a twig in a fire at the hunting cabin where we lunch, the shower of snow slipping from a trunk. At night I barely sleep. Since the possibility of the tiger’s existence became real, I can’t stop thinking it is watching me from deep in the forest, his orange coat shining in the cold moonlight.
Sophy Roberts was a guest of Natural World Safaris, which offers a seven-day Siberian Tiger Safari Experience led by Alexander Batalov from £2,325 per person based on two sharing, including one camera trap per person, and excluding international flights. The company can also organise travel to and from Khabarovsk on the Trans-Siberian railway
One hundred years of ‘the big train ride’
On October 5 1916, the 1.6 mile-long railway bridge over the Amur River, just outside Khabarovsk, was officially opened — not only the longest bridge in Russia, but the final section of the Trans-Siberian railway. Work on the line had started 25 years earlier, and other sections had previously opened, but the Khabarovsk bridge was the last part of the jigsaw, allowing trains to run the 5,771 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok entirely on Russian soil.
For fans of rail travel it has long been a bucket list journey — “The Trans-Siberian is the big train ride, all the rest are peanuts,” wrote Eric Newby in 1977 — and the centenary is expected to draw record numbers.
For those keen to travel in style, a private train called the Golden Eagle is making a series of celebratory Trans-Siberian journeys. Its July 26 departure features railway historian Christian Wolmar as guest speaker (15 nights costs from £9,895 per person, or as much as £19,395 for travelling in an Imperial Suite).
Alternatively, a public train called the Rossiya (the “Russia”) leaves Moscow every other day for the six-night journey to Vladivostok, with first-class two-berth compartments, second-class four-berths and a restaurant (the full journey in first class costs about £800).
The berths are all pre-reserved, so you cannot hop on and off at will along the way. Instead travellers can create a tailored itinerary by buying separate tickets for each leg via an online agent such as Real Russia (realrussia.co.uk, see Trans-Siberian Journey Planner).
Photographs: Michael Turek; Alamy