Sarah Barrell: Woman About World

The long road to nowhere ended with a revelation
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The Independent Travel

The likes of Flaubert and Freya Stark may have eulogised about it but for most, travel is merely a means to an end. In the jet age, the "getting there" bit of a holiday is simply a bland necessity between home and where you want to be.

The likes of Flaubert and Freya Stark may have eulogised about it but for most, travel is merely a means to an end. In the jet age, the "getting there" bit of a holiday is simply a bland necessity between home and where you want to be.

But what if, without the act of getting there, your destination would make no sense at all? Imagine plucking one of those itinerant writers out of, say, the London docks, plonking them down, an in-flight movie and a packet of peanuts later, in the middle of as-yet uncharted Africa?

Sleep-deprived, hysterical analogies aside, after two days on a trans-Siberian road to nowhere, I began to realise that even in this day and age, the getting there can be as important as the being there. It's five in the morning and we are chasing the sunrise. A blood-red and purple horizon looms east, ahead of our Aeroflot plane. Inside, the high dome of the cabin is backlit with a pallid green glow. The enormous overhead luggage bins look like the drawers in a mausoleum wall. The passengers, with early morning porridge complexions, don't look far from eternal rest. It's 5am, or at least it is according to Moscow time, but as we land in Novosibirsk, a city in the centre of Siberia, I realise that we've jumped ahead another three, or is it four time zones? I'm not sure if that makes me more or less tired.

I wait for my luggage behind a cage in the corner of a chilly warehouse, the gate attended by a soldier in one of those oversized hats favoured by Central Asian officialdom. We are now, I remind myself, closer to Ulaanbaatar than we are to Moscow. And we are soon to be even closer. Luggage retrieved and heaved into the back of a Land Rover, after some 15 hours of travelling from the UK I set off on my journey proper. Our four-vehicle convoy will transport two scientists, four Russian mountain guides and eight amateur conservationists to the Mongolian/Tuvan border where we will spend a "working" holiday on a nature research project. All that lay between us and base camp was some 1,000 miles of Siberian wilderness.

We flash through Novosibirsk, Siberia's largest city, before its 1.5 million inhabitants have woken up. Or maybe they had. Siberia, or "Sibir" in Russian, comes from the Mongolian Altai language meaning "sleeping land". With narrow unmarked streets and uniform two-storey buildings it didn't look much like a city one way or another. On our return journey, after two weeks out in the Siberian sticks, Novosibirsk would feel like Manhattan's Meat Packing District on a Saturday night.

After a morning's drive, signs of urban life, such as they were, recede to nothing. Breeze-block Soviet-era towns give way to thickly wooded countryside. It's the weekend and Russian families can be seen determinedly "relaxing" in roadside campsites, fishing in rainy riverbanks beside drooping canvas tents. Muddy village tracks disgorge gunmetal grey motorbike and sidecars, ancient contraptions that double up as roadside stalls, selling fresh woodland berries, milk and mushrooms. Onwards and the panhandling roadside populace thins until all that's left are indolent lone soldiers. Either that or a fashion for all-in-one combat suits has seized Siberia's youth. Our driver suggests the latter.

At the wheel, Sergey Kurgin, owner of Sibalp (Siberian Alps) Travel, someone who is more than familiar with this, the "main road" to Mongolia. Sergey is a self-proclaimed mountain man who flinches when I call him Russian. He is "Siberian" but unlike a good number of his rural compatriots he doesn't regret the end of the Soviet Union, only the loss of "Russia's mountains". He has spent much of his mountaineering life as a guide in the vast continent's southern fringes. Now these mountains belong to the Stans, as the new central Asian republics are collectively known. His altitude-weathered face has trouble budging into craggy animation. But when talking about the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, his favourite of the Central Asian ranges, awed eyebrows rise above iceberg-blue eyes, the pupils reduced to pinpricks by his lifetime in the sharp Siberian sun.

As the military check points, today an increasing rarity in much of Russia, become more frequent, it is clear we are approaching the Altai Republic. This semi-autonomous region is home to what remains of Sergey's mountain domain: the Siberian Alps. He gesticulates approvingly out of the window as we climb up to the Seminsky mountain pass. At the 1,700-metre summit we find our view of the "Katun", Russia's much romanticised, edelweiss-strewn Alpine wonderland is reduced to about 10 metres by low-lying cloud. Despite this, from seemingly nowhere, car loads of Russian tourists appear, superstitiously tying ribbons to soggy tree trunks and taking pictures of each other in the mist.

We spend the night at an alpine lodge on the edge of a village where huge velvety-eared pigs rootle in overflowing rubbish bins and the local cockerel seems to be as vociferously confused about the time as we are. The following morning, with an endless amount of stamps acquired on passports - the absence of one rubber seal of approval necessitating an early morning run to the local administrative office, an hour away - we're on the road again.

As we drop out of the clouds, vast black mountains reveal themselves, tall silver birch glint against a blinding blue sky. Road-worn trucks bearing rough-cut wood and ex-army issue minivans full of border-crossing Tuvans are the only traffic on the road now. Onwards, the tree line thins; colours gradually drain out of the landscape, bleached to the mud brown and parched yellow of the Central Asia Steppe. Houses with timber roofs and glassed-in windows give way to corrugated iron-topped shacks and, a collective intake of breath, our first sighting of a yurt.

Later that day, camping in the middle of the unfathomable, anonymous remoteness of the Siberian Steppe, it was only the knowledge of those thousand miles of road between us and "civilisation" that allowed me to make any sense of where I was. Picturing a place whose mass wraps around a third of the northern hemisphere (and a place mind, not a country) requires blind faith. Or, in my case, having very little of that, an act of practical illustration that involved a door-to-door trip of some 72 hours. Give or take a time zone of two.

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