You don't want to use the roads in Siberia if you can possibly help it – which is why most travellers take the train. When Polish writer Jacek Hugo-Bader decides to give himself a 50th birthday present and "drive east alone across an entire continent", emulating the rebel manifesto of his generation, Vanishing Point, what he gets is more like Mad Max on the steppes.
Gangs of bandits roam the roads attacking any traveller unwise enough to be on their own. No car will stop for anyone who has broken down, in case it's a trap. Many drivers travel with a shotgun poking out of the window so that they can blast away, not just at attackers but at any road sign, advert or noticeboard they pass. Hugo-Bader does once stop for a car lying in the ditch, and finds the couple inside have been attacked. The wife has been killed by a spanner that the bandits hurled through the windscreen.
Along the way, he investigates the fallout from the old Soviet Union: the HIV, the alcoholism, the radiation-related illnesses around the nuclear-testing sites of Kazakhstan. He talks of the worst social disease that affects the Russians – indifference: "Dreadful, cold indifference, which in its acute form becomes deep, irrational and spontaneous contempt."
White Fever is a portrait of a country still in free fall, with the odd pocket of idealism or spirituality. Hugo-Bader spends time with shamans near Mongolia, the hippie community of Moscow and also with the followers of "one of the six Russian Christs", Vissarion. He has established a teetotal commune in Siberia where the women wash their husbands' feet each night.
This is not travel-writing lite – no fridges being carried around countries or quirky postmodern takes on identity. The model remains a traditional one: go to a tough part of the world and tell us what it is like. Tim Butcher is one of the few British writers following a similar vein. His book on the Congo, Blood River, was a bestseller, showing that there is more of an appetite for such hard-nosed travel reportage than publishers might think.
Hugh Thomson's 'Tequila Oil' is published by Phoenix
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