The most rewarding thing about reading travel writing is the psychological journey. A strong travelogue whisks you off to exotic places without you ever leaving your seat; exposes you to fascinating nations, cultures, and languages; inspire you to pack your bags and go exploring…or conversely, convinces you to stay away. But there are also travelogues that do none of the above. I introduce One Steppe Beyond by Thom Wheeler.
One Steppe Beyond’s story line is pretty straightforward: It’s the 1990s; Thom has just completed higher education and is searching for meaningful employment, or at least a kickstart to his stagnant existence. He has longed to explore Russia ever since an old penpal from the USSR gave him a discolored map of her country: “I spent much time marveling at this huge country, hypnotised by the alien, impenetrable cyrillic script, daydreaming about all the possibilities…” (p. 12) With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and subsequent opening of Russia’s borders, “Russia became more than the romantic invention of Cold War thrillers…it mutated into a geographical monster, now somehow accessible” (p. 13). Thom finally gets his chance to go through a job offer from Uncle Tony, a friend of the family working in the Eastern European wood industry. He and his old pal Jo leave England and head to Estonia, where Tony asks them to drive across Russia to Vladivostok for another job. They can’t think of a good reason why not.
Sounds like a pretty exciting journey – one man, one woman and one dilapidated VW camper van against the unknown perils of 1990s Russia. Well, I hope you’re patient, because you won’t get to the Russia part for a while. Wheeler spends the beginning of the book detailing every single leg of the journey from England to Estonia. There are multiple-page tangents on Munich, Prague, and Krakow before he and Jo reach Uncle Tony’s timber yard in Tallinn, and once there, Wheeler goes on and on about all things Estonian. I am sure that Eastern Europe is a fascinating region, but this is a Russia travelogue and the narrative needs to remain focused on Russia. The story is slow to build – in fact, it takes 2 chapters and 60 pages to even get the Russian visas.
Not that the drive across Russia is anything to get excited for. Considering the epic scope of the journey (they’re crossing the entire country from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok), there is nothing particularly gripping or engaging about it. In general, the trip follows a predictable pattern in each chapter: Wheeler cites a quote about the “mystical” side of Russia (Dostoyevsky, onion domes, or “a certain innocence floating in the air” [p. 105]), goes to a town and comments on the poverty and/or backwardness of the natives, meets up briefly with a local, then moves on. There is little detail about many of the places Thom and Jo visit. Interspersed with short descriptions of the Russian cities are lengthy pieces of historical background that feel like they’ve been pulled right out of a travel guide or Russian History 101. In St. Petersburg, Wheeler digresses to give a 3/4-page backstory to Rasputin, and then breaks with the story later to provide a list of famous St. Petersburg natives. When he and Jo pass through Vologda, he jumps back in time to describe the town during the worst years of Stalin’s Terror, then returns to the present day. Sometimes Wheeler just quotes other famous Western travelers to Russia like John Foster Fraser rather than describing the surroundings himself. While it is great to have historical context, the facts Wheeler includes are not of much interest and often his own experiences take backseat to them. The town of Suzdal was written off in a sentence. Lucky.
What Wheeler does not skimp on is describing the poverty which he and Jo witness in both big cities and provincial towns. In Petersburg, he comments on the dreariness and dinginess of suburban apartment blocks. Most of his description of Yaroslavl was not about the sights in the town itself, but a story of a bleak documentary he saw that identified it as one of the worst towns for heroin addiction in Russia. Wheeler did give vivid descriptions of the many Russian Orthodox Churches in the Golden Ring, which I enjoyed. But he and Jo soon grew bored of seeing all those beautiful churches, and – just read…
It was with some relief that the next town we passed through was the industrial and very ugly Ivanovo, just the antidote after all that old world culture. Ivanovo was grim and menacing, not an inch of godly inspiration anywhere to be seen. And ooh, it felt good! Gratefully we passed by downtrodden and battered natives, hopelessly scuffling along, clinging onto life in the very real present. (p. 109)
Excuse me, what?
I understand that it was the 1990s and a period of devastating economic turmoil followed the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Any travelogue about ’90s Russia is bound to describe the declining standard of living – it was an important part of the experience of people living in Russia at the time. But to derive pleasure from seeing impoverished, demoralized Russians is just inappropriate.
Though the story is competently written, there is nothing gripping or engaging about it. Thom and Jo encounter many obstacles on the journey – corrupt police officers, mechanical failure, bankruptcy – but these problems are resolved shortly after they appear, without any kind of drama or humor. For example, when the camper van breaks down in Svobodny, Thom and Jo are stuck. But literally one sentence after the pair start to form plan B, a car comes down the road to save them. One Siberian man tows them to a gas station, where they find another man who tows them to a hotel. It’s hard to become invested in a story when there is this little actual conflict.
And then there are the characters: Thom, Jo and the VW camper van, named “Max”. Thom comes across as incredibly self-centered and indomitable. Although he frequently uses “we” during his travels, little precious information or characterization is given to Jo, his traveling companion for the length of the entire trip. She doesn’t speak or do anything much. A few times, I forgot she was there. Her vegetarianism is used several times as a lame attempt at humor, but we don’t get to know how she feels about the journey. The campervan Max gets a 1 1/2-page backstory including the history of the model, but Jo gets nothing. And Wheeler doesn’t seem to care for his best friend as much as he does for the van. As he and Jo watch Max being hoisted onto a ship in Vladivostok, he remarks:
I just wanted to tuck him up in a warm garage away from the elements…we had put him through more than most vans would have to deal with in a lifetime. (p. 292)
That’s more affection than he’s shown toward Jo at any point in the book.
The Russians Thom and Jo encounter are divided neatly into three groups: Good Russians (people who help them or talk to them), Bad Russians (the police, the authorities, criminals) and joke-fodder (normal Russian citizens who aren’t part of the other 2 groups, often the target of ridicule and condescension). Sometimes they even move from one group to another. Take for example a scene in which Thom and Jo need to go to Moscow to get more money. They are caught trying to sneak onto a train without tickets and are taken to the local police station in Vologda. Thom initially treats the Russian police with condescension:
As a Russian policeman, where do you begin? If your job is to uphold the law, in a country where the rule of law is pretty much an alien concept, you’re going to have to make it up as you go along…The police are simply there to remind the good people of Russia that at any time and for any reason, they could lose their liberty and their rights. (p. 101)
But as soon as he lies to the police about their motives and they allow him and Jo to go to Moscow, he suddenly describes being warmed by their kindness. Hmm. Later on in Tatarstan they are stopped by “bad” police, who take their documents. (Never mind that documents authorized for St. Petersburg shouldn’t be expected to be valid in Kazan…)
Wheeler’s perceptions of the Russians he meets veer between passive observance and mockery. He solemnly comments on the squalor that the Russians endure from day to day, but is not above mocking them for their banya tradition or “uncivilized” queue behavior. He never seems genuinely interested in why these traditions endure – the jokes are derived just from how backward they seem to be. Take a look at these sympathetic descriptions:
- “Should a twenty-stone babushka who wouldn’t look out of place in Saruman’s army of Orcs in The Lord of the Rings happen to pin you up against the counter…” (queue behavior, p. 114)
- “Supermodel waitresses and neanderthal men” (at a cafe, p. 203)
- “We were quick to get the attention of a middle-aged lady doing a very good impression of a pantomime dame in caked-on make-up” (buying train tickets, p. 252)
- “They were just too enthusiastic, too excited and up for it, which doesn’t really sit with being Russian. I like my Russians morose and cynical.” (p. 289)
At one point, Thom hits a man in the road with the camper van and doesn’t seem to care if the fellow is okay. He’s too busy comparing the incident to hitting a sheep in Wales and is more concerned about how he’ll adapt to life in a Russian prison. So it goes.
After thousands of miles stuck in metaphorical second gear, Wheeler eventually comes to the end of his journey. The narrative is wrapped up rather rapidly with the author making no attempt to explain whether the journey had affected his views on the country at all. It felt as if Wheeler was eager to conclude the whole thing, and as a reader I too was relieved to have finished this rather dull slog through the steppes. While competently written, there is little that is memorable about this traipse across post-Soviet Russia, and there exist much better travelogues to satisfy one’s wanderlust with.
One Steppe Beyond by Thom Wheeler. Pub. 2012 by Summersdale. Paperback, 320 pages. ISBN13: 9781849531566