Dry Report of a Gripping Journey

There are two kinds of travel writers -- those who can make a fascinating chronicle of any journey, even an expedition to a suburban shopping mall, and those who need an exotic locale to spin a good tale. Christina Dodwell, the author of "Beyond Siberia," falls into the latter category.


A chronicle of a winter expedition through the remote Kamchatka peninsula, Russia's easternmost frontier, "Beyond Siberia" is not a journey of self-discovery or keen insight. Dodwell, a British traveler who has written about traversing China by inflatable canoe and crossing Turkey on horseback -- simply goes to a faraway place and reports on what she has seen and heard. With its functional writing and somewhat shallow observations, "Beyond Siberia" is a bit like a traveler's slide-show -- interesting but not particularly exciting.


At its best, "Beyond Siberia" is propelled by the mysteries of Kamchatka itself, a vast and varied peninsula some 7,000 kilometers from Moscow that stretches from near the Bering Strait down toward the Kuril Islands. Closed to visitors during the Soviet era because of military secrecy -- this is where the first machine to walk on the moon's surface was tested -- Kamchatka offers one of the world's few remaining opportunities to chart relatively unknown and unspoiled wilderness.


Dodwell displays an admirable enthusiasm for delving into the experience, choosing to travel for three months in what is still considered winter in Kamchatka -- March, April and May. As she writes, "I don't learn much by enjoying only the good times."


Traveling throughout the peninsula with the help of a nervous interpreter, she learns to steer reindeer and dog sleds, losing control several times, and to drive a vezdehod, an all-terrain vehicle designed for snow and ice. She drinks blood soup with reindeer herders, encounters bears, explores volcanoes and geysers and searches for mammoth bones. A rigorous and intrepid traveler, Dodwell makes light of the hardships of traveling in Kamchatka, where the temperature often drops to minus 40 or 50 degrees Celsius, so cold, she writes, that when you exhale, your breath forms tiny crystals that fall to the ground with a sound the Siberians call "the whispering of stars."


The 450,000-person population of Kamchatka is as varied as the landscape itself, and Dodwell stays with members of different native groups to find out how their lives are changing. Traveling with a dance troupe that entertains the scattered and isolated communities of reindeer herders, she learns about the customs of the Koryak people. Despite the Soviets' banning of languages other than Russian and attempts to destroy the native culture, the folk beliefs and customs of these people have not died out. Dodwell is a devoted chronicler of such customs, details of which make up some of the most interesting parts of "Beyond Siberia."


Visiting with Koryaks, for instance, she reports that the Koryak women use a soft yellow flower called pizhmah as both a contraception and mosquito repellent. For the former, they make tea of the flower; for the latter, they rub the flowers on their skin. The Koryak women stay as energetic as possible during pregnancy, which usually lasts only seven months, in the belief that being active will pass this quality to their children. They also refrain from eating reindeer fat during pregnancy because they believe it could thicken in the stomach and fasten the child to the womb, Dodwell writes.


But on Kamchatka, the real attractions are the wonders of nature. Dodwell spent 10 days with a Russian ranger in the Kronotsky Nature Preserve, which boasts 22 volcanoes as well as the unique Valley of Geysers, where hot underground springs bubble, steam and spurt from the rocks. The sound of stones bouncing in the boiling cauldrons used to be described by the local Itelmen people as the talking of spirits, Dodwell writes. "The valley was taboo to them for they believed bad spirits inhabited the geysers, and they never revealed the valley's existence to outsiders."


The nature preserve is also home to the Kamchatka bear, said to be the world's largest, weighing up to 700 kilograms. Elsewhere bears usually live for 50 years, but in Kronotsky the weather conditions are so harsh that the bears usually die by 35. After hearing several of the ranger's tales of dangerous encounters with bears, Dodwell comes face to face with a Kamchatka bear while cross-country skiing in the preserve. "Which way would he go? It wasn't worth feeling afraid, either the bear would come my way or it wouldn't," she writes in her typical straightforward style. Unaware of her presence, the bear moves up the valley and walks away.


Dodwell has an admirable zest for adventure and an extraordinary amount of energy. Though her writing tends to be as dry as a school textbook, she does manage to convey a sense of the magnificence of Kamchatka.





"Beyond Siberia" by Christina Dodwell, Hodder & Stoughton, 159 pages, ?14.99 ($23). The book can be ordered through Zwemmers.