by Tobias Thornes
A vast and varied wonderland of unimagined splendour. Such new, dramatic sights had few parallels on the pages of sweet, well-tempered Europe or sun-scorched North Africa’s well-thumbed manuscripts. It’s no wonder the dumbfounded explorers, stumbling upon this immense set of scenes unseen, this blank book far, far across the Western sea, called it a ‘New World’. Only trundling by train, east to west for many days right across North America’s extensive girth, can the fantastic magnitude of this impressive continent be somewhat understood. Such great excitement this discovery must have instilled: a fancied dream become reality, a lost land leaping out of legend onto the empty edges of the map.
On my own cross-Canadian journey in midwinter, I fancied the scenery was no less splendid than in summer’s leafy garb. For me, the sturdy evergreens were dusted with snow; ice-white mountains encircled murky pools of mystery, wide lakes brimming with the silver blood of glaciers made molten by many summers’ heats. To experience the full gravity of these magnificent places, I travelled slowly, breaking up my long train journey to walk deep into mountain vales and hear the snow-white silence and breathe the cool, clean air.
Gradually I wended west and north, in the footsteps of those first explorers of my ilk who discovered these lands but a few hundred years before me, in the opposite direction to their distant predecessors, the first human feet to tread these stones countless generations before. I was headed for the Bering Strait, the narrow tempestuous torrent that forms the hair-fine fissure between two colossal continents which, in a younger, colder Earth, were linked by an arc of ice.
But first, to cross Alaska. My Canadian train brought me not to the Alaskan land border, but to Port Arthur where, though the snow and ice were gathering and the trees and birds less numerous than further south, the inhospitable Arctic did not quite have dominion and the sea wasn’t frozen shut. There, it was possible to transfer to a train ferry – an old-fashioned means of transportation quite new to me – and, rolling by rail straight onto a boat, we made a short and sunny crossing to American shores, before rolling off again to continue on our way. Similarly seductive scenery awaited me and, carried by train, I at last briefly crossed the Arctic Circle, coming – not long before the winter solstice – to the very edge of the land of perpetual winter dark.
Another beautiful aurora burst to life before me on that first nearly never-ending night, a mesmerising spectacle brought on by sparkling streams of stardust, but said in Norse mythology to be the sheen of the armour worn by Odin’s Valkyrie army as it marched across the sky. I witnessed too the strange sight of high, eerie polar clouds glowing in the dim twilight, with the sun’s light gently growing almost to the dawn. The hidden fire hung tantalisingly just beyond the horizon, but withdrew again, his promise unfulfilled. I paused there, in that starlit land, while the deepest dark of winter idled by, alleviated, even there, by the joyful festivities of that special time of year. Then, as the final embers of 2018 began to fade away, I boarded another train to continue on my way.
This journey would have been impossible even a year before. But in contrast to the tightening noose being tugged on all of America’s other borders, here I was favoured by the sole migration loosening effected by its ersatz president: the bridging, at last, of the cold chasm betwixt the United States and her near Asian neighbour, Russia.
Though it is possible to cross the Bering Sea by foot, if one is willing to take one’s chances over the shifting ice-floats that wobble like sliding stepping-stones throughout its stormy, wind-swept breadth, this border has been closed for decades to travellers from afar. A manned military Russian base oversees Big Diomede Island in its midst, and the few who have made it in recent years to the far side have been met by arrest and expulsion. But my journey came soon after the completion of a project dreamt of over a century before, and brought to fruition at last by the mutual friends that lead these once-warring states: a great train line linking, by bridge and tunnel, Russia and America. So it is that I can return the way those ancient humans came, albeit by somewhat swifter means. Looking out from the safety of a railway carriage, I beheld the swelling waters of one of the most dangerous straits in the world, and passed safely across.
How long this cordiality will last is anybody’s guess in such uncertain times. Arriving in the Russian province of Chukotka, it was as though I peered beneath a veil into a secret, forgotten corner that had been, until so recently, still in the shadow of the Cold War. There were no roads here, no shops, no restaurants in a society not spoiled by streams of tourists. Apart from brief arrivals on the new cross-continental train, this is Russia’s ‘last closed territory’, with no free travel and strict entry requirements that each visitor obtains a special visa and a sponsor from amongst the inhabitants, who must promise to keep watch on them night and day.
This bitter landscape, with temperatures at this time of year swaying between 15 and 35 degrees below zero, was inhabited by an ancient Chukchi people long before the Russians arrived in 1641. They remain a society steeped in Shamanic ritual and myth, telling strange stories of ancient battles and Earth’s creation, seeing spirits in animals, forests, rivers and stars. To me and my fellow travellers – set down but for a few hours by the train – they showed generosity and welcome, offering us food and shelter in their traditional yarangas or more modern wood or concrete soviet-era single-storey blocks. Most of the people are reindeer herders, fishermen or whalers, carrying on long-lived ways of life that Russian influence could not quite dispel, refreshingly at odds with the rest of the world that seems in some respects more like a separate universe.
But there are signs, inevitably, of a grimmer reality stamped upon the province, carried here by the greedy machinations of the USSR. Here and there the landscape is pocked by the blight of industrial complexes, designed to extract and process the gas, coal, gold and tungsten treasures that hide beneath these hills and perhaps in some way compensate for the great reserves of oil which Russia lost unknowingly to America when she sold Alaska.
Somewhere, also, in that bleak expanse, disused rails run to hidden horrors, the gulags of the Stalinist Terror where political prisoners from across this huge country were forced to face the winter, freezing in slavery and suffering for their supposed sins. Despite the warmth of the locals, something more than the chill Arctic breeze was making me shiver inside, and it was not with regret that, the short sojourn over, I was asked to re-embark the train and continue on my way.