Martin Kyrle, one of the authors of Jottings from the Trans-Siberian Railway, is best known locally as a former Liberal Democrat Councillor. He served on the Chandler’s Ford committee for 50 years. He wrote his new book based on notes he kept as he travelled and long term friend, Michael Roberts, took the photographs. (These are stunning. I will share some of them in both parts of the interview, part 2 to follow next week, but the book is full of the most beautiful images and well worth investigating on that account alone).
Martin has written other books (including the history of the Liberal Democrats in our area, which may be of interest to those who like political, as well as local, history) but is branching out (some pun intended!) into railway journey books.
Martin and Michael are both graduates from Southampton University, though Martin went on to earn an MA from the University of Sussex in Russian Studies. He met Michael Roberts during their student days in the 1950s.
What a good travel book should do
A good travel book should educate and entertain its readers with regard to the places it is describing. It should help people get a real feel for the places especially when there is no chance of them getting there to find out directly. It should also give good advice and be honest about what went well and what didn’t. Martin and Mike’s book does all of this with wonderful illustrations. It is written in the form of a diary, which works very well. It makes for a very easy read.
Facts and Figures
The book has a proper index at the front (don’t underestimate the importance of that. Many a good non-fiction book is spoilt by the lack of one). It is clearly laid out (not all indexes are!).
Kyrle’s Laws are wonderfully funny and useful. (Ignore at your own peril if you ever think about going on a trip like this one and if you wouldn’t dream of going on such a trip, you will still see why Martin came up with these!).
There is a separate section on practical considerations which deals with the importance of travelling first class on a trip of this nature.
Martin also describes what he had in his cases and holdall bag, how to get around the issue of having to carry dirty laundry (which he avoided with one very simple tip). Martin also gives advice on visa requirements.
Martin also advises if you don’t speak Russian to familiarise yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet to help you read simple signs. The Russian alphabet is different from ours. (Being able to read Cyrillic alphabet will also help you to read notices in Mongolian as they are written in a standard form).
Oh, and who you travel with – well you are going to be with them for a long time. Can your relationship with that person stand that?
There is an epilogue, the author’s memoir of his links with Russia, a glossary of Russian words and guide to their pronunciation and biographical notes for Martin and Mike. There are also some beautiful maps in this book.
The interview is going to be in two parts with part 2 following next week. I will start with a brief summary of the trip.
Brief Summary of the Trip
The Trans-Siberian Railway runs from Moscow to Vladivostok. The Trans-Mongolian line runs from Ulan Ude to Beijing. Martin and Mike had to fly back home from Beijing for the very good reason that from Ulan Bator, you can fly to Beijing or Moscow (amongst other places) but there are no flights to the UK. Beijing is the nearest airport with direct flights to Heathrow. The trip took 30 days (from arrival in Moscow).
Stops on the way were Tobolsk where Martin and Mike visited the only stone kremlin in Siberia, the others had been wooden, and a new cathedral. They saw Decembrist graves here too. The Decembrists were the precursors to the Bolsheviks in that they rose up against the Tsarist regime. The former, however, paid a very heavy price for doing so, especially as they were members of the aristocracy. The Bolsheviks, of course, won.
Then came Novosibirsk, Irkutsk (where Decembrist houses can be seen), Lake Baikal: Olkhol Island (where Martin and Mike met a shaman), Ulan Ude (home of Buddhism in Russia and where Martin and Mike witnessed traditional peasant ceremonies). It was on Day 24 they went into Mongolia and from there to Terelj Country Park (where a power cut at night meant a trip to the loo was more hazardous than anyone could have wished for). Ulan Bator followed this and finally, the two men were in Beijing.
Oh, and did you know the Mongolians have a half pence note? I didn’t until Martin showed me one of them. Beautifully decorated note and not worth the paper it was printed on probably.
One problem I have when writing reviews is in working out how much to say. You want to give enough information to tempt people into finding out more about the book (and ideally buying it!) but you don’t want to give too much away.
The summary above comes from the book’s index but there is a lot of depth to the book with tales of who Martin and Mike met, how they got on with their guides, how they coped with emergency hospital services (Martin described it as doing his “Van Gogh” tribute act – you will have to see Pages 97 and 98 of the book for more!) and there are many funny stories. The book has an easy to read style, which is very appealing.
When were you first interested in writing Jottings from the Trans-Siberian Railway?
I wanted people to know more about Russia. It would be useful to see the world Putin is coming from. Freedom is a whole new concept to all of the Baltic States (whereas we have had at least some degree of freedom, from invasion at least, since 1066). The follow-up book will be a kind of Fool’s Guide to the Baltic States.
The Trans-Siberian trip (and therefore the book) started life as an idea 14 days after the funeral for my wife, Margaret. There was a celebration of her life at The Point. Mike Roberts came back to my home and told me he was thinking of taking a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway but wanted me to go too as my background in Russian would be invaluable. I could “talk us out of trouble” should it come to it (and it did). Both of us had hitch-hiked in various places when young men and for this train trip were now doing the same as older widowers.
I planned the trip out. Mike and I also had to work out when we would need guides on the various stops on the trip. The idea was to have guides to show us around the various places enabling us to make the most of our time there.
Allison: Time to stop for now. More next week including Kyrle’s Laws (including the wonderfully named Law of the Public Bog!), Martin shares his thoughts on the criteria he and Mike used for photographs to go in the book (logically, they could have taken thousands!) and what he would have done differently, had he known.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.