FROM atop the rickety steel bridge over the railroad tracks, I could see Chernyshevsk spread out before me. Pockmarked concrete apartment blocks sat in fields of dun-colored earth studded with rusting fenders, tire rims, and axles. Across the way dark-brown wooden huts brooded behind larch fences, and past the edge of town a barren steppe extended toward Mongolia. From this steppe's most distant reaches came a majestic wind driving clouds of dust that one minute took the shape of galloping dragons, the next disintegrated into rolling swells as on an angry sea, but ever swept over the town and into the twilight emptiness that lay beyond. And yet what was beyond from here? It seemed that I was standing in the outer reaches of beyond -- that Chernyshevsk was lost in it, hunkered down against plangent gales blowing from nowhere to nowhere.
Given that it stretches almost halfway around the Northern Hemisphere, it is odd that Siberia should remain so unacknowledged. Even non-Siberian Russians know relatively little about it, though it makes up more than three quarters of their homeland. Dubbed in prison songs bely ad ("the white hell"), Siberia remains for many former Soviets a place of exile, personal knowledge of which they have not cared to acquire. Historically, however, it was once a Klondike of hope, where the fetters of society could be shed and riches hewn out of the frozen taiga.
To gather material for a book, I was traveling from one end of Russia to the other, and thus crossed Siberia -- no mean feat, given that much of its territory has no real roads, no rail lines. By way of zimniki -- tracks negotiable by vehicle only when frozen -- I trucked my way more than 1,800 miles west and south from Magadan, on Russia's eastern coast, through Kolyma and Yakutia until I hit the town of Tynda. From there I caught the train to Chernyshevsk, a blight of a settlement 180 miles north of Mongolia, six time zones east of Moscow, and as close to nowhere as one can get this side of Ultima Thule.