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Dervla Murphy interview

The veteran of independent travel writing marks the launch of her new book 'Silverland' by talking to Lyn Hughes about Siberia, Russia and the BAM railway

Lyn Hughes | Issue 83 | November 2006

"It was 13 years ago that I first met you,” I tell Dervla Murphy when she picks up the phone, wondering if she’ll remember. She does. “My, how the years go,” she laughs.

On that occasion – a warm autumn day in 1993 – I’d been invited to interview her for the very first issue of Wanderlust. As a keen independent traveller I had read all of her books, but as an interviewer, I was a complete greenhorn. I fumbled with the tape recorder and, although the interview went well, I was relieved when it was over. We repaired to the pub for a drink, at which point I discovered – disaster! – the tape was blank. 

Thankfully, Dervla was extremely understanding as, there in the pub, I had to start interviewing her all over again. Today, though, everything goes rather more smoothly...

Your book, Silverland, is about Siberia. What first drew you there?

That’s a long story! I ended up going through it by accident. I was on my way to the Russian Far East, beyond Siberia, when I had a couple of minor accidents which prevented me cycling for a few months. So I stayed on in Siberia, fell in love with it; that was in mid-summer, very hot – and I decided I would like to see it in winter. That’s why I went back.

People will think you’re mad, travelling there at –35°C. 

Not really – not if you’re properly dressed. Canadians would be used to that. In parts of Canada the climate is very similar to Siberia. Very dry and cold. 

What made you fall in love with Siberia?

Partly it’s the sheer vastness of it. Thousands and thousands of miles of uninhabited landscape, apart from the settlements where I stayed. And the beauty of the light is quite extraordinary. In winter there is so much ice – it was more ice and a light dusting of snow rather than the deep snow one imagined.

The locals were surprised that you weren’t dressed in as many layers as they were.

Yes, but they were quite right. I did have to borrow more layers. They love their climate. They love the winter.

Was not being able to speak Russian a handicap?

Huge – it meant I was dependent on the very few English speakers, who were mostly teachers. I was lucky to meet as many as I did and they were extremely kind. They introduced me to anyone in their town that spoke English – that’s how it worked.

This was different from many of your previous journeys – you were travelling on a train, not a bike.

I was hoping at the end to be on a bike but then that man came up...

The theft of your bike, ‘Pushkin’? What stunned me was that you didn’t seem to be angry.

I remember my most beloved bicycle was stolen in South Africa; it’s very difficult to be angry when you’re being robbed by people who clearly have much less than you, and who don’t do you any damage. If they’d attacked me it would have been different but when they’re simply helping themselves to your ‘soft’ possessions, which you can so easily replace, it’s hard to be angry.

You travel on a budget and stay in the places that locals would stay in. Is that necessity or because that’s the way you want to do it?

It’s the way I want to do it. Even when I’m under pressure from publishers to go to one of these literary festivals or seminars, I always ask to be put in the simplest B&B instead of a five-star hotel. I loathe those sorts of places. I detest that glossy affluence. Ugh! It’s just not me.

You were clearly a big fan of the BAM Railway.

Yes. It’s a train that goes at an average of 25 miles an hour – that’s the kind of conveyance I like. It’s not that much faster than a bike. You can still see quite a lot of the countryside as you amble along. Those long train journeys are quite special. It’s a little world of its own really. The Trans-Siberian is, too, but perhaps less so as it’s much faster.

Lake Baikal was obviously very special – you write about hating to think that you won’t go there again.

They are the sort of thoughts you have at my age! Twenty years ago there was always some possibility that I’d go back to a place I’d fallen in love with. But at this stage of life you won’t because there’s very little time.

If you had to pick one  special moment from the journey, which would it be?

When I first saw the mountains on the other side of Lake Baikal – the Barguzinsky range. That was absolutely extraordinary. It was such a beautiful vision. 

You’ve got a Cuba book to write now, but do you have further travels in mind?

I never think about the next journey until I’ve finished the previous book. That would be too much of a distraction. You’ve got to keep focused on what you’re writing about.

When you start to think about the next book, what kind of ingredients are you looking for?

Well, that’s getting more and more problematic because there are more and more roads reaching into everywhere. I would always try to avoid territories with lots of motor traffic all over the place but that’s becoming increasingly difficult. Also, I’m more and more interested in the political and social background of the country I’m travelling through. That’s been gradually happening over the years, which I think is natural as you get older.

That was apparent in your new book – you finish on a rather pessimistic note.

New Russia? Yes, it’s a complete mess. The poor people, the poor country. It really deserves something better. 

You’ve mentioned that you often get mistaken for a man. Has that been useful or is it a handicap?

I think it’s more of a handicap. It’s probably a lot to do with my voice being so deep, my short hair and people not expecting women to travel alone – all those factors combined. On the whole, I think women are safer travelling alone in many areas than men are.

In the book, you mention Tibetan Buddhism has been a powerful influence on you. 

Something can influence you without it being outwardly apparent. I first encountered Buddhism in 1963, when I was 30 or 31. But I couldn’t bear to actually go to Tibet – it would be too gruelling to see the total destruction of a culture that was so unique. 

You could also argue that it is a book you should write.

I couldn’t. I feel too deeply about it.

What do you always take with you on your travels?

The one expensive thing, in addition to notebook and pens, is a sleeping bag.

So you’re not dependent on finding accommodation?

Exactly!

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