Where would a fit 30-year-old bachelor with a flourishing medical practice and a successful writing career choose to spend eight months travelling in the 19th century? For anyone but Chekhov, the answer would probably be Paris. He chose Sakhalin Island off the east coast of Siberia – Russia’s notorious penal colony.
Like many Russian writers of the time his sense of social justice fed his concern for the less fortunate. He had read a disturbing account of the colony by a priest, Father Simeon Kazansky, whose dedication inspired Chekhov to visit Sakhalin – without any official backing – and to write about the conditions.
It was not a whimsical idea. He drew up questionnaires to record the data, and over three months, he interviewed administrators, prisoners confined in gaol, and those condemned to forced labour in scattered settlements as the majority of exiles were. Risk of escape was minimal: it was almost impossible to leave this inhospitable island and the few who attempted it rarely survived the desolate landscape and treacherous seas.
Crossing Siberia was not an easy journey in 1890. It took Chekhov two-and-a-half months to cover the 6,000 miles from Moscow to Sakhalin, via the Volga River as far as the Ural Mountains, and then to Tyunten, Tomsk, Irkutsk (where he shipped across the Baikal Sea), and on through Sretensk, Blagoveshchensk and Khabarovsk, to the ‘filthy, dying town’ of Nikolayevsk, the departure port to the Island. For about half of this long expedition he travelled by rail and river steamers; for the rest, he was shaken around in a tarantass – an un-upholstered horse-drawn carriage – crammed with two other passengers. In a race to reach the infrequent ferry at Sretensk, they covered 130 miles a day, changing horses often and arriving only an hour before the boat left.
Chekhov had promised his friend and publisher, Alexey Suvorin, to despatch articles to him along the way, but found too much motion to write while travelling and too much company during delays. Of the two lieutenants he was forced to spend so much time with in the tarantass he writes: ‘They don’t understand much but they talk about everything.’ (Nowadays these folk sit beside you on long-haul flights).
A city-dweller unaccustomed to long-distance travel, Chekhov’s experience echoes the memories of many wanderers on their first major journeys. His new heavy boots were too tight and gave him painful blisters before they stretched; the trunk he had been warned against taking had to be abandoned in Tomsk: with its rigid, unwieldy shape, it could not withstand the traumas inflicted upon it my porters – he bought instead two soft leather ‘carry-alls’. It rained for weeks at a time; connections were missed by hours, necessitating long delays roughing-it in primitive hostelries; much of the food on offer was barely edible, and one of the steamers grounded and was holed on rocks, sinking in a few feet of water – all of which he related in his letters with cheerful good humour.
By a piece of bad luck, the steamer coming in the opposite direction, the Herald, with a mass of people on board, could not get through either and both ships have ended up stuck fast. There was a military band on board the Herald, and the result was an excellent party; all day yesterday we had music on deck which entertained the captain and the sailors and no doubt delayed the repairs to the ship. The female passengers – particularly the college girls – were having a ball: music, officers, sailors … ah!
All discomforts were soon forgotten in the excitement of new scenes. In another letter he describes the river Amur in the latter part of his journey along the Chinese border: Crags, cliffs, forests, thousands of ducks, herons and all kinds of fowl with viciously long bills, and wilderness all around. […] I’m in love with the Amur and would be happy to stay here for a couple of years. It is beautiful, with vast open spaces and freedom.
In Blagoveshchensk he discovers Japanese culture, or at least, the ‘always laughing’, elegantly dressed Japanese prostitutes with beautiful figures.
The Japanese girl’s room was very neat and tidy, sentimental in an Asiatic kind of way, and filled with little knick-knacks […] She has an incredible mastery of her art, so that rather than just using her body you feel as if you are taking part in an exhibition of high-level riding skill…
That was in a letter to Suvorin. To his family he wrote: I am alive and well, and I haven’t lost any of the money. I’m saving some of the coffee for Sakhalin.
Sakhalin shocked him. He described it as ‘a hell’. He was no stranger to hardship, having survived a period of family poverty in his youth, but he was especially appalled by sick and starving children; some of whom had accompanied their convicted parents for want of any alternative support, while others were born to exiles on the Island.
Although Chekhov’s report on Sakhalin was detailed, and backed up by statistics and extensive desk research, his brilliance as a storyteller shines through. Depictions of hovels, and wretched streets stalked by cholera create heart-breaking settings. The people he meets become unforgettable characters: the young officer’s wife in her once-fashionable gown, making a home for her children in one room of a hut while duty soldiers occupy the other, stationed at a look-out post over a grim grey sea; the six-year-old girl accompanying her father – a man condemned for murdering her mother – who hangs on to her father’s fetters and sleeps in the ship’s hold alongside convicts and soldiers en route to Sakhalin, and the young man without hope, exiled unjustly through the incompetence of the administration.
Understandably, Chekhov was eager to leave after a stay of ‘three months and three days’, and returned more comfortably via Hong Kong, Singapore, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was probably in the latter that he acquired the unusual souvenir he took home – a pair of mongooses.
Although Chekhov made a couple of visits to western Europe, he never undertook such an extensive journey again. His last trip was in 1904 to Badenweiler, in Austria – to a sanatorium for treatment of advanced tuberculosis. With characteristic optimism he wrote, on 28 June, a slightly confused letter to his beloved sister, Masha, complaining of the suffocating heat in Badenweiler and asking about boats from Trieste to Odessa, where he wanted to go, ‘I don’t feel I have had enough of a holiday yet.’
He died four days later.
The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin, Anton Chekhov. Translated by, Luba and Michael Terpak, (1987) Century.
Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters (Chekhov’s collected correspondence). Edited by, Rosamund Bartlett, translated by, Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, (2004) Penguin.
If you want to follow Chekhov’s route, see a map of Russia here
And if you missed the last Legendary Traveller tale, you can find it here