The 70th day into the Russia-Ukraine war, I sent a Telegram message to Artem currently in the Siberian capital of Irkutsk. Artem is the owner cum tour guide of a small local inbound agency while his wife Evgenia is the company’s CEO. They have two very lovely sons.
I have known Artem and his family for nearly ten years now. We have since met in Russia, KL, Singapore, Taipei and Finland, having dinners together and chatting over travels and more.
Remember my first and second 9,288 km Siberian railway trip? Artem was our guide throughout the 12-day trips from Vladivostok to Moscow, taking care of all our big and small needs on food and tours. As if that’s not enough, he would also arrange some unexpected local ethnic welcome dances for us at each of the railway stops, simple yet full of sincerity. The unforgettable memories of those journeys have inspired our Russian themed tours!
At the 2017 Singapore International Travel Fair, Artem and his wife told me they hoped I could launch Malaysia’s first ever Lake Baikal Winter Tour, and he said he would gave me his full support and cooperation. As a matter of fact, I had always wanted to include elements of environment and hiking in each of my tours, and Artem’s proposal went very well with my core values. So I gave him my nod instantly.
Artem later managed to get me 50% ground arrangement waiver, and my Lake Baikal Winter Tour has since become a new themed holiday destination much sought after by Malaysian travellers soon after its launch. An excellent start indeed.
Building on the initial success, we finalised a third Siberian Railway Tour originally slated for October 2020, an extended version of our transcontinental railway expedition from Mongolia into Siberia through Moscow and St. Petersburg then all the way to Helsinki. Unfortunately, the plan had to be called off because of the coronavirus pandemic.
I have to specifically mention here that Artem is a very enterprising man who speaks excellent English. He belongs to that generation of young Russians with powerful global perspectives who love their home country, Siberia, tremendously.
He always says Siberia with its four distinct seasons boasts exceptionally beautiful natural scenery, and harmonious coexistence of its diverse ethnicities and cultures. Indeed, don’t you ever think that all this whole place has is biting coldness, natural gas, coal and criminals! Siberia is a land of charming stories, and the legendary vodka too!
With this mind, Mr and Mrs Artem often travel around the world every year attending international travel fairs and enthusiastically promoting Siberia and Russia, and they have indeed managed to win numerous tourists from the EU, China, Japan and Southeast Asia. He even planned to build a resort beside Lake Baikal but unfortunately, the changes taking place in his country and elsewhere in the world these two years have mercilessly crushed his dream.
On the other end of the phone, Artem sighed that bad luck kept streaming in after fighting the pandemic, and it looked like there’s no end in sight to the sufferings anytime soon due to current war.
Making up almost three quarters of the entire land mass of Russia, Siberia has always been called the “sleeping land”. But, is it going to remain sleepy forever?
As a matter of fact, due to the pandemic and other natural disasters, the entire planet has been suffering different degrees of stillness. Many things have changed beyond our recognition, but we trust that this whole thing will be over one day, when we can go back to our good old ways of living once again.
While natural disasters are beyond our control, the most dreadful is none other than human-induced disasters. The war in Ukraine & Russia, whatever the rationale is, has poured oil on the flames of human miseries. Lest we forget, the biggest sufferers are always the innocent and unarmed civilians of these two nations, including people like Artem.
I am not sure whether we in Malaysia do appreciate what we have now. After putting on face masks for 774 days, we can finally take out our masks outdoors, and it is least on our minds to start yet another human calamity?!
Is there anything we can do? Why not take the initiative to send our greetings to friends living half way across the globe, and ask: are you still alright, my friends?
Almost main borders opening now, we shall mutually visit to our land and hugs for the best of new future.
(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has travelled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)