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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lonely Quest for Siberian Treasures

Andrew Humphreys set his sights on Kyakhta, a tiny Siberian town near the Mongolian border, on a hunch that some traces might remain of its faded glory as a stop on colonial tea-trading routes.

It was the kind of gamble he took again and again in 10 weeks researching Siberia for a new Russia guidebook from Lonely Planet, the Australian publishers that spur their researchers from Belize to Samoa to hunt for bargains by paying them a pittance.

"It's just a spot on the map, but it might be the undiscovered tourist destination of the planet," Humphreys said.

But Kyakhta's glory had evidently vanished with the tea traders. After 15 minutes strolling along its single street of run-down Victorian mansions, Humphreys was ready to go. Trouble was, his bus had already headed back to Irkutsk, a day's journey north.

Then he caught sight of a mosque-like building against the sky about five kilometers away. He walked toward it and, as the sun set, came upon a large cathedral that "looked like it should be in Rome or Paris." Nearby were a barbed wire fence, a wooden shack, a shanty town and a crowd of people milling around in the dusk.

The shack was the border post; the people were waiting to cross out of Mongolia; and the cathedral, completely gutted inside, had become "basically one big public toilet."

"It was the best discovery of the trip," said Humphreys, digging happily into eggs over-easy, his fifth meal at the American Bar and Grill in just a few luxurious days back in Moscow. "The problem is, I would never send anyone there. Two days' travel to see what is probably the world's most impressive public convenience."

Humphreys, a Briton who has worked on English-language newspapers in Cairo and Tallinn, admitted he was not sure what to suggest in the way of conventional tourist delights in Siberia.

Most cities have "no restaurants, no bars, one hotel, no shops," he said. "Nobody's hostile -- they're completely perplexed. They ask, 'What are you doing here?'"

Most perplexed was a fisherman Humphreys met in the tiny fishing village of Baikalskoye at the remote northern tip of Lake Baikal, famous for its unique freshwater seals.

"If some tourists came up here, would you take them out in your boat?" Humphreys asked the fisherman who, he said, "looked just like Robert DeNiro."

"Why?" was the answer.

"They want to see the seals."

"Oh ... well, I can bring a seal back and lay it in the back yard -- they can have a look at it there."

"No, no, they want to see them in nature, a whole lot of them together, you know, flumping around on the rocks."

"Oh! They want to hunt."

"No, no ..."

"They want to watch me hunt?"

"No," Humphreys said, explaining that the hypothetical tourists would probably not enjoy seeing seals killed.

"Well, I can take them out and then they can go down below while I hunt," said the fisherman.

"He thought I was just the funniest guy in the world," Humphreys said.

Humphreys's deluxe business cards, which show the Lonely Planet logo floating over a landscape of purple mountains and a pagoda, took him a long way. They made a particular impression in Kamchatka, where a local official remarked, "We had someone come from the L.A. Times, but, you know, your cards are much nicer."

Humphreys finally reached an unlikely oasis: Vladivostok, seven time zones east of Moscow.

The seaside city of surprisingly pretty 19th-century buildings is starting to bustle with a lively cafe life, centered on curiously named establishments such as the Japanese restaurant Nagasaki. It is home to a small colony of expatriates, many of whom work in casinos and start to party when the tables close at dawn. "It's the first time I've ever set my alarm for 7 A.M. to go to a party," Humphreys said.

Lonely Planet books are on sale at Travellers Guest House, 971-4059. The new Russia guide is due out next spring.