Growing up during the time of an ever-present threat of nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War, photographer Guy Neveling‘s recent Trans-Siberian trip became as much a personal journey as an adventurous pursuit. Beginning in Beijing, the five week journey ended in St Petersburg traversing three diverse countries: China, Mongolia and Russia.
Crossing the imaginary line on the ground between each country meant a vastly different experience of both the local culture and physical terrain as the train slowly crawled north. No running water, fermented mare’s milk and throat singing in¬†Mongolia contrasted with the luxuries of Moscow: flushing toilets, a fantastic hotel bed, and an evening at the Bolshoi Ballet.
As a 19 year old conscript Neveling’s orders included stalking huge Russian Naval task forces around the South African coastline. Crossing over into Russia on the trip meant finally meeting the ‘enemy’ on his home turf for the first time and realising he’s not all that bad. As a child, Neveling remembers seeing “scary as hell” military parades moving across Red Square in images that were broadcast from the then USSR, “Red Square seemed small and harmless when I finally stood on the parade area, much like the house one has grown up in and when on return as an adult the rooms feel as if they have shrunk.
“It was hard to imagine columns of 16 wheeled behemoths crawling down the cobbled square with their intercontinental cruise missiles strapped to their backs. Amusingly and what may have helped disarm the threat of a nuclear holocaust for me as a kid, was seeing the upmarket shopping mall also on the square directly opposite the Kremlin. Suddenly the vision of missiles driving past a shopping mall didn’t seem so bad, it became human.”
Beijing provided an opportunity to visit the location of another iconic moment in history, tracking down the road where the ‘Tank Man’ stood blocking the tanks during 1989’s Tiananmen¬†Square uprising. The highlight of his journey however was the week Neveling spent on the road with Mongolian Nomads. “There’s something liberating about breaking bread with a group of people that have no idea what each other is saying but somehow understanding what is meant. It’s back to basics on so many levels.”
It was also here that he captured his favourite shot of the trip, “We were an hour outside of Ulaanbataar and my driver needed a pee. He pulled off the road and I also hopped out as I tried to make every moment count when we stopped. I immediately walked over to the blue shed as the light and shadow framing it was wonderful. As I was trying to figure out the frame I heard the sound of hooves on gravel and thought to myself I can’t believe what was about to happen, even though there was still no sign of a horse. Suddenly the horse came into view on the right side of the shed and I framed another shot so that I’d be ready for when he appears on the left side. Then panic settled in, do I tuck the shed’s roof in under that horizon line or do I clear it, and please God don’t let me screw this up by having the horizon and shed roof in a solid straight line, and of course don’t miss the horse. The absolute second he blasted out from behind the shed I decided to clear the horizon and buckled my knees, shot off two frames before he was completely immersed in the shadow and one more in the shadow. Then there was that gorgeous sound of hooves on tar and he disappeared down the national road. It’s one of those shots handed to one from the Universe on a silver platter. We never did find the rider as we drove off.”