Long, long, long train ride
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
37Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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That was the very first thing I wrote in a diary some seven months and 30,000km back.
So here's the grey, dandying around St Petersburg, the most beautiful city in the world, bar none, game over, hang the gloves up, a city of angels, when one particular angel takes a liking to the beard.
Amble through palace gardens, along the Neva River feeding the Gulf of Finland, laughing at other visitors hamming it up in front of any of the hundreds of 19th century statues, horsemen, boatmen, dancers, tsars, tsarinas, princesses.
Take in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theatre, an annex to Catherine the Great's Winter Palace, throw caution to the winds and launch into rare caviar and champers as the light dims at 9pm on this city built by royalty, for royalty
Allow me, please, to pay for the final treat.
"Sorry, sir, the machine won't accept your credit card."
"What????" I cringe with purpled embarrassment. Tatyana freezes, blinks, and effusively flashes cash.
Well, while that is the cheap Mills & Boon version, it is exactly the position that I could have landed up in, thanks to HSBC's (Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation) overly-efficient inefficiency - and intrusion into my life.
With much warning about pickpockets and petty pilfering in Russia, a decision was made to eschew wads of dollars for the plunderable efficacy of the credit card and modern plethora of Visa-handling ATMs.
Having not used the infernal plastic debit blade (credit, my ass) for months, I thought it best in Beijing (near an HSBC branch) to check if I still remembered the pin number, and that the magnetic strip hadn't been demagged and neutered by its multiple x-ray sessions in China. All checks good, and green light for Stolly land.
I get to Vladivostok, and of course the thing doesn't work
I phone them, and bless their little cotton tai chi slip-ons, they "had incurred much criminality" in Russia, and so had blocked my Vladivostok request. Go through the motions, and they open the till.
Three weeks later, at the other end of the country, pocket stocks run thin, so pop down to the cash machine ... and the Tatyana Nightmare rears its little, expletive deleted head.
ET, phone home, what the hell?? Oh, thank you for calling! So sorry, we have "incurred much criminality" .....
Turn the bloody tap on!!! And leave it on.
Jammed in Russia without funds on a Saturday afternoon in cities where it costs a bundle just to walk around the block gets no laughs, no matter how much cheap vodka you drink.
But the TM (HSBC II) only unravels after a 10,000km train ride and whistle-stop flurry across the only country that embraces two continents.
There is no such thing as the Trans-Siberia Express. Of the rail journeys across Russia to Moscow, the Trans-Siberia leaves Vladivostok, the Trans-Manchuria runs out of Beijing and the Trans-Mongolia carries its buffet car from Ulan Batar
Some hack no doubt glad-handed the Express on to a train ride that takes six days, across 9,289km at an average express speed of 62.5km/h. One can only assume he made some italicized apology to Agatha Christie which then suffered some over-eager, apprentice books-page editor.
Out of Vladivostok and into the first night, with Tanya (a real one) as company in the compartment. Handsome young lass who boards weeping. At the horrors of her lone company, or because she was leaving what looked like parents on the platform? Our lack at even an ability to miscommunicate leaves this a mystery, but her Mickey Mouse ring tone revealed a winner in the Ms Popularity show, though one suspects a few of the calls were along the lines of "that man behaving himself?" etc.
Happily for all she throws her toys out of the window in Khabarovsk, extreme eastern Siberia, just after sunrise, and the lone traveller is able to abuse the entire compartment for the next 60 hours to Irkutsk, Siberia central and base for Lake Baikal.
What the post-Tanya morning and day does offer is forest, trees, more forest and more trees. As far as the eye can see. Autumn trees, goldy, ochre, rust, denuding and full by specie - birch, larch, maple, oak and more. Train and trees, train and trees.
Siberia is mostly permafrost. Where the ground freezes in winter. Try squeezing a potato out of that. And then the ground melts in the short summer. Some houses at the edge of the villages have small, worked garden-sized fields, a bowed, shrouded, blanketed, hooded field-tenderer here and there, desperately attempting to eke the last scrap of life out of the soil before the impending freeze arrives again.
It is mid-September, with temperatures ranging between 0C and 10C. Shallow puddles by eve carry a crusty sheen by dawn. The early warning system has been switched on: winter is coming.
It is a forbidding place. And that is only at a quick look-in. But over the whole ride, the hell legend of Siberia reveals itself, or at least teases and hints in the most soulless way of what awaits the winter dweller.
To debunk a myth, or at least my own misunderstanding, millions were not dispatched to Siberia because it was and is damn cold. They were sent to work on the mines, after massive mineral riches were discovered by explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Wars were taking their toll of the tsars' coffers, and the royal lifestyle doubtless required its own pots of gold as well.
The first convicts arrived in 1722 in Prii Skovaya, to unburden the earth of its lode of silver, lead and gold.
Permafrost is hell to build on, it freezes, melts, freezes, melts, so the houses, shanties already, acquire tilts and slants more common to earthquake zones. Telephone poles, power supports, railside posts stick out of the earth at bizarre and quirky angles. Maintenance requirements from hell. Let alone the attention required to just keep the rails open - steam engines now gather dust as platform monuments and diesel engines fulfill shunting duties - as all the long distance engines are now electric, powered by overhead lines. And the trains run. Every day.
That power keeps going, through that ice machine that is winter, down to -40C in places. That power keeps running through snow and wind, and I wonder about Africa, and my land South Africa, where a hailstorm can befuddle a city for a night and more.
Hundreds of kilometers on clickety-clack permafrost-ridden rickety tracks and the villages slowly pass. Spassk-Dalny, where Solzhenitsyn learnt to use a pitch-fork.
Further down the track, Omsk, where Dostoevsky laboured ... "in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs ... Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel ... "
Tayshet, a transit camp of the Stalin era which had a factory for creosoting railway sleepers. Of it, Solzhenitsyn wrote: "It is where, they say, creosote penetrates the skin and bones, and its vapours fill the lungs - and that is death."
These towns are all still there. Still much the same. Time-bubble train Trans-Siberia passes, and gawkers gawk out as history's ghosts flicker and dance with brief life after life in the rush of passing air that surrounds the passing trains, memories of millions, dancing still to another's wheel.
Transit camps were stopovers, holding pens that then dispersed the labourers to fill the slots of the fallen.
Branchline after branchline, nameless, wend mostly north, into the forest, straight into the trees. There are not many curves and bends on this line.
Ledinaya, where the secret Svoboday-18 cosmodrome lived. Lives? Zaozyornya, base of the branchline to Krasnoyarsk, home of a nuclear waste processing facility not available on Soviet era maps.
How many trees is unfathomable, and becomes with each day even more unfathomable.
The halfway stop is Irkutsk, an hour's drive from Lake Baikal. The world's deepest lake, it's deepest point just over 1.6km. And probably the cleanest lake too. Drink from it directly. It is crystal clear. A scuba diver's delight, if one can handle the temperatures. Of course the whole thing freezes over through winter, metres deep. Trucks criss-cross until the one or two break through and sink as they try and do 'the last run' before the melt.
Russia should be spelt big. It's the world's biggest country, even in the post-Soviet era. Lake Baikal is the biggest reservoir of fresh water on the planet, and could keep earth's population going for 40 years. The Tsar Cannon in the Kremlin is the biggest ever cast, with a barrel almost a metre in diameter. It was never fired. The Tsar Bell, also housed in the Kremlin, is the biggest bell ever cast, dwarfing humans standing next to it. It was never rung.
The lake's water is so clear there are vertigo warning signs for swimmers who wear goggles. It's damn chilly. Folklore has it that a hand splash adds a year to one's life, feet in gets five years, and a swim 25. I get a guaranteed five, and a big splash around might garner two or three extra. Hopefully this will balance the nicotine life-shortening process.
Irkutsk is pretty much half way along the Trans-Siberia, and the weather plays the game, with overcast mornings slowly burnt away by a very slow, low sun into the afternoon, throwing flickering light on the almost glass surface while getting a good glow off the snow on the mountain peaks on the lake's western shore. At over 600km in length, the top end is way over the horizon.
A limnology museum (study of lakes, I learn) has an aquarium including sturgeon, the all pervasive, and commonly smoked, omul, a large kind of sardine, and a pair of Siberian seals. It's a rift valley lake, and is matched with Lake Tanganyika. Curiously there are two heated aquarium tanks with a bunch of central African chiclids (tilapia) cruising around. No mention is made of a back-up power plant for this colourful circus show.
The sturgeon has been fished out of the lake. Or the larger gene pool, say the experts. They now do not supply any caviar, at least in commercial quantities after great slaughters of the past left thousands of gaping bellies rank and rotting on the shoreline after the caviar had been excavated. New techniques, in more productive zones, are told of sewing the fish closed after harvesting them, and even fitting them with zippers, ready for next season.
A traditional sauna in a shed at the bottom of the garden gets three days of train grime out, and it's time to pound the rails again.
My 'Russian experience' receives a bit of a shock, however, when it is discovered that the compartment's accompanying trio are three young, home-schooled lads from Henley-on-Thames. Plum country. With mum and dad next door. Seems a plan to corner the compartment for the three got lost in translation somewhere. So no sharing of smoked sausages, rough bread, lewd jokes and trying to decipher a string of rrrrrolled rrrrs during vodka tasting sessions on this leg.
I do keep the end up, and while indulging in 'Russian coffees' at breakfast, repeatedly request that the viewers "do not try this at home".
A gut feeling says the Siberian forest is far bigger than expected, and bigger than the Amazon forest. Rough calculations, at 1.5 trees per square metre come to the astronomical figure of 24,000,000,000,000 trees. The forest is 30% of the globe's tree population. Squabbles seem to persist over where the biggest oxygen generator on the planet is, and whether the Amazon's claim to largesse falls under 'tropical' delimitations.
As the rail line continues, it becomes increasingly obvious how Napoleon found that Russia has no geographical heart after his invasion found him in Moscow, a city both burnt to the ground and deserted by its citizens.
All they had to do was fall back. They could fall back for 8,000km if they so wished.
The winters, the labour camps that took an estimated 18 million lives, by modern calculation, the wars, the back-grinding feudal systems under the tsars seem to have left a hardy people. Today with screaming oil price money pouring in the small noveau riche are replacing the aristocracy of old, and the poor seem still poor.
Yet there is an awesome pride in the word "Russia". Frighteningly, almost. Grand and powerful in its expression. Almost every person I had, or managed to have, a conversation with, would eventually ask "do you love your country", before near punching a hole in their own rib cage with a smite of pride over the heart. "Russia!!!"
A country of 150 million held the West, the 300 million of the USA and Europe's population at bay, or in a balance during the Cold War years. The number game was a puzzle. Discovery of this pride lends new perspective.
Relics of the Soviet era still stand. Desperately awfully smoking lumber plants and aluminum smelters rear their chimneys at regular, lengthy intervals. The interior is as it has been for 50 years, and without Stalin's factories, probably for 200 years.
Enter Moscow, and it is like landing on Mars. Nothing could be more different to the past 9,000km. Bustling with big, new, black, shiny motor cars and SUVs. Men in black. More men in black. Black shoes, black turtle necks. Black jackets. Black ties. Black cars. Blonde women in black boots, black skirts, black tops.
The city carries a strange intimidation. There is a pavement bustle. Quite unlike the benign, crowded Asian pavement. There is purpose, expression, sanguinity in lope, languidity in casualness, yet all par-coloured with an "I am" tincture. The women parade, aristocratically. The men saunter, or dress badly, hunch over, and drag poncey lackeys on each arm, each half a step behind. The masters never have to dress 'that well'.
Red Square oozes with tourists. Numbered flags, Germans, Japanese, Chinese,queue up for a glimpse of Lenin in waxy state.
I see one of the most exquisite things I have ever had the fortune to stumble across. St Basil's Cathedral. Onions of spirals and pineapple skins, without small form, seemingly, yet a jigsaw that fits together in a bewilderingly sensual fashion. Colours and shapes collide, and meld. Ivan the Terrible had the architect, Postnik Yakoklev blinded lest he ever attempt to create anything so beautiful.
My private home host, Vera, tells me to beware the skinheads, railing sieg heils, who have taken a liking to mussing with hairier types.
She also tells me that her daughter, a teacher, would earn R4,000 (US$160) per month, but works in China, near Beijing and earns R40,000. Moscow is exhorbitant. I have no idea how people make ends meet. It would be impossible for the country folk. A taxi driver, font of all, says the city is a "megalops" (sic), a state within a state, run for its own citizens by its own rules.
It is fast, furious, traffic is unending, The black suits track hard time around the Kremlin roads and alleys. Money is moving. If you're wearing a black suit.
Tales of the sweetest city of all next time....