4 Nights, 5 Days on a Train

Trip Start Sep 08, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Russia  , Siberia,
Saturday, September 18, 2010

We make the first recce of the train, venturing back against the direction of travel to find the pectobar car. A good looking selection of food at reasonable prices in a plastic fantastic surrounding with Russian musac.

I gaze out of the window in the smoking inter-carriage zone and become mesmerised by the passing landscape getting my first taste of the Trans-Siberian Trance in which time slips and slides in an unmodulated continuum.

Trees and trees. Opening out onto massive undefined plains. Trees. The adjacent rail - parallel brother. Weekend cabins, shacks, allotments. A burnt-out church, the charred structure of its onion spire revealed.

Another day has passed.

Woke to a dazzling display of autumn colour - brilliant splashes of yellow birch dancing along the window pane. Sparkling clear blue sunshine, colour vibrancy playfully greeting my sleep-refreshed eyes.

We have fully entered the Trans-Siberian Trance. I have completely lost track of days. We woke at eleven although that means nothing for we are coexisting in two time zones: Moscow time in which the train is cocooned and the local time that fluctuates on the other side of the window glass. Carl had already been up for something like five hours, but a more accurate measure is that he has been off the train twice at station stops. (He continues to coincide his need for a pee with the 10-15min lockdown of the bogs before and after a station - he is a barometer of a forthcoming stop)

Without punctuation the day drifts beautifully.
Eat. Chat. Play a game. Read for a while but the rhythmic rocking soon sends you off to sleep. Eat some more. Chat. A station stop. Stretch the legs. Buy something off a babushka. Eat and maybe then time for another nap.
And the sleep seems so pure, so innocent. The gentle rocking motion of the train, the rhythmic sound of the trucks on track-joints, lulls you to blissful unconsciousness. Plentiful REM. Delicious dreams.

We are also learning The Way of the Train, or at least being firmly taught. Our carriage attendant - a fine Russian woman of generous proportions and a reluctant but warm smile - has been mothering us foreign imbeciles. We are doing everything wrong. EVERYTHING. We are not putting our bedding out correctly. We are opening the window. We are not wearing shoes. We are standing in the wrong place. We are using the simovar incorrectly. And we are being firmly reprimanded for every transgression.

The birch trees are falling away slightly and for longer intervals. For the past day and a half we have only been able to grab fleeting glimpses beyond the immediate line of trees. But now that we have left Europe and have entered Asia, now that we are in Siberia, the birch thin and separate. Some unknown fate has befallen many of them and they have been stripped of all branches and foliage, their naked trunks clustered white ghosts of where trees had once stood. And these thinpillars of white are made even whiter by the vibrant yellows of their living siblings. But theses too cluster in groups, no longer a continual barrier and through them, beyond them, and where they are not, great plains begin to hint at their own vastness. Meadows of grasses and marshy wetness, flat expanses in hues of green and brown and in the far distance, hugging the horizon, what could be hills or woodland - too far off to tell.

Continuing our eastward path, straight lines, parallel and due, we continue. All through the day we travel across the globe, cutting longitude, breaking & entering time zones, recklessly shortening our own days. The sun completes its arc from infront of us to behind in a grotesquely quickened gesture that makes it somehow more noticeable, more profound and less caring of us that move beneath it, as if somehow we have betrayed it.

Barking announcements through hollow PA systems reverberate around sheer station
concrete. A polite welcome (?) becomes a terrifying order that you would obey
unquestioningly if only you knew what it demanded.
Crossing over a perpendicular railway line, the heaped black wagons of a coal
train stretches south for as far as the eye can see.
“For the next 600km the train runs through the inhospitable Barbara Steppe. This
vast expanse of greenish plains is dotted with shallow lakes and ponds, and
coarse reeds and sedge grassconceal swamps, peat bogs and rare patches of firm
ground. From the tyrain it appears as if there is a continuous forest in the
distance. However, if you walk towards it, you never get there as what you are
seeing are clumps of birches and aspen trees spaced several kilometers or more
apart. The lack of landmarks in this area has claimed hundreds of lives.”
A lot of making up to do today with Beth and Sophie (see "an autentic vodka train experience" blog). Tom and I are having to be
on our best behaviour and leave no hint of feeling slightly pleased with
Phenomenal landscapes today. Birch trees still ever present (and far less
autumnal than yesterday morning) but occassionally good enough to give way to
vast meadows, vast rivers, vast swamplands. The plains of yesqterday have given
way too and the train begins to snake through the hills. Clusters of houses –
wooden shacks with herringbone patterned cladding, diagonal cladding, vertical
cladding, horizontal cladding, patchwork cladding – with double-pitched roofs,
perch on the hills amongst the birch.
The train climbs higher and we glimpse valleys filled with birch, aspen & pine
as we run along at tree-top level. They disperse and scatter, giving way to
meadows of long grasses, thistley wild flowers and scrub that are occassionally
scythed in loose, irregular clearings and piled in antiquated haystacks –
temporary tumulii shedding the rain.
And then the birch return.
Through the course of the train journey, my sore throat is developing into a
mild, and then progressively more unpleasant cold, with plenty of snot, tingling
of face and aching of joints.

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