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Published: February 5th 2009
On the Trans-Siberian Express you kill time - in more ways than one. This is a journey where time slows to a halt - drained from the environment and stripped of any linear dimension. For once we are in control of time, yet also free to decide what it means. Modern life, with its neurotic assumptions about schedules and arrivals - falls away, leaving a protected environment and the freedom, for six days, to choose how to structure time. In a sense it's a return to a lost childhood: drowsy afternoons lying reading on a bunk, waiting for the call to supper, fiddling with transistor radios and day dreaming out of windows.
Metaphysical considerations notwithstanding, the first part of the journey is practical: where is the station? This is not as simple as it sounds, since in Moscow three railway stations sit on Three Station Square - Yaroslavsky (for the Far East), Leningradsky (for St. Petersburg) and Kazanskiy. And all three are connected - or separated - by hordes of people pushing trolleys, children and luggage, and moving house, perhaps, to Vladivostock, Almaty or Ulan Bator. More than the grand domes of the Kremlin or the rock candy spires of
St. Basil's Cathedral, it is the sight of hundreds of families loading up provisions for a seven-day train journey to the far-flung corners of the empire, that underlines the power and size of Russia.
Pushing past the usual market stall-holders and grimy kiosk windows I finally found the uncovered, freezing and pot-holed Platform 5, open to the weeping Moscow skies (it always rains at Yaroslavsky Station). There sat the Chinese-run Trans-Mongolian Express to Beijing via Irkutsk and Ulan Bator- a coal truck filling the carriage boilers and porters scurrying about loading boxes. Just as there are three stations on Three Station Square in Moscow, so there are three branches of the Trans-Siberian Railway: The Trans-Siberian proper (the "Rossya" to Moscow to Vladivostock), the Trans-Manchurian (which crosses Manchuria on its way to Beijing) and the Trans-Mongolian - my train to Siberia and Beijing.
I located my two-berth compartment - home for the next six days - with the help of the two Chinese conductors in carriage 10. These conductors (or provodniks
in Russian) were more like stewards on an ocean liner than ticket collectors: over the next six days they would be responsible for every aspect of life in
You'll never go without a drink..
the carriage, from keeping the samovar boiling (essential for noodle snacks and coffee breaks), to cleaning the bathroom, removing rubbish and even polishing the brass rails when we finally rolled into Beijing. At every station halt they dismounted and stood, in their peaked caps and greatcoats, beside the train - guards of honour beside each carriage. At night they dozed with their door ajar, constantly alert to strange sounds and movements in the corridor. During frontier crossings they provided a degree of pastoral care, hovering behind the stern border guards and looking concerned while customs officials dismantled ceiling panels in their restless search for contraband.
I unpacked my provisions as we glided through the concrete suburbs of North East Moscow. Tea, coffee, noodles, beer, wine, chocolate and books: these are the staples for the Trans-Siberian Express. A short history of the Chinese dynasties, Rudyard Kipling's Kim
, Graham Greene's Ways of Escape
and Jamaica Inn
by Daphne Du Maurier were to be my reading matter for this trip. Pouring a glass of wine, I took the Du Maurier off the rack. In Jamaica Inn
, the heroine's coach was hurtling through the black Cornish night, the hooded coachman whipping the terrified
horses through cracks of lightning and sheets of rain. Paralleling this gothic panic, the Trans-Mongolian Express rattled through the frozen Russian night, racing through Vladimir and Gorky and on through the Golden Ring as the rain hammered down on the windows.
Day two and the pattern of the journey took shape - trips to the samovar, coffee, noodles, window hanging in the corridor and sideways chats to fellow gazers. The four-day trip through European Russia and Siberia lay before us like a child's summer holidays, blissfully free of responsibilities, cares or worries. As the birch trees flickered outside, the train seemed almost stationary while the landscape rushed past - an optical illusion like a cadillac on a moving stage set. I made the daily pilgrimage to the dining car, where two tough and ageing bleach-blonde Russian women served meals of fried chicken and stale bread.
A young Danish man in a bobble hat and goatee beard sat opposite me, playing a video game on his expensive mobile phone. He ignored me for ten minutes, then suddenly flicked a gesture over his shoulder at the party of Swedish retirees who occupied the rest of the dining car:
about the food! But this food is OK, and the train is a hotel, compared to how I normally travel!!", he sneered. "This isn't real travel - it's too comfortable!"
"So what is
real travel?", I asked, but he ignored my question.
"I'm here for the photography, and that's my Hasselblad!" He pointed to a small rucksack.
I don't enjoy the company of travel snobs, as this young man seemed to me, any anyway I didn't dare admit I was travelling in First Class, so I ended the conversation and went back to my carriage. However, the question remained: "Does travel become less real the more comfortable it is?" Somehow I doubted this blanket assertion, but back in my compartment I opened "Ways of Escape
" to see if Graham Greene had the answer. Soon I read:
"The account of a journey, a slow, footsore journey into an interior literally unknown, was only of interest if it paralleled another journey. It would lose the triviality of a personal travel diary only if it became more completely personal".
So, according to Greene, travel was a personal metaphor, and the meaning (or lack of meaning) of a journey could only
be interpreted by the individual traveller.
Late that night we rolled into Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), famous above all for the murder of the last Tsar and his family in July 1918. Meanwhile, in "Jamaica Inn", Mary was pressed against the darkened passageway outside the bar, listening to the ravings of her drunken uncle: "Have a care...I heard another man say that once, and five minutes later he was treading the air. On the end of a rope it was, my friend, and his big toe missed the floor by half an inch. The rope forced the tongue out of his mouth, and he bit it clean in half". Meanwhile, back in the future, we clattered into Siberia.
At Balabinsk a old babushka with a pinched face sold teddy bears and barbie dolls. On the platform alongside us sat the Rossya (Russia) - shadowing us half way to Vladivostock and painted in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag. The Rossya was blocking the route to the station exit, but the old Siberians simply crawled under the wheels of the waiting train. Painted wooden houses with green walls and blue shutters flashed by in the thin October light:
allotments, tractors, children going to school, haystacks, sheep, goats and piles of logs. A boy ran to the bottom of his garden, waving frantically at the train..
Krasnoyarsk hove into view - its belching factories and crumbling concrete tower blocks a contrast to the rustic mood - but soon we were in the countryside again, moving through enormous forests and snowy hillsides towards Irkutsk (the "Paris of Siberia") and Lake Baikal - the deepest lake in the world and containing 20% of the world's fresh water supplies. According to my guidebook, if the rest of the world's water ran out tomorrow, Lake Baikal could supply the entire population of the planet for the next 40 years.
We rounded Baikal at 9:00am on a cobalt-blue October morning, and I raised the blinds to stare at the lake. The huge infinite disc of water seemed to exert a cosmic force, and I was mesmerised into a stunned silence. Down below, a woman with a baby stood on a dilapidated jetty, while out on the lake an old man sat in a bobbing rowing boat, staring into the middle distance - a man out of time, lost in space.
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