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Published: August 23rd 2008
In Graham Greene’s “Travels with My Aunt”, Henry, a retired bank manager, sets off with his favourite ‘spinster’ aunt on a series of exotic travel adventures. Henry, rescued from suburbia, is challenged by Aunt Augusta’s eccentric ways, which include cannabis growing, ex-lovers in all corners of the world, and an undimmed spirit of adventure. This was the 1960s, so the book turns the world on its head, twisting traditional social roles. But the essence still applies today: romance is there if you look, things are not what they seem, age isn't necessarily a barrier.
My mother’s seventieth birthday was coming up. What about a romantic gesture, just like Graham Greene and his Aunt Augusta? My mother doesn’t grow cannabis in pots, plot military coups or plan the downfall of otherwise sane retired men, and yes she CAN be a grumpy traveller. But I was planning an overland trip to China, so why not take her along? And so the trip was born: we would travel from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian Express, non-stop via Siberia, Lake Baikal and Mongolia...
But first I had to get to Moscow. I last flew in 1987, after which I developed a fear,
A.A. on a previous mission
hatred and loathing of airplanes, fortunately counter-balanced by a love for train travel. I had tried to beat this - without success. Hypnotism, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, flight simulators, whiskey: none of it had made any difference. I would fly when I had to, and only bad news would see me in the skies - family emergencies, natural disasters, wars and shipwrecks. So it was that I set off for Moscow on the Eurostar and on through Germany and Poland.
The Jan Kepler Express leaves from Cologne - a city that still feels bombed out 60 years after WWII ended. Even today the war is in the air: in the architecture, the modern railway station right next to the ancient cathedral, and postcards of bombed bridges and warped metal. Did tourists really need to see pictures of bomb craters and twisted church spires to appreciate Cologne? Well, yes maybe they did - selling postcards with war pictures might seem masochistic, but then Cologne was bombed 31 times during WWII. And these raids included the Thousand Bomber Raids from May to August 1942, when much of the city was pulverised by the RAF. This is a city that has suffered.
The gothic cathedral somehow survived all these attacks with only minor damage. One explanation for this is divine intervention; another lauds the desire of the RAF to preserve an artistic gem from annihilation. A less charitable theory is that the building was an excellent landmark for the targeting of future raids, and was just too useful to blow up. Skipping the museums, the chocolate factory, and the other tourist attractions, I bought supplies for the train. Later, in the cathedral I sat down in an empty pew to admire the beautiful statues and stained glass windows. Perhaps I'm misanthropic, but isn't an empty church pew the only place where you are sure to be left in peace? Here there are no children to clamber over you, no waiters to bully you and no tramps and drunks to pester you.
On the Jan Kepler to Moscow I found that my shared two-berth compartment was empty - as was most of the train, so I settled down to two nights of books and beer. We clanked and rumbled across the border into Poland, coming into Warsaw at dawn, where ageing ladies swept platforms with twig brooms and exhausted-looking commuters huddled on
The bogey change stop on the Belarus border
the drab concrete concourse. For all the talk of economic growth and EU membership, Poland still looked grey out of my window and the infrastructure seemed a long way behind western Europe. At the border I was required to fill out a customs declaration form in Russian, and as there was no translation the other passengers had to act out the questions to me in a kind of charades. "Are you carrying guns, drugs, works of art, or live animals"? Er, no...
At the Belarus border the train was broken up and shunted into a shed to change the wheel bogeys, an operation requiring heavy lifting machinery. Local women poured onto the train selling beer and chicken, flashing gold teeth and crooked smiles and cajoling us to buy, buy, buy!. We were hoisted into the air with these patrolling women while the engineers did their work below. No matter how many chickens you bought - the next next baboushka would want you to buy another. They had an ingenious wrapping method for keeping the meat warm during the long wait for customers: layer after layer of newspaper and plastic bags. I bought half a hot chicken and four beers,
Russian dining car
and barricaded myself into my compartment, while the women outside hammered, banged and rattled our doors like banshees.
A few hours later we pulled into the capital Minsk. I remembered what Tobias the Intourist rep had said in London: “Go to Belarus, while it's still there. Go just to smoke a cigarette on the platform - it’s your last chance to see the Cold War”. So I got off at Minsk and outside the station I found dusty roads lined with paint-peeled kiosks. These were occupied by muffled figures mumbling at customers through slits in glass windows. Inside the station tinny military music rang around the marble halls: people waited gloomily under enormous chandeliers. No-one spoke a single word. Later, as our train pulled out, 15 station staff in Stalin caps lined the platform and saluted as we glided out like royalty, to the beat of the national anthem.
The royal train was more a ghost train as I swayed down the corridor in search of the dining car. Each carriage has a provodnik (attendant) and a coal-fired samovar boiler. All the wagons were dimly lit in the Soviet style - I felt like an extra in a spy movie. As I lurched down the train, I noticed that it was half empty. One or two carriages were entirely without passengers, with only the shadowy figure of the provodnik (or female provodnitsa) flitting around like shades in Hades. In other carriages, crew-cut men played cards and glowered drunkenly over vodka bottles. Sliding doors banged and the overhead lights flickered in the primal Russian night.
The ghost train became the lunatic express as I entered the dining car. The days of caviar and champagne, bought cheap for a few US dollars or smuggled cigarettes, were clearly over. Here there were only two items on the menu - fried chicken or pork and potatoes - hardly worth $15 dollars. And there were no customers - excluding the two huge men growling in a fug of cigarette smoke at the back. The atmosphere was like a fancy dress party, a pantomime of lurid pink curtains and plastic green ivy dangling from the ceiling. It looked like a hideous 70's disco. Or a brothel run by men. Somewhere a tape machine played hits from the 70’s (for some reason the "Smokey" song "Livin' next door to Alice" is still huge in Russia). The jolly dining car attendant was genuinely proud of the high prices. It was macho. It was surreal. It was, as the attendant bellowed: "RUSSHAH!!!"
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