We woke up at 9am which turned out to be 8am. We’re not only travelling through the wilds of Siberia, we also seem to be travelling through time. Many times zones will be passed over the next few days.
“Time for a spot of breakfast! I´ll slice the bread” I bellowed from my plinth of confidence. What could be easier than slicing bread? Well, dearest reader, it turns out that absolutely anything in the known world is easier. Where to start? First of all, we had no knife so had to make do with the corner of a piece of plastic which was as blunt as a drunken Irishman. The bread as well seemed to resist the temptation to be sliced and much preferred crumbling into an inedible and unbelievable mess. The cheese and salami which we bought fared no better. It was a culinary massacre and I was the perp.
I know what you’re thinking. I know those cynical thoughts swilling around as you read.
“Why didn’t you buy sliced bread? Sliced cheese? Sliced salami? Why didn’t you buy a plastic knife or at least something a little sharper to cut everything?”
All good points, but in my defense…..nope, I have nothing.
And to top it off. The bitterest of pills. Our friend John was there, in the corner, watching the whole show whilst munching down on some fresh and doughy sliced bread, filled with the richest of sliced cheeses and complemented with sliced meat. As lovely as the man turned out to be I could sense the slightest of smirks on his face. I nearly lost it a few times as our bread disintegrated into crumbs of despair and sadness but we finally managed to prepare a sandwich.
After the feast was done I saw John pull out a teabag and prepare a brew from the boiler.
How could I forget to bring tea? I could of course just pay for tea from Judy the train assistant but I did, I think, the only sensible thing under the circs: I stole a bag from John and bloody enjoyed it, too.
The rest of the day, and actually the rest of the train journey moulded into a long, hazy experience. The train became everything and, despite being quite boring, the security and simplicity of life became soothing. Books were read. Films watched. Podcasts listened to. Cyrillic was learnt (by Youngja and myself but she was far better). I’ve read stories of people being going on this train and bringing nothing, to truly become one with the train and their changing surroundings. Well, good luck to them. All I know is that if I would’ve had nothing to do on that train for three days I’d have jumped off it.
The railway itself was completed 99 years ago and is still being extended and updated. It´s a little under 6 thousand miles long, just shy of a quarter of the circumference of the Earth. Russia, Mongolia, China and North Korea are all accessible by this famous rail line. It’s so long that, quite like the Great Wall of China, it’s impossible to really process the magnitude of it in your mind without seeing it or being on it. It’s also the best way to understand just how big Russia is. It’s truly impossible to comprehend the scale of the place. I’m English and could traverse the land of the birth on a bicycle in roughly 10 days. 10 days, on a bike, in Siberia wouldn´t get you over the closest bush.
Since I was travelling through Siberia I decided to read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which for those who don’t know is a novel set in a Siberian labour camp and follows a ‘better than average’ day with the eponymous hero and his work detail. It’s a fantastic book. Smart, funny, full of life and pain. The writer himself spent time in the camps and there are details which have such truth it seems unfathomable that they were made up. I asked John if he knew the book but he hadn’t heard of it. We then got on to politics and considering his English proficiency did not stretch much farther than “yes” “no” and “this is a good one” we kept it short.
“Putin good. Gorbachev bad. Beckham good good good!”
At least we had something in common.
As the train rolled endlessly towards its destination there were times when the train stopped and you can stretch your legs and remind yourself that you are not in prison. Each station has there own small kiosks selling anything you may need on a train journey. Well, everything except alcohol. For some reason booze seemed to be off limits here which surprised me because in my short time in Russia it seemed to me that if you could make money from something, it’s legal. A simple but crystal clear example was from an article I read about the Russian stock exchange and the fact that insider trading was only made illegal four years ago. Gordon Gekko would’ve had a ball in Russia. We bought a chicken and some milk at the kiosk, ate a whole lot of rubbish through the day and did a whole lot of nothing. There were times when the monotony got to me and I started babbling.
“Youngja, what is the furthest you’ve ever thrown something?”
“Tom, I’m tired.”
“I once threw a stone over two houses. That was a good day. Do you think you could throw a pear or an apple further?”
“Are we really having this conversation?”
“Definitely an apple. The aerodynamics would hinder the pear, unless you could get a good spiral on it.”
“Tom, I really, really don’t care about any of this.”
“Let’s try one day.”
“Okay, Tom. Okay.”
The view is at the same time mesmerising and unbelievably monotonous and dull. At one point I started counting how long it would take before the endless succession of Siberian pine trees would stop and we would be treated to a pond, a river, a brown bear eating a lost traveler. Anything other that the bloody pines. Hours went by before anything was seen. I started to understand why Dostoevsky wrote all those depressing books after returning from Siberia. And then as if at once, the trees parted and we were swathed in green pasture and rustic houses dotted over the landscape. This back and forth went on for about two days until John told me we were finally out of Siberia. What a place!
I fell onto my bed, the journey running over my eyes like an acid attack. Swathes of giant, swamp-like lakes, the colour of rust. Rows and rows and columbs of trees, standing to attention, always prepared, always eager, strong as an ox. The next platform – grey and long and sad. Kiosks – decorated throughout with their innards. Tea. Book. Miles. Miles. Skies. A collection of houses scattered and flung around my view. Tea. Stretch. Bread.
Sometime near the end of the second day I felt as if the train had become my life. I was the train and it was me. We understood each other and belonged together. I started stroking the wooden fixtures in the hallways and proudly inspecting the water heater. I had even come to terms with the crap bread and enjoyed eating it. What am I going to do when I leave? I will have to walk? Around a town? And decide what to do with the day? What about my mate John? How will he survive without me? A cold sweat gripped me and I went for a stroll. Then I came back because there was nowhere to go.
On our final full day we decided to treat ourselves and have dinner in the dining car. Two days of cookies, chocolate and the infamous bread had taken its toll and I pined for anything cooked.
“Two of the best, my kind servant lady!”
With this concise (and untrue) remark she dashed off and bought us some beef and vegetable dish and a pork schnitzel. What a rip off. The plate was tiny and the food was about as appetising as day old vomit.
That same night we were awoken by a hell of a whack to our door. Someone was trying to rip the hinges off. The banging went on for an age until Youngja opened it and a huge Russian was stood outside, he had the look of desperation and rage on him, the face of a boy who’s lost his favourite pants.
With that he left us in peace. Now, what you may be thinking is why did I leave the wife to face the music? Well, when I said “We were awoken”, I didn’t actually wake up. But boy if I did…
As we awoke on our final day, thousands of miles behind us, it was 8:30 which turned out to be 6:30. We were now on Moscow time. The scenery had changed once more. Long gone were the pines and the endless sparse fields changed to boxy apartments and office blocks.
“Do I really have to get off this train and do things in a few hours?”
“Yeah, shall we just go back?”
We contemplated spending the rest of our lives living i n comfortable squalour but came to our senses as the train pulled into Moscow Yaroslavskaya railway station. We were here and here we were.