Trans-Siberian Railway – 2

At least this second blog gets us on the train. So here goes:

Wednesday 8 August

Ken, Nigel and I made our way mid-mooning to Moscow’s Red Square. Taking a circuitous route through GUM, we stood in line behind a group of Americans outside Lenin’s Mausoleum. I waited for one of them to ask ‘who this guy Lenin was’ but was disappointed. Respect, even a touch of reverence, was required of us once we entered the Mausoleum. Edging our way down cunningly cut steps in near total darkness we were regularly ‘shushed’ by guards. And then suddenly there he was. Except that he wasn’t really. Too brightly illuminated, his soul had clearly flown. This was an icon for atheistic socialism, not unlike those we had inspected and learned about in the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square. I suppose I was unsurprised: all very Russian.

Temperatures were raised back to Hotel Cosmos. Eva and Olga had announced that, for the Trans-Siberian if not the Trans-Manchurian leg of our journey, we were one cabin short, meaning that two couples that had upgraded to guarantee their own cabins would have to share. Eva, it seemed, was assuming that our group of three couples – Annette and I, Ken and Janet and Nigel and Steff – would solve this problem for her. Olga let slip that Intourist had known about this before we departed from Heathrow. We consulted and decided to dig our heels in. The outcome: a discomforting drawing of lots on Moscow Station whilst awaiting the train. Gypsy children stroked our arms and legs and begged with sufficient perseverance to elicit very mixed emotions. Reaching into Eva’s makeshift lottery bag, we half dozen drew blanks. No withering glances were cast in our direction.

Our train never did appear on an indicator board. Eventually we found out why: North Korea’s visiting despot had a flying phobia and was due to leave Moscow on the train after ours. Ours had become a non-scheduled, improvised service, inserted to clear the Station of displaced souls. The groups’ feelings were mixed: Russia’s guest had proved none too popular on his incoming journey, his train having been pelted with stones and other missiles by irritated workers denied their normal service, and now we were destined to sweep the track to smooth his trek home.

The train itself was a dark matt green, none too clean and more workaday than exotic. It comprised 18 carriages. The ‘22’ were strewn among these, with our half-dozen – the ‘6’ – in carriage seven, apartments seven, eight and nine. Eva, stressed and tense, smoke billowing from every orifice, was in carriage 15, from which vantage point she managed to negotiate three meals a day from a restaurant car staff apparently reluctant to feed us at all. Our cabin was equipped to sleep four, two either side of a narrow gangway; there was a fold-up table beneath a window that could mercifully be lowered and through which Siberia would in due course slip very slowly by. It was a small enough area to call for planning. We would retire on the lower bunks, fold up one of the higher bunks and store our two suitcases on the other. How would the lottery losers cope?

We moved off, Moscow’s suburbs, characterized by the endless and uniform blocks of apartments with which we were already familiar, drifted by. The landscape that followed and was to stay with us would not have astonished an inter-city traveler in Britain. Only the rough-and-ready ‘peasant’ homesteads, bare and functional, much as one might see in southern states of the USA, were alien. Life was now focused on subsistence. And so it was to remain between stations for more hundreds of kilometers than seemed possible.

At the end of each carriage was a samovar affording a continuous supply of hot water, night as well as day, serviced and policed on 12-hour shifts by generally daunting provodnitsas or provodniks, that is, by female and male attendants respectively. Our daytime provodnitsa was unexceptional in her lack of obvious jollity, but we grew fond of her and occasionally there would be a hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth, usually provoked by our foibles or incompetence. Enforced, protracted proximity to others, it is said, either draws you closer or leads to tension. Happily it was to draw us closer in carriage seven, including even our provodnitsa. The appalling toilets, one at each end of our carriage, further induced a sense of solidarity, the more so once vanquished by a Steff better prepared and armed than the American special forces.

The first meal aboard was at 7pm and we were ready for it, not only to assuage our hunger but to provide a structured moment to the day. As was to prove the rule, our sliding cabin door was locked behind us by the provodnitsa. The restaurant car had a faded grandeur to it, but it was now difficult to imagine it lavish and inviting. Nor was the repast a thing of wonder. It was, as all the guidebooks warn, routine Russian fare. The sight of something recognizably edible, like a fried egg, would over time become a source of relief. But it was an agreeable opportunity to bond with the ‘22’. Unfortunately Annette was on a table with Hubert and Jean. Hubert was one of a number of practicing Christians on the trip, now retired and working part-time in a motorway petrol station outside Birmingham. He spoke modestly but often, unlike Jean, who merely furnished corroboratory detail for Hubert’s storied (like the time TV celebrity wrestler ‘Big Daddy’ stopped by for petrol). Meanwhile Chris, ex-army captain and another realizing a long-held ambition on the trip, began to sing, become bawdier and bawdier in the process.

Thursday 9 August

Gaining access to a toilet – there were two per carriage – was not easy, washing once inside no easier, especially for those of us who played safe by substituting bottled for tap water. To complicate things further, both toilet doors were locked for several minutes before and after station halts to avoid waste being discharged onto the tracks near human habitation. I managed to sneak in minutes before breakfast was due at 9am. It felt as if we had been on the train for days. I settled to read Hosking, taking photos: of our cabins, corridor and predicament, as well as of scenes and objects hurrying by. Stoppages were usually brief, often a minute or two, but the longer ones of 15-20 minutes might release us onto platforms or trackside to haggle for vegetables, fruit or cakes from local vendors, a mix of old and middle-aged peasant women and younger, more cosmopolitan girls. Ken learned fastest, timing his excursions to perfection; the train did not wait.

And so the first full day rattling through the Russian countryside passed by. We crossed the River Volga and by afternoon had started to traverse the Urals. Coinciding with our evening meal, just outside the city of Pervouralsk (meaning ‘first Ural’ and marking the site of the initial cast iron works in the area in 1727), and already 1777 kilometres from Moscow, we gathered in clusters round the windows to witness the Europe-Asia Border Obelisk flash by. And flash by it did, while I was adjusting my camera. But if in truth there was little to see, the imagination more than compensated. We were now descending through the Urals and had left Europe for Asia. As we slept that night we entered Siberia. This was new territory.

Friday 10 August

We awoke not to flat Siberian wastelands but to a largely unchanged landscape. An unannounced halt caused our toilets to be locked as breakfast approached, so we staggered sleepy-eyed to the restaurant car. This required negotiating several spaces between carriages, which always struck me as a more precarious business than it doubtless was. It involved stepping onto and across overlapping, highly mobile metal plates. Although it would have taken some ingenuity to step through the spaces to each side of the plates, it was not an arrangement that would have appealed to rail inspectors in other parts of the world.

An enthralling mid-morning 25-minute stop occurred at Omsk, second largest city in Siberia with a population of just over a million. Omsk is mainly industrial, for all the attempts to make it green and picturesque. We were now 2712 kilometres outside of Moscow. In what was becoming a recognized pattern, piped music throughout the train greeted our time in the station: at Omsk it was Russian rap. What was interesting about our stop was not Omsk itself, of which we could see relatively little, but the opportunity it gave us to leave the carriage and wander. Annette’s return was a bag of mixed fruit, which we immediately washed, peeled and ate. Lunch was quite appetizing, in a Russian kind of way. I enjoyed the beetroot soup, and the chicken that followed it more so.

There was a remarkable uniformity to Russian buildings, I guess because of the state monopolies. Not only the apartment blocks, but the station and trackside constructions clearly belong the same family. It is the vendors, now on as well as off the train, who ad local colour and difference. We were between Omsk and Novosibursk, word is the busiest freight line in the world. Locomotives pulling an average of 70-80 trucks rattled and bumped noisily by. It was well after our evening mreal, around 11.30pm, that we crossed the Ob over its 870-metre bridge and entered Novosibursk, more impressive by far that Omsk. With a population of 1,600,000, it lies 3335 kilometres from Moscow. The terminal itself was elaborately decorated. Another pattern: while in stations, most insistently in the larger ones, the disembodied voices of announcers grudgingly and brusquely part of with their information. Not infrequently, two enter into what seems like a reluctant and tetchy dialogue. Out of such mundane minutiae lasting memories are constructed.

We had by this time crossed a number of time zones, despite continuing to set our watches, with the exception of Annette, and to eat according to Moscow time. In acknowledgement of the extent of our progress east, however, and in anticipation of our approach to Irkutsk, Eva informed us that from the next day our mealtimes would be brought forward an hour. I finished Hosking late, noticing that at night the train went faster; but there was by now time to catch up.

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