An old Russian lady came up to me outside Рижская (Rizhskaya Metro, the site of the 2004 Chechen separatist suicide bombing) to ask how to get to Рижский вокзал (Rizhsky Train Station). The subway wasn’t very visible with all the people milling about the food booths around. Without thinking, I replied in English. There was a bemused pause before she thanked me and trundled off with her luggage.
“вокза́л” is an interesting word – apparently the short form of “vocal hall”, the setting for concerts. The internet has several theories how the genesis of this was London’s own Vauxhall station.
A while later, I exited Комсомо́льская (Komsomolskaya Metro) straight into a group of rowdy men smelling strongly of cheap alcohol. Several other commuters tried to give them a wide berth before beefy security emerged from Яросла́вский вокза́л (Yaroslavskiy Train Station) to ask them for identification. Say what you like about the ubiquitous police presence in Moscow, this traveller (and many locals) greatly appreciated them.
This marked the start of my train journey across Russia, Siberia, to Ulaanbaatar (or Ulanbatar or Ulan Bator) where I would hook up with S. People make far too much of the trans-siberian (or in my case, more specifically, trans-mongolian) train ride, employing adjectives like “epic” and phrases like “once-in-a-lifetime”. If I’d trekked across to Mongolia, that would be “epic”. If I’d crawled across Siberia on a sledge harnessed to a pack of giant snails, that would be “once-in-a-lifetime”. This was just a long trip on a locomotive following an ancient tea caravan route (says Wikipedia), over 4,887 miles and several time-zones to Beijing. Plenty of people use it to get to work/home regularly.
(For the first time in my adult life, I’d used an agency, Real Russia, in London. Since the whole trip had been a decision made on the spur of the moment in the early hours of the morning, a fortnight before I had been due to leave London, I’d thought it worth paying a premium to save the hassle of obtaining travel documents while also attempting to say goodbye to everyone and pack all my personal effects. Real Russia – highly recommended. Efficient, knowledgeable, and kept me informed of their progress in obtaining tickets and the Russian visa (the only one I would require on this trip – whew, Singapore passport!).)
This weekly Tuesday night train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia was of Chinese rolling stock and came with Chinese male train attendants who might have left their toothbrushes at home. The upholstery and carpets were frayed and dirty, and the stainless steel loos looked and smelled like something out of a prison. I sorely missed having obsessively clean Latvian or Russian provodnitsas in charge.
But that and having dry showers for 5 days was no biggie. And neither was the emptiness of the train. Many online accounts of the journey waxed lyrical about the companionship in the compartments and how there would be an exchange of food and vodka with Russians travelling the route. There was no one in my compartment because the cold season meant low season. I went exploring and wandered into the carriage beyond the restaurant car where most people seemed to be, there was a ruckus and their very stout provodnitsa grabbed me by the arm and pushed me out.
So stayed in my carriage and made chat with the only other people on it – an English couple in the neighbouring compartment. Otherwise really enjoyed the solitude and quiet to reflect on the last few years and to think about the future, and to mope a bit for friends left behind in London.
Most contact with the English neighbours and the outside world came at the frequent stops. We particularly liked the longer pauses at stations where:
train engines were changed,
and coal was delivered – necessary to centrally heat the carriages and the hot water boiler, and the onboard water-tanks were filled from taps along the tracks.
Liked how un-complex things were. Warning signs simply served their intended function. They were not fetishized as poster or postcard designs or printed on t-shirts.
I sleep best on moving objects – boats, trains, buses, cars, so thoroughly enjoyed the nights onboard. And it was good fun to awake each morning to new scenery outside the blurry window:
there was the sun rising amongst birch trees and setting over partly frozen rivers,
there were wooden huts, and abandoned? factories, brick water tank towers,
there were little colourful huts huddled together at the foot of mountains, with a few cattle roaming in the grassland, and there were smoke-spewing industrial buildings,
and sometimes, there were people possibly ice-fishing.
I’d brought along Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook: The guide to the world’s longest railway journey with 90 maps and guides to the route, cities and towns in Russia, Mongolia & China. The minutiae of markers and historical titbits helped both compartments to understand the regions we were passing through a little better, but after a few days, I found myself far more content just to stare out the window and think.
At times, my revery would be interrupted by the Chinese train attendant pointing at one of the English neighbours and saying,”她问我什么? 她说什么我不明白.” And at other times, it would be the English woman saying,”Could you please tell this man…” I was pleased to have been so useful, especially since hardly anyone who knows me will even allow me to order food in Mandarin.
On food. I brought most of my own stuff to save money:
Dorset Cereal instant porridge for breakfast,
Russian bread and cheese and sausage for lunch,
a variety of instant noodles for dinner.
That samovar (hot water boiler) was good for hot chocolate and tea as well.
Russian chocolate, some of which I would have to ship back to London to the church cook who’d requested specifically for “the one with blue packaging and bears” (Mishka Kosolapy, the bears coming from a painting, Morning in a Pine Forest), all sorts of goodies from Alenka from the Red October Confectionery Company. The pointy-ended packaging was a great way to enclose the chocolate without adhesives.
And roasted sunflower seeds.
Towards the end, I got bored of dried stuff x hot water and went to check out the restaurant car. The borscht was a welcome change and the English couple (“we’ve come here every day for lunch and dinner and have only seen one other customer from the carriage beyond ours”) said their fried eggs and ham were satisfactory.
At none of the stations did we see any hot or homecooked food being sold. The closest we got to authentic local cuisine were the babushkas selling dried fish near Omsk (i think).
Thus self-contained, we jiggled along, observing changes in the flora and fauna and human habitation and facial features and dress, across Siberia and into Mongolia, where I disembarked at Ulaanbaatar.
After the density of the cities like London, and Amsterdam, and to a lesser extent, Copenhagen and Sweden, just the experience of travelling all this distance (and that’s not even much in terms of circumnavigating the globe) helped me understand a little more how big our Creator must be.
It was like the Disneyland ride where you sit on a tram that brings you through various country-themed halls with robots in traditional costumes singing “It’s a small world after all” in high-pitched voices, except it isn’t small in the sense that as we passed through towns and villages where real people lived, with their hopes and dreams and difficulties and needs and wants and thoughts and ideas and traditions and wisdom and foolishness, there was a sense of the vastness of this world that cannot be contained but in the mind of God.
PS. If anyone wants proper, accurate, up-to-date information, I heartily recommend, as at the date of this post, The Man in Seat 61 as the fount of all train-riding wisdom!