September 26, 2006

second person siberian

train-in-motion blurry-view samovar.jpg mikey-unimpressed

It's when you fight your way through the hordes and out of Moscow's metro and walk into Yaroslavsky Station that the sheer scale of the journey starts to really hit you, when you look at the time-zone markers under the diagram of the rail network, and the way those numbers mount up as the track sweeps eastwards: +6, +7, +8. Eight time zones. A third of the world.

On the platform, in the night, the #2 "Rossiya" running from Moscow to Vladivostok seems to run on forever, although it's actually only a train of some 20 cars - "wagons" in Russian. Your first-class wagon is near the middle of the train, and your two-bed compartment boasts saffron drapes and mirrors, a selection of Cyrillic-language newspapers, a radio and even a television - although the only channel it gets is CCCCC, the Closed Circuit Corridor Camera Channel, to save you from sticking your neck outside your door.

Mikhail and Natalya, your provodnitsas, or car attendants, introduces themselves; they live on this train, will ride it to Vladivostok and back again, and it's their job to care for the car and its passengers, to bring you beer or water or food from the dining car. Without a whistle or warning, and bang on time, you start to move: through Moscow's vast and and teeming suburbs, past commuter trains glowing ghostly in the night, tired passengers sitting on wooden benches and staring at nothing. Mikhail comes to take your ticket, gives them a little rip right across the hologram sticker, passes back your copy. One beer later, and it's late, and you wrap yourself in the soft first-class linens and let the train gently rock you to sleep.

You wake to trees. And indeed there will be a continuing arboreal theme to the scenery throughout the rest of the voyage. The forests through which you pass are of birch and pine, and almost like the birch and pine you know - but not quite. They are too tall, too straight, nothing but trunk and tiny spoke branches. It is like ten million densely clustered needles sticking straight up, like a sea of spears. Power lines parallel the tracks, sometimes near, sometimes far. Roads run alongside the tracks for a time, then veer away.

Over the next day, when you happen to glance out the window, or when you fold down one of the windows in the corridors that opens and spend a few minutes just gazing at the passing land, you see, mostly, the same unchanging, ever-changing thing; taiga forest. Often there is cultivated land beyond. Sometimes there are clearings of tufted, boggy grassland. Sometimes there are people on or near the tracks, railway workers in orange vests, or random passersby in dark jackets, or old women washing clothes in a nearby pond. Sometimes you pass houses, sagging wood and brick - mostly wood - surrounded by shacks that look like African shantytowns. And sometimes there is only the shacks. Piles of firewood are everywhere. Winter is coming.

There are towns and cities, too; Legoland cities of Stalinist concrete blocks, occasionally leavened by neighbourhoods of wooden houses. Other trains howl past in the other direction, mostly freight trains of shipping containers and tanker cars and logs lashed to flatbeds, more and more as you continue further east, into the industrial heartland of Russia, along the world's busiest freight rail line. You pass gargantuan factories, mostly abandoned and rusted and crumbling. In major cities you stop for ten or fifteen minutes, and walk up and down the platform, stretching your legs, wary that the train might leap away at any moment - for there is no warning before it departs, except that of the provodnitsas. It's a little odd to walk on ground that does not move. Wrinkled old women push carts full of chocolate bars and chips and beer bottles, or carry bags full of peanuts and oat-honey bars and bread and dried fish, and try to sell them to the train passengers.

They get few customers. The train is half-empty. Summer is high season; autumn is quiet. Half the first-class compartments are empty and locked shut all the way to Omsk. In the dining car, Igor, a huge middle-aged man with a boxer's build and only a few remaining teeth (mostly gold), does all the cooking and cleaning while being henpecked to death by three old women who spend all day sitting at a table drinking tea. No more than two other tables are ever occupied by passengers while you are there. You spend the second night drinking beer, swapping tales of Russian bureaucrats, and not playing cards with the friendly Swedish couple next door. In the morning a knock comes on the door, and Natalya slides it open. "Omsk," she says.

Siberia starts some 2300 km from Moscow, or one-quarter of the way to Vladivostok. Omsk is its first major city. It has a history. Dostoevsky was exiled there for four years, almost flogged to death, and dragged out to face the firing squad for an execution that turned out to be mock. For a couple of years, during the civil war, it was the capital of White Russia, until the Bolsheviks came. Today it has a city core of public parks and nineteenth-century stonework, not unlike St. Petersburg, surrounded by rings of squat Stalinist architecture.

But the twenty-first century has caught up, and how. Omsk's buildings may be shabby, peeling, faded concrete, but the ground floor of all those along the major streets are brightly painted, brightly lit, brightly branded boutiques and bars and salons and restaurants and supermarkets that wouldn't be out of place in London or Frankfurt. You stay at a sparkling new hotel at the junction of two rivers, go for a quick run on a pretty pedestrian trail that runs along one of them, eat cheap pizza and drink overpriced Czech beer, and watch Gladiator on cable TV.

In Omsk you observe, not for the first time, that Russians look very Russian. Especially the men. Even more than you had expected. The whole country is straight out of Central Casting, from the burly middle-aged men and women, to the lean soldiers on the streets, and the fine-boned kids who run the Internet cafes, and the beshawled babushkas on the Moscow metro, and the heavily dolled-up women on the boulevards (spike-heels and tight jeans/miniskirts seem to be the twentysomething woman's uniform here from sea to shining sea.)

The next morning, armed with the scantiest of Russian, a phrasebook, patience, and a sense of humour, you buy tickets to Krasnoyarsk from a woman who speaks no English. This time you ride kupe, second-class, four-bed compartments. This train is two-thirds full, and all your fellow-passengers are Russian - this is no international train, Krasnoyarsk is the end of its line. The compartment is uncomfortably heated, but the bedding is comfortable enough, there are cups and saucers, tea bags free in the dining car, and of course the samovar at the end of every car, next to the provodnitsa's cabin, providing endless boiled water. Next to the samovar is a thirty-seven-point four-colour diagram detailing its design and operation. The provodnitsas here are brusque but friendly; their reputation as battleaxes so far does not seem deserved.

Here the taiga forest appears only in fits and spurts; the trees are smaller, branched more elaborately against the wind, often lonely in a landscape of colossal, marshy grassland, on which the courses of flood-plain rivers are marked in brown. Feathergrass and cat-tails sprout waist-high, swept into ephemeral patterns by the ever-gusting wind. In the night, just west of Novosibirsk, you cross the kilometre-wide River Ob, dark water full of barges and the multicoloured streaks of reflected city lights, the fifth longest river in the world.

Today you arrived in Krasnoyarsk (on the shores of the Yenisey River, seventh longest in the world.) You were driven through a bustling downtown with some amazing, lacelike wooden architecture, then through long suburbs of scarred apartment blocks, past swastika graffiti, to your homestay in one of the endless anonymous Legoland buildings. The stairwell, like those in St. Petersburg, is dank and grim and crumbling, ominous and inhuman, decorated only by a huge heating duct - but the apartment into which you are invited is cozy and comfortable, all lacy curtains and flowerpots. Your hostess is a formidable old woman named Galina. It's a bit like living with your grandmother; that is, if your grandmother spoke no English.

Tomorrow, you will venture out into the taiga for the first time, into the jagged outcrops of the Stolby Nature Reserve; and soon thereafter, Lake Baikal. After 59 hours of train travel, at an average speed of 60-70 km/hr, you are slightly more than halfway to Beijing. You are not yet halfway to Vladivostok.


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