It is quite easy to spot other backpackers on the trans-Siberian. Even as out of practise as we have been through lack of opportunity these past few weeks. So while waiting for 11:15pm to roll around it is a nice surprise to see a young guy come into the waiting hall and stand beside his green pack. The ability to differentiate is possible because locals travel in one of three ways. No luggage at all or maybe an overnight bag. Even if the journey is nearly two days long. Otherwise they will be lugging one of those ungainly square rice bags, the largest size only. Or else it may be a collection of string tied boxes. Rarely a suitcase and never a backpack. So Anthony, for this was his name, really stood out. A Scot who lives in Northern Ireland as we found out in the preliminary conversation. Then our train was finally announced but we would see him again soon enough as he was booked into the same Irkutsk hostel. Yes a hostel, and we know where it is. This time was going to be easy.
This meeting was even was even more fortuitous as he had only arrived at the station after we should have left. With about half an hour until our scheduled departure time the time on the board that was our train changed to a flashing red abbreviation. This had us all scurrying for the various language books in our possession to discover the obvious answer of delayed. This driver would not be getting his on time bonus. It was closer to one than eleven when the platform was finally opened. The evening was crisp and the smoke from the chimneys on each carriage swam invitingly around the waiting throng. The providnista’s had been attentice and after the passport and ticket check where the little hologram in the top left of the bileta is torn, it was a lovely warm cabin that we climbed into.
On this, the last train ride completely inside Russia, our assigned beds were right at the front of the train. The actual, literal front. Carriage two is the first behind the enormous Skoda S4T engine. Seats thirty three through thirty five are in the very first compartment. My bed is thirty five, the lower one that borders the wall to the bathroon. While we are quite good at ordering our train tickets it has been a while wince we managed to get good berths. These current ones give meaning to the ticket ladie’s gesticulating during the seat selection phase of the transaction. Being specific about wanting the two lower, one upper platscart regardless of them being in the number region that you do not really want is not particularly smart. A mistake exacerbated because of being right behind the engine.
Finally some bends enabling the classic on the train photo.
This is the first time on an overnight journey that the rocking motion has not lulled me into a content sleep. It feels as though we are going at a much higher speed than the usual fifty to seventy kilometres per hour. Maybe being first in line means more concentrating on staying on your bench that relaxing into it. Then there is the constant assault of the horn which is being sounded at intervals I am counting out at three times a minute. This is the first time any of us have noticed this. The effect is somewhat like trying to sleep through and alarm clock set to buzz. We decide that the increased speed must be to try and make up time. Confirmed by the lack of the customary periods where the train will come to a complete stop for an hour or so.
Our end of the carriage is also where the door to the toilet and smoking areas are. Tonight this is being opened and slammed continuously by the other passengers. The door is different to the other time we were in this position. There is no handle, just a ball catch which necessitates slamming it shut. Everyone must be suffering the effects of the horn and smoking more leaving fewer of the quiet usage periods. Soon after boarding a provodnik offered us an upgrade to Kupe (2nd class). He was obviously bemused as to why three foreigners would be in seats such as ours. But is was not apparent whether we would have to just pay him an amount or the difference in price between the classes. About three times as much. So we declined. The cost of the train has been remarkably affordable. This fourteen hour affair working out to about NZ$35. That is half what I paid for the ninety minute blast between Frankfurt and Cologne.
Doing your hair loses its importance while on the train.
I am staring out the window remembering back to the Golden Ring towns and how I just wanted to get underway with the journey. Well that feeling is sated. Early this morning, while finally asleep, we passed the halfway point between Moscow and Vladivostock. Though as mentioned previously the halfway marker for Beijing was achieved a bit before Krasnoyarsk. We just stopped in a town named Kuytun which means cold in the language of the local Buryat people. Appropriate I am sure. Though only recently into the second half the rest of this distance will be covered in only two forty plus hour stages.
This section of Siberia that we are seeing now is a much closer fit to how I had imagined it would be like. There is still plenty of dappled silver birch lining the way forming enclaves of various size. It is readily apparent why this tree is the national tree, the quantity is endless. The terrain is more varied now with fairly continual rolling hills covered mostly with golden yellow grasses sprinkled with the odd patch of deep green indicating some form of stream or lake. There is even signs of cultivation with large square patchwork stretching out to the horizon in parts.
The villages continue on as before. Far more than you might expect containing anywhere from twenty to the low hundreds of small wooden shacks. The near fenced area that you can see inside, before the viewing angle flattens out too much, enclose patches of dug earth and usually a pile of cabbages. Everything is very much of a utilitarian nature. No manicured lawns or bordered flower gardens here. If you want anything of that sort just wander out along the dirt stock path that bends around the boggy edges of the lake between the village and the woods. The buildings look as though they have received no maintenance since their completion.
Commenting on this to a fellow occupant of the smoking area I am informed that all of the attention to presentation goes on the inside and that they are actually quite comfortable. I find it hard to imagine this sort of life as comfortable. More rewarding in a hard life lived sort of way. No train stops in your village yet runs contiunously through. Both a reminder of isolation and the ever present thought of a wider world with little possibility of escape. So why not stand and watch a fire burn to embers. Ever since leaving Moscow this has been an oft seen activity in the cleared space that extends out from the tracks. Naturally I wonder about whether I think that I could live this life. There would definitely be an adjustment period but I think it would become quickly enjoyable. My preference though would be true isolation and no immediate train.
Isolation. There must be plenty when the graveyards outside the collection of shacks covers more area than the dwelling places of the living. Always the same low sky blue fences surrounding the plots containing stark white headstones. Try to assess how many bear a Soviet star compared to three armed crosses. An impressive number of the graves are trimmed with flowers. Bouquets of even numbers of course. Thrust the lingering memory of unneeded people into the wastes to die. This is the stark reality as to why most of these places even exist. Following along the mile by mile guide is a succession of phrases such as ‘inglorious start,’ small poor looking community of log cabins,’ area is best known for sawmills, swamps and insects.’ I wonder about the dichotomy of my spirit that I am attracted by both a life out here and the necessary bustle of a St Petersburg.
The big Skoda engine pulls on into the foothills of the Eastern Sayan Mountains. After an impressive period of climbing and descending through and around a number of ravines, quite suddenly the scene changes from that of a pastoral wasteland to one of resource harvesting. The railway lines either side of the one we are on are heavily used by goods trains of various nature. That we are in one of Russia’s biggest logging areas is readily apparent with a number of those we pass holding nothing but raw timber. Sadly strip mining is also in evidence with vast quantities of dirty brown coal more or less lying on the surface. There are stories of providnista’s giving passengers buckets to replenish the heating fire stock as this fuel can be seen lying in heaps all around the platforms.
One of the most memorable moments of this grey morning happens just after we have packed up in anticipation of crossing the River Irkut which will indicate imminent arrival in its namesake city. In a slight break from the continuous industrial scenery set out for our enjoyment is a huge holding pen for military vehicles. The first three rows alone would contain more than enough hardware to overwhelm all of the Royal New Zealand forces in a morning. The number of missile trucks looks like when you get a bit carried away on one of those army strategy computer games like Command and Conquer and try and win with only one type of vehicle. Maybe in Irkutsk we are going to see a return of large numbers of uniforms in the streets again.
The wealth of Russia and…
…a hog-backed bridge.
Tags: architecture, Golden Ring, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, mighty river, nature, Russia, Siberia, train, Trans-Siberia, Travel