THE TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY
The sun sets on a strange land, the tracks hemmed by bristling forests of birch and pine which leer at the windows as we rattle along. Occasional settlements, or fields and villages in the distance, disturb the claustrophobic monotony. We’ve stopped once at Norilsk, which seemed little more than a muddle of prefab houses. Villagers ran to meet the train, plying all sorts of food and trinkets. A man was selling a large crystal chandelier which glinted and sparkled as he held it aloft for inspection.
Wooden, campanile-shaped houses, amid a jumble of water towers, aerials and telegraph poles, make up the villages. Stranded in the vastness. And this is only the beginning.
A rotund woman with her friends waves chirpily at the train’s passengers. A girl of five in a sky-blue top and trousers nibbles at a ruby ice lolly.
The train lolls and rolls, smooth on its elevated frame. Occasionally it judders when the brakes clamp, or if the engine’s humming vibrates along the train. Its corridors are quilted with floral print rugs, overlaid with a white and yellow striped ‘protector’. Why someone thought white would be a practical colour I have no idea. The German carriages are efficient and ergonomic, not quite the grand vision of the railway’s builders and architects, but nevertheless comfortable enough. I’ll probably hate them after two and a half days.
We pass caterpillars of endless freight trains, whose bulking bodies go on for miles. They’re topped with inky piles of coal, or else anonymous rusting hulks.
We approach a town of crumbling brick buildings, their windows either boarded, filthy or cracked. Sidings sneak off into nowhere. Tangles of overhead cabled and wires writhe overhead. A huge factory looms as we leave, its smoke stacks and rusting cubes sulking in the wan evening light. We cross a lumbering river at dusk, two fishermen in a rowing boat silhouetted against the rose-mauve wash.
My compartment companions are nice enough. A weasely looking man, his thin aquiline nose ending in a pencil-thin moustache and fine lips. He looks like a Caucasian. The second is Sergei, whose face is rugged and pugilistic, but nevertheless friendly towards the piteous foreigner. He drives big machines near the city of Novokusnetsk. That’s as much as I can glean. The third, Mr Newspaper, is more demure and withdrawn, his bearded features harsher. He’s managed to read his paper for the last six hours non-stop, and hasn’t said a word. They all seem like hardened Transibers. I felt a fool, as usual in Russia, not knowing where the hell I was going, which compartment was mine, what berth was mine. Now that I’m ensconced safely in my bed, with my hired starchy sheet and pillow, my bottle of water, my Discman and my books, it all seems very quotidian. Soon its brown vinyl walls, salmon pink curtains, plastic flowers and swirly rug will feel like home.
In the dining car, with its green-lined white pleated curtains, I’m not sure what was happening. I thought I had escaped Moscow’s sleaze. But the young woman in the black leather mini and the ridiculous white see-through lacy top (with added dancing pom-poms at the sleeves) made me think otherwise. When she was invited to the other table to drink cheap champagne, my suspicions were confirmed. It turns out she’s the trolly-dolly. Perhaps chocolate bars and beer don’t pay the rent.
Another station, another nameless town, as far as I know. Soon they’ll all melt into one...
I slept well, unexpectedly. And even slept in late, lounging in my bunk until after nine. The compartment has indeed become home. It smells, but only after you’ve been outside and come back in. Otherwise, its cocoon warmth is comforting, and the rituals of sharing breakfast or a tea bag give it an air of acquired domesticity.
We pass through more nameless towns. Picket fences hem their wooden houses, their paint faded and peeling, occasionally propped up like war veterans. At Krasnifotsk, it seemed the entire town had come out to greet the train. Headscarved babushkas stomped up and down the platform. They carried buckets of shiny berries, cups of raspberries, trays of greasy turnovers, boxes of ice-creams, crates of bottled drinks, and baskets of onions, garlic and cucumbers. They flocked at the carriage’s steps, crying out their wares. At first enthusiastically, and then when the trade became a trickle, in lacklustre wails that broke your heart. Their hands were bulbous and ruddy, creased with the salt of the earth, perhaps. One had a fetching silver lamé headscarf wrapped around her worry-lined face. They all wore cracked and peeling cheap shoes, or else rubber boots inelegantly shorn at the ankle.
When I was trying to take some photographs, an old woman said (I think) "Why are you taking photographs of us? Take some of that nice building." The building was a powder-blue 1950s attempt at some kind of classicism — it had columns. It was the station hall, topped by a clock, which was stuck at a quarter to one.
The town’s lanes were all rutted and coal-coloured, black puddles shining eerily in the afternoon light. A timber yard flanked the track, followed by sadly petering rows of old houses, fences,gardens, and then nothingness again.
Vast rectangles of fields peeled away from the tracks this morning. Hulking tractors and combine harvesters were reduced to Matchbox-sized shadows. Beehives of hay hiccuped across the yellow-gold expanses. Some had turned a sickly brown in the summer rains.
A ginger cat solitarily walks a deserted town’s streets. A toddler, his father chopping wood, waves in innocence at the passing train. Two boys share the saddle of an old bike with rusting spokes. They stop to watch the train rumble past, and seem to be earnestly discussing its merits or destination.
Weasel face has a great shirt which hangs at the end of his bed. It’s a symphony to polyester: black, with thinly-spaced gold lines running vertically down it. Wisely, he’s now in a shell suit. Mr Newspaper still hasn’t said a word. Nor smiled. It would appear he becomes more reticent with each stop. But he’s not grumpy. And I suppose I’m lucky to have some genial companions for my travels into the sad heart of Siberia. Better them than a room-full of vodka-swilling likely lads.
Reading Colin Thubron’s ‘In Siberia’ affects me. But I suppose he’s only reflecting what is there, hidden behind this infernal, eternal bank of trees — an allegory for the journey itself. I will never find Siberia. It will always be just beyond the trees, just beyond my grasp.
So much of this land is only a few years’ old to the foreign eye. Closed cities, secret towns, hushed up nuclear accidents, horrendous pollution, the horrors of the GULAG. 20 million. 20 million. Think of all the lives, hopes, dreams, loves that that represents. The families and relatives and communities that that kind of number affects, poisons. So much of the railways, the cities, the roads, the pylons — built on suffering and misery.
Industrial complexes will rear up out of nowhere. Probably relocated during the Second World War. One minute nothing but trees, trees, trees, then suddenly sidings, corrugated roofs, crumbling concrete, steel and houses. Now in the evening, gloom seeps through the windows. The interminable forest goes on and on, obscuring the fields and villages and the signs of human habitation beyond it.
Slept listlessly, but OK. The smell of our home has worsened, but I only noticed it after a befuddled breakfast stop at 8.30 or so. It was grey and grim outside, the sky laden with heavy clouds. A day to fester in bed, read, munch on something. Go for a cigarette in the grey stink box at the end of the carriage. Come back reeking of tobacco. Read some more. Doze, sleep. Listen to my discman and try to ration the amount of Thubron I’m reading. Hope to be able to bookswap later, or else I’m in trouble. Packed too paranoid light...for once.
Still reduced to henpicking words with the chirpy Sergei who hasn’t given up on me yet. Managed to establish how many hours to go, where I’m going, where I’m from — the traveller’s liturgy. He stinks of cigarettes. Perhaps more than I do then. His face is rotund, like his body, and his eyes are grey-ringed and sad, set quite deeply into cheeks which flow down his face. His moustache ages him, bleached lighter than his hair by tobacco.
When I told him I was going to Tuva, he started rambling about fish and gesticulating his fisherman’s arms at me. I can’t blame him for laughing at me. Hapless foreigner with a 20-word vocabulary, getting off on his own in Siberia’s largest city of over a million. I’d laugh too. Mr Newspaper laughed once today. Perhaps at my expense. He then returned to reading and sighing. Weasel-man has been replaced by a skinny woman whose face seems to have been perfunctorily chiselled from ice. I wouldn’t mind her, except I’ve worked out that she is the source of the nasty smell which now pervades the compartment. This despite the passengers fumigating the train with smoked fish this afternoon.
We passed perhaps two dozen villages today. Those that I noticed at least. I’m still amazed at how they spring up out of the forest, like castles in a fairy tale. All those lives tucked up here, somewhere in this aching vastness.
‘Aching’ keeps on coming back to me. Meadows ‘as far as the eye can see’. Seas and lakes of meadows, ploughed by dark, military green forests. Grasses sway. Beach trees flash platinum and chromium in the cold winds which sickle down from the Arctic Circle. All these huge distances. And yet they’re nothing. The Siberia of the imagination rolls endlessly to the north, hardly dropping in altitude until it reaches the permafrost, where the ground is too hard even for graves. All that lies beyond, while we sit here skirting it, gingerly tiptoeing around its harshest heart.
The clock in the corridor says eight, but it’s dark. No-one is fooled by Moscow time anymore. It’s actually 11. But we’ve been stopped for nearly half an hour. Half an hour from my destination. All these hundreds of kilometres of rumbling, creaking, clanking and now we’re at an inexplicable and unexplained standstill. I was going to write how efficient everything had been so far. How we’ve pulled into stations within minutes of what was stipulated in the timetable; how the provodnik (in his embarrassing turquoise cleaning outfit) has hoovered and cleaned his way through the carriage each day; how the tea is drinkable; how everything is of a high standard for a nation which is crumbling outside the windows.
We eventually reached Novosibirsk at about one in the morning. I got to my hotel somewhere around two, starving. I’d missed my calls, three of them, from my girlfriend. The receptionist looked more saddened than annoyed at our failed communication. I ate a measly sandwich in the bar and downed a beer while telling the local call girls in high red heels that I really wasn’t in the mood, thank you very much.
NOVOSIBIRSK (‘New Siberia’)
It doesn’t feel that big, despite being a city of over a million. It feels more empty, yet another victim of Russian giganticism, where everything was erected on a scale which dwarfs the very people it was built for. The avenues are tree-lined and pleasant enough. But they’re Moscow-massive, when the traffic is fitful rather than frenetic. Flowerbeds bloom and parks and squares fill the centre, criss-crossed by paths and mothers pushing prams.
The theatre is monumental, the largest in Russia. Its roof looks like a mini Millennium Dome, fronted by a phalanx of harsh, rectilinear columns in stained sandstone. A bronze frieze of happy-clappy peasants danced and balalaika’d their way above the row of doors at its entrance. They were, needless to say, locked.
Lenin stood his ground on his square, some 200 metres from the theatre. He was sculpted to smooth, angular planes. Three comrades fought valiantly to his left, while two peasants hailed the new dawn of Communism to his right. An old woman hunched at the base of his large plinth. She looked utterly lost. She gazed about her, and then up to the statue. But it didn’t seem to comfort her. Perhaps she was asking Him about her pension. "You promised, you promised..." (Pensions in Russia are about $20 a month, and some haven’t been paid).
In the bright, dry sun which continental Russia seems to excel in, the city looked almost summery. The flowers sold by the babushkas on street corners shone, as did the vegetables and fruit hawked from roadside stalls. But it all seems like a chimera. A brief respite before winter reaps the leaves from the trees, the green from the parks, the smiles from the faces, and the city grits its way through the inhuman, sub-zero winter once again.
For details of how to take the Trans-Siberian see the highly-experienced and recommended tour operators, The Russia Experience: www.trans-siberian.co.uk