2 – The Trans-Siberian Railway to Irkutsk

Yaroslavl Hiatus, Moscow (4/9/11)

It’s been a while since I read a book in one sitting. More or less—I read the whole of it while seated in one place, on the same day, with only a few breaks. The book was Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which is a good book to read for someone going on a journey into strange places. The place is berth 19, carriage 11 of the 340 train from Moscow to Chita.

We crossed over the Volga about half an hour ago, after a couple of hours stuck in Yaroslavl for reasons I was never able to exactly determine. Perhaps an “unexplained package”? Or perhaps a new engine for the train. Either way, we’re moving again now, and we will continue to do so through the night with any luck.

Because it’s the 340, we’re taking a more northerly route than the standard Trans-Siberian, missing out on Novgorod before rejoining the main line at Kotelnich. I’m likely to sleep through most of that though. There are four days to go before Irkutsk and two weeks and one night before Vladivostok. This is no small-scale trip.

Today has been a day of making do, overall. Throwing gear together in the hotel after a shower and a shave. Checking out, having a last run at the internet, and Metro-hopping all the way to Yaroslavl Station. Even once I’d dropped my bag off, there was nothing to do before departure but go for an impatient stroll, strike the last few items off my shopping list and have a bite of pizza beside the station itself.

Getting on the train (where I seemed to be the only person using an electronic ticket) was a simple matter of waiting until the provodniki showed up, noting the huge number of cigarette butts between train and platform as I did. On board, things were hardly as luxurious as on the overnighter to Moscow, but my fellow passengers—an elderly couple and an elfin girl called Masha—were more chatty. They didn’t have much English, mind you, but photos, maps, and persistence do wonders for communication.

The landscape, of course, is the big draw of the train. It’s easy to dismiss the view as too limited and too fleeting, but you can’t deny the appeal of constant change. To wake up every morning to a new view, in a new place; that’s travelling, not being packaged into a metal tube and fired from one place to another. I find myself more and more glad, now that it’s finally begun, that I’ve finally taken this trip.

Nothing but clouds and treeline silhouettes outside now. Occasionally there will be interminably long freight trains. Earlier this evening I could see glimpses of life by the side of the rails. Plain wooden houses, cared-for gardens and kids waiting for the train to pass so they could cross. It’s already been more than seven hours. It’s doesn’t feel that long. Four days won’t be so bad.

Well, as long as my dodgy guts and the carriages’ WC, with its multiple holes in the floor, don’t have a nasty coming together, that is…

(A longer entry this one, so not much to add. I did kind of skip over my day in Moscow though, where I visited the Kremlin and nearby museums, then wandered along the river near the statue of St. Peter and the massive rebuilt church. As I said, an unfriendly city, but one filled with interest. Also, oddly, one of the few where I didn’t seek out an Irish pub. The Izmailovo Beta Hotel was too far out of town to encourage late-night boozing.)

East of Kirov, West of Perm (5/9/11)

Strange night. You had the feeling, even though it was dark and you weren’t looking, that the train was trying to make up time after Yaroslavl. Plunging through the night at breakneck pace, never lingering longer than a few minutes in any station. Never dangerous in its exertions but managing to keep the thought of danger present.

Masha left the train at Kirov in the early hours. I was just awake enough to wave goodbye because, well, it had been another night without sleep. How does one tell the pleasant, elderly Russian lady, who has no more than a few words of English, that she’s one of the loudest, filthiest snorers you’ve ever met? Short of the universal language of a kidney punch, I’m not sure there’s a way, and I don’t need sleep that badly. Yet.

In any case, it’s 1015 local time (0915 Moscow time, on which the train runs) and we’re now thoroughly back on the regular Trans-Siberian route. We’ve just paused at a station called “Glasov”, a seemingly substantial industrial town that doesn’t even appear on my map. An hour ago, when I woke, the world was alternating between forests under blue skies and mist-covered flatlands. The sun has burned away the mists now, and all is green and yellow and brown under blue. Plus the occasional train speeding the other way to keep you on your toes.

A day of writing and planning and study to come, then. Let’s hope my pens hold out at least.

(Yes, my pens did hold out. I managed that much forward planning without too much trouble. The elderly couple, whose names I’m not sure I recorded anywhere, were as friendly as they could be given the language gap. They shared their food happily, while turning their noses up at my own. Admittedly, I was surviving mostly on cereal biscuits, fruit and tea from the carriage samovar, which can’t have been a good look.)

Somewhere West of Ekaterinburg (5/9/11)

Night is falling on the shortest day I’ve ever had that didn’t involve plane travel. Time is an elastic concept on the Trans-Siberian. It shortens with every mile you go east and it lengthens with every stop. The train itself ebbs and flows from parity with its timetable, set to Moscow time, which the passengers have already left two zones behind.  We’re still in Europe, though I’m unlikely to spot the marker for the switch to Asia in the gathering gloom. A pity we’re behind schedule at the moment, but how much does it matter? I’m already further east than I’ve ever been, beyond Iran, and I’ll just keep getting further east until I’m further west than I’ve ever been too.

It’s been a good day for writing—it’s easy to be an author when you can’t be anything else. It would have been better too if I hadn’t succumbed to treeline hypnosis—letting my mind wander as the scenery constantly changes while remaining ever the same. There have been sights beyond the ordinary too: an abandoned army truck and a man resting in a motorcycle sidecar. Both gone too quick for a camera. As if a camera or even words could capture more than a fraction of this immensity.

We were joined by a fourth in Perm—a bulky chap in a “Kingston River U” t-shirt. Lubya and her husband remain generous with their food too, which is a cut above the greasy and expensive dining car fare. It would make me feel a bit better if they’d accept some of my meagre food in return though.

We’ll be in Asia and Siberia before the morning comes. Still two full days and a bit, minus the eastward tax, to go before Irkutsk and Baikal. Plenty of time to write and think.

(I did catch at least one of their names! And remembered their generosity. Seriously, the dining car food was terrible. I only tried it once and finished almost none of it. Not that vendors on station platforms were a better idea, as I was to find out.)

West of Nazyaevskaya, Weird Dreams (6/9/11)

Second full night on the train and I got some fractured sleep. As suspected, I’m now in the presence of two entrants for the All-Russia Snoring Championships, though I reckon Lubya still shades it. I was aware of lengthy stops, bright lights and travelling so fast through the landscape that it seemed we were going downhill. What I was most aware of though were the dreams, each fragmentary and shifting.

The first saw me making a presentation about James Cameron’s underwater technology to a bunch of film luminaries. Among whom was George Lucas, who kept butting in with “helpful” comments, stopping me getting anywhere.

The second started with me and others in planes, racing a Sopwith Camel to an aerobatics display. We flew over a party on a hill, I grabbed something from a reveller and landed in the sea beside my granny’s house. After which we joined the party, I think.

The third one has slipped away completely. Lost in the morning haze. Not that there’s much haze or morning left. We’re two hours—soon to be three—ahead of Moscow time and catching up fast on noon. The next big stop is Omsk, about three hours away. Until then, it’s flat taiga and farmland under blue skies. Hayricks that look like wooly mammoths, vans parked in the middle of nowhere, and stands of bare white tree trunks rising from the soil like skeletal fingers.

And yet everything’s alive here. As far as the eye can see, nothing but life.

*Looks like we’re back on schedule again. The night is good for that, it seems.

East of Barabirsk (6/9/11)

The time dislocation continues. On the train it’s 5.20pm. Outside, it’s 8.20pm and a pinkish dusk is adding fire to the harvest golds and browns of the landscape. It’s been flat all the way since Yekaterinburg this morning—the flat of marshy land, cultivated land, and forest. There have been a few lakes too, and even one or two rivers, but everywhere the horizon ends in a fringe of trees—white trunks and dark leaves.

They don’t go in for fences in this part of the world. Where would you find one large enough? Instead, fields are mown to convenient shapes and stands of trees are surrounded by ploughed strips. Not many animals either, at least not close to the train. Just the odd cow and flock of geese. A farmer on horseback made my day, as did a family on a motorbike and sidecar.

Foodwise, things have been mixed. Pot noodles (or the Knorr equivalent) came to the rescue, and my cabin mates shared some smoked fish that was a present from a couple of compartments down. Smoked but not cooked, that is. Not sure how good for me that is.

It’s been a perfect, sunny day all day. Siberian summer. Got to stretch the legs at Omsk but slept through the Barabirsk stop. Slight stomach issues but nothing vital. I’m getting more into the writing anyway—mostly caught up on my Vampire Cities obligations and ticking over some ideas for a new novel. More to come on that front. It’s fun to be reduced to a writer and a traveller and no more than that.

(On the train, I got into the habit of one-page entries in my journal. Hence the standard length of recent items. It wouldn’t last forever.)

East of Achinsk, West of Krasnoyarsk (7/9/11)

We’re well and truly out of the flatlands now, passing through wooded valleys streaked with green and gold and red. Almost to Krasnoyarsk, almost about to begin the last leg of this journey. Less than 24 hours to go to Irkutsk. If the weather is this good throughout my stay at Baikal, I’ll be fortunate beyond words.

Last night saw some translation fun courtesy of a program owned by our new cabin mate, who joined when the old one left at Omsk. Another chance to connect, to explain myself, this clumsy foreigner, to these people whose lives I’ve dropped into for a few days.

We stopped at Novosibirsk at midnight local time, our passage across the mighty Ob lost in the dark. I’d stayed up watching the sunset fade as we fled from it and the half moon riding above the treetops to the south. There was enough time to explore the station and buy a pack of cards, then we were off again. This time to sleep.

A broken night again but still restful. No dreams worth remembering save the last. Walking with Declan Kidney up the Legamaddy Road while the Leinster players recreate a failed defensive move, ribbing him about Tommy Bowe not being from Leinster. (Paul trying to signal me not to.) Then Paul, myself, Lynne, Paula, and Spud gathered in a room with the team, cosy and old fashioned, discussing something that has slipped away.

West of Tayshet (7/9/11)

Just eleven and a half hours left before I hit Irkutsk, by my reckoning. It’s been another incredible day of wooded valleys and wheat fields, motorbike sidecars and combine harvesters, vegetable allotments and roads that seem to go on forever. Kraznoyarsky Kray and Irkutsk Oblast.

Most of the morning was spent waiting in Kraznoyarsk, where I was able to wander out of the station long enough to grab a chocolate ice cream, a few photos, and a fleeting connection to the Internet that allowed me to download 50+ emails. Most of them worthless, of course, but some of them brought a smile and lifted my spirits higher than they already were. Our carriage also gained a load of new passengers, many of them German. I wonder if I’ll see them again at Litviyanka.

Everything continues to hold up well. I’ve caught up with my VC work, started the “Exile” story and read more of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist… This diary could be A Portrait of the Author at his Leisure. Next up? Maybe a piece for TheJournal.ie.

I’ve enjoyed this journey far more than I hoped. I know that I’ve been very lucky in travelling companions and weather, but it’s still been spectacular. The longer stops, when we can get out and stretch, make the difference. Also buy food, though the sausage rolls I picked up at Ilansky are dreadful. I’ll save one for breakfast, or maybe use as an improvised weapon.

So the time of black tea, chocolate, and nuts comes to an end for now. Baikal awaits. If it can live up to recent highs, it will be amazing.

(Pretty positive, right? Well, I never did try to write a travel article for TheJournal.ie, and those sausage rolls were more problematic than I’d guessed. But I wasn’t wrong.)

South of Angarsk, North of Irkutsk (8/9/11)

It’s a grey start of a sort. There’s blue sky up there, but it’s foggy and frosty and getting foggier as we approach Irkutsk, Baikal, and the Angara River. Nearly everyone is preparing to get off—they’ve closed the bathrooms, which means I’ll be stinking when we get where we’re going, not to put too fine a point on it.

My cabin mates departed half an hour ago, all smiles and doubtless happy to have their journey at an end. Up until then, it had been fog banks and white-frosted ground  under the morning sun. Since then, just fog, as far as the eye can see (not that far). Hopefully they haven’t taken my luck with them.

As for me, I’m all packed and hoping that my connection in Irkutsk will be there. I have to worry about something, right? It was a restless night—no one seemed keen or able to sleep. Perhaps we’d stretched out train lag to snapping point. I was worrying about the sudden onset of a cold too, but it turned out to be just a reaction to getting something in my eye. Once I stopped poking myself, it went away.

Strange dreams too. In the first, a dinner party being hosted by Mike and Ruth was gatecrashed by flying paparazzi. In the second, my family and I were covering up the murder of my cousins by a killer who had a sensual interest in me. A dark and creepy twist. On the bright side, it seems like my stories are creeping into my dreams at the edges, which I usually take to be a good sign, creatively.

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