1 – From London to Moscow

Prologue and European Rail

How did this all start? It started because I needed to get away. Away from a dead job that I’d stuck with for far too long. Away from a dead relationship that my brain was clinging too tightly to. Away from myself, so to obtain some sort of perspective on where I was at.

Luckily, the job being dead, I’d received a payoff that enabled travel. And the dead relationship having devolved into a morbid attempt at maintaining a friendship, I didn’t have anyone to say goodbye to. Instead, I could wrench my gaze to the future and try to achieve a dream or two.

Planning fell together with surprising speed. The Trans-Siberian Railway was a long-held dream, and once that was chosen, the rest of the trip accreted around it. Trains and boats as far as could be managed, excepting only the two big oceans. Tacking on Japan, Mongolia, the U.S. and Europe to the overall experience. Deciding what to do took less time than arranging all the tickets and visas. The Russian visa, in particular, looked apt to arrive too late until I threw some extra money at “expedited” clearance.

I didn’t take any notes during the first few days of travel. What I can tell you is that it began with a short flight from Dublin to London. A night spent with my friends Brian and Christa and a final dinner with my London-dwelling friends. A wander around St. Pancras Station and the British Library (complete with unexpected Tardis) before hopping on the Eurostar. Dipping into the Channel Tunnel and emerging on the other side, then passing through Brussels and Liege on the way to Cologne. A beer by the Rhine and an overnight train missed, then scrambling across country and hopping on a ferry in order to make it to Copenhagen in time for my connection (making it with 15 minutes to spare).

Eventually, I landed in Stockholm, the first stop on my trip. In a way, the real starting point. From here, Russia, but only after a couple of days to acclimatise. Two days in the city, exploring and walking, from night-time beers to daytime fairgrounds. Hot-air balloons in the sky and sumo wrestlers on the grass. Eventually, the boat came to take me away from it all.

The ferry with the Torn-Off Balls. A strip bar, on the lower decks. The first of many sunsets on the upper deck, and a cabin to myself as we steamed across the Baltic. A single night and a day, and we dropped anchor in Tallinn, an extra country and a city as a bonus prize. A few hours spent seeing as much as I could, trying archery, almost losing my hat on the bus, climbing a steeple to see the entire scene. One last look at a massive Soviet relic by the bay, in the form of the Linnahall concrete parade ground, graffiti-strewn, then back to the ship.

Which is where my story—in the form of my notebook—really begins.

The Deck of the Princess Alexandra, On the Baltic Sea (28/8/11)

Down with the laptop and out with the fountain pen. I’m five days into this trip and have sixty days left until I’m safely home again. It’s sunset over the Baltic Sea, and I’m seated on the stern deck of the Princess Alexandra, which is steaming east from Stockholm to St. Petersburg, having stopped off in Tallinn, Estonia, for a few hours earlier today. I still feel a bit like the Ghost of the Iron Rails, but I’m hoping that will pass as the weeks go by.

Why am I here? Partly because I wanted to be. A new challenge, a new adventure, bigger, better, and bolder than before. Mostly though, I’m here because I have nowhere else to be. If I’d jumped straight into a new job or even a job search after Wilson’s, it would have felt massively futile. Just marking time, and that’s not something I really want to do with such a large part of my life any more. I suppose I can accept having an unfulfilling job, but only if the rest of my life is in a much better shape than it has been for a long time.

D_____ has haunted my thoughts for the past year. It’s taken that long for me to unravel my feelings and come to terms with the ragged ends that still remain there. Even as this holiday has begun, it’s been hard not to succumb to the urge to keep in contact. To retain that fingertip hold that does me no good. And now, in the past few weeks, I met A____. Who, without putting more weight on it than three dates can carry, is spectacular. Who I don’t know nearly as well as I’d like to, but I know enough of that I know I want to know more of her. The fear exists that those three dates will be nothing more than a mirage, and that two months of circumnavigation will stretch that thin thread to breaking point. Except, where does that fear come from but my own uncertainty? I’m as uncertain now as I have been in my life, yet it seems that things are in my hands. I do still hope for that fourth date though.

Women aren’t really the problem though. For all the rockiness of the past year, I’ve been lucky in life at meeting and attracting some very special women. No—that will work out if I work at it. What’s in need of sorting is a bit of direction to my life. How much I want to devote to my passion for writing, for example. To what extent that passion still exists and hasn’t just been buried. Am I engaged on a voyage of archaeology here, digging up my soul to see what’s still ticking in there? I feel I need to know if I’m going to forge a route into happiness.

Certain things need to be focused on first—those things that are time-limited. Al’s game in particular—I need to make a contribution to it, both on the game design and story front. Beyond that, I have my own writing to reorganise. Then I need to see if I can find work in Dublin so I can stay there. This journal can serve as a guidebook of sorts. And now I’m just writing to reach the bottom of the page, so I’ll stop.

(My early journal entries are pretty short, so I’ll fill in as best I can in later days – and they’re not all so introspective either.)

Great Peter’s Ghost, St. Petersburg (1/9/11)

Last day in St. Petersburg. A few hours remain before the midnight train to Moscow. I think I’m going to miss this western slice of Russia, so like Dublin in so many ways, only more grand, more sizeable. Still haven’t managed to have a conversation with a local, keeping me ghostlike, but my powers of Cyrillic recognition come on by leaps and stumbles, and as long as a word is a rough transliteration from English, the odds are I’ll recognise it.

From here on, the pace gets faster. A mere two days in Moscow, and the same on the shores of Lake Baikal. Am I prepared for the Trans-Siberian experience? I’m lacking a few things, but Vladivostok doesn’t seem so far away. A mere 18 days until I’m at the Pacific. I’ve kept myself too busy to be lonely, and I have a new idea for a story in my head. I have fallen back into some bad habits though—the Internet is hard to shake. I’m quite looking forward to the first leg to Irkutsk. Should be good for getting away from all of that.

So, time for one last pint here, one last stroll down Nevsky Prospekt, then retrieve my bag and I’m done. The night train, a sleeper carriage, and my first taste of what I’m here for. I still don’t know what I’m going to find, but there’s plenty of space for it to hide in.

(St. Petersburg gets short shrift in this entry, which is far from fair. I really liked the city, which seemed balanced on the edge of Europe and Russia (not the same thing) in a way that Moscow wasn’t. I disembarked from the Princess Alexandra and walked my way for a mile or two towards town, eventually fetching up in a monolithic old apartment building that I remember far less well than I should. Exploring the city took up one day, the Winter Palace took another, and a hydrofoil trip to the Peterhof encompassed most of a third. I watched the 2011 “Conan” movie in Russian in an old theatre building and understood none of it, and I spent at least two evenings having a beer in a bar called O’Hooligans—the first of many Irish bars on this trip. Love locks, babushka dolls, imposing architecture, canal trips, streets that tricked the eye as you walked down them. Heartily recommended.)

Shut Out, Izmailovo Beta Hotel, Moscow (2/9/11)

Stuck in my room in the Izmailovo Beta Hotel in Moscow. The name reminds me of Mostly Harmless, and like that book, it’s been a troubled, tricky kind of day. Not sleeping on the train, due to a snorer, was not a huge problem, as it was physical, not mental, rest that I required. Getting in too early for hotel checkin wasn’t an issue either. I stowed my bag in the train station and went strolling around Red Square and Gostiny Dvor, amusing myself with the encroachment of capitalism into the heart of communism, before heading into St. Basil’s for a poke around.

No, the problems began with the Izmailovo Beta Hotel, which managed to lose my reservation and leave me uncertain and uncomfortable until it was sorted out. Worse, after I’d been out in town, exploring Gorky Park and the Arbat, I came back to find that my laptop hadn’t taken a charge. Which could leave me facing life with a notepad and without links to the rest of the world sooner than planned. My phone was already being kept in Airplane Mode overnight to preserve the charge.

Still, these are small issues. I’m still in Moscow, still solvent and unharried. These are all good things. I have a day in the Kremlin planned for tomorrow and a swing into writing mode for the week ahead. For all that I’ve come so far, there’s a lot further to go. I can’t let myself get down at such an early stage. I still have to swim in the waters at the start of the world, after all.

(Moscow following St. Petersburg in getting short shrift, but here it’s a bit more deserved. I wasn’t nearly so fond of the Russian capital. There was certainly plenty to see, even beyond the short time I spent there, but as a city it felt unfriendly and suspicious. A hint of things to come, looking back from nearly six years in the future, but for the most part it was simply the only city on my entire trip where I felt actively unsafe. Going for a walk across town after dark, around 11pm to be exact, probably didn’t help, but when I got to Tokyo I was much more confident in my surroundings.)

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 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.)

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