Trees, trees and more trees
Visiting the former USSR is not cheap but it is a challenge. Here, Martin Varley boards the Trans-Siberian Railway
Saturday 06 May 1995
The Trans-Siberian Railway is not all trees. Sometimes things happen: maybe the train crosses a river, or speeds through an isolated village. But on the whole your lot is trees, and there are plenty of them.
So what do you do for six days on a train between Vladivostock and Moscow? To begin with options seem endless. There are the initial joys of train travel: the possibility of an unexpected liaison, the exploration of exotic locations, the mental stimulation from unusual sights, even staring out of the window watching the vast taiga go by has an element of romance. However, after a couple of days, stagnant reality sharpens the soft-focus haze and Trans-Siberian lassitude sweeps through the train. Then, as Peter Fleming recalls in Travels in Tartary, "You sit down and read and read and read. There are no distractions, no interruptions, no temptations to get up and do something else; there is nothing else to do. You read like you've never read before."
By the end of the second day a strange thing happens. Your body and your watch tell you that it is time for bed and yet outside the light refuses to give way to night. The train is travelling west and so gains an hour whenever it crosses one of the seven time zones between Vladivostok and Moscow. With the train maintaining Moscow time, the passengers experiencing local time and your body still working in Vladivostok time you begin to feel a disturbing loss of context as time becomes distorted in the emptiness which is Siberia.
You are still time-independent when you wake the next morning. It is hot and you begin to feel the claustrophobia of three days on a train with nowhere to go. With such continued close proximity to personal and cultural strangers you are running out of behavioural tolerance and have to spend the morning staring out of the window watching the taiga, steering clear of people so as not to shout at them. Outside the compartment you can tell the people who got on in Vladivostok. They are the ones who were awake at 7.30am local time thinking that they had had a lie-in because it's 10.30am in Vladivostok.
They also look the roughest. Having boarded the train, they change into shellsuits, a gesture signalling that from then on they intend to make no further effort about personal appearance, but to allow themselves slowly to decay.
Periodically a barking babushka passes you on her morning rounds, selling refreshments from a squeaking trolley. She is a poorer version of her British Rail cousins, but her fare is remarkably familiar: Snickers bars, chocolate, Rich Tea biscuits and for those with roubles to spare and something to celebrate, like perhaps it being only one more stop before you can leave, champagne.
Novosibirsk is an important halt, you are halfway to Moscow. Now the scenery begins to change. There are still trees, this time aspen, birch and willow, but also an invasion of fields and roads. Bridges crisscross the track. Thescene has an English feel to it, reminiscent of Kent. But whereas Kent finishes at Sevenoaks and quietly becomes London, Siberia goes on and on. Five days and you are still there. The idea of the earth being flat must surely have originated here.
On the train lethargy is rife. No longer is there a queue for the window seats, instead, people stay in bed until midday, still in their clothes, then get up in time for a siesta, before having an early night. The exciting crossing of the taiga has left people travel weary. Just as you are almost asleep the train comes to a halt. Naturally it is the stop that everybody else in your compartment is getting off at, and they all get up and turn the lights on and seem to be trying not to wake you up while making as much noise as possible. So you turn over and make noises as if you're asleep so that they don't feel too bad. Then, once they get out and you are about to fall asleep again, the new people arrive in your compartment and they make as much noise trying to be really quiet as the people who just left. What's worse is that the nice quiet family, who you liked so much because they didn't try to talk to you but sat doing crosswords or sleeping, have just left. They are replaced by a much rougher looking trio who smell of smoke and drink, and look capable of cutting you up into small pieces and spending your money on beer. Finally, even they settle down and everything is quiet again. Then, as the train pulls away, you realise it is getting light outside, as if the day is cranking up again just so that you can't get back to sleep.
Eventually the train arrives in Moscow and for the first time you begin to think that perhaps you have not always been on the Trans-Siberian railway. It has been a long game but slowly the spectators pick up their belongings and head out on to the platform. You are ushered from your seat and the wrappers, papers and detritus of six days are swept clean ready for another innings. Outside the platform flows with expectant new travellers, clutching their tickets. For you time is out, but for them another journey is just beginning.
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