The next four posts will be coming to you from a hotel in Ulan Bator; they will be posted in order but wind up on face book in a block. IF YOU are going to take the Siberian train from Moscow to Ulan Bator in the near future I suggest you read them—in order. Of course what you’ll be reading are my barely edited notes but they will offer you a front row seat as my mind loses touch with day and night and it all becomes a mishmash of trees, Nescafe and the creaks and twists and groans of my body becoming one with the train. Yes, definitely read them in order. They get smaller.
DAY ONE: AUGUST 28, 2015
11:45pm (Actually the 27th but only for 15 minutes)
Dear Diary. The train has left the station. It’s an old train, with years of use and abuse hauling the banished, the poor and/or the restless to the east, the wild east of Russian history. I do believe I have the good fortune to be alone in my compartment. The train attendant indicated I could put my suitcase up on the adjoining berth. At least I think that is what he meant. It smells faintly of urine in the coach in general but only faintly. There is a plug-in for a charger down the hall—had a moment of serious panic when I thought such a thing might not be available…not because I couldn’t write with a pen on paper if forced but what if my Nook with that giant book about Peter the Great was unavailable. What if I didn’t have a book to read? I could survive most things, not that. I am a reader, not a thinker. Unfortunately.
I am feeling quite odd. I can put on pajamas right here in front of this open window as Moscow fades in the distance. Find out where to brush my teeth and pee. I can stay up all night and write and sleep all day if I so choose…and I will just keep rolling along. I have one small bag of Lay’s Sour Cream potato chips, one package of dates, one package of waffle cookie things, one orange, one small bottle of apple juice from a train ride or two ago, two bottles of water, pain pills, prednisone pills, prilosec pills and Vitamin D pills.
Now would be a good time to prepare me and the bed for each other. And, to conserve precious power, you Surfy must sleep also.
Wet. Gray, misty, drizzle to rain. Did I not ask for this? Yes. Amazing how sometimes you get what you ask for. It is so fall here. Warmth hidden behind today’s clouds but popping out in blazes of gold and rust and orange and red among the trees. Tall skinny trees reaching for the light. Mostly birches but I’ll have to check out what else for the real travel piece. Just saw two old babushkas in long coats and old-fashioned head scarves bent over, picking what off the forest floor? Mushrooms? It looked so…Russian.
I did sleep although with some back pain and frequent joltings awake. Still I feel really good this morning. Albeit a little hungry but it does seem like the less I eat the better I feel. Even more energy and strength for suitcase/backpack schlepping. Wish Rob, Marsh and I were out walking in those very woods this very moment. Finding mushrooms to poison ourselves with for lunch. Maybe we could make mushroom ice cream. Some open country of wheat fields sporting their fall tans. Villages, logs, logs, now almost a suburb, a suburb of log houses. Dark brown log houses or green with mustard trim and many with Russian blue roofs. Coming into a town. No, it wasn’t. Some country dachas perhaps although I believe this is too far from a real city to have summer homes. I don’t know that.
A Little Later
Finding out things. Got a power source turned on. They are popular spot in the car so I am claiming one with my various devices all day. Phew. Big relief. Know the direction of the dining car which I will access later. Have a cup on loan from the attendant which is mine for the next four days and all of the hot Nescafe I could ever hope to drink. Not permitted to have the overhead lights on in the compartment in the daytime. Nyet, she says! Two tiny washrooms, containing a toilet and a sink from which you cannot use the water for drinking or teeth. One faucet of cold water for washing up. Guess I’ll make a schedule of which days to wash which parts.
Russia then. Quick observations. Language is as restricted here as in the States, meaning nobody speaks English here like nobody speaks anything else in the States. This language barrier is important because it is so total. We don’t share everyday words like we do with French or Spanish-speakers, the everyday words of everyday life. It leads to something that doesn’t feel like unfriendliness exactly, more like a wall, an invisible but impenetrable wall.
I noted last night how Moscow felt very American to me. The traffic, the people’s way of being in the general flow of life, the look of it even, although surely we have nothing to compete with St. Basil’s anywhere. St. Petersburg was more European in that ornate building, canal, café, pretty people kind of way. I like Moscow better actually, more real. Albuquerque versus Santa Fe!
Meeting Nikolay was a bonus. What began as a somewhat unsatisfactory guide-tourist relationship developed into something approaching friendship. One of my fellow introverts I would say. Studied to be an engineer because his grandfather, a general insisted. He was actually on a list for art school when he was much younger but the quota of art students was reached before he got in. He did work as an engineer in Soviet days, then when the economy went crazy after the breakup he turned to working in the tourist industry and has done that for a long time. Of course the problem is that independent guides only have the summer to earn much and he’s quite poor the rest of the year but, he says, it’s okay because he prefers not to do what he does not want to do! Very moody guy, reads a lot, and is generally bored with his role as a guide and with his life. He would become quite animated about an idea, a book, a bit of a philosophical discussion and then lapse into a state of the most cynical Russian ennui. I had decided to dispense with his services after the first day but then I started to like the reality of him and got more and more interested in what he had to say when he felt like talking.
The second day with Nikolay I insisted on the modern art museum and that was when he totally dropped his rote guide spiel and talked about how he experienced the different periods of Russian art and how they related to his life as a kid and adult. I don’t usually like museum/art tours, rather wander by myself, but this one turned out great. Nikolay and I ate together a couple of times and then he turned into the moody vegetarian version of my son the foodie (as in ‘only likes to chop his beets for borscht a certain way because’ well because…) but I got to ask a million questions about recent Russian history and it felt like a normal human exchange. I hope I will keep in touch with him. I always mean to and then life happens and well…I never do.
Hey, I’m doing what I said…Russia is passing just outside my window and I’m writing and drinking coffee and my phone is charging and I think I’m happy.
I think these bunks are firm enough so I can do a plank. Going to try. Did it. A minute probably.
There is the question of whether I would like to be sharing this cabin with someone. Certainly not most people, even people I like a lot. Would have to be someone I’m very comfortable with and who would be satisfied with the circumstances. The only person that comes to mind is…Teresa of course. Beth, hmmm, would this work for Beth—who after all was going to come along on this journey. I don’t think so. She likes to move about and talk to people and there’s no place to move and no one to talk to and I don’t think the services and facilities in general would be up to her standards. So it’s a good thing I’m by myself.
The Happiest People, The Old Believers (TV special on RT), Red Army, Leviathan. Thinking of recent things I’ve watched or read about Russia or Siberia. The Art of Soviet Cooking from whose recipe I made borscht last year. Oh yeah, and The Americans. Not sure how I would categorize the latter, a bloody good bloody spy novel come to life will do. There is surely plenty of sources to explore Russia, and Russian novels have a place in the literary world surpassed by none. All of the histories, Massie alone is a shelf or two. Just wish I would have crammed it all into the last six months so I would know many things as I ride along. Did read those two excellent books about crossing Siberia but one was by car and one by train in winter so this experience is a bit different. Besides they were guys traveling together and could do all that guy-bull-shitting stuff better.
Just saw this flashy Orthodox Church over in a tiny gray village. God is nothing if not a kitschy designer.
Checked out the dining car. Bowl of borscht. Okay. Not quite the right red but tasted like beefy veggies and with enough salt it was okay. No wine except sweet Moldovan so I had a Tuborg Gold. Dining car about six cars away through the ‘peasants’ where there are four people per compartment, a lot of kids, a dog or two. Too far of a walk although it is quite pleasant to have that nice beer in my system. Prepares me for my first daytime train nap.
3:30pm, same day as last time,.
Slept for awhile. Day dark and gray and chilly. What I wished for. Mistake. It’s cold in here. Well not cold cold. But the kind of weather and temp that for me means jack up the thermostat another notch or five. Just to feel all cozy you know. Since we can’t even have lights until later in the evening, heat is a very farfetched concept. Okay I’ll do what normal people do, put on another sweater.
A small stop. People out walking along the platform. Mostly needing a cigarette it appears.
Woods. More cultivated land here. Big plowed fields or pasture although I’m not seeing animals grazing.
Wonder when we get to the Urals? I won’t know.
Clearing up outside. Tomorrow will be a sunny day I predict. With bright woods all about.
Little achy already from hard cot and not walking, not bad though. But maybe I’ll take a pill just to ward off the evil spirits of old bones. Besides it’s a little like having a glass of wine. Makes me content with my rolling world of trees and no washing-up facilities.
Thought I’d finish today’s writing about being an American out here in the world. It’s complicated. Nobody else much cares as long as one stays out of ISIL territory. Where English isn’t spoken regularly no one knows what brand of intruder visitor spender occupier I am anyway. I do think Boyzie was right when he said Americans aren’t as big of a deal anymore. We all (meaning countries) have our fights and say whatever will appeal to our own base of support but America is just one of many dangerous entities in the world. Less crazy than some, way more than others.
This is not a moment for great pride in America what with guns, out-of-control cops, Donald Trump, Republican xenophobia in general, crumbling infrastructure, blah blah blah. However…it’s not all bad being an American either. The dollar is pretty much okay everywhere and I suppose it’s reassuring to be one of the big kids on the block. And my toys really are nice! The Galaxy 6 Edge and Surface Pro 3 and CoolPix and Nook. Not that those things aren’t available all over…but how many little old grandmothers are traveling about with all of them and using them practically every minute of the day. Nobody that I’ve noticed. It feels American to me but maybe it’s just eccentric. By the way, the Galaxy 6 does take amazing photos.
A done day one on the Siberian train.