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Sunday, September 09, 2007

60-hour train ride - Part 1

  • Date and Time: Friday 7th September, 2007. 08:38am Moscow Time


  • Location: Seat 18, Train 55 to Moscow, Siberia



    I'm not entirely sure where I am at the moment. Somewhere is Siberia. The train left Krasnoyarsk for Moscow 14 hours ago now.

    In that 14 hours, it's stopped three times.

    Waking this morning after a surprisingly good night's sleep, I looked out of the window and saw exactly what I'd seen when I got on - a vast flat land, covered in silver birches. I wonder what it is that has led to their dominance - they really are everywhere. And we're not talking just one rather large forest, we're talking hundreds of miles of pencils of white.

    Oh, and you know I said that I wouldn't be going hard class anymore? That my previous journey travelling commoner style was experience enough? It seems I was wrong. I'm spending this 60 hour journey back in the open carriage, and to make things extra-memorable, I have a top bunk again. A top bunk that is so close to the luggage rack that I can't even sit up in bed, and struggle to turn over without falling off the edge.

    Not only that - I have hyperactive traveling companions to contend with for the duration of the 4100km trip. One is age 3 (thus the potty on the floor of our section), the other about 5. Two blonde-haired girls, with their blonde-haired mothers. I haven't made a terribly good impression on the one who looks like Marilyn Monroe - when trying to extract a banana from my rucksack on the luggage rack my penknife slipped out and fell, narrowly missing her daughter's head. I apologised and laughed nervously.

    The constant rock of the train is strangely calming. The general theme is sleep, interspersed by periods of shared activity (in the case of most passengers this means eating. In our case it means playing with mummy's mobile phone when the story that's being read to us gets too boring, or crying). There's certainly no sign of dirty old men swigging from bottles of vodka.

    When we do stop most people tend to get off and stretch their legs. The timetable on the wall by the toilet informs us how long we'll be pausing for (about 20 minutes at the main cities) - waiting for us with their dried fish, bags of boiled potatoes, loaves of bread and bunches of flowers are the army of babushkas - the elderly women with faces made of wrinkled leather, hair bound to their heads by tight scarfs. The men meanwhile have their arms full of the furriest fur balaclavas you've ever seen. They have a huge variety of colours, although I've yet to see any of the blue or green ones that have been especially bred following research by Siberia's top university.

    Personally, I give them a miss. Instead I head for the row of 10 little cabins at the end of the platform all selling an identical selection of drinks and snacks. It had been my intention to not at anything but fruit on this trip - after all the abuse my stomach suffered in Mongolia I want to be kind to it - recently everytime I've eaten anything at all it's started to hurt. (Another benefit of not eating much would be fewer visits to the toilet. I imagine that on such a long journey they can only end up looking more suited to Glastonbury Festival than an otherwise pretty clean trans-siberian train).

    But seeing the selection of chocolate bars and sweet pastries is too much like temptation, and I climb back aboard a few roubles later with a selection of sugary treats. The bag of apples and bananas I bought yesterday are returned to the luggage rack.




    2 hours later

    Wow, Roxette! I knew it was just a matter of time before we were to hear the classic early 90s It must have been love blasting out over the PA system!

    I just paid my first visit to the toilet, and despite being pleasantly surprised by its cleanliness, I was horrified by what I saw in the mirror - my face is falling off! I knew I'd burnt it pretty badly when I went cycling on Olkholn, but I had no idea that I was going to lose an entire layer of skin as the main character in a cheap horror film might. It seriously looks pretty disturbing: my forehead had big strips of skin hanging off it, and whilst I've now removed the worst of these, I still look somewhat odd with my dual-layer face.

    Perhaps that's why the three-year-old was looking at me with such fascination.

    Hopefully the transmorgification will be complete by the time we arrive in Moscow, the day after tomorrow. Until then, I'll just try not to scare the kids.

    The terrible two have been causing a lot of grief for their mothers, although I can't help but think that they could make life a lot easier for themselves by practising a policy of non-interference. Constantly telling their girls to sit still seems to be exhausting for all involved. I suppose I should wait until the day I have terrible twins to keep control of on a 60-hour journey before passing judgement!

    I'm guessing it's about 5.30pm local time now - hard to tell when the train is scheduled to pass through 4 time zones en-route to the capital. We've made a couple more stops during the day at fairly major cities. It's fascinating watching the gradual conversion from countryside to town - clearings in the endless miles of trees (the silver birches have lost their monopoly now) gradually become more common, playing host to traditional wooden cabins with their brightly painted shutters. The number of minor railway stations increases, as does the number of people on foot or bicycle on the track that runs alongside the line. Vehicles only start appearing when we come closer to the city, marked by chemical plants with belching chimneys, surrounded by 15-storey apartment blocks still under construction.

    For some passengers this is the destination, and I eye the now empty seat and table with interest. However, a minute later my hopes are dashed as new passengers climb onboard: a girl in high heels and the tightest jeans you've ever seen takes the place of the old man who was there a moment ago. She looks more like she's going out to a nightclub than spending 40 hours on a train.

    Outside the train the old women selling fish are joined by a team of rail workers who stop at every carriage and hit the axels with a hammer. Checking the wheels aren't about to fall off perhaps?

    And then before we know it there's movement, on to our next stop perhaps hundreds of kilometers from here.

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