Sunday, 6 October 2013

Days 5,6,7 - Wednesday 1st - Friday 3rd October - Trans-Siberia

At this time of year, the birch trees are turning. Their black and white trunks adorned by golden yellow leaves. Thousands of kilometres of relentless birch and fir trees make up the view from our compartment window, day after day. The land is predominantly flat, and frequently marshy. Breaks of gently rolling hills provide a welcome variation in the topography of Siberia. Occasionally a pretty settlement of wooden houses comes into view, there might be a couple of old cars on the dirt track road, and a babushka tending the allotment while a scraggy dog paces impatiently.  More frequently you'll see an administrative building, invariably painted light aquamarine, next to it may be a rarely-used digger or dump truck and two or three railway employees in orange fluro jackets, standing around next to the line, looking cold and bored. Some parts of the line are heavy with freight - gas cars and coal carts.

Two or three times a day we'll make a longer 20 minute stop for the train to resupply with coal and water. The water is piped into onboard tanks, while the coal is shovelled in through the carriage doors from a platform-based dumptruck by women in overalls. This gives us the opportunity to stretch our legs and check out the wares of the local women who've come laden with big shoppers to sell bread, homemade pastries and crepes, dried fish, and beer at prices slightly less than the on-board bar. Larger stations will have more permanent kiosks selling basic groceries, fresh vegetables, cigarettes, barbie dolls, soft toys and other such travel essentials. 

At the end of every carriage is a coal-fired boiler, which provides the heating and hot water for the taps and showers. It also heats the invaluable Samovar, a handy source of boiling water for everyone. Pot noodles and cuppa soups are staples around here, and wouldn't be possible without this steaming, sputtering and dribbling bit of soviet iron-ware.

The restaurant car on this particular train is a truly dowdy affair. I haven't yet seen anyone eating there, though there is evidence of food being made. Through the hatch to the kitchen area one can see a meat cleaver on a dirty chopping board and several dozen egg trays, some of which are empty. This operation is run by a very fat, determinedly unsmiling stubble-headed Cossack and his two friendlier female assistants, one or both of whom could have made the mistake of marrying into this tawdry business. 

Clientele consists of the same half dozen faces every time we've been there. Peter the Dubliner as far as we can tell is the most reliable drinker on the train, alternating vodka and beer from breakfast through to closing time. We're not sure if he has his own berth, he certainly seems to spend every possible hour in the bar, he'll be there now. Others there are drinking to stay miserable, or just drinking to stay drunk. One has passed out on the table while his mates chew the cud. A sozzled middleaged English traveller is pointing his camera in the face of the fat proprietor in the vain attempt to elicit anything approaching a smile from him. This camera wielding amateur drinker is studiously ignored. Another vodka-breathed old letch called Leon makes repeated and blatant overtures to Anna and Sophie in Russian whilst us husbands sit right next to them. He's stuck in an alcohol induced amnesia loop, eliciting similar rebuttals to the same offers of a ride in his helicopter. He does really love his wife though and repeatedly shows us her photo on his phone to prove it. He offers a consiliatory hand to shake, and sends one of our drinks tumbling. The tablecloth sodden with vodka orange is ignored by the three staff for as long as possible before the fat proprietor can resist our gesticulations for a cloth no more. He takes the tablecloth and with it sends another of our drinks flying; nothing is proffered by way of replacement. One more quick round of full-priced drinks and it's lights off and bar closed. An hour earlier than last night and the night before.

Time slips away on this journey. Literally. Roughly once a day we cross through another time zone and the clocks skip forward an hour. Except they don't because the timetables in Russia remain on Moscow time. So though my watch says it's 12.30 Moscow time, which correlates with the printed timetable posted on the carriage wall, it's actually 16.30 outside in this part of eastern Siberia. This makes getting out of bed at a reasonable time in the morning increasingly difficult, though at the other end of the day, the bar seems to reach its 23.00 closing time an hour earlier each visit. By the time we cross into Mongolia, 5900km from Moscow, we'll have lost 6 of these phantom hours into the drizzly grey steppe-lag.

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