Monday, 10 August 2009

Trans-Siberian.


1989, late August and early September. Mikhail Gorbachev is President of the USSR and Glasnost and Perestroika are new words to savour. There is a lightening of attitude but some restrictions are still in place. We cannot fly to Vladivostok, it is a secret naval base, so we have to settle for Moscow to Khabarovsk instead.
Here the River Amur forms the border with China (there have been skirmishes in the not too distant past) but the river is so wide that we cannot see the other side.
Waiting on the windy station platform for the train from Vladivostok is quite ordinary - just the same as waiting for a local train at home.
Then it rolls into the station like a giant tsunami - it fills the station with its enormous two engines and its roar. We climb aboard the "Tourist" carriage and settle into our compartment - two red leather bunks, a table, a tiny wash basin. As we are stowing our bags away the train pulls silently out of the station without warning. (First lesson - if you get off the train at a stop be careful not to get left on the platform.)
Lludmilla and Gregor, our cabin attendants, introduce themselves and we exchange packets of
tights for Matrioshka dolls and learn how to work the samovar in the corridor for instant tea, day or night.
We skirt the border with China and Mongolia, passing along the edge of the Gobi desert, crossing and re-crossing the Shilka and the mighty Amur rivers. We watch the Taiga - that coniferous belt that stretches almost round the world. Here and there are clearings and in every clearing little stacks of hay are stored, fodder for unseen animals in the coming winter. Now and then there is a field where women pick potatoes. Their clothes are earth brown, as are their headscarves. Their backs are bent and they don't look up - after all they see and hear this train every day and it is not part of their lives.
The train moves on, day and night. We retire to our bunks with a bedtime drink and a book, we awake to the Taiga, or maybe a very long freight train going in the opposite direction, or maybe a stop.
At Chita we alight. It is early morning. Old ladies dressed in that same brown sell hot potatoes, bunches of carrots, bags of nuts. Passengers get out of the non-tourist sections and buy their breakfast on the platform. They are mostly wearing their pyjamas and slippers. They seem to stay in them all day.
Ulan Ude is a busy stop for here the line branches off for Ulaan Baatar and Mongolia. Scores of men and women, their features telling us they are going home, drag heavy bags and carry plastic bags towards another waiting train.
Soon after three days of travelling, we reach Baikal - the largest freshwater lake in the world. We run alongside. Our dinner that night is Baikal fish, taken on board at a wayside halt. It is very bony.
We pull into Irkutsk station, gather our things together, say goodbye to Lludmilla and Gregor, who have looked after us so well, and make for our hotel.
As we leave the station it is snowing. In our hotel we find that there is only one blanket on each bed and no more are available. There is no central heating - that is controlled by the State and is not switched on until September 14th - it is the 13th today. Glasnost has not stretched that far.

23 comments:

The Solitary Walker said...

Lovely piece of writing, Pat...

Kayla coo said...

lovely writing,wish I could write like that.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I'm shivering!! Lovely.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Weaver of Grass: This was riveting. I did not want it to stop. It felt like I was there with you embarking on an adventure - or - at the beginning of a lucious, new novel. I hope there are many sequels to come!!!

Gramma Ann said...

Very interesting. I wonder if things are any better now? I guess a lesson learned, is to bring along a sleeping bag to keep warm at night. Buy realize that would be impossible.

Gramma Ann said...

Not "Buy" I meant "But" computer is spelling wrong again! ;)

Reader Wil said...

A great post as if I was in that train. I was in Moscow at a Women's conference in 1987 and I saw and heard Gorbachev. He was impressive when he spoke about glasnost and perestroika. It was great! What a man!
Thanks for your visit! Yes the Friesians are originally Dutch cows.

Heather said...

What a wonderful train journey you have taken us on Weaver. That must have been a very cold first night in your hotel. We have grown soft here since central heating became the norm for so many homes.

gleaner said...

Oh great piece of writing Weaver - I do love the imagery, from the browns of the ladies in the fields to the passengers wearing their pyjamas and getting off the train to buy breakfast - this I particularly liked - humans are funny creatures.

C Hummel Kornell a/k/a C Hummel Wilson said...

What talent you have. Please provide more. I agree it is the beginning of a wonderful novel.

Di said...

Very evocative writing. I think things have got better since then. I have a Russian DIL who comes from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. The Trans Siberian stops there on one of the routes. It is my ambition to visit her family there and get there on the the railway. As it hapens they live in North Yorkshire, in Ripon

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

This is just so readable and vivid. A wonderful piece, and I hope one to be followed by others from the same journey.

Elizabeth said...

I'm utterly jealous of you taking this trip.
There is an excellent article in last week's "NEW YORKER" by a man who drove across Siberia in 2001.
You might want to look it up on line.
I was really interested.
Did not make me want to go there!

steven said...

well weaver, i know you a bit better now. thesiger makes much more sense now and don't ask me how, he just does. this is riveting writing. rich, poetic, colourful and dancing around the whole piece of being a traveller which you most assuredly are!!!! have a lovely evening. steven

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I really enjoyed that, Weaver! I felt I was there too. Look forward to hearing more of your journey.

BT said...

You are such a multi talented lady Weaver. This was a delight, I was with you all the way. Your descriptive skills are superb. More please.

Oh and your letter arrived this morning. Your 2 ATCs are simply wonderful, I especially love the gold one. I will blog them tomorrow. Thank you so much and for the lovely letter too.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Weaver of Grass,

Wonderful introduction to your trip and to your memories.

I've never been on this rail jaunt, but the Heroine in my house went just a couple of years later than you, and she speaks with great warmth of her memories, although she went in the opposite direction.

BTW, I think that you give P.T., whom you have previously extolled, a run for his money in his this selection of your travel thoughts.

Tschuess,
Chris

willow said...

This was wonderful! Hope there are more travel stories to come.

Pondside said...

More please - there's nothing I like more than a good travel story, and this is a good one.

Amy said...

oh that's lovely - I have aspirations to go on this journey too.

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

What an intrepid explorer you are! I have travelled overnight on the old Blue Train in South Africa and two nights on the Eastern & Oriental Express from Malaysia to Thailand. I'm not sure how I would fare on the Trans-Siberian!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thank you for the comments - I am sure things are very different today. When we went with the Russian tour company "Intourist" I think the cost was eight hundred pounds each. I see an advert for a great rail journey on the Trans Siberian today which costs almost six thousand pounds. Things have certainly changed.I am glad you enjoyed the trip - everyone in our writers' group is writing about rail transport, so i am ressurecting some of my rail journeys. Hope you enjoy them all.

Golden West said...

Thanks for taking me along on such a remarkable adventure. I can hardly wait to read the next!