Archive | February, 2010

Orient Express or Cattle-Wagon? The romance of the real Trans-Siberian Railway.

7 Feb

A foot-long salami swinging pendulum-like before the view of Lake Baikal greets my waking eyes on the first morning.  Hung from the window-catch by my Mongolian cabin-mate the previous evening, it sways serenely with the rough jolts of the train as we speed past the world’s deepest lake.

Such is the Trans-Siberian experience:  spectacular landscapes often obscured by grubby fingerprints and the bloody remnants of last night’s mosquitoes smeared on the window-pane.  Or, worse, places like the Gobi Desert traversed at night and so missed completely.

Not that this seems to matter to the Mongolian majority on board.  Engaged in their underhand business of re-selling cheap Chinese sportswear, umbrellas, lingerie and other paraphernalia, they’re certainly not here for the scenery.  And they remain smilingly unconcerned that others might be.  Even at the train’s most anti-social 3am stops, my two Mongolian cabin-mates leap from their bunks, crash about in the dark collecting Adidas, Levis and Pumas, before noisily jumping onto the platform to sell as much as they can in a 12-minute stop.  After three nights I give up my melodramatic groans of reproach at being awoken and yield to the time-warp that is this mobile microcosm. Poirot’s railway trip becomes a daydream, and I think I’d happily endure murder on the Orient Express so long as it was against red velvet cushions in a cabin secluded enough to escape the Siberian cries outside.

Meals merge into one long Pot Noodle, courtesy of the tank sporadically and indiscriminately spewing forth boiling water at the end of the carriage.  I sport an impressive scar on my arm from a particularly unpleasant encounter involving green tea and a malfunctioning tap.  I suppose it’s the closest I’ve been to a wash during five days aboard this shower-free zone.  I soon gave up attempts to splash myself with the icy basin water in the toilets after being violently ejected by the attendant.  The lavatories are, it seems, to be locked at every station to avoid unsightly mess on the tracks beneath.  In my experience, however, the toilet doors operate according to the attendant’s whim.  And she seems adamant that I should not carry out my ablutions in peace.

Once the first-day-tourist appetite for a landscape, which quickly becomes familiar, is satiated, us Westerners turn inward and, between card-games and novels, watch with amused interest the frenzied trade at each station.  The young Mongolian in the berth beside mine, whose flaming purple ’80s punk-rocker hairdo is immaculately brill-creamed each morning, is commonly acknowledged to be the best salesman.  As he croons quietly to his walkman between stops, girls from up and down the train come to offer him dried curds in admiration.  Meanwhile, our matronly carriage-stewardess slips on mufti and takes the blankets she’d thoughtfully stowed under our thin mattresses down onto the platform to sell.  Blankets, a Dutch man in the next-door cabin sagely tells me, are a best-seller.

Of course, on a Russian train such business would never be allowed.  We caught a glimpse of their manner at the Mongolia-Russia border.  Three late-night stops to get across, the third including a 4-hour full-cabin inspection the length of the train by a fearsome truncheon-wielding Russian soldier whose bark, one can only hope, was worse than his bite.  Evacuated from our cabin, we watched him through the door throwing around bags, books and bedclothes whilst beneath we heard taps on the train’s belly as they searched for stowaways.

Why is it, we wonder, that at the China-Mongolia border it takes half the time, despite their having to dismantle the train completely to fit the Mongolian track?  Characteristically, we are offered no explanation.  Like cattle we are herded on and off the train at each stop by our long-suffering stewardesses, who occasionally slip up and realise too late that the odd passenger has been left on the platform at the last stop.  But the train doggedly continues, and we become paranoid about ensuring we too aren’t stranded, even to the point of crawling under shuddering trains as they await departure on the track.

On the final night another romantic illusion of mine is shattered.  I realise I have encountered not a single fur-clad, vodka-brandishing Siberian.  Some Divine mishears my wish, and we are terrorised all night by a violently smashed, aged and leering Russian.  Bubby, a heavily pierced and even more heavily tattooed body-builder comrade, shows off his native Russian and a fair bit of muscle in helping me pass the offender.  We squeeze into some Swedes’ cabin for beer, whiskey and to give the alcoholic a run for his money later on.

When the sunset pierces the grimy pane, however, and the twilight aroma of fresh pines finds its way through the single open window, my sense of romance in the Trans-Siberian Railway is restored.  The stewardess offers me grapes in passing with a smile; Pim, our resident French joker, falls silent; the linoleum corridor walls take on an orange glow as, outside, the burning orb which we are relentlessly chasing sets behind the birch trees.

That night we pass, unconscious, through Perm, where the last remaining Gulag stands.  To the intoxicated mind, it is almost symbolic of our journey through communism.  From the contemporary Mao-mania of Chinese communism, we have moved through a Mongolia now free of both its neighbours, to end with a bleak reminder of former Soviet Russia, which cannot help but make the extortionate prices of capitalist Moscow more acceptable to a traveller unnerved by the Orwellian subservience of the Chinese man.