This is the last leg. It’s late and I’m tired.
All up I’ve spent 7 nights on trains. It’s been quite a remarkable journey from east to west. Often challenging but exceptionally rewarding. I have no regrets.
Would I do it again?
I think I’m in Europe now.
It’s about time really.
52 hours and a redundant number of minutes.
My home for the next 52 hours is this small cabin, the beds are covered in fake brown leather, the walls covered in brown veneer, its somewhat reminiscent of a sauna, although I suspect that I will remain clothed for the duration.
My friend is heading to Krasnoyarsk, at least that’s the reply he gave when I asked “Mosckva?” This place is almost identical to the Chinese cabins, colour aside, although I won’t have any Chinese people to chat to. It’s likely that the conversation of the next few days will be restricted to one word questions and misunderstood answers.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. I read recently the theory of introverts and extroverts and how their social energy comes from being alone and being with others, respectively.
I’m not sure which I am? Is there a middle ground? We shall soon find out.
52 hours to go.
I accidentally got drunk with 3 Russian dudes.
Vitali introduced himself first. He invited me in to share in his chicken, potatoes and fish sandwiches.
He, together with Vladimir, are travelling to Krasnoyarsk for work. They’re metrologists, not meteorologists as I initially thought. They measure the capacity of tanks on river barges, presumably of oil.
We were drinking straight vodka with dinner until Sergei boarded the train. He was the one with the home-brew whiskey, yet he remained the most sober.
Vitali passed out. We went to smoke a cigarette hidden between the two carriages, you could see the track passing below the floor. He simply couldn’t stand up straight. I was concerned he would slip and fall away between the gap in the floor never to be seen again.
Vladimir and I continued to drink. We finished our vodka shortly before we arrived at Zima. We rushed from the tracks to the local store for supplies. I asked for two beers. 600 rubles!? Whats the deal? Until I realised they were four litre plastic bottles. The price was reasonable for eight litres of convenience store beer.
At this stage its 10:30pm. I tapped out. Given the chance I’m sure Vladimir would finish the beer himself, but he understood enough English to understand ‘sleep’ so that’s what I’m doing now.
47 hours to go.
I had a ten hour sleep. That’s not bad. Now there’s only one and a half days left on this train.
I’m feeling good, I’ve had some green tea and a mandarin for breakfast. It’s the first of my food I’ve had to touch on account of being fed quite well last night by my comrades.
The only thing missing is most of my vodka, yet none of my orange juice was touched. I feel I would have brought shame onto my family if I had mixed the two at all last night.
36 hours to go.
I can taste the spring but I cannot yet see it. The naked white bodies of trees want so badly to reach forward with green fingers to touch the sky.
The few that have already, perhaps prematurely, are quite outnumbered; will they make it to summer? Or will Siberia turn the tables once again, by laying down another layer of white before saying goodbye to winter for now?
The grass is no longer oppressed, but it still lays flat, maintaining the shape formed underneath the snow for the last six months.
The only remnants left of winter being the semi-frozen puddles and streams.
32 hours to go.
I was just busted smoking where Vitali showed me last night, hidden between the carriages. I was briefly distracted by a gentleman entering on my right when the conductor snuck up on my left!
She seemed mildly shocked and annoyed but said nothing as I threw my cigarette through the gap between the carriages onto the tracks.
A few minutes after I retreated to my cabin she came past and said something in Russia despite knowing that I wouldn’t understand a word. Fortunately my new friend, Mr Federov, travelling from Krasnoyarsk to Omsk to inspect industrial machines, gave me a brief translation.
“If you want to smoke you need to buy something!”
Its seems a purchase of one of her slightly overpriced products will be considered a kind of soft bribe. I’ll find her shortly to buy something. Maybe she sells cigarettes?
29 hours to go.
We crossed a timezone a few stations back. 11:30am became 10:30am once more. I didn’t notice, the trees didn’t seem to either. At this stage, I barely remember getting on this train. I’m not sure where to get off either, this very well may be my whole life now.
I ate a lunch of pickles, salami, fish roe spread and bread just like yesterday. I drank a glass of beer stored in bottles so big that they may outlast Siberia itself. Now I simply wait for the next stop long enough to have a smoke on the platform.
11 hours to go.
2 days on a train!
2 DAYS ON A TRAIN!
I think that I’ve reached my limit. 48 hours in and I’m pretty sure I’ve been here my entire life. I speak fluent Russian now. I drink straight vodka, I’m like a kid with red cordial, except the effect of the vodka is weaker. I simply feel warm; my thoughts and my body.
Comrades and I laugh about the good old days; that time we may have seen a bear at around dusk. It may also have been a large man. Either way it fled from the tracks as this giant metal machine came sailing past.
As I lay in my bed at night I swear this train hovers above the tracks. Maybe, it was just a dream, perhaps I had not quite woken, but my view from the bed of the lower bunk out the window opposite was entirely blue! Not a power-line or a tree, not even a cloud.
I wonder how high a train could fly above this magical forest. I wonder if each carriage had its own levitation device or were they dragged into the air from the front, powered like the head of a uniplegic snake?
Sometimes I think I have reception on my phone but then I remember I don’t have a phone. I don’t need one. I’ve been on this train my whole life.
4 hours to go.
I just watched my third sunset from this train. I’m not sure if it’s been three days or if I’ve circled the Earth thrice.
I wrote a poem to celebrate.
Can one understand you, Trans-Siberian Train?
In you belly so many have grown,
Some grow tired, some insane,
They fear no escape from the Siberian zone.
If I arrive, for it is not yet known,
And I see the end of your metallic lane,
Will it be with a smile or a moan?
It’s still not yet clear what I have gained.
I’m ready to get off now.
After spending considerable time in Asia, Russian supermarkets have me somewhat excited.
The selection of salami, cheese, smoked fish and caviar is going to make for an interesting train ride over the next two days. The instant noodles mixed with fish tofu, pickled radish and spicy mushrooms are now a thing of the past.
I’m gonna have the full spread: bread and butter naturally, smoked meats, gouda, taramasalata and an assortment of jar and tins with labels that I do not understand, but which were selected by a passing local as I waited for their silent recommendation.
The only question that remains… what do I mix with my vodka?
The next 4 train journeys will be “solo”. They are never solo for long, usually you’re only alone when you get on the train. A lot can happen before you get off.
It’s time to study up on my Russian.
– Isvenitsiye, bahnk ochine daleko?
– Excuse me, is the bank very far?
The usefulness of this phrase remains to be seen, but its all I have under my belt right now.
One hour in and I almost punched on with a drunk Mongolian dude. I had heard there was a drinking problem in Mongolia, perhaps I should have seen it coming from yesterday’s alcohol free day in Ulaanbaatar, but I’m glad its only surfaced now that I’m leaving the country.
I’ve only ever had one fight in my life. I was 14; I didn’t end up on top so I’ve since refrained from violence.
But this guy, after hassling some fellow Aussies down the hall, wouldn’t let me close my door. I may or may not have face palmed him but that was that. It’s strange that I spoke to him earlier as well, he asked to borrow my lighter.
The rest of the train journey was comparably uneventful.
For five days and four nights we went into central Mongolia to see what goat farms and the surroundings had to offer, we slept in Gers, centrally heated by the iron stove. All electronics were void, we didn’t wash and I didn’t even change my clothes. These are my ramblings; often delirious, reflective, possibly drunk and written from my sleeping bag or in the van or simply on a rock.
We are going on the all meat diet. You can eat anything you like as long as it’s meat. Your vegetable intake is restricted to whatever your meat ate before it died. If we are lucky we’ll be treated fermented horse milk liquor, goat yogurt or camel cheese.
Just tonight, Mama, this hostel’s matriarch treated us to some cow’s yogurt vodka. On account of Ulaanbaatar being on an alcohol free day. No liquor sold for 24 hours. Sobriety is better than cow’s yogurt vodka.
So there it is off in the distance a 140 foot statue of the great Genghis on horse back, entirely made of stainless steel, because why not. He’s surrounded by snow and the cloudiness make the glare almost brighter than the sun.
Our soviet Russia semi-camper took us from our Shaman ritual where our wishes were whispered to vodka, off road far into Terelj National Park. It took us as close to the temple stuck to the side of the mountain as it could. The rest was covered on foot.
I’m becoming increasingly content with my own company. I was concerned for a while that constant distractions, electronic or otherwise were putting me out of touch with myself.
I wish you could have been there to see it with me. I’m standing on a small hill surrounded by scattered snow and cow poo. A different world can be seen in each direction.
The sun is setting in the west. As the blue sky slowly turns orange the silhouette of the mountains stretches left, increasingly purple.
The south has white snow mountains layered into distant Mongolia.
In the north our family’s small goat farm is overshadowed in the giant brown valley.
In the east the mountains are slowly swallowed by the rising shadows. The shaman totem sitting at the top catches the last glimpses of light before the sun leaves for the day.
This place has changed my perspective on many things. The nomadic families living in their small circular homes have everything they need. All my fears and desires pale in comparison.
Our second night in a ger is on a planet similar to Tatooine. When we step out you find you find semi-desert on your right and on your left; it;s straight ahead and probably behind me too.
There are 6 or 7 camels silhouetted about 15 metres from me. They’re huge, even sitting. They walk slowly but surely, avoiding the shrubs. The rear feet step almost perfectly where the imprints of the front feet. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
I had this weird feeling driving through the vast plains of Mongolia, like we were being watched from above. How ridiculous we must look cruising through the semi-desert across this lumpy road, and for what?
To cover a distance a fraction of this country, just a speck on the Earth?
Then yesterday I realised what it was. Julian and I were sitting atop a great rock and it all became very familiar. We were playing Age of Empires.
We had our house and our goats, a man on a horse rode across the plain, hunting stick in hand.
The Mongols never did agriculture; they were perpetually nomadic, taking their heards wherever greener pastures could be found.
Genghis Khan’s legacy was the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world. Conquered on horseback with bows, arrows and diplomacy.
You see, Genghis married out his daughters to keep peace on his borders. Everything else was like Age of Empires.
The last 4 days have been some of the most intense I’ve experienced.
We’ve gone off road in a soviet camper, spending more time there than on sealed roads. We are actually off road as I write this. I hope I can read my writing tomorrow.
Ogie, our driver, is ruthless. He’s done things with this vehicle I never thought possible and things that I never want to do again. I wanted to ask him how many times he’s rolled a car, but I’m scared of the answer.
We drove across what seemed to be a frozen river. We crossed back on horses. I’m not sure which I’d prefer.
This trip we’ve combed goats for cashmere, caught calves, ridden camels, seen the wild horses and cooked half a lamb on a furnace in a ger; fresh meat is a luxury. Compared to the size of great Mongolia we’ve barely scratched the surface.
I haven’t washed or changed clothes at all. I consider it a personal challenge.
I’ve just learnt that I’ve been referred to as Ken for the whole time, not that names mean all that much out here.
Families of 4 or 5 live hours from even the smallest town, they move sheep and cows and goats and horses from plain to plain in search of grazing land. They return home, make tea, eat dinner and sleep in their small, round, single room homes.
The isolation gives you this awesome sensation of insignificance. Your actions are so minuscule and fleeting that their only aim should be to increase the happiness of others and yourself. It’s the only thing that might linger.
I hope I never lose sight of what I’ve learnt here, I hope to return one day before I do, you should too.