Trans-Mongolian. Stage 1: Anticlimax

St Petersburg - Omsk
St Petersburg – Omsk

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Wednesday 3 June. Past Perm, on the way to Yekaterinburg

Arms resting on the frame of the corridor window, I see it pass. Bright, gigantic sphere, it shines through the branches. In vain, porous clouds try to conceal its splendour but its light seeps through their cloak, bathing the forest in a grey, almost ghostly halo. The night is so clear that it is possible to distinguish the different greens of bushes and pine trees. I carefully peer out, just enough to see the tip of the train taking a curve. Gulps of fresh air hit my face, stuffing my nose. Tireless, the machine pulls its wagons, lighting the way, its beams long swords perforating the Siberian night. On it goes, with its green metallic body, like a giant caterpillar in its untiring march towards the East. It does not go fast, it cannot, and even slows at times, weary of the worn tracks. But it is enough to leave the moon behind, slowly moving towards the right side of the window. Someone passes behind me, I get distracted, and there it is again peering in from the South East.

My thoughts and emotions scrutinise yesterday evenings’ events, Tuesday 2 June.

…As we wait on uncomfortable plastic benches the lights of the city filter through the large station windows. The rustling steps of a Babushka, her head covered with a faded scarf, coming and going with a jar of tea in her hands. The voice of the locker room man asking me for a souvenir when he sees my passport, and the image of an Argentinian peso passing hands. The shopkeeper, diligently following me through the aisles after I refuse to leave my backpack by the entrance. Lenin’s mausoleum, closed. The underground stations, immaculate Tsarist palaces 400 metres deep. And the man dressed in a suit who burns his arm during an improvised military ceremony behind the Kremlin. Moscow, five hours on foot across the capital of a police state with too much dust, too much noise. A wonderful city, with few smiles and too many uniforms.

Despite the vivid images and solid texture of the Russian capital, it is the ticklish memory of the anticipation, of the waiting, that captivates me. Elona takes the flask and goes for some hot water. I turn around as the giant message board starts shuffling its plates with white and yellow letters and numbers. The K3/4 service, destination Beijing, climbs to the top of the list. The clock marks 09.45 PM. Closer. A prickly feeling climbs up the back of my neck. How is it… to go to the East of the world? Yaroslavsky train station. The train departs at 11.00 PM

10.28 PM. We throw on our backpacks and walk towards platform 1. Curious, we peep into windows as we go by. First, the locomotive and the operator, his elbow sticking out the window, a fag between his lips. Then, the first wagon, modern, clean. A Russian wagon, first class. Then there is the restaurant car, also with words in Cyrillic stamped onto the white and burgundy bodywork. And from then on, the train is Chinese, wagons are painted green and yellow, the conductors are Chinese, the language is Chinese. We present ourselves to the conductor who checks our tickets and passports. We get on…

I step away from the window, the only one that can be opened, and walk to the bathroom at the end of the corridor, just before the junction with wagon VI. Occupied. The bathrooms in the train are relatively clean and have a toilet, something which is not a given in Asia. From time to time, the conductor cleans it and restocks the paper. Interesting fact though: the Trans-Siberian does not have chemical toilets. In other words, the shit and piss stay in Siberia. That is also why, 20 minutes before each stop, the conductor (nearly always) locks them. If they do not get there in time it is usually for the benefit of some passenger who could not hold it in.

I walk to the other end. Where the wagons join, the clattering of the tracks and shaking of the curves are much stronger. I can see the shades of Siberian ground through the cracks in the metal joints. Alloy wrinkles, witness of many travels. Deafened, I do not cross to number VIII. I turn back. I want to relive last night. The other passengers are asleep and the conductors rest in their cabins. The space is mine and I walk it slowly, my eyes observing every detail. There is smoke and soot coming from the stove that heats the boiler, near the entrance to the wagon. The door is open, so I get closer to see inside. The heat dries my eyes and I need to blink several times to wet them again. A small coal burner, always in combustion, with a chimney exiting through the roof. On the floor I spot pots, cloths, brooms, and bags with coal. I walk on. To the other side of the stove is the boiler, with the water always piping hot. This morning I made the mistake of testing it with my fingers. The curtains dance with the night air. I check my phone which hangs from the wall in a difficult equilibrium behind one of the foldable seats in the corridor. The power supply is so weak that after three hours, the battery has only charged 15%. I let it charge a little longer.

…In silence – frightened perhaps? – we follow the conductor through wagon VII. A large man who does not speak anything but Chinese. My backpack gets stuck when I try to go through the narrow inner doors. The intermittent tapping of metal against wood tells me one of the flasks is hanging from the side pocket of my bag. We pass next to a private toilet, the conductor’s room, a sort of rusty boiler, and we enter the corridor. Grimy ochre walls, discoloured carpets, sweat and humidity. And smoke, it smells of smoke. Inside the cabin, curtains and mattresses stink of cigarette, the window is blocked, the light dim, the floor dusty and the small metal tray on the side table full of ashes. I look everywhere, as if I could fix things with my eyes. But there is no way. Is this the famous, historic, Trans-Siberian? If my first impression of the train is unpleasant, for Elona it is overwhelming. Her silent wet eyes, the most human representation of the situation. Swiftly, I pry open the window, find the switch for a shabby fan which my eyes discover like someone who finds a £50 note on the street. I turn it to the maximum. I shake the mattresses, the pillows, empty the tray, and clean surfaces with a piece of cloth, the precedence of which my memory fails to recall. I redefine the space, I change the energies. I hug her, and whisper, ‘I told you. There are no trains like in Córdoba.’ She laughs, a little. Anticlimax…

I go back to the cabin and get the flasks. Elona is knitting me a hat. Outside the sky is getting blue. The train crosses a very wide river, the Kama. We are arriving to Perm. The fourth biggest city in Russia, a huge industrial hub at the doors of Siberia home to the infamous gulag Perm-36, and which now attempts to redefine itself by opening museums and creative hubs. Of Perm, however, we only see a horizon of soviet buildings and chimneys as we cross the river. The train only stops for twenty minutes.

At the station, the platform is teeming with people, mostly Russian. I look again, they are stretching their legs, smoking, chatting or taking photos of the station clock. These are passengers from the train on the opposite side of the platform. We get off with Angélica and José, a couple from Castilla La Mancha, committed travellers who have now decided they would ‘do China’. Outside the air is fresh. We climb up the stairs to oxygenate our legs. The sun is now high and it heats the roofs of trains and signs on the station platforms. I see the crowd from above, between the two trains. To the right, groups of three or six at most, get off our train and disappear into the Russian crowd. No new passengers seem to get on.

We walk back down and along the platform, surrounded by a guttural chatter we do not understand. The other train seems much more modern and clean. It’s not until Elona sees one of the six berth compartments that we realize those are the famous Trans-Siberian’s coupé carriages. We are facing the train that crosses all of Siberia from Moscow to Vladivostock, and back, travelling north after lake Baikal. They have almost made it to the end of their journey. We have just begun. A whistle is blown, the provodnystas call, the passengers get on, the doors close, and the Trans-Siberian leaves. The platform is now empty.

Soon after, we hear the familiar sound of hammers clashing against metal. Our operators inspect the machinery along the train, hitting breaks, wheels and buffers. Siberian xylophone, out of tune after kilometres of steppe. In the middle of the platform I can now see a small kiosk. The products are in full view behind a glass display all around the kiosk, laid out so we can point to the sales woman what she would not otherwise understand, and her calculator to show us the price we would not otherwise understand. Practical incommunication. Air escapes the breaks, the conductors wave their hands and the engine starts again. Now it is our turn to leave.

Back on the train, I go to the boiler and fill in the flask. From the conductor’s room, I can hear the sound of a cleaver against a cutting board. The smell of onions. The conductors prepare their breakfast. Or is it lunch? While one of them cuts a chicken, the other prepares the topping. When the chopping is finished they throw everything into a big pot and put it to cook beside the brazier. They come and go, a daily ritual of shouts and smells.

I return to the cabin. I love walking along this train. I check the schedule on the wall. The next stop is in six hours, and is written in Moscow time. Which means, for instance, that at 11 in the morning you need a torch to go to pee, or that at 3 in the morning, if you want to take a nap, you must close the curtains. Short nights, even shorter days. Scattered hours. Siberia. And us, towards the East.


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