Thursday 4 June, past midday. Leaving Omsk
Alla, without an accent, is not a grammatical mistake in Spanish but Liza’s mom our host. Upon entering, she asks us to take off our shoes and put on the two pairs of carefully prepared slippers. After settling into our room, we make our way to the kitchen and sit at a small round table covered in a yellow plastic tablecloth decorated with flower pots (describe more: cold, dark room, dirty curtains blocking the sunlight, traces of extinguished cigarettes on the table cloth)
Alla places an aluminium kettle on the stovetop. “Tea, coffee?” she asks in English. I could do with just a glass of water, but it seems imprudent to refuse. “Do you have any coffee?” I ask her. “Yes, of course,” and she without a moment to spare takes out an aluminium pot (or was it copper?) from the oven. She shuts the oven door so hard that the kitchen walls seems to crumble. She takes a plastic container from a small, dark wooden cabinet behind the table, and tosses two heaped teaspoons of ground coffee in the pot. Then, with the care of someone watering grass, she pours some of the boiling water from the kettle into the pot, and puts it over the already lit burner. Turkish coffee, it will be black and bitter strong. Elona helps herself to a teabag of Early Grey from the tin on the table.
We have just arrived, and the apartment on –
“Elona, what was the name of street where we stayed in Saint Petersburg?”
Elona pauses her reading and closes her eyes. “Pa, something. Hold on, let me check,” she says opening her minuscule address book adorned with little potted bonsai trees. “Sh-palernaya ul. Sh-pa, S, h, palernaya ul.”
“Of course, how could I forget. Shpalernaya ul. ‘ul’ must be ‘street’, right?”
“What are you reading?”
“You have been reading it for a while now. Is it any good?”
“Yep, it’s the last 100 years of Chinese history in one novel.”
“I’ll grab it when you finish.”
…- Sh-palernaya ul, lined with communist buildings just as I had imagined them, prejudice from Cold War movies and books. The entrance door to the apartment block is made of wood and the ochre coloured paint is peeling off, yet it is fitted with a state-of-the-art electronic lock – those you don’t even need to turn a key in, just hover your keyring over. Inside, the walls are plastered and without paint… (melted and frozen again with the changes in temperature, they expand, they widen, they twist, they break and peel. Stairs: wide, rusty bannister, colour? Irregular steps)… the apartment smells of carpet and wood.
-“So, tell me a bit about yourselves. What do you do? What are your plans after Saint Petersburg?” Alla asks us, a slight sigh escaping her lips as she sits down. I drink some of the coffee. It’s too strong. I tell her how we recently left our things behind and set out by train towards the East of the world, with the intention of reaching China. (–add sense of space: ‘As I talk, Elona scrutinizes the wooden buffet behind’ porcelain cups, cook books, photographs…)—’
-“Oh, oh! All by train? Oh!” she is surprised and laughs. “And after Saint Petersburg?”
-From here we take a train to Moscow, and after that we go to Mongolia…with the Trans-Sibe Trans Mongolian,”
-“Oh! Ho, ho! No, oh!” she exclaims. “But, why, why?” Alla, laughs with a stale voice, shaking her head from side to side. “Nobody takes that train. It’s too long, too much time! Why, why, if you can take a plane?”
The train shakes, and I end up scratching a big mark on my notebook. The age of the tracks prolongs the terrestrial turbulence for several minutes. Once it has passed, I want to go back to my notebook and continue writing, but I’m already somewhere else. Outside, Siberia opens out, monotonous and infinite, taking the shape of unharvested fields, at times interrupted by small forest of tall and thin pine trees. A golden dust envelops the landscape. My watch marks 6 o’clock, but the sun is high so it must already be past noon.
I see Angélica walking back and forth along the corridor, worried because she left her phone charging in the other wagon.
“It’s OK, Angélica. Nobody will steal your phone. Is that the travel guide about China?” I ask her pointing at the book she holds under her arm.
“Oh, yes! This is the guide I was telling you about yesterday,” she says entering the cabin and sitting on the bed, happy that I showed interest. She cannot wait to share her travel plans. Elona stops reading and comes closer. With the joy of a child, Angélica starts to describe the places they will visit, holding the guide with both hands and turning pages rapidly, as if afraid someone was going to take the book from her; Beijing, Xi’An, Chengdu, Yunnan…maps with crosses and lines, margins flooded with notes in pencil and blue ink, pages with bent corners.
“And, how long do you plan to be travelling in China?”
“A month. You see, it’s our retirement present.”
“How will you move around?”
“By plane, que va. After this thing, the Trains Siberian, joder. At most buses to move around in the cities.”
I turn to look out the window. Every 50 meters or so we pass an electric pole. The train takes a slight turn and I manage to spot the gravel that makes the track ballast. I can’t count the rocks that hold the sleepers together, just as I can’t count the starts that fill in the sky. But I can contemplate them.
“Yesterday we met an Australian family in wagon number 5. They have been traveling for over two years with their three children. Since they got to Europe they have only been taking buses and trains,” Elona shares our earlier encounter. “They started in the U.S., from the West Coast, and crossed the whole country to New York. From there they flew to France, carried on to Moscow and here they are.”
“Madre mía. And what now? Are they going to Beijing and then they fly back to Australia?”
“They will stop for a couple of days at Irkutsk, just before Lake Baikal,” I continue. “Then, one week in Mongolia. From there by train to Beijing and all the way down. First Hong Kong, then Vietnam, and a bus to Bangkok. They will fly to Australia from Bangkok. And I guess they will be stopping at places along the way.”
“And the children? How will they do with school?”
“I asked them exactly that,” says Elona. “They are home-schooled.” Angélica’s jaw drops.
Before Elona gets a chance to explain how home-schooling works, Angélica gets distracted. One of the Swiss guys from the cabin next to ours came out to the corridor to check on his phone.
“Well, I leave you for now. I will check on my mobile. And after, I don’t know. I’ll finish another Sodoku.”
“Vaya no más. I’ll let you know if they free up this socket.”
Four hours later, the train rolls to a stop at Barabinsk station. Mosquitos smack our faces as we step down to the platform. Once on the platform, an old lady posts herself in front of and starts speaking in Russian. She wears a scarf on her head and a holds a basket tied with a string around her neck. She is selling various pies and deep fried pastries. We step to one side, avoiding her gaze, but immediately bump into three others. One sells more pies, another soft drinks, cookies and sweets. The third advances a huge dried fish towards our nostrils. Further ahead on the platform, towards the locomotive, I see two more ladies, and three others on the other end, near to the restaurant wagon. They all walk slowly, dragging their feet, their bent necks holding their baskets. We walk towards the engine, looking up to see inside the train. That’s when I see Miguel, the guy from Bilbao who was going from wagon to wagon in search of an electric razor. He wants to shave his head before leaving Russia.
The sun starts its slow descent and the sky oscillates between pale blue and strokes of reds and ochre . We buy some pies from the first lady that approached us and continue our stroll along the platform. It is teeming with mosquitos. The conductors, standing dutifully at the stairs of their respective wagons, are being devoured. Some fan their head and legs with their hats in vain, while others get distracted and scratch the sole of their shoes against the pavement. For us, setting foot in Barabinsk, is relishing the naïve intrigue of being in a station in the middle of Siberia. For the conductors, the fatigue and earnest desire to get back home. I wonder, how many times have they stood on this very platform? Ten minutes later, two of them (probably supervisors) convene and exchange a few words, they nod, then wave to the rest of the crew. Suddenly, the conductors start calling us back to the train, with their usual raucous voices and clapping hands.
“Listooo. It seems we are going back inside.” Luis, who is standing right next to us, hears me.
“Qué dices, already? But if we were supposed to stop for at least forty minutes.”
“Well, not anymore. You can thank the mosquitos for that!”
As soon as we turn to head back on the train, Luis begins shouting at Angélica who is inspecting a kiosk on the other side of the platform. “Angeee! Come back! Come back, there is another train coming and you’ll get stuck on the other side of the platform.” Elona lifts her eyebrows, I draw my hand to my head. Luis doesn’t get it. I look in the distance and see a locomotive almost a kilometre away, in standstill and without any wagons attached. “Luis, that train is not coming. The conductors are calling us in because of the mosquitos,” I tell him, but he ignores me and keeps calling Angélica like a fanatic/madman/nut. The other passengers turn their heads to see what’s going on, the old ladies continue with their selling, unperturbed. Angélica turns around and comes back in haste, swearing for not having been able to buy an evening snack.
“Hey guys, is this a good time?” Miguel enters the cabin with a pack of Pringles which he holds under his arm like a newspaper.
“Come in,” I say. “And, did you find the shaver?” I begin to prepare the maté.
“Yes! A guy from the second wagon lent me his. Tonight, I say goodbye,” says Miguel, touching his hair, as if already regretting it.
Miguel is a civil engineer, he’s currently unemployed and says he wants to settle down in Buenos Aires. I offer him some of the crackers we bought at Yaroslavsky station before leaving Moscow, and he starts laughing. He tells us about his first trip to Russia, to Samarna in the south-west, where he spent a whole year nearly subsisting on those crackers. I tease him telling him he has a stronger Argentinean accent than me, and that having a porteña girlfriend is not enough to explain it. I finished preparing the maté and drink the first two infusions while Miguel tell us about his journey across Patagonia.
Outside I see the old ladies with their baskets. Some stayed on the platform, their hopeful gazes as if they were trying to open the train doors. Others are already walking towards a bench on the other side of the tracks, resigned to wait for the next train.
“You know,” I say, “I look and look out the window, and this thing keeps going, and going, east. Well, not right now, we’re still here with the old ladies who just lost out on a few sales because of the mosquitos.” Laughs. “Here, you start,” I tell Miguel handing him a maté. “But really, it’s amazing.”
“Huif, mm. Thanks,” he says returning the gourd. I briefly contemplate explaining what it means to say ‘thanks’ when drinking maté, but I let the thought pass and continue with the cebada. “Hey, later, I want to take a photo drinking maté with you guys. I’ll send it to my girlfriend, she won’t believe it!”
Twenty minutes pass, and the train finally starts moving again. Barabinsk and its old ladies begin to fade in the distance. We ensconce ourselvese and start talking about trains, I share some of my nostalgic thoughts on time and distance, how amazing it would be to have a train that would cross the whole of Patagonia and reach the north of Argentina. We talk and drink maté while looking out on the lakes and summer tundra. The train travels east, but our minds disappear and our souls become more present, returning to the train only to leave again. And so. We complain about our presidents, about social divisions in Argentina and ‘political T-shirts’, make references to the Rajoys, the Kirchners, and the Camerons. We comment on the Russians, the Chinese, Europe, and on what awaits us in Mongolia. Miguel tells us that once he reaches Mongolia, he expects to meet up with two friends and travel southwest, crossing the desert in a van until they reach Urumqi, and from there to Kazakhstan. He says that once in Kazakhstan, it’s all a mystery. He doesn’t know whether to continue southwest and reach the Caucasus, or turn due south, passing through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. “My goal is to reach Turkey and get back to Spain through Eastern Europe,” he says excitedly. Above all, he wants to avoid Afghanistan and Iraq, “because there, it’ll be pretty tricky.”
Big, complicated, crazy. We take the photo, Elona balancing the camera on the bunkbed ladder while the train jolts with each bump in the tracks. Miguel leaves, inviting us to have a drink in his cabin while his Irish cabin mates shave his head. Elona resumes her reading of Wild Swans and I turn back to the window, wondering how a guy like Miguel, unemployed, can finance so much travelling, so much Patagonia, Siberia and Central Asia.
When we reach Novosibirsk it’s already night. On the platform, a family made of bronze, their arms stretched for eternity, sends their farewells to soldiers leaving (a long time ago now) to the front during the second world war. This is the station which hosts the Trans-Siberian Museum. The conductors decide not to open the doors, but we can see a life-size model of a steam engine from the train. The machine poses in a large glass box, illuminated by strong, yellow lights.
The fourth day of our journey is calm, almost routine. It seems as if we have been living in this train for a month. We wake up early. As Elona pushes up the blind, the golden sunlight bathes the cabin, revealing thin particles of dust floating in the air. Shadows of shapeless structures criss-cross along the surface of the door, slowly sliding along the cabin until they disappear through the walls like ghosts. I get up. The landscape has turned to patches of green interrupted by swamps and white forests of dried-up trees. Now and then, small wooden houses with cultivated plots and backyards. The earth is black, coal black, and the wooden houses are grey, some of them even seem to have burned. The debris and skeletons of cement return, unsorted puzzles of abandoned buildings and factories. At the entrance and exit to the biggest stations, like Krasnoyarsk yesterday or Omsk two days ago, Siberia reveals her other face: factories, chimneys spitting out smoke in many shades, big airports, long bridges, wide avenues, high buildings, cities surrounded by slums, waste land and chaos. We prepare some maté and eat the pastries we got from the old lady at Barabinsk, which to our surprise are salty, and made of fish eggs. We read, we play chess, we wander. We talk briefly with the Swiss guys, who are from Basel, and do our best to avoid Angélica and Jose’s complaints. No sign of Miguel. For the third time the provodnysta from the first wagon comes by selling refreshments. We end up buying some apple juice. She goes away with too many rubles. The day flies by. We stop at Krasnoyarsk, Ilansky and Tayshet. When it gets dark the train turns towards the South East.
On the firth day of our journey across siberia, we wake up at 5 in the morning, or so says one of our watches. It is an important day in our route, this afternoon we will reach Baikal. But first there is Irkutsk, just an hour away. We wake up tired, having barely slept the night before. The train was jerking at every bump in the tracks and the chilly night air crept into the cabin through the open window. But I wouldn’t close it as long as the Swiss next door kept smoking, which the conductors dutifully accompanied them in doing through the night. The train made three stops at dusk. Lying on my bunk, I would listen to the unintelligible Russian announcements and wonder whether a new travelling companion would join us in the cabin.
We finish breakfast and I go out to the corridor for a stroll. I see our neighbour from the third cabin, an older woman of about 60 or so, who hasn’t stopped knitting since she got on at Omsk. Finally, I make eye contact. We greet each other and I ask her if she speaks English. “A little,” she says laughing. We chat for a while, using English and hand signals. Alma is from Astana, Kazakhstan, and is travelling to Ulaanbaatar to see her son.
“So, you must travel to Mongolia very often.”
“Every time I can, yes. Always by train,” she tells me.
“From Astana?! How many times have you taken the Trans-Mongolian?” I ask her and she raises her hand, her five fingers stretched. “You must have seen many of us tourists!” I say and she starts laughing. I have a warm feeling. She has a smile that reminds me of Fermina, my uncle’s wife. She feels honest, the kind of person with whom even silences are comfortable. I ask her about her son. She tells me she has four children, two boys and two twin girls. Her son in Mongolia is the one she sees more often, the others live in US. I tell her that my niece’s name is also Alma and that her name in Spanish means soul, purity. At the same time I move my hands as if air was popping out of my chest and floating upwards. “Oh!” she says surprised. “In Kazakh no, it is just a name,” she says.
When we arrive at Irkutsk, our wagon nearly gets full. Eleven new passengers come on board. Three of them are backpackers, who were initially travelling separately and now seem to be close friends. Two English guys and a Belgian girl, all three end up in the cabin with Alma. The other eight are travelling in a group. It is a senior group, complete with a Scot, an Irish-Australian, a Canadian, two Kiwis and a Japanese. The eighth member is the guide, an Ukrainian woman who seems to have forgotten her smile in Kiev. All eleven new passengers had arrived at Irkutsk several days ago on the same Trans-Siberian train. The Russian train. Their expression of shock were unmistakable, and the conductors now have work to do for the first time in five days. Not necessarily because of complaints or comments, but because the Japanese man speaks Mandarin, so they can no longer fool around.
The wagon now full, the train is transformed. It is strange to see the corridor crammed with travellers. We make the most of it and chat with one of them, the Scottish guy, who tells us they are on an organised the trip from Moscow to Beijing. The train starts to enter a mountainous area and we enter a series of tunnels. Baikal is only minutes away.