Moscow to Irkutsk: Vodka Rehabilitation
Another one of the great entries for ‘Best Written Piece’ in our Vodkatrain Traveller Awards. This account of our Vodkatrain journey is written by Andrew Spooner and you can read more about his Vodkatrain journey on his and Ursula’s travel blog 14Stops.
Moscow to Irkutsk: Vodka Rehabilitation
There it stood, blocking out the Red hot Moscow Sun. A recently painted Russian red veteran, bellowing out white smoke into the sky and bleeding oil all over the tracks. A stubborn antique from the industrial revolution that simply refused to sink into the locomotive graveyard of anonymity. This would be our home and refuge for the next 5 days, an iron monster, shielding and transporting us safely through the vast hibernating waste lands of Siberia and delivering us onto the boarders of Russia and further.
As we moved up the platform it became clear that the trans-siberian railway was not merely a bucket list tick for tourists but was in fact still very much in practical use by the Russian citizens. Yellow eyed, grey faced, brown leather jacket wearing old boys, all gathered in circles of silence puffing away on their roll ups waiting for the call to board. They seemed to wear their lives quite openly in the blisters and calluses on their hands, clearly these were men of labour, off to mine the recently thawed ice desert which the generous Sun had now yielded the opportunity. Not men that should be envied but we somehow felt they deserved respect.
Moving up still further, the scene became reminiscent of the old film noir movies of the 1950’s, smoke pouring out over the platform, people bidding farewell to loved ones, white handkerchiefs waving in the air, it made us feel like we were truly doing something fantastical.
These were the 2nd class seated travellers, perhaps not going the whole hog but none the less the tears suggested a significant distance, either in space or time, between Moscow and their destination. I tried to remain philosophical and imagine all the goodbyes in the world and how they an essential part of new experiences… However as I lumbered up the platform I permitted a self-indulging memory to home and to the tears and words shed by loved ones who were missed.
We climbed aboard our 2nd class sleeper carriage and settled into our cabin (number 4) which, though could be seen as rather cramped, we found to be relatively cozy. We strategically placed all of our belongings around so as to maximize living space and minimise claustrophobia. This would be our home for the next few days. We joined in the waving, held out our handkerchiefs and the train jolted into motion. We were off.
As we gazed out of our window we began to see the Industrial city fall away from view. The new land became more and more desolate and sparse until before we had time to notice it… we were in it… the wilderness of Siberia. It’s hard to put into words the changing Images and landscape views we experienced for the next four days and nights. Even the pictures don’t depict the repetitions in landscape.
To most people it would look like we were just gazing into nothing… but the longer we experienced the simplified surroundings the more we found a few fundamental lessons to be learned. In the landscapes we began to understand the subtleties of basic everyday life.
Every now and again a small shack would slowly creep by in the distance and we would often say to one another “can you imagine living their?” But from these questions we began to feel our own disconnection from our previous world of bustling London life drift away. It suddenly dawned on us how those people in those houses would look at our previous lives of ‘nonstop busy’, and ask to one another “could you imagine living like that?”
Simplified in this minimal way of living we were really asking whether or not we could live without the luxuries of the lives we were used to at home. And with rat race falling ever further into the distance for us, we began to realise we probably would, are and will change our outlook on life and how we could live it. In our little cabin there was no internet, no electricity, no cooking equipment, no TV… But there was however a radio… Russian radio… which jumps quite unashamedly between old sum41 tunes and Cher classics like “it’s in his kiss” and “do you believe in life after love”… I’m not exaggerating here, there must have been a Cher revival or something. Gypsy’s tramps and thieves seemed particularly apt for our current view from the window.
But neither of us once got bored. Ursula quite rightly said “only a boring person gets bored with themselves” and we certainly didn’t feel like we were boring people. But we did have to re-evaluate our living space as our two meter square window became our new frame for viewing the outside world. Our beds became both our living room and sleeping area, and the small table directly next to our pillows became our dining room.
Luckily Ursula and I were very kindly offered both lower bunk beds by our amazing Kiwi friend Tess, so we could still be within arms-reach if Ursula felt slightly anxious or needed something… which on the first night of course she did. I was awoken at 1am by a little prodding to the chest “Andy … I need a wee and we’ve stopped at a station, HELP!” On the train, the toilets literally opened up onto the tracks so whenever we docked at a station they were locked. Eventually after a lot of crotch grabbing and behaving like a little princess, we convinced the guard to let her use it otherwise he would have a lot more mopping to do!
The guards, who remain with us the entire journey, are known as Provodnitsas who are almost always women. But in our case we received two bald gentlemen who could only be distinguished using the terms “the short old flamboyant one,” and “the tall young flamboyant one.” Very pleasant Russian maids the gentlemen made, though it did cross our minds how openly they could express themselves outside of the safety of the train in Russian society. Perhaps the train was a sanctuary from more than just the weather?
On the last day Ursula awoke not feeling that great. On the train the only access to food is the very expensive restaurant cart or a hot water tank to cook our glorified pot noodles. By this time we were both so sick of noodles, that I was able to convince Ursula to try one of the traditional Russian salads being sold by the locals that jumped on the train periodically as we pulled into each station. Her face went from white to green as we translated the Russian Cyrillic into English: “SALT FISH IN A FURR COAT!” She was pretty brave about it though and after necking a packet of MnM’s to cover the lingering taste, she was fighting fit again. Needless to say we stuck with our noodles from then on.
We rolled along the tracks often at times transfixed with the forests of dormant birch trees, melting ice and Serengeti like planes. There is a magic within the endless fields of Siberian nothingness. I’m not entirely sure what agricultural purposes are served by doing so, but at certain points slightly closer to civilisation, fires had been set to burn the dead or dying grass away presumably readying the land for spring. As the sun set each evening and the fires were seen smouldering, the land took on a sepia tone, giving warmth to the usually cold open marsh. The bare birch trees, the smoke burning from the dried grass, the setting sun all seemed to take on the incarnation of dancing flames as far as the horizon. This was what we would remember about the Siberian land.
Our days we spent thinking and vocalising our thoughts and our nights were spent playing cards. It was a time for self-reflection and a much needed decompression from our lives in London. Time became simpler, slower and yet more precious. We occupied ourselves with drawing, talking, reading (Ursula polished off two books in impressive time, though one she said was “written by a brain dead author”) and writing.
We also got into the Russian spirit of things with a bottle of Vodka which we shared with our neighbouring friends and some pretty impressive litre cans of Baltic beer. It was strange to find Vodka having such a rehabilitating effect for a change.
For us the trans-Siberian experience was not only an infamously long train journey through some of the most inhospitable land on the earth, Neither was it simply a distance travelled between two points, but it was a slowing down and a detox from the speed of everyday life we were used to and once that time had been slowed down we were able to experience each other far more acutely and capture the tiny moments that are usually lost in everyday existence. The train was a wonderful experience but can only be understood by those who have travelled the 5255.5km, eaten the noodles, seen those vast planes, slept through 5 different time zones upon the tracks and eaten the mysterious salt fish in the furr coat salad.