I was awoken in the middle of the night at the Novosibirsk stop when the conductor unlocked my door to show my new bunk mate in. Choosing to remain asleep I laid in bed as a tall slender man tucked his suitcases quietly underneath his bunk, slipped off into his PJs and crawled under the covers into his slumber. Awkward, yes. Luckily he did not adjust the window shades as I’d been hoping to keep them open all night so I could gently wake to the morning sun, one of my favorite things to do.
Time has become so relative not only from the continuous journey across the vast unchanging scenery of Siberia, but because the time the train is set on no longer resembles anything close to the time zone we are in. At this stage, we are 5 time zones past Moscow. Meaning when the train says it’s 10am, in fact it is actually 3pm. So today the sun will set around 1pm train time. It creates a dizzily effect as if in a time warp or paradigm shift where time is no longer a dimension. A feeling I cannot describe.
The snow covered earth greeted us as we awoke from our slumber. Sheets of multiple feet of snow stretched everywhere the eye could see. Alex and I awoke at roughly the same time. A business man living in Siberia who had been in Frankfurt for work and then stopped into Novosibirsk to visit his youngest son briefly before returning home to Krasnoyarsk. His eldest son lives just outside of Chicago but is currently living out of his car, on a green card, looking for work. Alex spoke almost perfect English, something I hadn’t experienced in days, if not weeks. Yesterday when Nina told me about the Dutchas and about the various vegetables then pointed at places with greenhouses, I thought Dutcha meant greenhouse. Today I learned Dutchas are summer cottages and very common among Siberian families. They are scattered around the countryside just outside the big cities, each with their plots of land, greenhouses, and large gardens.
Alex had been to New Jersey and Seattle for work about a decade or so ago. Whereas Nina had also been to the US for work visiting Chicago, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Jersey. Why on earth are all these Siberians going to New Jersey?? Anyhow, we talked about politics and the difference in sentiment I’ve felt between Europe and Russia for which candidates they are hoping we Americans choose for this election, which everyone I’ve talked to has called a clown show. On the train to Siberia with no connection to the outside world whatsoever, I’ve been sheltered (happily) from the recent progress on the election. Can we even call it progress? I suspect when I reconnect in a week or so after Mongolia things will only have escalated.
As we watched out the window together admiring the beauty of Siberia, he talked about his business of selling translation dictionaries and how they teach English in the schools from elementary school on, how you can’t get into the University without passing an English exam. He told me how the more rural villages it is hard to find anyone that knows English well enough to teach it, sometimes they try but the accent becomes a language of it’s own, other times they use outside resources for the students to listen to and then the teacher focuses more on written language and grammar. He gave me an English / Russian dictionary as an example of what he sells. Of course, we had to look up Dutcha first, which translates to summer cottage.
Shortly before his stop, he dug in his briefcase and pulled out a airplane sized bottle of plum liquor from Germany that he said I would need as my train survival kit. Then he gave me an old 10 Rubles bill (now a days they are coins) that had pictures from his city on them. Very cool. We said our goodbyes, wished each other well, and off he went. My suite feels like a revolving door for various experiences of Siberia without having to leave the comfort of the train. His city was quite large, skyscrapers everywhere for working and for apartments. Large bridges and huge highways, it was a real city by any standard. He mentioned the primary source of industry in the city were mining of metals (gold, silver, platinum, steel, etc.), lumber, and coal. The city clearly had wealth and strong infrastructure.
As the blue skies came out and the rolling hills seemed endless with their full supply of birch trees blanketing them, the train continued East. The train car was once again mostly empty and not a noise could be heard beyond the rattling of the empty hangers reminding me I had the suite all to myself once again. Like yesterday I contemplated actually leaving the train carriage, but once again decided to enjoy the solitude of my private suite just a little longer. Was it 10:00am or was it 3:00pm, no idea, but seemed appropriate to pull out my bag of food and compile some random things together to call lunch. Jar of peanut butter, bread, orange juice box, and cashews. That will do.
Outside of the big city, most of the countryside was scattered with small villages with dirt roads completely covered in snow, small little wooden houses with multiple colors of wood, not by design, but likely out of availability. These villages weren’t easy to access and I suspect when winter came, there wasn’t much movement in or out of the villages. The roofs were made of tin and houses heated with piles of firewood, quite possibly that they chopped themselves. As the carriage manager came by to tidy up the other bunk, this time she did not add new linens. Perhaps a sign we had entered a great void of civilization and the chances of gaining new passengers in the eastern prairies of Siberia were slim?
It was that time where enough days had passed my hair could stand on it’s own, and not in a good way. Grabbing my shampoo, conditioner and tiny hand towel the train provided, I headed to the aluminum plated bathroom. Dipping my head into the tiny airplane-sized sink, trying not to hit my head on the low faucet while simultaneously pushing the button underneath the spout to get the water to come out. My long hair sliding down the unprotected drain as there was no where else for it to go. First shampoo, then conditioner, it was a bit of an exercise in balance as the train wobbled from side to side around the mountain with it’s rounded turns and wiggly track. Trying not to make a mess of the floor, I managed to complete the process and wrap the towel like a mini turban and head back to my suite, the carriage lady looking at me like she wanted to say something – like maybe there was a shower somewhere, or maybe you’re not supposed to wash in the sink – but after an awkward pause chose not to as there would be no way I’d understand anything she said anyway. The typical – just let the American be as weird as they want to be. Speaking is far too difficult.
Down the hall the only other person that had spoke some English on the train, the gentleman with the terroir, had left at the same stop as Alex. Here I sat in the mostly empty train carriage as the only person that spoke English and the only person that didn’t speak Russian. As the birch trees slowly changed to pine trees and the blue skies seemed to go on forever, I was quite ok with the solitude the lack of being able to communicate provided. I leaned back on my stack of fluffy pillows, shut the suite door, and cranked up my audio book listening to stories of train rides from around the world as I relinquished to my own story.
As predicted, around 1pm train time the sun began to set and the sky filled with oranges and pinks as if to signal the end of the day. Or was it? The next station stop was Ilanskaya where we had 22 minutes. Normally I would spend every station stop huddled around my iPad frantically clicking the ‘search’ for Wi-Fi button over and over again as if I could catch a fleeing second of connection back to America, but after three days of nothing and entering even more remote sections, I decided it was time to breath fresh air and see if I could haggle some food for a pittance of rubles.
The air was crisp and fresh, despite all the smokers cramming in a few more puffs before their next period of denial. Even though the ground was covered in a sheet of snow, the temperatures didn’t feel as cold as I’d expected. I walked over to a little kiosk where a woman sat in a glass box with various food items propped up for display all around, like a live magazine ad for what was available for sale. Craving protein, I spotted the processed cheese immediately, those little triangles that probably no longer have any real relation to cheese but don’t require refrigeration. Then I saw the sausages but they all looked more like fat chubby hot dogs so ended up with some sort of foul (chicken, duck, bird – who knows). I couldn’t afford the thigh so I ended up with a wing. An orange rubbery wing of an unknown aviary species. I took my bag of roughly $1s worth of food and scurried back to the train.
Once in the warmth of my suite, I poured myself a glass of wine, picked apart my rubber orange wing and put tiny pieces of it hidden inside some bread with the processed cheese. The combination of flavors surely would counterbalance each other, or so I hoped. I decided to dim the lights in the suite so the orange rubbery specimen in my hands didn’t make me gag as I slowly ate every morsel. It’s not that I couldn’t refill my cash flow and dine in luxurious salmon, chicken, and steak every night, it’s just that didn’t feel like an authentic experience. The locals in my first class (which yes I do admit first class isn’t authentic, but that was more about my desire for solitude than creature comforts), anyhow, they ate the random food they brought and the occasional purchase of random items much like I’ve been doing this whole time. Except of course my indulgent salmon dinner on night 3 / day 2.
With the sun completely down by 2pm train time, I decided to get some complete nothing time and just stare aimlessly out the window in complete silence and darkness for a few hours letting my thoughts consume me. The stars were bright and filled the sky at every turn as though I had a private showing to the IMAX planetarium. The Big Dipper the most prominent, others I couldn’t name, all beautiful, all glowing, all reminders of just how little we are. There would be 5 more hours before the next stop, the next time to wonder if my car would be filled again with yet another encounter of Siberian life. I sipped my wine and let the night engulf me with it’s endless stars and snow covered prairies. This is Siberia.