War and Peace, 1200 pages, should be wordy enough for 7 days inside a train. How wrong. I read less than 100 pages spending the time drinking vodka and engaging in conversation for all 7 days and 6 nights.
Other than the romance of train travel, it did seem a novel way to reach Australia. I have flown to Sydney more times than I care to remember and hate most of what a plane has to offer. It is as Calvino wrote “To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into a void, you accept not being in any place for a duration that in itself a kind of void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relationship to where and when in which you vanished.”
However I was in trepidation I might be exchanging one day inside one tube of metal with continuous films, for another tube for seven days with vodka swirling Russians; it was an unknown. For that reason alone I wanted to ride this train.
My trepidation was dismissed before the train had even started heading east from Moscow’s frozen Yaroslavaskig station. The snows on the Urals lay in wait.
I booked 2nd class on the Trans Mongolian deliberately to engage with like-minded travellers and share experiences. The train filled up with not just Russian, Chinese and Mongolians; with Dutch, Swiss, Germans, Swedish, Finish and someone called La La from Hong Kong. A delightful mix of solo eccentric travellers. Or was it the train that was the eccentric? Us just players on her stage.
Leaving Moscow the night was freezing, the coal stove was not stoked and the blankets kept us warm. When the Mongolian crew saw our shivering, the coal was stoked and the carriage became a sauna. The blankets lay scatted on the floor.
By Beijing we had become more than traveling companies. Friends, who shared vodka, shared laugher, swopped stories and sang. We shared everything happily because we were cocoon together, generous in spirit as we relied on each other for a week, for 5,000 miles, all the way from Moscow to Beijing.
Unknown towns and cities came and went many hours apart. 00.30 Valdimai station for 23 min to collect coal, water and vodka. 9.34 Kirov Pass station for 15 min. And on and on.
Nor was I there for the luxury; for this train certainly can’t claim any form of luxury. No showers, hard mattress, some food, portions of a prisoner. Some days the train even had heating. I became thin and maybe even a bit fitter. The train swayed and slowly moved forward. No mobile, no internet, vodka on tap and riotous conversation and lack of sleep; did it mater. It was Wes Anderson longest running film.
22.36 Tayga station with a 2 min stop. Between these towns of no description, days of a bleak landscape covered with skinny looking birch trees only changeable by their size, lay ahead.
The dinning carriage, changed at each boarder, gave a different setting for cards, backgammon and vodka. The Russia kitsch dinning carriage, with swirling glitzy lights, could have been from a 1970’s soft porn film, complete with waitresses with the bad basin haircut, reluctant with dour looks who scorned our happy demur. By day 5 we had worked our charm on her, shared our vodka, I think forced a smile, may be it was contempt; we were happy travellers.
In Mongolia the dinning carriage looked like a dinning carriage; even the food improved, the wine became vinegar and the waitresses smiled and were large and cuddly.
In China the food was free, and the dinning carriage became full; fast service has no time for vodka aperitifs or punters wanting to finish their dinner with cards and vodka.
Without showers, without a care, we soon become hobos. Hair matted we sung along with Bob Marley. I remained unshaven; however it did not look very becoming. By the weeks ending we accepted ourselves, laughing how we “felt like shit and looked like shit”. Hobo’s we had become accepting each other’s friendship as a hobo has a dog at their side.
23.47 Irkutsk for 25 min and onto Lake Baikal covered with solid ice. From a train window we watched a fisherman dig a hole, sit there and catch a fish. I am sure we brought his catch at the few stations stops further along the line, dried and tasty. Or was that an illusion? How tasty was it really?
Then the days warmed up. 21.30 Sukhe Bator station with customs, immigration and the sight of the Gobi Desert ahead of us.
Imagine so many lives we live together; each with their own past parallel to each other, suddenly converge and becoming entangled together on this train; so now our pasts are joined together, an inheritance that seams us together for ever, even after our ways have become parallel again.
Joss had us swapping stories, sharing his own reasons to be here. With Patrick he performed an unremarkable song by Sunny and Cher, with a memorable style. Isabella sung with a youthful voice which may now be on you tube. Sonya set up a cinema featuring a Bill Nighy season of films with popcorn. Joe sung Mack the Knife to the beat of a used ice cream container “tuned” by an elastic band with the notes drawn on the elastic. For this Joe deserves to seen on you tube. “Hans” Christian sang My Way supported by an i-tablet. A Mongolian man, who spoke no English, just laughed and shared his vodka and cheered us on. A Russian woman, pickled with vodka, entertained with the Beatles. Eero went from the shy one to an electrifying Snoop Dog. And I? Well, I looked to someone who would have had been inspired with lyrical electrification on this train and entertained with Bobby Brown Goes Down: Frank Zappa would have chucked and been proud.
Selina we all adored for she cheered us on, kept the score and we all came out winners.
And then, at 14.04 on the 7th day, Beijing Central Station.
My marriage to my trainhome was abruptly over. I had become an ex. I was left to reflect. Life would not be the same again. I can still feel the ripples.
However this is the empathy I seek; this is real wealth.