Even in Siberia there is happiness - Anton Chekhov
“Second train leg: Perm to Irkutsk”
This is Europe! This is Asia! Where was the division, the boundary of two continents, the sudden change in the belt of mountains There was no division, only moonlight and trees. But I kept looking for it anyway. I was in Asia.
The railway turns southeast after Perm into Siberia. The Stroganov family got the first foothold here. They were an enterprising lot, landowners from Perm, quick to exploit the natural resources of a region formerly populated by Mongolian khanates.
The view Low mountains, endless forest and patches of farmland. At the edge of the forest where it meets the track some black, slow-moving figure stirred among the bushes, like a simile for night.
2120: Yekaterinberg. Stop for 32 mins
Semyon, my guide in Perm, had already told me that although the Romanovs were slaughtered in Yekaterinberg, the last Tsar of Russia was actually executed in Perm. On 12th June 1918, Nicholas’s youngest brother was arrested in his hotel on Lenin Street, taken away and shot in the forest outside the city.
There is no glamour in Siberia. Instead, there is an absorbing monotony about the never-changing scene. I quickly learnt, sitting in my cabin or in the dining-room, or standing in the corridor, always looking out of a window, that every village is like the last, every town is like the last. The villages because they are usually the centre of a farming community that has died out, the towns and cities because they are utility towns and cities that sprang up after the inception of the Five Year Plans east of the Urals.
0259: Tyumen. Stop for one hour 36 minutes. I miss the excitement of stopping at Russia’s richest oil depot. I have realised that it is best to catnap when I can and at this point I am dreamily dozing and reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which he writes about the starets, or holy man.
“A starets takes your soul, your will, into his soul and will. In choosing a starets you renounce your own will and surrender it to him in perfect submission, absolute self-abnegation.”
This is evidently a good thing: it is an exercise in self-conquest, sustained by the hope of attaining that “perfect freedom that is freedom from self.” Apparently the institution of the starets in imperial Russia came from the East, “the practice of a thousand years.” But you really must be careful in your choice of starets.
I am deep in the bowels of a serpent train, close (in Russian terms) to the territory of Tyumen Oblast. In the village of Pokrovskoe, the son of a drunken carter with a reputation as a layabout, a thief, and unquenchable sex addict was born. Rasputin smelled like a goat apparently. He was a walker – this land demands we walk to the point of no return and Rasputin obediently tramped across the steppes of Siberia. He left Pokrovskoe in disgrace, then returned, then left again. He visited monasteries, had a conversion experience and exploited his devastating charisma to become the starets of the Tsarina Alexandra.
There is grace in the monotony of train travel. Everything has its time and its place. Lunch in the dining car becomes an event requiring suitable dress. I welcome conversation with the drunk German. He is sentimental and shows me and the retired English couple an amethyst pendant given to him by an old girlfriend. I tell him that the amethyst is the gemstone of sobriety. He loses interest in talking to me and begins a long and winding story about how this girlfriend left him but she still loved him. I am bored.
Back in my cabin I gratefully embrace the taiga and the steppe. I am cocooned in motion and infinity.
0927: Ishim. Stop for 30 minutes.
I am very confused. Local time is Moscow time + three hours but there might have been an hour deducted at some point for bad behaviour. I decide it’s best not to think about it. I have bathed in the tiny sink in the toilet, and I am pleased to be disembarking and stretching my legs along the length of the station. The stalls are selling pots of Chinese noodles. Locals are hawking dried and smoked fish – hollowed-out, scaly carcasses held together with toothpicks. As well as being gluten and lactose intolerant, I am vegan. I stock up on biscuits and grapes. The dining car does a very good vegetable soup. Ishim, by the way, is home to a fairy-tale writer called Pyotr Yershov whose Hump-backed Horse was banned by one of the tsars. Can’t remember which one but I’m not sure it really matters.
1445: Omsk. Stop for 20 minutes.
Maybe it does matter. I look up Pyotr Yershov on the platform at Omsk where I find a signal and read this line from The Hump-Backed Horse: “In the royal chambers, the Wet Nurses are feeding the Tsar.” The story ends with the tsar being boiled in a vat of water. So now I know why his story was banned. He wrote it in 1834. So the tsar was Nicholas I. Yershow enjoyed an after-life when the Kirov Ballet, whose city I passed earlier, featured The Hump-Backed Horse as a highlight of their repertoire.
In the dining car there is a festive atmosphere. The Norwegian fathers and their sons have met the Dutch tour guide and her party; the man in khaki has found a Tartar to drink shots with. A girl in unnecessary sunglasses and a long evening gown makes a dramatic entrance in the door of the carriage. She stands framed in its archway and demands to know where the party is. The drunken German leaves the retired English couple to assist her in her inquiries. The windows in the dining car are like the wrap-around glasses the girl is wearing. I admire the view of dense twilit taiga mesmerising and endless. The retired English couple and I watch in amusement as the drunken German accompanies the girl in the evening gown in a danse macabre until the provodnitsa asks them to sit down. The wastes of Siberia are skimming past us in the darkness.
The next morning, the drunken German takes his place by the retired English couple. He gestures at the girl in the dark glasses. “She’s looking for a rich man,” he whispers. He is scornful. She looks a little crumpled and apologetic.
I turn my attention to our next stop. Omsk is bult round a hill at the junction of the Om river with the Irtish. Omsk is where Dostoevsky was exiled. Before that, the Cossacks made Omsk their base. Before them, Omsk was the land of another semi-nomadic tribe wiped out by the Cossacks.
Soon I would be in the land of the Buryats. They tried to make a good fist of their colonisation. They supplied gold-diggers with game. They acted as guides to explorers, in return for liquor, brandy being the favourite. Their stories resonate with those of the Cherokee, the Inuit, and all indigenous peoples who try to keep their culture going but end up ravaged by small pox and alcohol.
0009: Novosibirsk. Stop for 56 minutes.
I love these stations and their platforms. Novosibirsk is a real temple to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Here on platform one is a statue depicting a family waving off their boy as he departs for World War Two. Each of these stations has its own peculiar destiny wrapped up in monumental white edifices with huge neon-lit signs in Cyrillic script. The windows at Novosibirsk give on to a ticket hall lit with chandeliers.
The line gets busier here. Novosibirsk is the central city of what was once the richest region the world has known. Along the route of the Trans-Siberian there are six industrial districts, some of which are bigger than the whole of England. In freight terms, this is the world’s busiest section of railway. Cargo rattles by, bearing coal from the Kuzbas to the smelting works of the Urals. Engineers run round with spanners. Platforms have multiplied from the modest two of Vladimir and other pit-stops to several sprinkled haphazardly across the horizon. They teem with passengers and their families.
I was entering the Kuzbas basin, which, ninety years previously, had housed the greatest factories in the world. A leaden horizon with flecks and streaks of black distant forests emphasised the industrial nature of this basin of coal and steel. It was once called the Blacksmith’s Basin, because it was here that Chingis Khan forged his weapons before conquering the Western world in the 13th century.
Later in my journey I would meet a descendant of Chinghis’ clan. A Buryat shaman he claimed his ancestry amongst the Mongol subduers of China and Russia.
Among Chingis’ many grandsons were Kublai Khan, the subjector of China, together with Burma and other lands east of India; Hulagu, who destroyed the Assassins of Persia, stormed Baghdad, and extinguished the Abbasid Kalifat; and Batu, who covered Russia with blood and ashes, ruined Hungary, hunting its king to an island in the Adriatic, crushed the Germans at Liegnitz, and returned to the Volga region, where he established his khanate. My shamanic friend glowed with pride and dimmed with sadness alternately.
In the 20th century it was the Russians who subdued the descendants of Chingis. The land stayed the same. In the Soviet era the Kuzbas basin once again became the great forge of an empire.
The deeper into Siberia I get, the less well-dressed are my fellow travellers. All of them seem weary, and most of them have sleepy eyes and a shivering expression, while their complexions generally appear to have taken on the colour of the grey sky outside. They are equally unimpressed by my appearance. I am in my night-dress although I have leggings and a jacket on top. I see more Mongolians now, and am excited to be in a foreign land, another continent.
On heightened alert, the provodnitsa is posted by her carriage keeping an eye on her charges. I have palled up with the retired English couple. We stride the length of the platform gleeful like children at playtime. We get back on the train and the Norwegians tell me to get ready for the seven-span, 870m-long bridge across the Ob, one of the world’s longest rivers, chockablock with barges and cargo ships. I once again feel the excitement of actually being here; in a land where statistics conjure magnificent scenarios.
1356: Krasnoyarsk. Stop for 50 minutes.
A brick-red mural of Lenin + attentive workers draws me across the tracks to the opposite platform. I am horrified when a huge train pulls in blocking my way back to the Rossiya. To the side of the mural, construction workers are covered in brick dust and eating their packed lunches. They do not respond to my increasingly agitated requests for help. I cannot see how I can reach the bridge that gives access to both the platforms as scaffolding on this platform covers the entrance. I have ten minutes to get back onto the train. I am about to burst into tears (the final resort of the manipulative) when the train that is blocking my way pulls out of the station. The track is clear. I run back onto the Rossiya and the provodnitsa looks at me with disdain.
I am so relieved to be back in my cabin I could cry (again). The sunset is painting the sky orange. I am glued to my window for what seems like hours, meditating in my cabin before rushing into the corridor in case I’ve missed the view on the other side. The provodnitsa is now looking at me with suspicion. She doesn’t realize I am an ever-hopeful seeker after the grail of truth and understanding. Or perhaps she too has sought it out and watches me with the knowledge that it isn’t a grail, after all, it’s just a veil.
I can't explain the sensations that are prompted in passing through Siberia, knowing that this is just a tiny track in an ocean of land. A passage from the novelist Haruki Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun helps me articulate the vast empire that speads like a map in my mind:
"Have you heard of the illness hysteria siberiana Try to imagine this: You're a farmer, living all alone on the Siberian tundra. Day after day you plow your fields. As far as the eye can see, nothing. To the north, the horizon, to the east, the horizon, to the south, to the west, more of the same. Every morning, when the sun rises in the east, you go out to work in your fields. When it's directly overhead, you take a break for lunch. When it sinks in the west, you go home to sleep. And then one day, something inside you dies. Day after day you watch the sun rise in the east, pass across the sky, then sink in the west, and something breaks inside you and dies. You toss your plow aside and, your head completely empty of thought, begin walking toward the west. Heading toward a land that lies west of the sun. Like someone, possessed, you walk on, day after day, not eating or drinking, until you collapse on the ground and die. That's hysteria siberiana.”