Sunday, 8 February 2009

Man sits on train for four days; expects you to care

So: the Trans-Siberian express. The reason I did this journey. The big long trainy thing that facilitated the expansion of Russia to its presently preposterous dimensions. The lengthy sit down that inspired Dr Zhivago and probably some other classics I haven't bothered to read.

Yeah, it was good, like.

What gets lost amongst the general 'OMG you're on a train for how long???' is how batshit mental the constant shifts in timezone are, especially when set off against Russia's staunchly practical but simultaneously mind-blowingly ridiculous policy of decreeing that all trains and train stations in the country should run on Moscow time, regardless of what the actual local time may be. Naturally hilarity ensues - we got on the train on Moscow time +2, and spent the next day trying to stick to train time, but found this slightly undermined when within 24 hours we'd crossed three more timezones, causing it to be dark at about 2pm (train time) and light at fuck knows what time in the morning.

We took an executive decision to switch to local time, which was probably wise, as it meant you got to see stuff, but it was never even remotely clear what type of timetable the train staff were sticking to. Whatever the case, they fucking HATED us. By this stage 'us' constituted me, Joe and Louis, my awesome Japanese cabin mate Chiaru, and seven very rowdy Swedes. It's possibly a bit tragic all the foreigners bonding together, but at the end of the day we were the only people not approaching the trip as some sort of self-imposed slice of purgatory: mine and Chiaru's other roomie was a blandly smiling Chinese bloke who was doing the whole non-stop Moscow to Beijing seven day extravaganza. He didn't talk to anybody, had nothing to read or do (other than eat) and basically whiled a week away staring out of the window until he felt tired enough to fall asleep, waking up and repeating.

On the other hand the rest of us essentially interspersed lying in in bed snoozing, reading and chatting with trying to figure out whether of not it was an appropriate time to get wrecked on the restaurant car's and its hefty stock of beers. Night after night we were the only customers, save for a few wretchedly dissolute dock workers who spent their entire trip vodka'd to the gills, occasionally mumbling at us with dead eyes, one of them getting so trashed he managed to mess himself in front of us.

You would honestly think that the restaurant car (a private profit-making service, not affiliated with the train company as such) would be glad of the vast amounts of custom we gave them, but that would be sorely underestimating the Russian temperament. Whether it was because we were loud, we were talking in foreign, or more likely, the suspicion that we were all having fun, the staff did their best to thwart our attempts to have a drink, be it using the dementia of the time zone hops to explain it was definitely definitely closing time, or in one more extreme example, locking two of the girls in the hallway between two cars, going in for a feel, then getting really angry when they didn't like it and hurling us all out in a fit of pique.

Er, but this all said, it was enjoyable, meeting some nice people but with a license to laze, watching Russia gradually fade from massive, snow covered pine forests to sparkling expanses of steppe, occasionally popping out of the train to buy some weird snack from a vendor at a station you'd never heard of, being agreeably freaked out by the changes in time, and maybe above all really feeling we were going this distance, that there is some enormity to going through the biggest country on earth and emerging in a completely different culture at the end. Definitely hit a rhythm, and I can totally see how the full seven day shebang would be perfectly possible; for all the slight unpleasantness of some of the Russians, it felt very safe, you fell into a nice routine and you felt like you were achieving something in a way you most certainly don't on First Great Western.

Felt almost a bit regretful that I was only in Russia for two weeks total, but think there's only so much that could have been achieved in winter, a lot of stuff like Lake Baikal simply wouldn't make that much sense at that time of year; if he ever saves any money/gets some time away from Metro, there is a plan to come back one summer and do this with Powell; Christ knows he'll love the experience of being confined in a small space where time doesn't really apply and there's not much to so apart from sleep and get drunk.

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