Thursday, June 15, 2006

Day in the Life….

This morning, John said, “Well, just one more night on the train.” “Yeah,” I found myself saying, “I hope I have enough time for everything.”

I wasn’t entirely joking. Before I left, a lot of people asked me how in the world I planned to survive a weeklong train trip. The idea that I might actually enjoy it rarely entered into the conversation. And it’s true that if you’re the kind of person who likes to do things, this trip may not be for you. If, however, you are the kind of person who believes that doing nothing is something, then you might enjoy yourself as much as I am.

Even I was a little intimidated by a three-day stretch of completely unstructured time, so I set a few tasks for myself. I’ve always found that on long plane or train rides, having an assignment keeps me focused not on how much time I have to fill up, but on how little time is left. Plus, minor things take a long time on a train, and that helps pass the time, too.

Yesterday morning, for example, I woke up around 8am. If that sounds late, well, it is for me, but I’m a little jet-lagged from the constant one-hour time changes, and it’s hard for me to fall asleep when it’s still broad daylight--which it is until about 11pm here. Also, the train operates on Moscow time, so by that reckoning, I was up at 6am. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Washing up, making coffee, and cleaning the caffeine paraphernalia take a long time in a place where you can’t brush your teeth with the tap water and anything washed in the bathroom sink has to be sterilized with boiling water from the samovar to be safe.

After breakfast, it’s reading time. I start by reading a guidebook that obsessively details every cemetery, airfield, factory, czar assassination site, and church you will pass each day, as well as the exact kilometer marker you’ll find these things near. When I think of the work this author put into his train trip, I feel like I’m on a Mexican booze cruise. Next I work on my magazines. I’ve brought a stack with me, one stratum of the tower of back issues I have at home. I don’t get very far before I decide that my time would be better spent reading what my two guidebooks have to say about Moscow. I have somehow neglected to read a word about the city, and I’ll be there in 48 hours, so time is running out.

I guess I should point out here that if you’re not a reader, this maybe isn’t such a great trip either. But I have seen all-day card games in the dining car, so there definitely are non-literary options.

It’s not until late morning that I get a start on my first project for the day: snapping a picture of the train going around a curve in the track. This too is harder than it sounds. Few train windows open, and the ones that do are locked and unlocked at arbitrary times according to the whims of the attendants. Then you have to wait for the perfect stretch of arcing rail, ideally not one with a belching factory in the background and definitely not one with a freight train in the way.

I’m making pretty good time, and I think I may get a jump on my afternoon projects, but the train pulls into Krasnoyarsk and that means a flurry of activity. I need to take a picture of the station water tower (for some reason, these are made with beautiful brickwork) buy piroshkies for lunch from babushkas on the platform, and start my train car census project. It’s too much for one short stop, so I decide to concentrate on finding lunch. There are no babushkas about, so I curse my luck and mourn the 20 minutes of my life that I can never have back.

John and I go to the dining car and chat with a new friend, a woman from Philadelphia named Yael. We all left from Beijing on the same day and have been running into each other all over central Asia ever since. We probably only talk an hour, but when you think about it, it can take a lifetime to really get to know someone, and seen in that light, an hour-long conversation isn’t just passing the time; it’s really more of a frantic race against the clock.

Towards the end of the meal, we are joined by two other travelers we first met in Irkutsk, Spanish students named Paulo and Josep. They inform us that they’ve just woken up. I don’t have the heart to tell them what I’m thinking: With this late of a start, they must be hopelessly behind schedule.

After lunch, I work on my second project for the day: a thorough census of the cars on the train. This involves not just counting the cars, but also recording how many cars are devoted to each class of service. Like everything, this too has hidden pitfalls. I plan to walk through each car noting the configuration, but eastbound, I encounter an inexplicably locked door, and westbound, I come to a third-class car, full of impoverished Russians lounging on three tiers of bunks with no doors between the carriages. I feel disrespectful parading through with my notebook, and so finishing this project will have to wait until I come up with a better survey method. I decide to peek into each car’s windows from the outside at the next stop. Much better.

I make a train play list on my ipod.

I listen to my play list.

I get a mug full of boiling water from the samovar at the end of the car.

I watch it cool to drinking temperature.

I watch Siberia go by, changing slowly from impassibly thick birch forest to swampy flat land with lots of sky and isolated clusters of trees.

Later in the afternoon, against my better judgment, I start a new task: Determining what the story is with the TV above our compartment door. When we first got on the train, a History Channel documentary about the building of the trans-Siberian railroad was playing. Then the station went blue and I’ve been too busy for TV since then. This afternoon, though, I drive John to distraction constantly jumping up and cycling through the channels. (He has no appreciation for the fact that this is something I’m doing purely for the sake of journalistic thoroughness, and that it is in fact, a fairly humiliating exercise for me because there’s no remote and I’m barely tall enough to reach the channel buttons.) My verdict: Beyond the occasional snowy soccer game broadcast in Russian, and wavery Ukrainian soap operas, there’s nothing on.

In the evening the train stops again and I complete my census by discretely poking my head into each car. I feel a great pang of accomplishment knowing my day’s work is nearly done.

John and I have platform snacks for dinner, because who’s got time for the dining car twice a day? I finish reading a two-month-old Via magazine, and then, although it’s not dark yet, it’s time for bed.

I still haven’t finished my Moscow reading. I never got a good water tower picture. I haven’t even begun my next project, which is finding and figuring out how to use the mythical shower said to exist on this train. Luckily, I’ve got one more full day on the train.

And lucky for me, it stays light very late here.

Here are my train photos!

1 comment:

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Henry Thomas