Off The Rails
I’ve spent roughly half of the last month on a train, covering over 15,000 kilometers, from Hong Kong to Gubkin, where I’m now sitting in a hotel room in the South Western corner of Russia. I don’t even know how to begin keeping up with the bizarre and wonderful events that have been blurring each passing day – it’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago I was climbing The Great Wall of China! I’ll be blogging a separate update about that adventure soon, but for now, here’s an excerpt from a letter I wrote to a friend during the four-day trip from Beijing to Krasnoyarsk on the Transsiberian Railroad. If you’re looking for a good soundtrack to this blog post, try spinning Joni Mitchell’s “Just Like This Train” and “Off The Rails” by the Notwist.
Excerpts from a letter written on May 24th, 2010
Today I bought a small container of sour cream, thinking it was yoghurt, and ate about half of it before deciding it couldn’t just be that Russian yogurt is funky in a way not unlike how Greek-style yogurt is funky. This reminded me of the time I was making dinner for my host Ralf and his five year-old son Raphael in Berlin – a nice gnocchi dish with sautéed bacon and mushrooms in what I’d intended to be a cream sauce, only I’d bought some weird soft German cheese thinking it was crème fraîche and the whole thing curdled in the most disgusting way; it tasted fine but looked awful. Poor Raphael, who is a picky eater to begin with, had a meltdown at the kitchen table and refused to eat the stuff. I couldn’t really blame him and felt bad because he got in trouble for the tantrum when it was really my fault. Oh the joys of buying dairy products abroad.
The train is remarkably empty. Perhaps because we’re just a week or two shy of tourist season or perhaps because we’re on the less popular transmanchurian line (people like seeing Mongolia more). It’s a good thing too, since it turns out my harp simply will not fit in any convenient way in a kupé class cabin. When I had the cabin to myself for the first two days, I left the harp out and played it some, but I got a bunkmate on the third day and had to store it up to the bunk above me. This train seems to travel in ¾ time.
The view out the window could be Wyoming. Plains and hills with brown, gold, and green (almost) grasses, a bit marshy in parts, with cows and sheep and goats occasionally grazing in clusters, and ill-maintained barbed-wire fences, tiny outpost towns now and again, and even the odd Russian cowboy or two. They gave me a bit of trouble at the border for bringing my harp, but not too much. The weird thing was they had to switch out all the wheels on the train when we crossed over from China – apparently the tracks are set wider apart in Russia, something to do with World War II.
Even though it is the end of May, winter is only just beginning to ease its grip on the land here; lake Baikal was a cobweb of floating ice. There are field fires everywhere, blackening the white trunks of the birch trees. The kind German/South African man in the berth next to me, who lives half of each year in rural Siberia, told me that the Russians light these fires to clear the dead leaves and grasses, since the seasonal shift between Summer and Winter is too short to allow proper decomposition. Sometimes at night the glow of the brush fires can be spectacular, and also disturbing, like how I imagine land might look during War Time.
My bunkmate is a kind-faced Chinese man. He doesn’t speak English and I hardly know any Chinese, so we can’t really talk, but we share our bags of nuts and dried fruit and can manage some basic friendly communication via gesticulations and context. I wonder what it will be like when I get back to the United States and can understand everything that is being said around me – snippits of conversations in the park or on the street. I wonder if it will be overwhelming. Not long now. I’ll be back July 30th.