October 27, 2008

Trans-Siberian Railway, Ekaterinburg to Irkutsk, Russia

After Ekiterinburg, it was time to board the train again, this time for a three-night, two-day journey to Irkutsk. I was hopeful to continue my lucky streak of friendly and entertaining cabin mates such as I had with Valery and Valentina. These experiences were so pleasant that I started thinking if I ever needed a hug or some cheering up that I would just book a train ride in Russia, but as soon as I saw that the placement number on my ticket put me on the top bunk, I began to worry that my comfort on this leg of the trip was going to be a little bit compromised. I always request a lower bunk because of the extra space, cooler temperatures, prime scenery-gazing opportunities and easy access in and out of the cabin that it affords, but these places must have already been filled when I booked my ticket, and so I reluctantly did an ungraceful acrobatic jump up to my 2ft x 5 ft riding zone, almost throwing out my back again after carefully healing it for three weeks.
My roommates were a nice, deaf couple occupying the lower bunks and since I neither knew sign language or how to write in Russian, I prepared myself for a solitary journey into Siberia. After boarding late and going straight to bed, I started the next day with my usual routine of taking these down moments to organize photographs, listen to music and write on my computer. I was happily rolling along when, in what seemed like a simultaneous catastrophic moment, my computer battery died and, for the first time on my trip, when I went to re-charge, I found out it was not compatible with the train’s electricity and then… Gold-Tooth came stumbling into the cabin. Since all my electronics run off the same voltage, it was only a matter of time before my entrance into Siberia would feel strangely isolating as slowly all my comforts and creative vices lost their power; music, pictures, writing. Luckily I always have a book handy and, given the electronic meltdown, I would make more progress in its’ completion than usual. I also took a second to size up my new top-bunk cabin mate and knew immediately that this man was going to nail my patience into the frozen tundra like a metal spike.
Gold-Tooth was an extremely drunk Russian man who looked as though he was approaching sixty, but in reality was probably only forty and who, appropriately named, had used up all Russia’s gold resources to have every single one of his front teeth capped so that if the sun was shining down on his smile, you were immediately blinded. If you stuck a post it note with every physical offense this man displayed, there would not be a single piece of his underneath showing through; he grunted, he moaned, he snorted, he unleashed his fetorous alcohol breath into communal air, he disregarded personal space, he smelled, he farted, he burped, he snored, he stumbled, he heaved, he stared and….yes, he was my top-bunk neighbor! A mere elbow’s length of space separating us that not even the cotton shield of my bed sheet could mask the pungent odors or muffle the orchestra of criminal sounds. I was stranded in Siberia. I had no one in which I could commiserate and all the sources of drowning out the gurbles, burbles and grunts were void of power; I started to envy the silence my deaf cabin mates, unfortunately, had no choice but to be a part of. I wondered to myself if the KGB would become suspicious if this man just happened to “fall” off the train because he was so “drunk.”
This forced me to spend a lot of time outside of the cabin, in the corridor, where I turned my attention to studying the passing scenery through dirt stained windows with great focus. I had started to question my fascination with the Trans-Siberian Railway on my journey from Moscow to Ekaterinburg; it seemed I had romanticized a landscape that, at times, gave the same unvaried effect of driving through days worth of cornfields in Kansas. But as the train pressed further East, I felt as though we were rolling through a vast piece of landscape art; the Birch trees resembled delicate fallen twigs which were painted white and stuck upright in the wheat colored ground whose patterns can change from a linear cluster to a circular cluster with the blink of an eye. Sometimes there is a stretch of land that is void of anything but the color of it’s surface, and sometimes on that lonely plain there will stand one tree, away from the pack, as if it knew it had a life destined for complete solitude. There are trees that have fallen over on their side and seem to crawl across the earth like white centipedes and villages of small wooden shacks appear and then disappear, in what seems like the middle of nowhere, and I wondered how people survive here in the harsh of winter. Then I am reminded of some things I have learned along the way, like the people who were sent here to the gulags who not only survived the seasons with improper clothing and inadequate food, but did so with creativity and imagination, constructing books of poetry from the bark of these very trees before me and devised chessboards and figurines from hardened bread. It was the story of these people that gave me the strength to go back to my assigned cabin, where Gold-Tooth lay passed out, drooling stale alcohol on his pillow, and with my own creativity and imagination in bloom, I drugged myself with two Tylenol PM and soon found, that in making good use of all available resources, it was possible to survive just about anything.

1 comment:

jess said...

i LOVE these pictures...incredible...should we have gotten you those uggs?


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