Sunday, November 29, 2009

Day 14 - 23rd July 2009

Yet another early wake up. For some reason, I couldn’t seem to catch up with my sleep. The patterns were so erratic partly due to all the travels but also due to the time zone changes. The next three days would see six different time zones in total. How I would have loved a lie in! After a lovely breakfast prepared by Alex I did the shopping for the trip as the restaurant cars on Russian trains were privately run since the end of communism, and unfortunately you couldn’t guarantee the quality of the food from train to train. In actual fact, the menu tended to be written each day depending on what the staff were able to buy from the babushkas, or grandmothers, at each station. Even so, there was always the staples of cabbage and tongue, so we wouldn’t starve.
Our diet tended to consist of dried noodles a lot, but this time I tried to supplement this healthy mix by getting fresh roast chicken, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles and bread. One final and most important thing was a bottle of Chinggis Khaan 42 percent vodka. I can’t stand the stuff but all indications showed we would have to get some to fit in. Besides, with all our gear we couldn’t physically carry enough cans of beer to last three people for three days with nothing else to do. Of course, alcohol was sold in the restaurant car, or PECTOPAH, as it read when spelt in Cyrillic, but at exorbitant prices. Actually, it was only recently that strong alcohol was allowed to be consumed on trains at all in Russia. Thankfully, over the 72 hours that we travelled on the train, no one challenged us to a straight vodka toasting party as we had been expecting so we cut it with pure orange juice to make it more palatable. That said, if I never see vodka again it’ll be too soon.
Getting on the train at 4pm in Irkutsk we said goodbye to Dmitri, a most helpful guide and genuine easy going character. Normally the attendants, or provodnitsas, were women who rules the carriage with fists of iron, making sure everything was kept shipshape and Moscow fashion, and keeping a constant eye on the samovar - the wood burning water boiler always at the ready, day and night, at the end of every carriage. But this time, for such a long run, there were two provodnitsas, both men! In these days of equality, why not? Although they did look a bit funny wearing ladies housecoats when doing the vacuuming.
We found our carriage and also our travelling companion for the next 36 hours. Alexei, I quickly recognised, was a shy bookish type as soon as I had introduced myself to him. Amiable, but quiet, I managed to get some information about his journey with us. It turned out that he was an astrophysicist and was attached to the university at Irkutsk. He had to go a city called Novosibirsk for English tests to prove his English was up to scratch prior to a posting he had been offered in the UK. His English was better than a lot of ex-pats living in Spain, which isn’t necessarily surprising. I asked him whereabouts he was hoping to work in the UK and was pleasantly surprised when he said the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. Less than 50 miles from where I lived! Talk about a small world? Here I was in central Asia, on a train, only to meet a local who wanted to live in my small country. When asked about my vocation I explained I was an artist and gathering experiences to create an exhibition in the future. Sadly, we realised that he had no interest or understanding of art just as I knew virtually nothing of astrophysics. Our conversation on each other’s subjects dried up pretty fast. I tried to keep a sort of dialogue up but it was hard work. It wasn’t until much later that I realised he was happy to talk when we were alone. As soon as either of the two ladies in my party turned up he clammed up tightly. I think perhaps, even though he was obviously a highly intelligent man, he was an extremely inward person and maybe a bit shy of women.
I had read that food was always expected to be shared with your fellow passengers and would be reciprocated. All except the smugglers over the Russian/Mongolian border of course. I offered Alexei bits and pieces of our purchases which he accepted graciously, but he never once offered anything back. Perhaps his money was a lot tighter, but if he had shown a little more generosity I would have returned it tenfold happily. I asked him why he was going to Novosibirsk by train and he said it was the cheapest way. Car was not an option because of the vast distances involved, and although there was a two hour flight available it was just way too expensive for him to contemplate. So he had to persevere on a train for 36 hours with three wrinkled smelly travellers drinking vodka and pure orange and eating noodles messily with chopsticks. I hope it doesn’t put him off his Chinese food in Ireland.
When destined to spend a long period on a train such as this you try to make things last as long as possible just to avoid the boredom. We spent at least one hour to make up our beds, going to the toilet to brush our teeth (still couldn’t work the tap at this stage) and getting ready for sleep. I spent the time getting caught up with some notes of my experiences of the day and we settled down as best as was possible for the night. We all slept with our heads towards the window, Alexei turned the opposite way. The train’s rocking and rolling helped lull me to sleep and I dreamt about painting pulsars and quasars floating round the head of Einstein. I wonder what Alexei dreamt of?

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