16 June 2024

Day 31,  1st Oct 2017,  train from Tynda to Komsomolsk,  about 12,000km from Dublin

This is not about anything I’ve done or anywhere I’ve been. I’ve been on the road for exactly a month now and thought I’d reflect on the journey to date.

First impression is how far aware Dublin seems and far different my life is to the one I left just a short month ago. The main rhythm in my life now is the sound of the wheels of the train. I have travelled 13,000km so far and apart from a short ferry journey across the Irish Sea, it was all by train.

Also present is my backpack and checking in and out of hotels.

Half way through I thought to myself, wtf, what am I doing, am I crazy. This was mainly when in Moscow and having problems with my feet.

My first sleeper experience was Minsk to Moscow and it seemed very strange. A lot of systems and procedures I didn’t understand. I was worried I’d board the wrong train or be late or that there would be something wrong with my paperwork and I wouldn’t be allowed to board. Having a good imagination, I could easily see myself stranded at an unmanned station in Siberia at 11 at night waiting for the next train the following day. The temperature would be – 30°C and, naturally, I would freeze to death, if the wolves or bears didn’t get me first. My shade would forever be destined to wander the frozen taiga of Siberia pining for the soft hills of West Cork. Or the neo Nazis might intuit what I REALLY AM and kick the living bejasus out of me. And then there’s the rabid dogs, don’t mention the rabid dogs. And that was on a good day.

Having bathed frequently in the fragrant waters of a certain major river in North Africa, home to Cleopatra, the Queen of, you know, I was very able to kick these thoughts into the long grass. That and a very strong dose of ah, sure, it’ll be grand, grand altogether, so it will. And so it was, and is and continues to be. It’s now 2nd nature almost.

I quickly got to know how the system worked. It seems that, because they were isolated for so long behind the iron curtain, Russians had to work out a lot of things themselves. Trains are an example. They seem very idiosyncratic. At first glance, things didn’t seem to make sense but after a while they do. They have evolved to meet the needs of people travelling and are intelligently designed. Although the stock is a bit old it was well built in the first place and well maintained so works well. And of course, there’s no shortage of staff. Every carriage has two attendants, provodnitsas, nearly always female with impressively formidable hairdos, who rule the carriage like their own private fiefdom and are always on the go hoovering and cleaning so the place is always spotless.

Central to the life of the carriage is the samovar or hot water boiler. This is an old fashioned water heater operated by coal and the smell of smoke coal is a smell I now associate with train travel in Russia. Every few stations, the supply is replenished with huge slabs of brown coal. The provodnitsas break these down and feel them into the boiler which is also used to heat the carriage, so an important piece of equipment. The boiler itself is located behind an innocuous looking door near the carriage entrance. Open it and it’s like looking into the cab of an old steam locomotive. The impressive samovar is the only visible part of the system and is just really a receptacle for boiling water. Retro chic of the highest order.

I mentioned my backpack in a previous post, about how it has a 55 liter main pack and a zip off 15 liter day pack. I also mentioned the packing cubes I use to keep everything organised so I’m not stressing out looking for things. I have a system now where everything I need for my journey is kept in my day pack which I hang up, using a shackle, on a conveniently placed hook. I have all my tech in this pack also and it never leaves my sight except for short trips to the loo. I keep my chargers, battery packs and cables in an old belt pouch and also have this in my daypack. I hang this on another hook with cables protruding so I can charge my phone, tablet or kindle when necessary and with little hassle. I have all the clothes I need for the journey in a packing cube and also use this as an extra pillow. As soon as I enter the carriage, I take out this packing cube and store my main pack in a locker under the seat and hang up my daypack and I’m set up for the journey in just a minute or two. Easy peasy.

Accommodation is the other aspect of travelling I mentioned above. When I was booking hotels in Dublin a lifetime ago, cost was my prime concern as well as comfort etc. I quickly learned that a major stress point is arriving at a station where nobody speaks English and finding out that the hotel is 5km away from the station. I tried walking but the pack got too heavy after a km or two or, likely, I got lost. I started using taxis then but felt that I was being ripped off. This also didn’t tie in with my idea of shoestring travelling. So, I cancelled all my pre booked hotels, free with booking.com, and now book accommodation based on the distance from the railway station. This reduces the level of stress and pre-arrival anxiety enormously.

I also mentioned in an earlier post how I would stay in hostels. Well, I soon changed my mind about that idea. Maybe it’s all the years I’ve worked with criminal justice clients, not to mention my own unsavoury past, but I’ve a hypervigilance towards crime and could never rest property in a hostel where my possessions might get nicked. Many hostels, too, have a deplorable sense of security and few provide secure lockers. As I’m travelling with the bare minimum, I can’t afford to lose anything. Hence stress. I now book a private room in hostels so I get the benefit of security as well as the possibilities of meeting people. The price is about mid range between a hotel and a dormitory and that work ok for me. I met a really nice guy from the Czech Republic in Severobaykalsk who is writing a book about Lake Baikal. He was very generous with his information. I also met a Russian guy, another Alexei, who works in the oil industry in Kazan and told me a lot about Russia. We all exchanged tea, information and viewpoints and left with a bit more knowledge of each other’s home culture and society.

All this reduces stress to a minimum and means that I have to do less which of course leaves me with a lot more time to just be. Result.

For me, the greatest pleasure I get from travelling the way I do on slow Russian trains is the sense of being in an extended liminal zone, a sort of interzone where I haven’t departed nor arrived and the usual rules of living have been loosened. Like being in the departure lounge of an international airport. The leg of the journey I’m on now, the BAM, is a good example of this. Due to the terrain, the train travels very slowly, sometimes you could run faster than it. Also, due to the relative wilderness of the area and the definite isolation, there’s a sense of being somewhere out of the ordinary, of being in almost uncharted territory. The Russian Railways board would challenge this but it feels this way, so, with awareness, let’s allow feelings and facts to coexist in the same universe. Just for a bit.

The history, especially the social history, of this region encourages awe at its spectacular feats of engineering and sadness for the terrible things that happened in the gulags and about how many inmates or zeks died to fulfill Stalin’s dream, or feed his paranoia. Mind you, the Soviet Union has been surrounded by enemies for all of its existence so perhaps a measure of paranoia is appropriate.

Ever since we hit Siberia several days ago I have being having very vivid dreams, some of an epic or archetypal quality. Something about this area causes a strong resonance in my unconscious. I read several of the Russian classics in the year before I came here as well as developing a fascination for the human endeavours and sheer gutsiness of the Russian people as demonstrated by the building of the BAM; in my humble opinion, it’s one of the marvels of the last century. I have also done a lot of background reading on Russia and watched several documentaries on YouTube about how the railways facilitated the growth and development of modern Russia.

And then there’s the great Red bear who rampaged through the western psyche for decades, eating little children, raping women, mauling men to death and looting and destroying wherever it went. Jung once spoke of the American looking across the world at the dreaded communist Soviet Union, the USSR, and feeling a visceral shudder of dread when he did so. Jung suggested that he was seeing the unacceptable parts of himself, his shadow, and projecting this across the world. I wonder what elements of this remain embedded in my psyche, all these years later.

As a young person, my dominant state was self-loathing and self-hatred, stemming from an abusive childhood. I projected this outwards into a hatred of society, authority, government, you know, the usual. I became very counter-dependent. A rebel without a clue. I expressed this by being a dogmatic socialist. I was active in left wing politics in Dublin in the late 60s but this was all about what I was against, not what I was for. My enemy’s enemy was my friend. It was also about feeling accepted and having a sense of belonging, my codependency. I used to listen to Radio Moscow and Radio Tirana on shortwave radio and feel the same shudder of dread Jung mentioned except I suspect that this was an resonance of my own state. I projected this out onto myself and my own. The ultimate in self destruction. This got worse later, much worse and then better, much better. Again, I wonder if these memories are being triggered as I’m in the depths of Siberia with signs and symbols of the old Soviet Union everywhere. Food for thought.

Another aspect of being in this liminal space where I lose track of time and days and space is a sort of dislocation in time. There are really no markers of the passing of time on these trains except dawn and dusk. They’re no mealtimes, no staff changeover, nothing. The whole Russian rail system runs on Moscow time and the clocks in the train and all the stations we pass are on Moscow time. Add to that the fact that we have passed through several time zones so I’m unsure what the real time is. I have no Internet so phone doesn’t auto update. This allows me to let go of time a bit and be more in the present. Thoughts of my death surface and are allowed to stay. I have a strong, an intensely strong sense of the preciousness and beauty of this life and how valuable passing moments are. I’m getting a determination to live my remaining days to the full limit of my abilities. With hindsight, that’s reality what this training is about.

That’s it folks. I’ll try and get this posted ASAP but it might take a few days until I get Internet.

Please feel free to comment….

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