23 May 2024

Days 20 to 23,  20-23 Sept 2017,   Yekaterinburg,   5383 km travelled from Dublin

I’ve been on the train for 17hrs now and we have travelled a long way from the sophisticated western world of Moscow. We left bang on time at 16:38 and it seemed like, in no time at all, that we were out of the urbanisation of modern Europe and in ancient timeless Russia and the endless taiga.

It feels like my journey has really started now, that I’ve left Moscow. It took 3 weeks to get to this point and, with the benefits of 20/20 hindsight, I didn’t really need to have taken so much time. But, it is what it is and allowed me time to acclimatise as well as heal from those pesky blisters that became infected.

Also, this journey is as much an inner one as an outer one. It’s also about being with myself and traveling with different aspects of myself. The past 15 years or so have been a bit of a whirlwind. This period consisted of me training to be an addictions counsellor, working in a rehab in Bristol, training to be a psychotherapist, moving to Amsterdam to work in a rehab, moving back to UK, starting my own business, working in both Thailand and Hong Kong on different occasions, moving back to Ireland in 2013 following a 40 year hiatus, starting a successful therapy business in Dublin. All the time, I was continuously training, in clinical hypnotherapy, clinical supervision, EMDR training and also starting a doctorate in clinical research. Exciting but exhausting. And then, in May, I officially became a pensioner although I choose to see this as a gold age, not just or only old age. The consequence of all of this is that I feel exhausted, on a deep level. A bit like the old grey granite buildings of Dublin before they were sand blasted and cleaned of centuries of grime. This trip is my sandblasting. On my return, I will continue to work but differently.

In the 1990s in was involved with a wonderful group of women and men called the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order or FWBO. As the name suggests, they were western Buddhists and to my eye something more than the sum of both philosophies or ways of life. They introduced me to the notion of spiritual evolution from lower to higher form. Also, they  spoke of being with oneself and that for most people, the main purpose of this lifetime was to become a fully human being. I learned from them that everything in life is an opportunity to learn. An important practice amongst the FWBO was the solitary retreat where a person spent time in an isolated place with no contact with others and a minimum of distraction. As my mind, then, was a cross between a meerkat and an Alka-Seltzer, I really struggled with this. I really needed others to confirm my existence. This trip is like a solitary retreat as I’m deshackling a lot of habits and perceptions of self. I feel like I’m being sandblasted by reality.

A few years ago when I was working in Thailand I met an Irish guy called Aonghus. He said that people in Asia could never say his name and he was sick and tired of trying to pronounce it. His second name was Tomás or Thomas in English so he decided to call himself by his middle name or Tom for short. He spoke about the separation from his everyday sense of himself this gave him. I thought this was interesting and as my middle name is also Thomas, I decided to call myself Tom while travelling. I have continued this on my current trip and and the sense of difference I experience when I introduce myself as Tom is interesting. I feel separate from Brian and strangely free, as if I have constructed another subpersonality. However, Brian is coming back home with me. Maybe Brian and Tom could have a civil partnership when we get back home to Ireland.

The train itself is pretty ok. When I was booking, I noticed that there were about 12 trains from Moscow to Ekaterinburg that day and around 5 in my time frame, leaving and arriving at reasonable hours and not at 2 in the morning or some crazy time like that. I also noticed that there were big variations in the ticket prices and worked out that there are 2 types of trains: standard and premium or firmeny. I also discovered that the higher the train number, the slower it went.

I went for Train 016 as the timing worked, it was a low number and a firmeny train. It cost 7000 Roubles, about 100€ for a lower berth with services, ie, meals. The cheapest train, a high number and an upper berth, which took 37hrs, was just under ₱5,000. About 30€ difference and worth paying. 3rd class was also a much cheaper option but I’m not ready for such depth immersion yet. I walked through one once and found that the smell of feet just about conquered the fumes of the vodka. Not for one as faint-hearted as myself, the uncrowned king of the sissies of Ireland.

The window in my compartment is quite large so it’s great just sitting and watching the scenery flow by. I did this for the first few hours until it got dark at about 7pm. Then I read or watched movies on my tablet. I went to bed at around 11pm and slept, intermittently, until 5:30am when the train stopped in Kazan. It was also just about dawn so I stayed awake to watch the day grow and watch what was happening in the world outside my window.

Kazan is about the same size as Dublin and is the capital of Tatarstan, a republic in SW Russia. It’s meant to be very beautiful and was one of the places I had contemplated visiting when planning this trip. As I only have a 30 day visa and Russia is such a vast country, I had to limit my stay to about 10 stops. Every stop takes a day to get to and a day or two to see so I had to discriminate between destinations. I choose Kirov over Kazan. As it turned out, due to my foot infection, I had to cancel my trips to St Petersburg and Kirov. Another day, perhaps.

It’s now 1pm and I just had a nap. The sound of the wheels on the rails, the creaking and vibrations in the carriage, the sound of the wind whooshing by and the sensation of the carriage rocking and rolling around has a very soporific and hypnotic effect. I don’t want the journey to stop at all. But stop in 5hrs time it will. I’m struggling to think of anything else to write so might wait until I’m in Yekaterinburg before I continue.

It’s now a few days later and the journey was pretty uneventful. I was the only person in the carriage so I had it all to myself. This was OK but it would have been OK as well to share the carriage and get to meet some Russian folk.

I stayed in another ‘mini-hotel’ in Yekaterinburg and was pleasantly surprised. I was in email communication with the owners and they met me and showed me around. It was a small studio flat right out of an Ikea catalogue and even had a washing machine and a powerful shower so I re-upped my personal hygiene while there. It was near the station, clean, cheap and secure. What more could you want?

It’s amazing how memories fade. My brain puts a timestamp on most memories of the day and files them away in storage memory while I’m in REM sleep every night. Apparently. It’s now a few days since I left Yekaterinburg and, already memories begin to fade or merge with other similar ones from other places. That’s the main reason I write these articles, so I fix the events and places in memory. It works pretty well so long as I actually do it. Tech also helps, especially Timeline on Google Apps which tracks all movements and places visited and also links photos taken and uploaded to Google Photos to the timeline. A really useful function and helps keep memories alive.

Yekaterinburg was a nice city. In was there for 2 days and the first day was about arriving, settling in and rambling around to get a sense of the city. I visited a few sites but my favourite was the Russian Orthodox Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Lands. That’s the real name, I’m not kidding you! Wow, what a mouthful. The church is built on the site where Tsar Nicholas II and several members of his family was shot by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War following the revolution of 1917. They are now canonised as ‘passion bearers’ by the Russian Orthodox church. Ho hum. I took several photos and videos trying, with not much success, to increase my understanding and skill of the art of photography. I probably need to take a course and understand the mechanics of lenses etc first before I start on the art side of it as I’m a bit left brain.

The church looked OK but I didn’t go inside. I’m of the school of ‘see one golden Buddha and you’ve seen them all’. This also refers to onion domed churches.

I also did something there I haven’t done for a long long time. It’s probably decades since I’ve done such a thing.

I looked in the mirror one morning while shaving and noticed that my hair, or what’s left of it, looked like somebody had given me an electric shock. It was all standing up in little spikes. This of course is very cute and trendy when you are young but when you’re an auld wan like me, drastic action need to occur in order to maintain dignity. So, a trip to the barber was called for. Being conscious of weight, I left my Wahl hair trimmer at home, being fairly sure I could find a barber where ever I was. I asked my longterm companion Gary Google and found one near to me.

I went along and asked for a number 1 buzz cut. But it was not going to be that simple. Oh no.

The barber who cut my hair, a Turkish man who spoke English, was quite flamboyant and approached my exposed head with all the fervour of an avuncular Dickensian grandparent about to carve a gigantic roast goose on Christmas Day. He cut my hair first; this took about 30secs! Then he trimmed my eyebrows. So far so familiar.

Then he got a cotton bud and broke it in half and dipped the cotton bits into what looked like an old fashioned glue pot. It came out covered in a thick green wax. These he stuck up each nostril. It didn’t really hurt, not much. Then he went back to his pot and with a spatula, poked lots of hot wax into my ears, both inside and around the top. Ah, I get this now, I thought to myself. He’s going to yank the wax off and with it all the hairs. I hoped I wouldn’t squeal and betray for ever the reputation of my proud nation. He yanked then off and it hurt a bit but I was a stoic, not a whimper. He used a tweezers to pull out the bits that didn’t come out with the first few yanks but I remained stoical. Enda Kenny would be proud of me; a true son of Erin. Then he got a thing that looked like a lamp wick in a metal holder and lit the end. It flared blue and he waved this over both ears. There was a sizzle and a stench of burning hair. Then he washed my now hairless pate and dried it. It was nice having my head and face washed and dried. Like excitement, I take my intimacy where I can get it. Then he have me a head, neck and shoulder massage. Ditto previous sentence. He rubbed some pleasant, though not very masculine, lotion into my head and whipped the cape off he like a matador and said “it is done”

I floated back home but unsure how to interpret the occasional glances I received. I was dressed all in black. Maybe that’s some uniform here. So I stuck my lined flat cap on me noggin and put my blue Goretex jacket on. A result.

Most of the rest of the time in Yekaterinburg was just rambling around. I’d either catch a bus, trolley ar, tram or metro to whatever point of interest I had identified on Google Trips or Lonely Planet and meander around. I also liked finding places to have coffee or tea and just observe what was going on. Non-participant observation is a good way to understand what’s going on, I find the participant variety more satisfying, though. As so few people in Russia seem to speak English, most of my observation is often former sort.

I left Yekaterinburg at 10pm for my journey to Omsk and more about that later as well as tales about Russian soldiers and naked civil servants. .

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