As we flew into Russia, the thing that became most apparent was the different environment. We each took a joy-filled breath of sweet clear air, enjoyed the warm sun, the cool breeze and the beautiful blue sky. We caught a local bus from the Irkutsk airport (which was essentially a tin shed-such a contrast to Beijing airport!) and half filled it with ourselves and our luggage, which unfortunately meant the bus was so over full that quite a number of locals were unable to get on. Sorry!
Sitting, squashed into a seat with my small pack at my feet and my large one on my lap, half a sleep because we had spent the night in the airport, I watched with an unexpected feeling of joy, the traditional timber houses and shops. Often they were old, with aged and fading paint, worn timber, and crooked windows. But what was wonderful was being able to see that these buildings were hundreds of years old. Structures that had grown to be a part of the place. They belonged there. This feeling didn’t exist in the brand new cities of China where the predominant feeling was of rapid new growth, fast-paced change and transience. It is hard to imagine any of Beijing’s streets being recognisable in any way in two hundred years time.
We piled off the bus, and with the help of Terry’s skills in speaking Russian, eventually made our way to the hostel we had booked for the day. Yes, day, because the Trans-Siberian train we were to catch, left Irkutsk at 2am that night! So it would be another night without much sleep!
Wayfarers variously slept, ate, talked or travelled their way through the afternoon. A number braved the hour and a half bus ride to lake Baikal, unfortunately I wasn’t one of them! I slept. Or attempted to anyway.
At 11pm we loaded ourselves and our possessions into two minivans and made our way to the train station. We hung around, got our tickets, sang happy birthday to Kia when it turned midnight, hung around some more, moved into the station where it was warmer, hung around some more, moved to the platform, and finally began to make our way onto the train, showing our ticket and passport to the serious looking carriage attendant. It was at this point that things began to get stressful. Dave couldn’t find his ticket anywhere, not in bags, not in pockets… So, as quickly as possible he-with Terry and Theodore to help-went back to get himself another one.
The rest of us piled onto the train, carrying massive backpacks, cellos, props bags etc up the narrow isle, trying to move quietly so as not to wake up the sleeping passengers (it was 2am after all). As the minutes ticked by and the others didn’t come back, the adrenaline levels began to increase. At our departure time, 2.30am on the dot, the train began to move, sliding gently out of the station, without our three lost Wayfarers. Although I couldn’t see it, apparently they were running across the tracks, tickets in hand, but the train wouldn’t stop. 18 of us on the train with our luggage, plus Terry and Theo’s, and Dave’s bags lying forlornly on the platform… You can imagine the feelings the rest of us inside the train: shock and disbelief that this could happen; anxiety accompanying the fact that we had lost our only Russian speaker; and consequently apprehension at not knowing what would happen next.
But life must go on. We settled in and eventually went to sleep. The train kept moving. By morning we had made contact with the three lost and by afternoon we knew that they were catching the next train and following us to Moscow, same route, twelve hours later. With nothing else we could do, we continued on our way, and proceeded to enjoy our journey.
We celebrated two birthdays on the train: Kia’s and Evan’s, which certainly provided some entertainment. We spent a lot of time walking between the dining carriage and our own. It had tables, more sitting room and the blessing of air conditioning! After the humidity of China the train wasn’t unbearable, but the heat was still less than ideal. Our beds were also spread throughout the carriage with others interspersed between us, so if we wanted to congregate we needed a different space.
It was an interesting feeling, to be constantly moving, but at the same time to be staying still. To be doing nothing at all, but to also be steadily moving towards your goal. This, along with the introduction of twenty hours of daylight with beautiful long sunsets (and probably sunrises too, but I was asleep for those!), of crossing four time zones over three days, and the constant movement of the train, led to a strange dreamlike feeling where nothing felt quite real or solid.
There was a level of uncertainty that we carried with us; of when the stops would be and for how long; of whether someone else might get left behind (we thought we had lost Judy at one point); of not being able to talk to people to ask questions; of being very sleep deprived from being up all night twice in a row, followed by the broken sleep that came on the train, where falling asleep meant not caring about the fact that there were strangers walking past 15 cm from your face, and of being on a bunk that was half a metre wide and shorter than I was.
But overall it was such an incredible experience. Watching the countryside change-and not. Watching the people around me as different ones came and went, some staying for only a few hours and others remaining for as long as us. Talking to different people, the thoughtfulness of some who were so helpful to us, particularly on that first night. The delicious food at some of the stations we stopped at along the way, sold by the locals from their small bags or boxes that were packed up and taken away the moment the train left. Listening to Russian being spoken, even if I couldn’t understand it. Having fabulous conversations with other Wayfarers. Overall, an absolutely fabulous thing to do!