Gill’s Reflections on Moscow

We are let off the train & our Moscow friend, Helen, is there to worry about the amount of luggage we have – though it’s only 25 – 30 kg each… She is a friend of one of our choir – a journalist, a singer & an English woman fluent in Russian language & culture. The  Transiberian Guard was right to be wary of her!

My camera & my mouth are open as soon as we are off the train platform – beautiful architecture right there – where we pile our stuff into taxis & prepare to take subway trains to our hostel.

The subway is a grand gallery of Soviet Realist Art – arched ceilings complete with mosaics, chandeliers, patterned floors, relief features, sculpture – all depicting Soviet ideals, produce, industry & working people. Most memorable, there on the platform where trains pull in, lifesize bronze sculptures of a woman soldier, a rooster (worn where people have stroked it for luck) and a soldier with a dog (worn where people have stroked the dog for comfort). Our guide explains that the stroking is testament to lives of little joy during Soviet times. She says Stalin’s grand projects are built upon the bones of the Russian people.

Our rather cramped hostel is in the tourist part of Moscow, on the same street as the Anglican Cathedral where we give a concert of some of our religious repertoir. The Canon, Dr Simon Stephens, is very helpfull & tells us about the church volunteer program which aims to help some of the 40,000 homeless children in Moscow (yes, I got the 0’s correct – that many…) Winters are minus 20C & the snow can be 4 metres deep.

These few days in Moscow it’s midsummer, and 38C the day we walk the tourist sights. I get separated from the others but manage to comprehend the Russian street signs enough to read the English map & remember that north is the shady side of the street – sufficiently to navigate past The Kremlin, The Bolshoi Theatre, the breathtakingly ornate (Coptic) Christ the Saviour Cathedral to Gorky Park & back home.

In the cathedral there are a few moments of living fire as a ray of sunlight ignites the solid gold Cross.

In Gorky Park people are lying on the grass, playing in the sprinklers, playing the didgeridoo(!)… just like in Oz! … I do too, except for playing the didge‘.

A Typical Day on the Transiberian Railway (by Gill)


wake to soothing train trundle sound after removing ear plugs & after a hot, stuffy night in railway sheets on narrow bunk bed, wearing clothes of yesterday & the day before. Look out at deciduous forest rolling by – it’s been light for hours. Gather loo requirements, including paper & thongs. Step carefully past 2 levels of 45 sleeping bodies of all ages & genders spreading from similar bunks. Beware of bumping face against sleeping feet & shins against sleeping arms. Everyone looks peaceful.

Don’t get distracted looking at the view out the window or someone will get the loo ahead of you. It‘s a basic small train loo but cleaner than an Australian one. Pump single tap with one hand while washing the other. It has an open window which is a blessing. Enjoy some cool fresh air amongst loo smells.

Get a drink of boiling hot water from the old painted metal urn on the way back. There is no other drinking water available. Wait there for it to to cool while taking in the view through the open window or carry it back past the sleeping bodies in the stuffy carriage.

3 days of forest and still going by – young Birch & Pine joined by young Spruce, Fir Cedar, Cypress, Elm, Elder etc as we travel west. Meadows of pink Toadflax or pale yellow bulbs intersperse. Occasionally villages appear of simple, leaning, single level, timber cottages with vegie gardens & firewood pile. Rarely a horse or cow. No other signs of people. They say it gets to minus 20C here.

6am (ish)

The train stops at a station & we are allowed off! Try & work out how long until the train goes again when all lettering & announcments are Russian & the station clocks only show Moscow time, many hours away from local time.

Judy & Renate & I rush out to the big wide world of courtyard beyond the station to find takeaway food. It is Russian food labelled in Russian so it’s a matter of point & hope. They barely do caffeine here – tea without milk or dispenser machine coffee with ’whitener’. DON’T ask for ’latte’. Rush back wondering if this will be the time the train goes without us.

Yesterday we noticed at the last minute that Judy was not back in time. We told the guard, we pleaded, an English translator joined in, I stood half on half off the train so it wouldn’t go, the guard continued to tell us to get on. The other’s lied; pointing & saying “she‘s coming!” The guard began to put away the step-ladder access to the carriage, I stood back on the platform thinking that Judy must have injured herself & we shouldn’t leave her alone in a Siberian town. Luckily, in the nick of time,Judy cooeed from inside the train & I was allowed back on.

We already lost 3 of us at the beginning of the trip, in Irkutsk, when 1 lost his ticket & was forced to buy another one, then the train left after he bought it & before he got on; leaving him & his 2 Wayfarer helpers stranded until they bought tickets on a later train. So we know the Russian railway authorities are unforgiving.

Today, back on the train, finish breakfast with some roasted unhulled sunflower seeds (good roughage) & hope for more luck later.

7am (ish)

Now back inside travelling, time disappears and it seems best to snooze….
We had 2 nights of not sleeping at the airport or train station for 2am boardings before this, At this time of year there is ~ 2hrs of complete darkness each ‘night’. Everyday we move the clocks back 1 hr, so each day actually has 25 hrs. Time becomes elastic and so disappears.

Sometime or other…get up again longing for the view of endless trees.
Judy is finding where on the map we are with the help of the Russian passengers, later she learns the Russian alphabet with them. Renate is communicating using her Polish language skills, Terry is chatting away in Russian. 12yr old Manuka is composing, Kaoru is looking over her music, Kia, Roh & Raph are rethinking Judy’s ’Ringbearer’ play, Evan is in the air conditioned dining car making lists of Wayfarer’s petty cash, Matt is doing something learned on his laptop, Heather is organising our next hostel, several are still asleep.

I find the only carriage power point – near the loo, by an open window, near the guard’s room; and charge the laptop while standing nearby with the serious music book, humming Mozart’s Kyrie canon to sol fah, amongst the din of the open window & occasional train going by and amidst the constant traffic of people back & forth to the loo & while dodging the guard. I get better at Mozart’s Kyrie canon. Yes, it is a thrill to bring Western sacred music to non-western cultures!

The loo is locked & the train is slowing – a station stop?… Rumours are that we stop for 40mins & yes there are food sellers on the platform! Grab bag complete with passport, water, money, toothbrush etc in case train deserts…. Cup fulls of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, buckets of pickled cucumbers, baskets of fresh cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, onions; trays of cool bottled yoghurt, coke, Kvass, beer, icecreams, chips; dried & smoked fish , sacks of peanuts, unhulled sunflower seeds, buckwheat; gadgets,soft toys & plastic toys, mysterious jars of pickles & mysterious baked things harbouring unknown fillings… I buy pickled cucumbers, yoghurt, peanuts & dried fish from lined, gold toothed women & return to the train as late as possible.

The next hour I spend trying to extricate the dried fish from its bones & into my mouth along with yesterdays rye bread and pickled cucumber – eventually a fantastic, tasty meal.

It might be late afternoon-ish.

Back to take in the forest near the source of fresh air. I feel like eating it.

The guard has turned her pop music up, including ‘I Will Survive’, so we dance a bit & earn a smile from our stern guard. However, not enough to save me the next day,at the end of the journey,when the sheets are handed back & ticked off. Our fierce guard thought she had put 2 sets of sheets on my bunk & expected them back (I think). I had used 1 set & tried to explain this to little avail even when an almost bi-lingual young Russian stepped into help. The penalty s 350Roubles (Aus$12) & no getting off the train until you’ve paid it. I was prepared to pay rather than argue, but our dear Music Director would have no wrongfull accusations & managed to let them know that our Russian speaking friend would meet us at the station. We think this was the turning point as the guard then decided to waive all charges.

To continue with the innocent day:

At Wayfarers end of the carriage some of our music has started – various short songs in umpteen part harmony including Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditsye in our best Russian. The sleepy Russian travellers seem to be underwhelmed, so Renate & I resort to softly going through Judy’s atonal ‘Jumblies‘. (They went to sea in a sieve..)

I want to sleep, but drinks in the dining car is proclaimed to celebrate Evan’s birthday. We drink European beer, eat very small salads & sing Happy Birthday harmonies before we get to unfold our littlle bunks & lie down, pretending it’s a dark, cool evening when actually its light & hot.

Gill’s Reflections on Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

Our herd of cats lands at Irkutsk airport, Eastern Siberia, where fortunately there is knowhere to get lost – it’s a country airport. The air is cool & clear for the first time since I left Canberra. The light is pale & crisp like a highland Aus town. Strange foreign people live here – not like Chinese at all… The lettering makes more sense than Chinese characters though.

Inexperienced as we are, with no hosts to help us,we cram onto a public bus with our cubic metre of bags, instruments & costumes & get off the bus only about a km walk from our hostel.

At last I stretch out & have an hour sound sleep before my friends wake me to go to Lake Baikal, one of the deepest fresh water lakes in the world. I follow them through Irkutsk feeling like I slept very efficiently, I I grab a strange brown drink from a stall which turns out to be Kvass, just the thing for a girl on a 30 hr day.

The bus to lake Baikal goes through forest for 50mins & then we stop at the little holiday village beside clear, cold water stretching as far as th eye can see, hazy mountains loom in the distance. To me it looks like Bateman’s Bay…I am so glad they woke me.

We paddle & breathe & explore the foreshore. I follow the narrow stony beach past stalls selling ornaments made from local gemstones & local woods, embroidered cushion covers etc.; past people in bikinis sunbaking; I find a food market & buy smoked fish & apples & eat the as I continue past derelict buildings, picnics, a woman dressed in traditional dress….

We dream of taking a boat ride but return to the hostel for a few hours before our 2am rendezvous with Transiberian Railway.

Gill’s Reflections on Outer Beijing

I spend time at the airport looking for coffee. Airports are the only source of caffeine in these health conscious countries. Taiwan & China so far have believed in room temperature soups & teas. I keep a little stash of instant coffee to ward off the cold turkey approach to caffeine addiction.

So I’m housed on the 5th floor of a nice apartment block with a lovely Chinese medicine practitioner, her husband & son. Luckily they believe in hot water to drink, so it’s only filling the plastic water bottle that can be a problem. Another wayfarer is with me to absorb some Chinese massage etc. Susan, our host, is self effacing, educated and cooks us beautiful food, melon at the right time to cool the body, other foods for their subtle health effects. The family has very little English. My Chinese begins with it’s my 1st word – ‘itszy’ for ‘together’, suddenly falling out of my mouth. Also Chinese ’thankyou’ – tzhere tzere and “eehow” for ‘hello’.

Her husband drives us & their 9 yr old son, Tien-Nan a short distance to school via the back lanes – kms of muddy lanes through dilapidated patched-together houses, vegies growing in spare nooks, 3 wheeler bikes, kids & quiet dogs. Garbage is piled , not hidden in bins. It stinks & there are flies.

The Steiner school is temporarily down one of these lanes. Several adjacent house blocks have been converted into school classrooms & play areas. Different class areas are accessed by going back out to the lane. The coutyards & classses are pleasant & include Steiner-esque curves, natural wood climbing objects, sand pits, a play hut of bamboo made by the kids & a muddy play pond. They make cooked lunch & dinners for everyone including for us Wayfarers. Sometimes the drinking water filter or the electricity in one class room breaks down. They love our music & the final school concert includes music & puppetry that the kids have been woking on all term. After school I can walk home down the smokey main street past many stalls selling fruit, veg, fresh cooked Chinese food, various litlte grocery shops, restaurants, a hotel, a big modern supermarket, a woman screaming at her child for too long, washing, garbage, repulsive drains, old women chatting together, the dancers, an old man smoking a joint, a dead river, 3 wheel taxis, smart 4 wheel vehicles….to the cluster of 10 floor apartments where I stay, decorated with flowering Hollyhocks, vegies, where people calmly take evening walks with their pure bred dogs. There are even a couple of wheelchairs.

This village is the only place in China where I have noticed many old people or any one with a disability. I think they hide at home or homeless like the man with the fused hip, like mine, at the city train station. Curiously there are many tactile pavements in the city, but no obviously blind people, except the one playing the Irhoo – a chinese instrument.

School organised a guide to take us to the Great Wall one day & the Forbidden City another day. Both hot days we walked amongst crowds of people but I loved it, especially the Wall.

Gill’s Reflections on Chengdu

Suddenly we have to say goodbye & get on a plane for Chengdu, Szechuan Province.

I’m getting the idea of airports. See very little between one high-rise smog city & the next. Our hosts meet us & I get in the car with people I don’t know, who don’t speak English, here on the other side of the world, feeling very safe. I’ve even got over worrying where my next meal comes from because it allways has arrived, beautifully & reliably, for 9 weeks now.

I am transported to a weedy home garden, where I believe the smog is mist, where the double level, free standing house is oldish & imperfect, where Jir- mae has cooked a beautiful, traditional meal which we eat in the dining-living room on kitchen chairs. Afterwards Jirmae, her husband & her 9yr old son share the traditional Tea Ceremony with me in the open air on the roof deck. After posh apartments, I relax & breath.

Next evening they take me walking to the neighbours, along a small tree lined street, accross a paved recreation area & through another community garden to share Tea ceremony on the deck, under a wattle (!) tree, with other Wayfarers Hosts. We sip tea, chat & make music. I think I’m in paradise.

Jir-mae is practical & self taught. She writes English better than speaking, so there are delays while I find my glasses to read what she says… She reads music using a sol – fah system and numbers rather than a stave. One night Jir-mae shows me the Chinese Character for Love. I copy it with the brush & ink. She says she loves me which I understand to be unconditional love. I feel I’ve been given a huge gift. Here, somewhere in Western China, amongst gardens & smog & high-rise, I recognize what I already know.
Jir-mae has an Indian Guru who has taught her. Sometimes we share silence together.

The school is landscaped & pleasant, with veg & fruit gardens, chooks & happy kids. We all share school- cooked hot lunches of traditional Chinese veg, rice, noodle, mushrooom & meat dishes. We wash our own dishes using a brown clay like powder which we assume absorbs grease & abrades food scraps.

They love our contribution to their music, the concerts are allways full. They ask each of us to sing something individually & the children present us with gifts. They take us out sight-seeing to the Panda research centre, lunch at the Dean ancestral home & to the museum of recent archeological finds of the 2 – 4000yr old ‘Shu’ culture which has been uneathed near Chengdu. Ceramic pots & brass military masks & re-created scenes of Shu life. The Dean home is in Chinese coutyard style gardens – I could have spent longer there after eating our Szechuan style cooked lunch.

Suddenly, again, time to leave Chengdu & farewell people I probably will never see again, so sadness.