I boarded the train on Thursday evening. An unceremonious goodbye to a slippery platform in Irkutsk had brought an end to an uneventful day, plagued by illness, in the capital of Eastern Siberia. The excitement of heading towards my final destination on this journey was spurring me to climb aboard. However, in hindsight my anticipation was somewhat premature.
Time on this last elongated stretch of the Trans-Siberian warps, twists, and molds itself into an abstract version of what I have come to know as my daily existence. Not only because daily life inside the carriage consists of concentrating on your next meal, next flannel wash, next walk to the dining car, but also because all trains along the Trans-Siberian route run to Moscow time. Adherence to a clock is rendered pointless, as you can be at any one of three different time zones at any one time.
Following? Let me explain: On arrival at a station the time shown is Moscow time, however the train is nowhere near Moscow yet (still three days away in fact) and so local time will generally be at least three-four hours earlier than the time shown. Add to this, the fact that most people are gradually acclimatising themselves to the time shift, and are therefore working off a time, which dangles halfway between local and Moscow time, and you get complete confused chaos. Anyway I digress. Even my explanation is redundant; as no one even really needs to know what time it is. You eat, sleep and chat to other passengers whenever you feel the urge, and who requires a clock for that?
Life inside the train revels in its own micro-culture. Travellers organize their cabin as if it were their home; food laid out, shirts hung up and beds made immaculately ready for the long nights ahead. Everyone has different methods of passing the hours; Some stare through windows at silver birch and snowy drifts, some play games and others do laps, inevitably returning to the dining car for a change of scenery. Overseeing all these activities are the larger-than-life ladies, Prodvonitsas. They control every aspect of carriage existence, from toilet usage, to hot water availability. They stride along the narrow carriage corridors, blocking the light temporarily as their massive bosoms bolster smaller passengers out of the line of fire and back into respective cabins. The first rule of the Trans-Siberian: Love your Prodvonitsa, and bribe her favouritism whenever possible.
Cups of tea, toilet trips and the occasional glimpse of sunlight punctuate my days. When the train pulls up at a larger station I’m allowed to step out into the real world for ten minutes. Last night I escaped into the freezing but fresh evening air and the platform was a hive of activity. Angry animal-like Provinistas emerged from the train as a bear from hibernation, standing proud and tall observing the riff-raff and scurrying passengers around them. Robust men in orange-netted vests coughed and spat on the snow as they chiseled pesky icicles from the underside of the train. Panicking clientele asked me in rattling Russian which carriage was theirs. I shrugged apologetically and tried a smile. Young military men who share my journey huddled in groups of round fur hats, chain smoking until it was time to board again. I took a last deep breath. It was 8pm Moscow time, and although I had no idea which time zone I was in, I could be sure of one thing. It was nighttime here. A charcoal black sky lay thick and heavy over my train.
Each morning I travel back in time by an hour or so as the train surges forward towards Moscow. As I strain my eyes from my top bunk I can first make out the horizontal dark stripes of the rail tracks, and then, as the light very gradually increases, the bark of nearby trees comes into view. However this is not a sunrise I’m accustomed to. No sudden burst of orange light over a horizon, but more an arduous battle of complete darkness against the relatively cheerful opaque grey of the next day. Dawn finally breaks between 10 and 11am.
I’ve woken up this morning to heavy banks of snow either side of the track. It’s Sunday, and I’m nearing the end of the line with only another 20 hours to pass on carriage No. 7. Birch trees have succumbed to denser conifer forests and I notice that the small townships and villages become more frequent. Tiny wooden sheds of houses protrude from the landscape as if built by accident and later abandoned. Cars a long time neglected litter snowdrifts along the sides of small slushy-brown roads. Garden ornaments are barely visible under weighted coatings of what looks exactly like icing sugar. Smoke stacks from local factories fill the drab sky with puffs of creamy cloud. Children wrapped like little Michelin men get pulled in old-fashioned sledges by mothers eager to get on with the day’s chores.
My attention is suddenly brought back to the train as there’s a buzz gathering speed at the prospect of lunch being served. Passengers settle in to wait patiently for the rustle of the Prodvonitsa’s brown paper bag. I hear the hum of music playing and raised voices ebb and flow over of game of cards. The body of the train creaks and chugs as we wind our way ever closer to our final destination.