Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Still on the train

I've covered over 5,100 mls rail miles since leaving London 15 days ago; this includes the 3,140 mls on the 'Tsar's Gold' train from Moscow over the past 5 days & I've just arrived in Irkutsk in central Siberia.

Long train journeys are a strange experience, they tend to generate a sense of unreality, as you flow through the landscape in a little bubble - part of it yet only for a moment & then you're gone. You're a transient figment to onlookers, but onboard you're part of a busy social gathering - with complete strangers. You see them every day, you make friends with some & you gossip about others. You get used to seeing someone, maybe make friends with them & then they're gone.

Its nothing like flying, where your life is suspended & all control is taken from you by uniformed strangers - who do with you, what they will. You are turned into a package, posted in one place & delivered someplace else & inbetween - you just exist.

On a train, apart from the comfort of being just 18 inches off the ground, the rail traveller still controls their life. To train managers, carriage attendants & restaurant staff you're not a package you're a person & if you don't like the service - it gets changed. Whereas on a plane a complaint might get you off-loaded as a flight hazzard or an angry complaint could get you arrested.

Trundling through the endless birch & fir forest a full moon is hanging in the same place night after night & it seems so much bigger than at home. It also seems much brighter & illuminates the empty forest like a distant search light.

In the middle of the night, several hours east of Noviosibirsk, we pulled into Marinsk - a small town but a massive railway junction, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Trains were parked in sidings, drivers were waiting in cabs ready to go & through trains raced past on the way to somewhere. Vast railway sheds & signal boxes were illuminated by towering lights that gave everything a sickly yellow glow & in the distance were the twinkling lights of a town. And over in the distance there's yet another railway graveyard - old steam engines, filthy diesals, rusty electric engines & derelict passenger coaches. There's so much space in this vast country that no one disposes of old things, they just put them on the side - forever.

Like most places I've visited in Russia, Irkutsk is a complete surprise - totally unlike every impression of Siberia I've been given. First its roasting hot at 27 degrees C in September, second how large, elegant & sophisticated the city is & third how friendly so many people are.

The outskirts of Irkutsk is signalled 20 to 30 miles beyond the city centre - wooden houses, a vast factory with four red & white striped chimneys. Then a meandering river flanked with marshy reedbeds, great piles of excavated sand & random industrial buildings that seem to have no planning regulation. Post Soviet Russia is perhaps on the rebound from over-regulation so that now this vast landscape allows any entrepreneur to sprawl out in any direction without regard for the environment.

The hotel Irkutsk is our base for a couple of days as we leave the train for an overnight stay in town. Its a modern tourist hotel with a smart WiFi enabled lobby, coffee shop, souvenir shop, ATM, bar, restaurant & its clean throughout. Unfortunately behind the scenes doesnt get so much attention, staff have sour faces, breakfast is poor, rooms are spartan & bereft of tea/coffee/water, a little fridge is empty, yet there are bathrobes & slippers.

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