The Trans-Siberian Adventure Begins

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Near Moscow after sunrise..

Near Moscow after sunrise..

So to bring you up to speed, it’s now about eleven o’clock at night and we have to travel back to Moscow overnight to catch our first real Trans-Siberian train to Yekaterinburg twenty four hours from now. We’re all sad to leave St Petersburg; it’s been our first stay together and we got to meet our awesome host, Alisha. I’m not looking forward to the train journey back to Moscow. Since I can only sleep sitting up if completely exhausted and even then for only an hour, I know I will be having a very long night. To make matters worse, we will also have a very long day in Moscow leading up to our departure at midnight tomorrow. With my thoughts focussed on how I’m going to deal with this night, we travel across the city on the Metro. Whilst changing lines in a city station, we’re waiting to get on the next train when it happens. The guy in front of me steps onto the train and stands immediately in the door, quite obviously pretending to look left at right. I get nervous straight away, something is wrong; which is when I feel my wallet go. I spin towards that side and Larissa says quietly,
“That guy just took something from you.”
I grab the guy who stopped me moving and he looks at me with mock innocence and genuine fear.
“Not him, that guy who just stepped off the train.”
I never see the guy who took it. It’s all over in five seconds. With his friend stopping and distracting me, he just swooped in through the carriage and has already exited. I look at the other guy long and hard, I could probably make his life difficult, but I have no proof and he knows it. I also have less than an hour to be on a train to Moscow. I let him go and shuffle my bags quickly off before the doors close. Don follows me.

We look up and down the platform and I realise the case is hopeless. I never saw him, neither did Don any more than being able to say ‘some guy wearing a jacket’. We look around the platform for someone running or even moving quickly. There’s no sign of him and no direction for pursuit. If I try to tell the police, I will be ensnared in paperwork for days, so instead I take stock of what was in my wallet. Actually, this isn’t as bad as it could be; the loss is four hundred roubles (AUD$20) and my main debit card. I have another debit card from my other bank and both my credit cards are safe in different places. I can just transfer money to my other debit account and continue on without a care, as long as I can notify my bank to cancel the card on principle.

I should take this moment to mention that almost all of the time that I’m awake in Russia I’m wearing a money belt under my shirt. Sometimes I leave it on when I’m sleeping on the trains. Inside it I have a waterproof plastic envelope into which I placed my passport and the Trans-Siberian train tickets. I also normally keep my main debit and credit card in it at all times. My second debit and credit card are hidden in the lining of my suitcase in another waterproof envelope. This way I could be mugged and continue, or lose my luggage and continue. Losing my main debit card now is annoying as I got lazy and didn’t put it back in the money belt. I keep under five hundred roubles in my wallet normally and after losing it I start to keep a bundle of cash in my money belt in true European style. The small notes were on the outside and the large notes in the centre so you can’t see how much money I really have. I’ll also often split it into two after visiting a Bankomat, keeping the thousand rouble notes separate from the main bundle.

We get back on the train and meet Larissa at the exit to the inter-city train station. We find our train and do some shopping; beer, orange juice, chips and absolutely no vodka – despite our best efforts to find some. You just can’t get it in the train stations. I send an SMS message to my mother to ring up the bank in Australia and cancel the card, and then turn my mind back to how I’m going to get through this night. I can finish the pickpocket saga tomorrow, I’ve done all I can, but what’s the plan for tonight? I decide the ingredients will be the bottle of vodka Don still has from duty free, the orange juice we just bought, a packet of menthol cigarettes, a notepad, a pen and some ugly attitude. I will use the first three to stay awake and the rest to write whatever comes to me in my increasingly deteriorating state.

The long night

The long night

One of the provodnitsas is walking slowly through the carriage saying something repeatedly in Russian. The provodnitsas are like the caretakers of each wagon. This one is making some kind of announcement, I recognise some words from my efforts in learning the language, but cannot put them together in any meaningful way. Whilst we get settled I talk to Don and Lari separately for their memories of St Petersburg; it’s really all about that ‘One Night in Pete’ on Saturday. While I’m still feeling dark, twisted and shaken from losing my wallet, I let the story come out. This works pretty well for a few hours and two refills of the half litre beer bottle I’m using as my glass of vodka and orange. A real Russian screwdriver in the north of Russia. I retrieve my mp3 player and choose a calm playlist to keep my mind flowing nicely. A couple of cute young Russian girls sit across the aisle from me and join me briefly for a smoke and a drink in the gap between two wagons. My Russian is terrible and they are very giggly. It feels like they are on their first big trip out of St Petersburg and I wonder what they make of this huge Australian guy in headphones, scribbling in a notebook between sips of vodka and trips to the smoker’s place at the end of the carriage. I don’t know what to make of myself either, so I put the notebook down and just go and stand in the smokers place and watch the world go by through the open window.

Dawn's first light

Dawn's first light

A man arrives and is quite animatedly trying to tell me something important. He is miming sleeping; I’m trying to explain I cannot sleep in the seats. He tries a few approaches, but I just cannot make sense of it. I feel especially frustrated because I am recognising words, but not enough of the right words to put it together into something sensible. After he’s been gone for five minutes it all becomes crystal clear. The announcement before and now him, there is a spare coupe berth. For some extra money I could have been lying down sleeping in a cabin with two beds for this entire journey. And yet, right now, I feel more inclined to stay up anyway, I feel like there is something I’m meant to see. I could pursue the man to find the cabin, but instead I lazily smoke another cigarette and sip from my bottle of screwdriver as some beautiful five part a cappella music becomes the soundtrack of my life.

Sunrise is coming...

Sunrise is coming...

It is now almost four in the morning and the sun is starting to rise through the endless pine forest we are traversing. I’ve switched to some loud and addictive psychedelic trance music to help keep me awake. An extra layer to the sound is drawn from the constant musical rhythm of the train clicking over the tracks. The moment is mesmerising. I keep breaking into dance moves in this bare metal cabin stained with cigarette ash and smoke, enjoying the flow of music that melds easily with this glorious scenery. I see mists over slow moving rivers that we cross gently on wooden bridges during the first folds of morning’s embrace. I wander back to the wagon and find my camera to try and capture the beautiful scenes the morning light is revealing. I return to the smokers place and spend a while lost in the functions of my camera trying to get it to snap good pictures from a moving train successfully in low light. After a while the sun rises higher and solves my photographical issues; only the drunken, sleep deprived ones remain now. I have all the windows open and spend a long time lost in this entrancing milieu of morning, music, forest and train. There are lakes encircled by ancient pine trees that seem to be breathing the mist into the frozen morning air. The sky changes slowly through reds and oranges as the sun’s heat catches the formless mist and dissolves it like a half forgotten memory of childhood.

Mists of Dawn

Mists of Dawn

I realise my temporary glass is empty again and struggle back into the world of the wagon to refill it. I realise I now have only enough cigarettes to smoke one every half an hour before we arrive. I shuffle back to my viewing position in the smokers place to watch the strange combination of ancient wooden houses and log cabins being suddenly dominated maliciously by soviet style apartment buildings here in the middle of the Russian countryside. The apartments come as a horrible shock after the beauty of the morning spent lost in a natural bliss. There are amazing villages of only wooden houses, with bridges made simply of logs lashed together crossing streams by the train’s route. Then just as you are wondering who these people are that live in these idyllic surrounds, that you know haven’t changed in a few thousand years; there is suddenly the rectangular, sharp horror of one of these apartment buildings. It’s like someone went into space with a collection of them and just threw them down randomly across the countryside. There’s never more than one at a time, always separated out like some strange egg left by a giant crazy robot insect that exists only to breed more of these terrible buildings. It gets worse and worse as we draw closer to Moscow, the buildings become more frequent and somehow even more repellent to me.

..and in a blinding flash, it appears...

..and in a blinding flash, it appears...

I realise I’ve now been awake for far too long and things are started to bend and warp for me. Time and place is distorted. My mother sends me an SMS telling me the card has already been cancelled from being used in a Bankomat with the wrong PIN number. She leaves me a reference number for the report as well. I now realise that friends in Australia will be waking up and send a flurry of SMSs as we pass through towns that have mobile phone towers in them. I’m looking for someone to distract me from the endless call of sleep and these horrific insect egg apartments. Call me up! Ring me now! One friend does. I’m standing in-between two carriages on a train now less than three hours from Moscow talking on my mobile phone to a friend in Melbourne. I tell him how much I’m still loving Russia even after the St Petersburg pickpocket. We talk a while before he has to go and start actually working. I feel rejuvenated for the contact and stare out the window again. There are getting to be more frequent apartments and less beautiful nature, so I return to the cabin wondering if someone can actually make an apartment egg killing insect spray to stop these things from taking over. The journey into Moscow proves the infestation is beyond control.

The station drifts past me in the morning light...

The station drifts past me in the morning light...

I sit for a while and stare at the notebook pages. I’m incapable of writing right now, there’s just no way I can make my brain put words on paper. I sip my vodka and try to decide if I will have one more refill before we get into Moscow or not. Don stirs and I talk to his semi-conscious brain for a while and settle it back to sleep. I move to see how Lari is doing, her eyes are open, but clearly not much functioning is happening behind them. I tell her what’s been going on and decide I will fill my bottle one more time before the provodnitsas catch me at it.

Wooden houses crouching by the train line...

Wooden houses crouching by the train line...

I don’t think they will really care, but I’m still feeling like I’m in Australia and someone in uniform is bound to tell me I can’t do whatever it is I’m enjoying at the moment. I have completely failed to effectively ration the cigarettes. I now have three left and a bit over an hour to go. I decide this will be the last vodka and finish one of the cigarettes to celebrate. Damn. I return to the wagon and check everything is ready to exit the train smoothly for what is going to be a strange, long and twisted day in this city. Don and Lari are awake now and I am smoking the last cigarette as we walk down the platform in Moscow looking for the left luggage room.

Sunlight fingers through the last mists...

Sunlight fingers through the last mists...

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