The October rain fluttered to the ground in it’s purgatory role between the warmth of summer and the depth of the winter snow. The platform lights of Kazanskaya Station quivered and were blurred through the windows; their puddles of faint smiling light mingling with the miserable black puddles of water.
From this station the tracks head east from Moscow towards Soviet Asia and Siberia, and in the faces of the waiting passengers in the concourse, a score of races were represented. Most people were wearing winter clothes already; thick padded coats and fur hats. The cavernous station was warm with the sweet, pungent odour of a sweating mass of humanity. The crowds lounged on every available foot of floor space with their belongings.
A group of boisterous men, not entirely steady on their feet, crowded a bar in one corner, bottles of vodka emptying quickly before them. Families from the Arctic east, with red cherubic faces, ate meals beneath the echoing drone of the public address system that solemnly announced departing trains. Using their bags as chairs and tables and looking so settled into their space that you wondered if they should be paying rent. Moscow can be an expensive and unwelcoming place to citizens from other parts of the USSR and train stations are used in every capacity.
I found the 23:10 train to Tashkent listed on the board and walked out into the drizzle to find the platform. The station was built in the grand style of traditional European train stations but had been left to slowly fray at the edges over time. The concrete floors and the platforms were chipped and rough and the heavy wooden doors had tired of their swinging chores. Viewed from outside, the stone building stood sad and exhausted in the miserable rain and the pale artificial light of the night gave it a sickly yellow hue.
I boarded the long, green train in a melancholy mood to match the weather and the sad, half-closed eyes of the provodnik, the Russian title for train attendant, who stood at the door checking tickets. For two weeks I had been travelling through Russia and some of the republics in third and second class, researching an article on the Soviet rail system. On this long haul to Tashkent; over 50 hours, I splashed out and paid for a first class berth. It was a wild and reckless thing to do but I was sure that the four pound sterling it cost would be worth it.
The main difference I was paying for was the privilege of sharing my compartment with only one other passenger instead of three. Vladimir was perched attentively on the edge of his berth as I settled in and introduced myself. He actually looked excited as he sat waiting for the train to leave. With childlike anticipation he was wide-eyed at the long journey ahead.
He was a short, wiry fellow with hair the colour of grain, tinged with grey. He was a forty five year old `engineer’; a rather generic occupation in the Soviet Union. I had met scores of people who introduced themselves the same way. His posture was proper and acute; he sat straight backed with knees together as we waited for the train to move.
Just the way his things were already neatly put away; toiletries carefully arranged on the tiny shelf above him, a pair of slippers sitting expectantly at a right angle to the bottom of the bunk, revealed his somewhat fastidious nature. In these idiosyncrasies he was different from most Russian men I had met on Soviet trains.
I relayed information about myself typical to opening conversations on trains. Age, nationality, occupation. I was always an unexpected cabinmate; few tourists travel the local trains throughout the country and the people I met I found to be refreshing and sincere, qualities rare in Moscow and Leningrad. Indeed, I was the first foreigner that Vladimir had ever met and he thought highly of the moment. Such instances are daunting. I feel overwhelmed that, not only do I represent my countrymen, but the entire free world as well.
He didn’t speak English at all and my Russian was, at best, rusty, but we cleared the inaugural exchange of words without confusion. The train finally leapt into motion with a few telltale yanks as the engines urged the rest of the cars to fall smartly into line. Slowly at first, but with increasing speed, we pulled away from the station and into the suburbs of Moscow. Vladimir and I watched the lights of the city blink past, diffused by the rain on the glass.
One of the provodniks, there are two to every car, came around to complete a couple of formalities. He was short and stumpy, his narrow Asian eyes virtually non-existent in his chubby face. His cap sat far back on his head and to one side. He snatched our tickets with short fat fingers and we paid him the requisite fee for our bed linen; sheets and pillow case. Once that was completed, we had cleared the limits of the city and the window had gone completely black. In the wet night, light found it a difficult path into our window, the clouds low and oppressive over the land.
It was gone midnight and, after changing into more leisurely clothes as is the custom on Soviet trains, we said goodnight and went to sleep. The soothing rocking of the train like a lullaby to me, as always. I rarely sleep as good as I do on a train.
The morning came and presented itself as dull and grey as the day before. Farms were flowing past and few colours were represented on the landscape. The plowed fields dominant with their rich black colour in the rain. Lonely looking women carrying baskets appeared frequently, often stopping to watch the train. Despite the rural surroundings, every level crossing had cars, invariably white, red or beige Ladas, lined up ten deep, waiting for the train to pass.
Vladimir was already up and looking out of the window, wearing his dark blue polyester track suit, two red stripes extending down the side. He looked fit and energetic.
He gave me a friendly smile and a enthusiastic nod as I sat up on my bunk. His thick quilt and sheets were neatly folded and put away for the day. I found this a trifle annoying in my grumpy early morning state and left mine where they lay.
He was waiting for me to get up so he could lay out breakfast and as I sat there groggy, he proceeded to unwrap various food from their individual pieces of wax paper. He gestured for me to help myself and we sat quietly eating staple Russian food; bread, cheese, salami and cucumber. As per usual on a Soviet train, a samovar is provided for tea and I fetched the water and tea leaves from the end of the corridor.
It was quiet as we ate and we both seemed to enjoy slowly eating and sipping our tea, glancing out of the window as we chewed. In our comfortable silence I felt like one half of an elderly married couple. When we finished we wrapped up the food and put it away before settling back in our bunks to chat.
He was an interesting person with intelligent observations and a thirst to learn things about my world. Like many of the people that I met he marvelled at the opportunities I had to travel. This always makes me feel guilty, knowing that there are dreamers and adventurers in such places, without an outlet for their desires. His father, he told me, had been in the Navy before the Bolsheviks came to power and had travelled extensively. He expressed bitterness at having lost that privilege under the Communists. He served in the army in Czechoslovakia and East Germany but pined for Paris, London and Cape Town.
He spoke proudly of his family’s rich history in the area around Rostov on Don and in Northern Causcasia. He sat up straighter than ever and thumped his chest firmly with his fist as he said, “I am a Cossack”. He hardly resembled my pre‑conceived perceptions of Cossacks as huge and fierce bearded men in black shiny boots armed with vicious swords, but he said it with enough conviction to expel any doubts.
Vladimir spoke very fast and it was difficult to understand him at times with my mediocre Russian. I dug out my Russian‑English dictionary and it became dog-eared on that section of my trip. As we tangled ourselves up in passionate conversations, one of us would grab the book and search hurriedly for the word or words that escaped us. Sometimes, when you were trying to make a point, the delay was annoying but we managed. The cabin also developed into a world class stage for the finest quality charades, our arms working extra hours to produce gestures that would make an Italian weep with joy.
We moved smoothly from subject to subject, eager to learn each others opinions. My youth, growing up on the Canadian Prairies, was dragged out of the closet when we moved onto a fine subject. The Art of Ice Hockey. We would exhaust hours on the topic, looking and acting like kids who should be trading hockey cards. We discussed the specifics of the historic 1972 Canada‑Russia hockey series with fond recollections. Although I was only four years old at the time, the highlights were shown over and over on TV as I grew up. I told him how Paul Henderson’s goal is revered by the people of the nation.
He nodded thoughtfully as he said, “Yes, it was a good goal. Good for Canada and good for hockey.”
We spent hours talking about the very recent breakup of the Soviet Union, a subject of particular passion to Vladimir. He was consistent with the views of almost every Russian I knew; they wished for a return of the old system. At least people had food and jobs and I could afford to care for my family, he told me. People could live a life of dignity and the children could be guaranteed a decent education and health care.
He wanted to know specifics of how much things cost in England, where I lived, and he gave me comparisons of prices in the Soviet Union. Both pre‑dissolution and current. He thought that the breakup would be good for the republics, fueled by their nationalism, but bad for Russia.
In both my notebook and the dictionary, the last pages are filled with scribbles from our conversations. Numbers litter every bit of space and relate to all manner of things; prices of beef and bread, apartments, cars and watches, dates of certain events and sketches of ice rinks, maps, boats, and a pig. I have forgotten what most of them relate to, in particular the pig, but I think back on the conversations fondly.
Literature was a popular subject as well. With a suspicious tone Vladimir asked if I liked any of the great Russian authors. It was like I was being given the ultimate test in his eyes. Fortunately I passed and we took Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyesky and the lads through the paces. He commented sadly how, despite the rich literary history, the most popular genre in the country today is the spy thriller; translations of Robert Ludlum, Arthur Hailey, and Alistair Maclean among the most read.
After lunch in the early afternoon, I napped soundly for an hour, hoping for a change in the weather when I woke up. The entire nation had been a mass of angry cloud and rain except for one warm sunny afternoon on the Crimean Peninsula that I spent visiting Chekhov’s dacha. When I lifted my head to look out of the window, however, the scenery remained unchanged.
In places the landscape would vomit up drab, grey factories with their surrounding settlements but then slip back into water logged farmland. But I could tell that we were gradually drifting away from the populated western regions of the country, as paved roads became fewer, replaced by muddy tracks. The farmhouses became smaller and simpler. There was no horizon to speak of, the world just faded away after a couple of kilometres. Hills or mountains were a forgotten concept. It was like looking at a sixty year old black and white film, there were few foreign or modern influences there, in the dark heart of Russia.
When we stopped at Samara on that second day, Vladimir and I getting out to stretch our legs and breathe some fresh air. There was chocolate, milk and bread for sale. Large, squat women wearing scarves on their heads were lined up down the platform with their little baskets of whatever in their arms or sitting in front of them. Their faces were hard and rough but often smiles of golden teeth would slice off the years and the hardship.
There was little produce on offer. In the southern republics, the harvest was in and the markets were bursting with fruit and vegetables, but those valuable commodities grew more scarce the farther north you ventured in the country. From one woman I bought boiled potatos garnished with a bit of butter and chives. It was wrapped in a cone of paper that looked like pages ripped out of a child’s schoolbook.
The stops we made rarely lasted longer than five or ten minutes except at the larger towns, and then only twice that. While train travel is intoxicating to me, I felt like a prisoner making the most of my limited time in the exercise yard. Vladimir would swing his arms around and around to stimulate circulation and I would walk briskly down the platform and back, looking at the wares on display and taking deep breaths of air.
Back on the train and heading east once again, about the time the sunset would take place in lands that knew the sky, a couple of rips of faint pink appeared in the clouds and hovered above the horizon. The sun had battered a crack in the ceiling and crept through with a reminder of better weather.
That afternoon I lay on my bunk, watching drowsily the failing light passing through various filters, a forest of pine, a thin stand of poplar, varying thickness of clouds, all flashing onto the walls of the compartment. Vladimir was dozing, curled up and looking very small. It was funny to think that our few lungfuls of fresh air had made us tired. I lay completely still, feeling the quiet kahchung, kahchung, kahchung of the wheels on the track vibrate into my body and make it a part of the train. The only physical movement I could detect was our coats on the hooks swaying in harmony like irregular pendulums. It was a form of meditation that I had discovered at that moment and I gently fell into a sensual sleep.
At dinner I placed a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka on the table and we toasted each other three times through the meal. That sounds sociable enough until you consider the standard Russian toast involves downing a glass half full of the spirit, roughly three ounces worth. Three of those were enough to glaze over Vladimir’s eyes and rough up some colour in his cheeks and nose, but for me it was like leaning out of the train and banging my head on a passing telephone pole.
The scribbles in my notebook are untidy and almost illegible but I brought to life some interesting reflections that only an intravenous injection of vodka could have procured.
My last image of the day came to me just before midnight. I had been writing my notes for three hours and was almost ready to turn in. The Stolichnaya was still active in my system and was hanging from my eyelids. In through the black window, which hung on the wall like a television screen turned off for the night, came a striking image. The train was passing next to a natural gas refinery and, from the mouth of three high, narrow stacks, bright orange flame spewed into the hungry night air. They were followed by twenty six more all looking rather alien and spooky. The flames were blowing horizontal in the same direction of the train, evil orange tongues licking furiously, feeding on the powerful wind. Through the window I could hear their low throaty roar and sharp snapping as the bright tails broke off and vanished. The direction in which they were blowing was disorientating. It felt like they should be blowing towards the end of the train as we sped past but the wind was strong and they went with us, and I felt for a moment that we were going backwards.
It all had the feel of a Star Trek movie set and I half expected to see the shimmering forms of Kirk and Spock beaming into the foreground. Whether that was my imagination or the work of quality vodka I’ll never know, but as the pillars of fire slipped past, I curled up to sleep.
A curious sensation early in the morning came to me as though in a dream. There was a bright lemony light filling the room and moving from right to left across the walls, before slowly moving out again as the train negotiated some curves in the tracks. I thought we were zipping through a brightly lit, nameless railway junction in the night but my body clock informed me otherwise. It was the same slow realization that every Englishman has on the first morning of his holiday in Spain or Greece or basically anywhere outside England or Western Russia in October. It was the sun. The golden orb. The magnificent mother of life. And someone had turned it on.
I could have been seven years old again. Having convinced myself, at that age of reason, that Mum and Dad had been fooling me with those tales of Santa Claus, I would comb the house in the weeks prior to Christmas, making myself aware of every gift coming my way. Nothing escaped my reconnaissance. Then on The Big Day there appeared a fantastic gift with the tag, From Santa. It stopped my reasoning process and stunted it for several years to come. It was like that with the sun. I had stopped believing in it.
The pulsing ball of yellow light glowed wonderfully under a pale blue sky painted with yawning feathery clouds. The sky stretched to the far, far horizon. Beneath it, the earth was covered with waxy golden grass that floated lazily in waves as it was caressed by a persistent wind. At that exact moment there weren’t any buildings, any human settlement as far as the eye could see, on either side of the train. Just the lonely string of a telephone line racing along with us to amuse itself.
It was a scene to fill the heart of a prairie boy with joy. I had been intimate with such a sky in the hazy days of my youth in the vast spare land of western Canada. Few types of geography thrilled me more. On the great plains I felt raw and exposed under the big sky. I could hide no secrets, I could tell no lies. I was the largest thing on the landscape and yet I was the smallest thing in the world.
The fantastic knowledge that the land continued on like that for a thousand miles was soothing to me. It didn’t make me melancholy with thoughts of home ‑ I hadn’t lived there for years‑ it made me happy that such a place existed elsewhere in the world. It was like finding remnants of a civilization on the opposite end of the planet from where you expected it to be. I was content that these plains were here and I felt some sort of kinship with the locals who inhabited them. It didn’t matter that they may be completely different from me in every way. They knew the sky.
The train rolled on across the land. On occasion, stubby penis shaped buildings, topped with a nipple, would pop up beside the track. They were round and made of concrete and I assumed they had to do with the telephone lines. For a moment in the distance — it was impossible to tell how far — the windscreen of a vehicle flashed brightly in the sun. There was no plume of dust tagging along, so it was either on a paved road or stationary. That was the only hint of modern society that could be seen, apart from the odd streak of white across the sky from a passing jet. From up there the land must look brown and barren and lifeless and I smiled as though I possessed a marvelous secret that they, up there, would never know.
A herd of twenty four horses galloped across the flat terrain. I imagined the thundering noise they would make and cursed the windows of the train for being sealed. There were no fences as such so they ran as wild as they should. I saw the sun reflecting off of their shiny flowing manes and sweating flesh as they ran with the train for a spell.
The only agriculture, apart from some tilled fields, was a field of corn, now and then. Surely only corn could survive out there, the way it talks to itself, rustling and gossiping. Most other crops would die of loneliness within a season.
We crossed a steely river, which was not deep or fast, but by the size and length of the bridge you could gauge it’s seasonal potential. In the middle distance a thin blue strip betrayed the presence of a lake whose banks were populated by a few cattle and a stone hut. There were a couple of other attempts at riverhood, but even through thousands of years they had only cut a few feet into the earth with their intermittent flowing.
Two conical peaks rose over a low ridge far off to the right of the train. Vladimir had revealed a shy knowledge of schoolboy French which helped our conversations. Upon seeing the tired hills, hills that could only dominate a land as horizontal as that, he remarked with confidence that betrayed his faulty grammar: “Les Malade Montagnes.” The Sick Mountains. To me they were formed in the shape of a woman with firm buoyant breasts floating on the surface of a still lake. Boy, it’s been a long train ride, I thought. And 23 hours to go. Is that Sophia Loren’s pubic mound? No, it’s a tractor.
In the middle of nowhere, trucks were placed by the side of the tracks, for the sole purpose of baffling me, I was sure. If they were there for a reason I couldn’t figure out what it was. A couple of men would be lounging around them looking as useful as ice cream vendors in a snowstorm. Even more baffling, I would see one or two men with no visible sign of transport working on one of the many snow fences or perched up a telephone pole. Tiny figures on the landscape.
The whole flavour of the train was Uzbeki. The provodniks were Uzbeki and the food from the restaurant car was traditional rice and meat dishes. The carpets were woven in Turkish designs and the writing on the outside of the train was in Turkish script.
Some twelve hours out of Moscow the provodniks put in a cassette that piped music into the compartments from a small speaker above the door. There was a knob to adjust the volume but the sound could never be turned completely off. That cassette was the only one they possessed and it played continuously, all day save eight hours at night.
It was Uzbeki and the twangs of string instruments and the quivering vibrato voices of the singers scaling up and down was distinctly Middle Eastern. The singers sounded like muezzins calling the faithful to prayer from the minarets of Islam.
When the day dawned over the vast Kazakh plains, the music seemed to fall into place and act as a soundtrack for the scenes outside the window. Like a silent movie it gave atmosphere to the landscape and the wild horses galloped to it’s rhythms. After sixteen hours a day I recognized each song and knew which one would follow. I particularly looked forward to the fourth song on the second side. It was the black sheep of the family. Crooning to me, and me alone, on the West Kazakh Railway was Bobby Vinton, singing that unforgettable hit, fun for the whole family, “Obla di Obla da, life goes on boy, Na na na na life goes on.”
Of all the western musical influences creeping into the Soviet Union, it was Bobby Vinton who had found his way onto an obscure cassette on my train. It was a fantastic joke to me and every time the opening bars began I would perk up and feel good, not unlike Pavlov’s dog and his bell. The song carried a mystical relevance and significance detected only by the imagination of the individual traveller. For all time I will feel a kinship with the fabulous Bobby.
Vladimir and I hardly glanced out of the window until that second day and then were quite inseparable from it. There seemed to be far more to see in an empty land. We sat quietly watching, occasionally pointing out things of interest but generally losing ourselves in out own thoughts.
There were people sitting in the corridors and in the spaces between the cars who would board at one of the tiny settlements along the way for a short hitch hike to the next village to sell their bags of vegetables. The people of the region looking distinctly Asian now as we moved farther into Kazakstan.
We had a brief spell of air at Celkar and I moved along the platform looking at the food for sale. Potatoes, bread, fish and little crayfish type crustaceans caught in the Aral Sea a few hundred miles to the southwest. The people of the town all seemed to be old, their faces carved into fine lines by the wind and sun.
Among the dull earthy tones of the local’s clothes, two Russian women from the train stood out on the platform. They were both peroxide blondes, in dire need of another session, and wore pink and baby blue polyester housecoats to match their bedroom slippers. They were a surreal addition to the scene and added an unlikely splash of colour. It was chilly in the late afternoon and while the locals were bundled up sensibly the two women walked around as casually as they would in their own living rooms.
Camels began appearing on the landscape in the latter half of the day. They were rarely in motion, standing idle on the plains and looking like the plastic animals I positioned around the living room when I was little. Many had blankets with two holes cut to go over the humps, perhaps for identification. If one owned a camel, I wondered, how would one find it if one wanted to? There were few fences and most of the time hardly any sign of habitation for miles and miles.
There were increasing patches of sand on the plains, as the land slipped vaguely, quietly, into desert. It was somehow comforting to know that at the end of the desert the Tian Shan range roared up out of the earth. The land was silent but I could sense that it was itching to rise to meet the mountains even there, a thousand miles away.
The sun was falling to earth and changing the colours in the sky as it did so. The train obliged us by heading south and Vladimir and I stood in the corridor facing west to watch the spectacle. It was a satisfying moment, feeling the train rocking gently back and forth and standing next to a good friend watching the sun set on the Kazakhstan Steppes.
That evening the two of us would delve deeply into the vodka and wax emotional, talking about anything and everything but for the moment we stood silent. Clouds, thin and high but with some weight to them hung in the western sky. The swirling outline of the sun stared like an impossibly big and orange eye when it passed behind a cloud.
The double pane of glass duplicated it as though we were on some distant planet with two suns. And we just stood there watching, in awe really, the glowing dusty pinks and oranges sweep from vibrancy to dilution and slowly fade. Low settlements passed, and outside of one a man sat atop his camel with the sun to his right and the train to his left and I could tell he was torn between which one to watch. It was a magical moment, the kind that creeps up on me when I travel, to numb me and make me feel wonderfully small, but alive. Vladimir could do nothing but shake his head incredulously.
When the velvet night sky edged closer to the far horizon, laying silhouettes across the land in the last moments of twilight, the Cossack and I moved back into our cabin with a sigh. I think we could have very well been exhausted.
He took my dog eared Russian‑English dictionary in hand and spent a few minutes looking up words. He marked each one with a bit of paper and when he had found all he was looking for he rechecked the order in which he would present them, mouthing each word in practice. He was clearly going to make a presentation.
When he was ready he made sure he had my complete attention and cleared his throat. He carefully, passionately pronounced four words.
“Beautiful. . . time. . . road. . . we !!!”
I smiled, tears welled, for it was then I knew he knew — this little man with big dreams, restricted by his nations politics and economics — he knew and understood that subtle rhythm of the road, that life essence of travel and the magic it brings.
Originally written in 1992.