Chita, Russian Federation
The train wound its way through a marshy landscape first thing, with the sun shining to light everything up and get right in our eyes whenever the track pointed the right way. A good view, though any sight of the lake would sadly have slipped by in the dark, as the train left at 9.50. Stations become more familiar in their personnel as time goes by-this time there were two Finns from my hostel in one corner, and the French girl Ciaran and I had met at Yekaterinburg was also waiting for her train. Ciaran I missed – there somewhere, but not wherever I was, and my train was leaving earlier so I scooted off.
We’d mooched about during the day, with another Brit, Jack, who was bracing himself for the cycle ride to Beijing. Both were approached by Russian women, the one wanting a picture with Ciaran after he’d hopped on the golden calf, the other to know where Jack was from and what he thought of Russia. Perhaps I looked like their CSB (?) minder. Jack’s journey is just the second part, after riding from the Netherlands to Romania, one heck of a lot of cycling. Nice to be able to wish someone all the best, be curious as to how it goes without any great desire to follow suit. I really don’t like cycling enough to do that distance, even ‘lejog’ (Lands End to John o’Groats). Apparently it can take an effort of negotiation to get a bike on the train in Russia – Seat 61 recommends a bike bag – so I was fascinated to see how the bloke with his got on to the train on the next platform, but we pulled out while he was still stripping it. He’d had his ticket checked without his bike, so either had enough Russian to seal the deal, or was going to sneak it on piece by piece. Line of the day belonged to Ciaran, after we’d eaten ‘plov’ in an Uzbek cafe and paid, 520rub so 200each, but our waitress forced 50 back upon us; “begone, cultural imperialist”.
This train has separate compartments for different sexes, though I think you can override that if you’re booking the whole compartment, as there’s a family next door. I worried slightly that an all male room would be noisy, or pong, but I’ve a man and his father who are perfectly good company (which for me means they are peaceful and I got a handshake when they left). Plus an empty spot, for now-this became two later, which at least shows the benefit of travelling in hops as you get local trains; this one goes just as far as Khabarovsk (a mere 8534km from the start point, Moscow). Unfortunately at some point on my journey I have ricked my back, and the long train rides have not helped, so I’m mostly lying or standing. A pity, this is my first lower berth, so I can lay claim to the window seat, but I’m lying looking out as much as sitting. The lower berth, stretching the whole length and without chains to attach it to the wall, is a little bigger than the upper. I suspect anyone taller than my 5’10 would find the upper a little uncomfortable.
Time to settle in to the journey (another three night, two day one). I may get my unlistened-to podcast number below 100, otherwise the excitement comes from checking the timetable (stuck to the wall of the carriage) and spotting where we stop for 20 minutes or so. Any larger station will have shops and usually free wifi in the building, though maybe not time to do both. Having stopped in the night and again this morning, we now don’t stop for an unusually long 5 hours, though the track seems twisting which makes this not the quickest section, so the gap may be as much down to us not travelling so far as to there not being many towns en route.
Finally, 17:00 my time (I may be an hour behind now) we stopped at Chita. A big station, so the choice is; wifi or chocolate. I’ll confess to having thought about chocolate for a while, so once I realised that trying the shop on the platform wasn’t going to work without Russian-three counters, different staff at each, standing next to what I want and hoping for attention was not going to cut it-I hit the wifi instead. Plus it’s a better idea to get off the platform for a shop in any case, so I found email and chocolate in the end. As we moved off from Chita two things hit me (I was unharmed). First, the single sex cabins must have been an option, and one not taken by the agency, because I’d been joined by a young mother and cute daughter. Secondly, the big stations only have their names in Russian from the train side of things, whilst the smaller suburban ones, at which we’re not stopping, reliably carry Russian and English versions. Odd, but nifty. I don’t know if that’s a Siberian or country thing, I only noticed it out here.
Reading: K Dick, The Simulacra – 6/10, not his best, could almost be twisted to a Scientology style view of where the powerful come from. Packed with ideas as always, though. Lord, J, The Bronze Axe.
Last run: yesterday, 51mins, 10k. App recommendation: 2GIS, maps you can download and use offline. Needs a Cyrillic keyboard.