This #notice thing is important, and it isn’t going to work.
It’s important because noticing things is central to much of the current work on well-being and mental health, from Martyn Reah’s #Teacher5aday, to work on Mindfulness with staff and students in schools and colleges across the country. It’s not going to work because I haven’t got the vocabulary to make it work. What’s here for me to notice is nature, trees and plants basically, and man-made constructions, mainly houses with a few rows of garages throw in.
I don’t do nature well. V spent most of her early childhood being schooled in the ways of Montessori and being taken with her class for nature rambles, and collecting leaves and berries and stuff. I couldn’t tell a conifer from a fir tree. See what I mean? She is also artistic and was raised by an architect. I know what I like, but I can’t often tell you what it’s called. I often get my non-primary colours wrong too. Not a recipe for success in a travel diary.
After two nights in a hotel, even one of my own choosing, I didn’t sleep well back on the rails last night. But I did sleep through the 2am stop at Kirov, which will be the first station missing from my station name montage at the end of this journey. I wake up though, in time to get up at Balezino. We prowl up and down the platform in the freshness of the early morning for a few minutes, but are hemmed in without a view on all sides by other trains, and there is nothing much to look at except a few paltry soft toys and a nick-neck seller. None of the promised vendors are there to help us restock on food or drink.
Just before lunch we cross a wide river with one solitary fisherman in a boat afloat on it. See, I noticed something! We pull into the next stop of Perm, or Perm 2 to be exact, though I don’t know what Perm 1 is. It is hot. According to the Lonely Planet, Perm 36 is the last surviving Soviet Gulag Camp, but it’s over 100km from here. This Perm looks mildly prosperous. There are high rises and some new builds. On the outskirts of the town some of the usual farmhouses give way to what could pass as a new-build private housing estate.
Several times now I’ve noticed how some of the old, rusted, iron roofs are being replaced by ones of lurid colours, like the big bright blue ones we are passing now. It always seems to happen near a factory or a station that has been recently built or refurbished using the same sheets of blue metal cladding. Coincidence?
Gangs of men are waiting at the station to attach pipes from the train into the ground to empty or replenish the train’s water systems. There is time to start conversations with the few English-speaking travellers from other carriages. V has discovered that the guy with the shorts and impressive camera that I noticed in Vladimir yesterday is part of a small group of trainspotters and twitchers – bird watchers. They’ve come from the English south coast and are on a reconnaissance mission to see if Lake Baikal could be a future destination for their wider group.
Leaving the station we pass more garages, nestling beneath the high rises, giving their owners a patch of solid ground beneath their feet where they can do, or store, or make. We pass the town of Kungar which has a sign of “Massage” on one of its station buildings that is probably more prominent than the station’s actual name. More dwellings and dachas, some again with loud vibrant roofs on top of the traditional design – a second storey roof shaped like a flattened bell curve with an extension off to one side.
The slow-burning conversation with Y picks up some speed. We learn that he is making this journey to spend some time working on the Chinese border. He says he’s not the police but he clearly has some security role, and a dog to help him. He shows us pictures from his home town near the Ukraine border. He likes sport. He looks like he can take care of himself. He boxes and he cycles.
The white dusted-by-angels flowers appear again by the trackside as I spot a couple of brick-brown churches that have never heard of the word ‘ornate’. The houses then become more colourful, more robust-looking, and a white-washed church with green roof and small golden copula gives the impression of increasing affluence. Even the trees are looking more robust now, sturdy.
Then we pick up a river, almost in flood, with chocolate brown water. A series of detached riverside houses, mansions almost, announce that there really is some money in these parts. We run for some time alongside the river, matching its slow turns, and watching the life it brings to this area.
No more mansions, but a comfortable little settlement marks a bend in the river. There are a couple of topless lads fishing or about to go for a swim on the far bank. A family of three generations is messing about in a boat on the river. Just glimpses of life in Siberia as we make progress towards Ekaterinburg: a farming village sprawled over two or three rolling hills; children swimming in a reservoir.
Ekaterinburg is a city with a history, but today it is also a city with a thunderstorm. The rain holds off while we stretch our legs on the platform and pursue a few previous conversations. A group of teenage army conscripts or recruits huddle together for a smoke and a laugh in their green fatigues and vests, on their way by the look of it to their first posting. By the time we are ready to leave the city there is a downpour dousing the local rush hour, and the views from our windows are blurred by the torrent of running water streaming off the carriage roof.
Last stop of the day as the light fades is Tyumen. I make a good spot of a local man selling healthily rotund tomatoes and his short nobbly ‘strawberry’ cucumbers. We chat to a couple making their way back from Leeds to New Zealand and fast running out of their four-week holiday allowance to do it in.
After Tyumen we start the evening rituals of getting ready for bed. The two lower back seat rests are released down to become the lower bunks. Their moulded underside contains the mattress, sheet, and pillow, all held in place by thin elastic ropes whose clips are released and the beds then quickly made. The two toilets at the end of the corridor are visited by us all in turn.
V has been sketching us for the past hour or so and presents Y with his ‘portrait’. He seems genuinely well chuffed!
I fall asleep. I stay asleep during the two extended night stops at Ishim and Omsk. They can survive without me. There is only so much excitement you can take.