Time wars, food wars, agricultural enquiries and quick camaraderie. Probably the best day on the train.
I woke up for the wrong station. Worse still, I woke up someone else for the wrong station. Taishet is only a one minute stop. I used the wrong time and in one fell blow lost Clock Wars. Going to have to follow train time from now on. Chatted in the corridor instead to some of the French group that got on last night. There are two couples and another man who all signed up independently with a travel company and are getting off at Irkutsk tonight.
Same old, same old countryside. Then, suddenly, there are some hills to look at. Gentle hills, but hills nonetheless. And I’ll swear I’ve just seen a second type of yellow flower. And then a third. In an unchanging world, any change grabs your attention. Then the hills almost grow into mountains. The train swings round into a gap and I’ll swear I’ve just spotted a fourth kind of yellow flower. I’m unreasonably, deliriously, happy about this.
Y and I begin our pivotal discussion of the journey. We warm up with talk of his favourite footballer, Zinedine Zidane, and the Russian word for ‘head-butting’. Then I begin to quiz him on Siberian agricultural production. I point out the window to all the felled wood in a passing timber yard. Where does all the wood go? I ask. China, he says. In three days I have seen little or no agriculture, no ploughed fields, no arable cultivation, no animals being reared.
Where are the cows, I ask him. He shakes his head. Nyeto. There aren’t any. Where do you get beef from then? From China, he says. Are there any sheep being reared? Nyeto. Pigs? Nyeto. Where do you get your meat to eat from then? China, Turkey, Israel, he replies. But there are such big spaces here. It’s such a big country. Couldn’t you use the space better? No, he says. It’s a big space but there are no people either. So where does the vodka come from, I ask. China? No. Vodka is Russian. That’s progress. So what else is produced in Russia? Nothing comes the reply. Nyeto. Nothing except balalaikas. Balalaikas and dancing. Y mimes a combination of balalaika playing and some sort of hybrid Cossack disco dancing. We both laugh.
We pull into Nizhneudinsk, a station in a small town with small houses and only a couple of four-storey apartment blocks. What it does have though is a bright blue antique locomotive instead of the usual jet black Casey Jones model with the Red Star on their front. The locomotive matches the bright blue station name sign and the bright blue cladding, perfectly colour-coordinated.
More excitement is in store. I go into one of the “Products” shops and there in front of me is a bunch of my recently discovered Siberian flowers, exhibited in a vase made out of a plastic sawn-off water bottle. I almost pass out with joy. We get back in the train and Y has bought us an Irkutsk fridge magnet. Alongside that entente cordial though, there is trouble brewing in the French compartment.
As part of their tour, the French have been promised food. They have had the standard picnic that we all get upon boarding (a yoghurt, small cake, miniature bottle of water and packet of six Tictacs) but now they are told that the restaurant isn’t working, there is no electricity, and that they cannot have anything hot. They are reminded again about the picnic box they received and I’m sure I picked out the words “boîte de merde” in the reply. The guide rushes off to determine the true state of the kitchen while I try to console the French that even if they miss out on the restaurant, they will not be missing out on any Michelin stars. That was helpful.
For a while we follow the path of a picturesque river, blue water reflecting the blue sky. Then things get worse. The next stop is Zima. Zima in Russian means ‘winter’ and this is one of those Narnian winters without any Christmas. They disconnect our engine to replace it with another, but basically there is nothing here apart one solitary hawker. The poor old woman has nothing worth hawking though a couple of people offer her money anyway. There isn’t a kiosk to be seen. I walk down to the restaurant car, look underneath it, and take a picture of the offending electrical connection that is no longer connected. It will not be connected now until Vladivostok, so our limited food options just got more limited.
I get back on the train to find that V has already ganged up with the French and is marching up and down the corridor saying “Rien! There is rien at that station!” I see her chatting with the French women and I know that that is a dangerous combination.
I’m sitting in our compartment while V and S play one of their interminable and mildly fractious games of cards. Y has been standing out in the corridor for some time when he suddenly puts his head round the door and tells me to come quickly and look. I rush out and cannot believe my eyes. Cows. After four days on the train I have seen my first cow. I stumble back into the compartment, fumble about for my phone and rejoin him to take photographic evidence. I am too late. Perhaps it was a mirage. The cows have gone.
But not for long. A few minutes later another herd of cows comes into view, stretching out across a wide, green, expanse with not a farmhouse in sight. Then there are some more cows. Then some more. Then a couple of horses and another small herd of cows enclosed in a fenced paddock. Then a small ploughed field. Then some goats and another few horses. Y and I look at each other with tears in our eyes. We hug and cry; hug and cry!
An hour later, four of the French group somehow arrives with their Russian guide in our compartment bearing gifts of vodka, cognac, whiskey and a variety of sweet and savoury nibbles. It seems rude to ask them to leave. The drink lubricates our mutual understanding of English, French, and Russian throughout the conversation. Glamorous L turns out to be in her sixties and she and husband of 40+ years J are also marathon runners, having started with their first in New York. We argue about the Queen of England’s right to move the finishing line of the London Olympic marathon finishing line. Phones and iPads are passed round as everyone vies for having the cutest pets/children/grandchildren. Y unanimously wins the stunning young wife competition. It is a great Trans-Siberian afternoon.
After Irkutsk we are feeling bereft. Not only have the French gone, the twitchers and trainspotters have left too. We walk down to the restaurant car with no great hope of any food but looking for a pick-me-up. Two groups of lads are sitting drinking and playing cards. The customer serviceless waitress is trying not to have her attention caught and the cook in the grubby uniform is looking like Old Mother Hubbard’s pantry chef.
Finally, the waitress deigns to come over. We order cold sausage with cold potatoes and ketchup twice, and spicy sausage with cold potatoes and sour cream once. I ask if there’s any brown bread. The waitress contorts her face into a how-the-hell-would-I-be-expected-to-know-that expression and wanders off. Ten minutes later she returns with one order of cold sausage and potatoes (with both ketchup and sour cream) and three slices of white bread.
We eat our fill, drink a little vodka and return to our carriage to teach Y to play a few variants of English whist.