I wake up and can’t get back to sleep before the train makes its first night-time stop today at Mogocha. The time chaos is growing in my head. Using train time, it is half past ten in the evening. Stepping off the train, however, it is really just past the time for sunrise on the following day.
The train doesn’t quite fit on the platform. I look for the station building, but there isn’t one. Just a really nice billboard showing what the station building will look like when it has been built. I think they’re still digging the foundations as we speak. There is nothing to look at except a shuttered temporary building and a locked white brick outhouse labelled ‘Tourist’. Two pairs of station officials stand beside temporary barriers just in case any tourists might feel the need to leave or join the train.
A line of Provodnitsas and Provodniks stand by their open carriage doors and collectively wonder why on earth I have made the effort to get up and walk the length of this station. I don’t know either and climb back on board. We pull out of the station past a tumble of small wooden houses nestling beside the bend of a river. And then we are gone, and I go back to bed again.
Next stop is Amazor and luckily I have been woken again by the snore police in time to see it. There’s no point arguing that I wasn’t snoring, though at this moment in time, somebody else is. There’s also nothing to see. A goods train blocks any hope of a view of the station itself and there are no footbridges to use to gain a vantage point. I retreat back to my carriage again.
In the confusions of real time and train time at least there is one certainty. This train always runs on time. If you are late back from a stop it will not wait for you. You could set one of your watches by it. Except that now even that certainty has gone. We are due into Erofei Pavlovich station at 13.55 Moscow time, but we are now running at least half an hour late.
Whatever time it is, at least I have time now to admire the flowers as we chug slowly towards our next stop. And there are plenty of wild flowers now to admire, as if they are planning a crescendo of botanical bounty before we start heading south out of real Siberia. The flowers cut swathes across the forest floors now.
White gloves are the first that I spot again. All the usual yellow ones are there to see: the tall bud-sized ones with the light dusting of pollen, the symmetrical six-petalled ones, the angular ones from the kiosk in Zima, and the ones that might have been daisies but aren’t. There is a red version of the yellow one in the Zima shop and the one with dandelion type fluff to propagate it.
There are small light blue flowers bundling together onto the edges of where the rocks have been blasted with dynamite to open a way for the track to travel, and a dark pink version of the same. And so on… We’re also skirting along beside streams almost in torrent and in the last half hour have passed at least five mammoth goods trains going the other way, carrying coal and containers from Vladivostok.
When we finally arrive at Erofei Pavlovich, there is not even a platform to stop at. Everyone who wants to come or go has to come and go across the mainline tracks, recently so well populated by heavy and fast-moving freight trains. A father is the first, leading his daughter gymnast from the car park across the rails to the train. Others follow. Two enormous concrete swans with metallic, robot-like heads watch proceedings and guard the main station building. Or they could be dragons?
A man in an orange high-vis jacket walks alongside the train hitting parts of the train’s undercarriage with a giant spanner and the trying to tell from the strange tune he plays what state of health the rest of train, apart from the restaurant car, is in.
And then we are off again and I #notice as best as I can do the usual sights and sounds of daily life beside the track. We pass a car, stopped at a level crossing from crossing our path. It is not only stopped by the lowered barrier, but by an evil looking metal plate the width of the road that has been raised on its hinges a couple of feet high, ready to garrotte the car should it have second thoughts about letting us pass first.
I spot a man taking a large polythene sheet for a walk. There is a military base. The gasometer of a Transneft gasworks looms large, supplying neighbouring China with gas. And flora, there are flowers galore, but they are on the sunny side of the train and I can’t snap them without getting a kaleidoscope of glare and reflection in the photograph.
And then there is another one of my rather sad moments of excitement. I notice a new flower. This one I have not seen before. It has a deep purple petal and seems to hang precariously at the top of a tall slender stem. I am almost beside myself. It takes several goes before I actually capture it in a photograph that isn’t blurred, and I have to inspect the photo repeatedly to reassure myself that it really exists and that I have not mistaken something else for this new flower.
I do recognise that I am getting a bit obsessive about this flower, and about my noticing of flowers in general. The thing is that after over 7000km of travel where there is nothing really new – things are always the same, just appearing in a different order – something new, even if it is merely a rarely appearing wild flower, something new becomes important.
We stop at Magdagachi which is probably only noteworthy for the return of the historic red-starred black locomotive engine. There are no hawkers, and though there are shops beyond the station, I have temporarily lost the will to run the gauntlet of getting back to the train on time.
Belogorsk is on our minds. Y will be leaving us soon. He will be leaving us there. For the past couple of hours he has retreated into the empty compartment next door to watch a dubbed version of Game of Thrones on his own. The restaurant car is locked and Miss Customer Service was last seen flirting around a station platform, unusually, in her civvies and a pair of flip-flops. V is beginning to fret that we might get a new travel companion in our compartment in the middle of the night after Y has left.
The Provodnik has become more friendly than usual. His hopes have been raised by my promise of buying some souvenir ‘stakans’ on Monday. I’ve also let him give me some impromptu Russian lessons each time I come to him with yet another request. Now he has made the offer of a bottle of Russia’s best cognac, if there is such a thing, to offset the lack of a restaurant and V’s emerging upset stomach.
Y leaves us at Belogorsk. Our fond farewells are very fond. He’s a really nice guy and has been a great travel companion. I make my way to the restaurant car, ignore the chef and waitress and go straight to a forceful looking woman with blonde-dyed hair who has the air of being in charge and able to make things happen even without the use of electricity. Twenty minutes later two bowls of steaming hot meat dumplings and a edible salad are delivered to our compartment.
There is one more day to go.