Railway, nyet and da

Anis Inrahim writes in her precious article for Panorama journal abour her trip in Russia:

I began dreaming about this trip in 2002 when I was still in legal practice. It was 10.30 pm on a Friday and I had a large corporate diary on my desk opened at a map of the world. Right at the top of the page was Russia, vast and irresistible. The map was bare, but I’d read about the Trans-Siberian Railway a year before and I knew about the railway track which ran across the country from Moscow to Vladivostok, a distance of 9,288 km.

Another invisible dotted line formed in my head, but this time from Irkutsk near Lake Baikal. It dived downwards into the steppes of Mongolia, stopped at Ulaanbaatar, and terminated in Beijing. This was the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

But why stop at Beijing? I thought. Why not take another train and another and another, until Kuala Lumpur? My heart leapt. Then the phone rang and it was back to work.

10 years passed and a host of things happened. I grew up, changed professions, and travel partners dropped out, but I never stopped thinking about those railway tracks.

One morning in May 2012, I woke up and realised how unhappy I was. I still hadn’t gone on that long train ride and I was still working till late. Something needed to be done, so I waited for the right moment and quit my job three weeks later.

It was September when I flew into St Petersburg. For four days, I walked up and down its streets from morning to dusk in a pair of worn-out, ill-fitting shoes that did nothing for my feet and made my toenails drop off.

I left St Petersburg from Moskovsky Station, one of the four train stations in the city. I shared my compartment with a pleasant elderly couple and a man who carried a briefcase and nothing else. From my top bunk, I watched the man smiling to himself as he scrolled through his phone. I tried to eavesdrop on the couple’s conversations but all I could understand were nyet and da.

I don’t know much Russian, but I do know how to read Cyrillic. I taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet after secondary school in readiness for… something. I don’t know what. It seemed like an interesting thing to do back then. By the time I arrived in Russia I could read road signs, maps, and menus quite comfortably; being Muslim, I don’t eat pork, so being able to read menus is important to me.

There was no menu on this train from St Petersburg, though. The four of us were handed food packets containing two pieces of bread, two slices of tomato, and a flattened half an omelette. The old woman wasn’t impressed. She looked at her sandwich, sighed, and muttered something to her husband, who clearly didn’t give a toss as he had already begun eating. She looked at me, pointed to her sandwich and shook her head deliberately. This is not how we eat. This is not a good example of a Russian breakfast, she seemed to be saying. I waited for her to make the necessary gestures for “Come to our house and we will feed you, you poor darling,” but that never happened.

The change of trains for the onward journey to Irkutsk was in Moscow. I had visited the capital before and longed to see it again, but the three-hour window allowed me just enough time to change some money and buy snacks for the next five days. When I found my compartment on train 340, an older Russian lady was already there.

There are four berths in second-class kupeyny compartments; an aisle divides the compartment into two, with one top and one bottom berth on each side. A little table decorated with a lace tablecloth and plastic flowers faces the window, which is large enough for those in the top berths to look out through, although the best views are from the lower berths. The entire top half of every lower berth, the part that constitutes the bed, can be lifted to reveal a storage space large enough for two rucksacks. The bed frame is made of a type of metal, don’t ask me what, but it is heavy and may require some effort on your part to make sure it doesn’t come crashing down on your fingers.

And being a woman of a certain small size, there I was, struggling to lift the damn bed with one hand while at the same time trying to put my rucksack into the recess with the other.

The lady leapt from her berth and held my bed up with both hands, allowing me to stuff my bag in.

“You are okay?” she asked.

“No, but thank you,” I said and we both laughed.

Liyana was on her way to Kirov, a town 960 km away, to spend time with her mother. Her English was better than my Russian, which was limited to words for food, hello, thank you, goodbye, no entry, and fire exit. She gasped when I told her I was headed to Lake Baikal, then Mongolia, China and all the way down south (“So far!”). She looked to be in her late forties. Her wavy hair reached the top of her shoulders and she wore a string of pearls, dark grey jeans, a white knitted top and black boots.

Months later, friends would ask me what on earth I did for five days on the train and I would tell them: I woke up, read, did some writing, read, ate my meals, wrote some more, and looked out the window. Repeat when necessary. That was all the two of us did. I had a book of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and Liyana had a Russian translation of 50 Shades of Grey. I’d never read it, but I had a vague idea what the book was about. Young innocent girl becomes not-so-innocent after engaging in acrobatics with a wealthy and successful yet dodgy man. Every time I saw Liyana with her book she would be smiling quietly to herself.

I looked forward to my meals on the train. They weren’t outstanding but the meals were served hot, and were a nice alternative from the cheese and tuna sandwiches I would have had otherwise. Every morning after breakfast a young girl from the restaurant car would ceremoniously present us with a menu in Russian and we would choose our meal for the day. It was usually the same menu every morning, with two possible options – riba (fish) or kuritsa (chicken), served with either potatoes or buckwheat.

There was plenty of snacking between meals. Liyana was generous with her food. She gave me biscuits, apples, and fruit juice, and I gave her my cheese slices, tuna sandwiches, and muesli bars in return.

We talked about our families and showed each other photos of the people we loved. Liyana’s husband was a physics professor back in Moscow while their daughter lived in France. She shook her head in amazement when I showed her a postcard of a beach in Malaysia. I handed her the postcard with its perfect blue sky, palm trees, and white sand, and told her to keep it. Outside the window were forests of red, orange, and gold. There are no palm trees here in Siberia.

I won’t lie — I’ve been drawn to the name since I was a child, ever since I knew what maps were. Siberia. I was fascinated by the notion of all that space, so far away, and so huge that it was large enough to swallow my own country hundreds of times over. What do you do with all that space? I was 11.

Siberia’s vastness – 13.5 million square km of it — becomes clearer to you late at night. When the world is silent and you’re lying in your berth looking out the window, that’s when you realise how vast the world is.

Railway stops in Siberia, which officially begins 2,102 km from Moscow, lie hundreds of kilometres from each other. Late at night, the space between them is a black, empty nothingness with no lights to blot out the stars. Here, the stars are clear and bright and countless, like millions of diamonds strewn over a dark blanket, filling the entire night sky.

During the day we saw farmhouses with vegetable beds and flower boxes, and I thought of my mother, who loves gardening. I waved to children standing at train platforms with their fathers, and they waved back. Identifying colours is a thing for me, and in autumn in a country with forests the size of entire nations, I let myself loose. Scarlet. Terracotta. Brick. Orange, like a pumpkin. Gold. Blood red. Claret. Burnt orange. Every day I looked out the window and knew I was travelling in the most basic sense of the word. I was moving. I was a tiny dot on a map, passing through Russia, slowly going eastwards. 

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