Timely Musings on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Timely Musings on the Trans-Siberian Railway

When I dream of difference and the distant elsewhere, I pin-point a place, rustle up an itinerary and negotiate potential challenges. On the Trans-Siberian railway, every regularity of travel is briefly suspended. There is no arrival as such, the metaphor is literal: the journey is the destination. Once I’m on the platform and stumble through regimented passport controls, urgent gestures and fast-paced language, I enter my wood and velvet textured four-bed cabin – exactly how I imagine a time-travel machine – and begin the epic, meta journey of journeys.

Moscow Yaroslavskaya 1.20PM

All I can do on the long journey from Moscow to Vladivostok is
wait. I can look out of the window at the alpine landscape dotted
with shambles of Soviet military history, too heavy and expensive
to remove – or too traumatic perhaps. I make intangible plans, read
all my books, drink all the vodka, plot maps of future journeys or
unnamed constellations, debate the malfunctions of democracy, ask
every Russian who speaks English about the moon landings, memorise
my name in Cyrillic, daydream, write…

Vladimir Pass 4.17PM

On occasion, I step out for a few minutes in stations in the
middle of nowhere to watch scenes on the platform. I immerse myself
in the world of the train and try to gossip with the attendant
about the ladies in the dining car. I’m searching for ritual, for
habit, for some sort of progression so that I have purpose. Then I
wait some more.

Nizhnii Novgorod 8.02PM

To occupy myself, I begin to parse out what waiting really
means. The idea of waiting is inherent with anticipation, of some
future. But waiting on the Trans-Siberian is a conducted meditation
in the present. Here I am, crossing five time zones in three days,
waiting without future as I pass the past. Memories of people and
phases inject the landscape with a kind of magic realism otherwise
found in novels vast and far away. I begin to miss the city and
society, though I do not wish for them to be near. I miss them the
way I like looking out at the cold from the window of a train;
mesmerised by the melancholy it elicits, but without wishing to be
outside in its calm, brutal persistence.

Balezino 5.28AM

Outside, the city dwellers’ datchas (cottages) are equipped with
greenhouses, a space where all life is held in control. Regulated
warmth, moisture never dampening into dew, light going green
without crystallising in the cold. In the transparent dome of the
greenhouse, beneath the muffled, leaking sky, seasons are
suspended; lettuce sprouts even in November, day in and day out. In
my reverie, they appear like spaceships, both fantastical and

Perm 9.39AM

Waiting becomes present, productive, inefficient, losing the
focus of the future and existing in the seamless reality of
abstraction. Every morning I wake up and I have gained words but
lost hours; I grow twice as old even as I move twice as fast. I am
caught in the strange mathematics of time travel and the ambition
to tease the earth’s rotation into stasis, and when I look out of
the window again, the sun has long set.

Ekaterinburg Pass 3.10PM

The end destination – it could be Vladivostok, or sooner,
Irkutsk – is no closer at all.

Tyumen 7.54PM

French philosopher Roland Barthes described the experience of
love as one that dilates or contracts time. “I am waiting,
therefore I am in love”

Shim 11.59PM

On the Trans-Siberian railway, waiting is atemporal. Waiting is
a vast field; “In their ubiquity and in their endless difference,
fields are places of continuity and security and also of risk and

Omsk Pass 3.14AM

Timetables mark days: at every turn of routine, there’s a stop
where station life seems to play itself out as a tableau: the
provodnitsas in their grey suits, mostly women because the job is
so terribly underpaid, a red scarf round their necks manning the
entry to the train. A very blond family with glossy leopard-printed
suitcases, bulldogs, a soldier from Syria on vacation.

Barabinsk 6.53AM

A burst of neon amusements: Ferris Wheels lunging out of
circularity; a pretty blond girl in a blue mini skirt and a red
apron at an ice cream truck; a little boy holding his mother’s hand
in one and a balloon in the other.

Ob 10.30AM

I’m far away and the train sometimes gives me the illusion that
I’m moving closer, but the language barrier and distance increase.
It’s not the waiting itself, but the distance.

Novosibirsk Glavnyi 11.01AM, delayed to 11.03AM

This is the feeling of human-ness, what separates us from the
rest of the cosmos. A profound contact with the form and origin of
consciousness even without that form and origin revealing itself to

Yurga 1 1.50PM

The waiting.

Taiga 2.51PM

Jupiter’s day is ten hours long.

Krasnoyarsk Pass 10.43PM

Irkutsk is the home of the radical Decembrists who were exiled
to Siberia. Outside, it’s a strawberry moon and the cotton trees
have burst, with frays of white carrying the wind in the enthusiasm
of summer light. Someone in an apartment with a neon-red sign and
plastic plants on the window sill belts out Tchaikovsky. For a
moment, I am a duchess with a large nose in an aristocratic salon
in the 19th century. I tremor in my reverie, slipping into a chasm
between the brocades of a living room and the thousands of gulags
who died building these tunnels.

Kansk Eniseiskii 2.39AM

4,887 miles and four nights later, I’m disembarking. I can feel
the the chug chugging, the sway, the collection of kilometres.

Ilanskaya 3.13AM

I imagine the train barmaid’s alternative life: she would have
lived in St Petersburg in a small apartment where perverse charm
lay in the ceiling cracks and peeling paint. It would be on the
corner of a crossroad where, even though she uses Uber to get
around town, she can hear the clip-clop of horse hooves shimmying
the elite from one theatre to another.

Reshoty time N/A

Her greatest aspiration was to move as far as Moscow, a city
where she has no ties, where she could be lost in the moment; total
anonymity. This is the city of her future. A city which dabs itself
in thin ice-cream tones to conceal more brutal browns.

Nizhneudinsk 8.14AM

We’re lost in the sway of the great lake.

Zima 11.56AM

The soul is a physicist, examining the heat and speed of
particles in one moment in time and studying their effect on some
other particles far, far away and then replicating with
differentiation, entangled.

Angarsk 3.11PM

I suppose a soul is not a where or what or how, it is a
preposition, a transitive verb in motion and describing a path
between, across, over, under, away. This is how the journey

Irkutsk Sort 3.44PM

Here, I meet Sergei, the priest of the only standing Old
Believers church. But mostly, he is a collector. In his museum of
everything are pre-Soviet tools, sewing machines and rhino skulls,
televisions and record players and weights and balances, patchwork
bed covers, mink, coins, gold-laden scriptures, guns, knives,
untuned pianos, shamanistic masks and miniature violins.

Irkutsk Pass 3.59PM

When a collector collects objects, is it their time that they
collect too?


I continue to Lake Baikal, home to Russia’s shamans who
experience time in nonlinear ways, believing themselves to be
mediums between the past, present, future and all the unnamed
moments in between. The breathtaking beauty of Baikal freezes the
picture for a moment. Time slips along the rail tracks, sluggish
and murky, pollinated by history. Everything is rusty, oxidised.
There are abandoned military vehicles with chains for wheels,
lighthouses with barbed-wire spires and broken boats with
irreplaceable parts. Beauty in ruin; everything is in transit. At
the edge of the rails, where the mirages rise up like in the
movies, a woman in a bee hat or a space helmet, emerges from a
greenhouse, like an astronaut.

She has lived in Moscow her whole life and is so glad to have
left the resistance of that city. She has waited a long time for
this moment. She sits down to eat her lettuce.

Some useful information…

  • Ibex Expeditions can help to organise your trip.
  • The Trans-Siberian railway is the longest in the world, running
    from Moscow to Vladivostok.
  • Start in Moscow then stop in Irkutsk for a night to experience
    the history of the Decembrist Revolution and exiled aristocrats.
    Continue to Lake Baikal where you can take a train through the
    stunning landscape and the hard-won tunnels built by gulags.
    Finally, visit Ulan Ude to see an Old Believers village. From
    there, catch the Trans-Mongolian railway travelling south to Ulan
    Bataar, to stay in traditional ger tents, climb sand dunes and
    traverse the Gobi Desert and Altai Mountains.
  • Travel 1st class (a compartment for two), 2nd class (a
    compartment for four people) or 3rd class in a common carriage (an
    open compartment for six).
  • Travel in summer when the days are long but snow-covered
    Siberia has a charm of its own.
  • Pack thin, cool layers for the train and thicker clothing for
    walks outside, as well as insect repellent, hiking boots, a hat,
    healthy snacks (exercising is largely confined to the train) and
    plenty of entertainment.
  • Ask before taking photographs of the train staff.
  • Any request – showers, loo rolls, late-night snacks – is
    possible, at a price.

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