Or: three days by train from Moscow to central Siberia.
The landscape outside is turning gradually yellower with autumn. Otherwise it might be a reel rolling around and repeating, repeating, repeating itself. Birches and poplars and pines and larches; villages of square wooden houses with frilled window frames and gardens bright with pumpkins and dahlias; every six hours or so a larger town of Soviet tower blocks, rows of scruffy corrugated-iron garages, a vast river we cross clackety-clack on a metal bridge and then the endless pines birches larches begin again. The larches haven’t yet begun to turn; now the birches have brilliant hanging golden tresses among the green.
We’re already three hours ahead of Moscow time. The attendant turns off the carriage lights at night, the radio on in the morning, strictly according to local time even though the timetable on her door and the clocks at all the stations tell Moscow time.
The attendant’s cabin at the end of the carriage is adorned with strings of mushrooms hung up to dry.
At the bigger stations where the train stops for twenty minutes or more, stray dogs linger hopefully, a tentative foreleg on the step of the carriage as if considering hitching a ride to find a new life, a new kindly owner. A woman from the train walks her ridiculous trimmed poodle decorated with blue curlers along the platform.
A Khakhassian ex-army man on the lower bunk is teaching me to play the khomus (jew’s harp). Opposite a beekeeper from Novosibirsk treats us to spoonfuls of honey from a huge red bucket. “Don’t thank me, thank the bees. I only robbed them.” Further down the carriage a man in camouflage pyjamas is talking about gold and fishing, those two great Siberian themes. By the carriage samovar a baby-faced criminal graduate from a children’s home offers me instant coffee and tells me, in Russian that’s mostly swearing, his short and violent life story. We all sort of know each other by now.
Apart from me, no one has a book to read. Only cheap newspapers full of Putin propaganda. Putin is a constant theme. No one entirely likes him, but no one has an alternative. Only regret for the passing of the good old days of free housing (that you had to wait ten years for), free holidays (in dreary sanatoriums), free entrance to Ukraine and Kazakhstan and Georgia, those pesky republics that have inexplicably decided they no longer want to be part of the great Russian Empire. “Of course we lived more modestly then, but at least we were all the same…” They lie in their pink Russian Railway sheets, doing crosswords, drinking sugary tea, watching this endless Siberia go by, all the same, post-Soviet citizens.
Looking down the carriage I’m reminded irresistibly of a morgue; rows of bare feet and the occasional head sticking out off the end of stacked shelves. If morgues had pink sheets and played Russian pop hits of the 80s and 90s. Oom-pa oom-pa; lyubov, lyubov…
There’s a huge rose and turquoise sunset sky now, and patches of still, gleaming water between the birch trees. Behind us in the west we’re leaving a stripe of vivid gold. At a sedately rocking fifty kilometers per hour we chase the darkness.