Posts Tagged 'travel'


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.


I’m feeling traumatised. Lost. I’m having an identity crisis.

I’ve just bought a new rucksack.

Actually it wasn’t so much buying the new one that was traumatic, it was retiring the old one. I’ve had my rucksack since I was twenty. My granny gave me the money to buy it. And it’s been everywhere with me, ever since.

It’s the one that got lost the day I arrived in Prague for my first attempt at living abroad (and later turned up with the bus station police, thank goodness). It would have been new and shiny and bright red and blue then.

It’s the one that went with me by train to Ukraine for the first time, that went from Ukraine to Finland on buses and ferries, that went to Uzbekistan where I was nearly deported (for not having the right visa) and I had to fill it with gigantic torpedo-shaped melons to bribe the local police with.

It went to the top of a volcano in Kamchatka, looking a lot less brightly red and blue by that time. It was used to carry freshly (illegally) caught salmon on the Kuril islands. Kittens and once a Mongolian baby have used it as an impromptu bed.

In Tuva in 2010. Photo by Stanislav Krupar

A clip was replaced in Crimea, a new zip fitted on Sakhalin, one of the straps gave way half-way up a mountain in Tuva and my friend mended it with cobbler’s thread. A broken zip handle was fixed with a keyring from Georgia; in Tibetan China a new top was sewn on by an old man making prayer flags.

It’s a patchwork of where I’ve gone and who I’ve met there. It’s been my home on the road.

And now it’s in honorary retirement, in my friend’s attic in London.

Without it on my back, I’m not sure I know who I am. I’m on the road with a new, characterless, history-less rucksack.

(At least it’s a nice colour, i.e., not pink – can you believe that reputable outdoor/camping/trekking companies actually think women want their hardcore 70l+ rucksacks to be PINK????)

I hope it starts getting some character and history this trip. Or else I’m going to lose it at the next bus station or airport carousel because I won’t recognise it and will be waiting for my old, battered, faded, much-repaired red and blue rucksack to appear, and waiting in vain, in vain.

Save a library

Kensal Rise Library in Brent has been kept alive by volunteers and activists for over a year – the last chance to save it ends tomorrow. Please help the campaign if you can. I’ve blogged about it in more detail over on ABBA.

I’m not doing too well at keeping up with two blogs. Here’s the link I forgot to put up to my last post on ABBA. 

Off to Ukraine tomorrow, and then Siberia. Four days on the train and forty(ish) days in the wilderness…


OM The roads, the roads. Among the most beautiful roads in the world – at least, not the roads themselves, dustiest, bumpiest, potholiest engineering feats – but where they go. Winding and winding up the mountains like a thread round a giant spindle, stretched over the passes with their tattered forests of prayer flags, unwinding down the valleys; spinning together this tremendous landscape of peaks and gorges, the high plains, the wide shallow bowls of scattered boulders and slatey lakes, the steep-sided ravines so lush and bright and tree-filled, light through the leaves almost dazzling after the bleak spare grasslands where you can track the light for miles and miles, turning the clouds into fugitives, herding thunderstorms as the nomads herd yaks. Five o’clock rainbows drift across the hills, growing brighter and brighter; god’s own prayer flags.

MANI They look like spindles or distaffs, the little prayer wheels the pilgrims carry. That’s what they remind me of, turning with the momentum of the weight hanging from the drum of chased and patterned silver and copper. They’re like spindles spinning the thread of prayers from human doubt and hope.

In a tiny dark painted temple, almost too small for the giant prayer wheel it houses, a group of pilgrims is sitting on stools or on the ground, spinning and chanting in overlapping times and tones. You can almost see what they are spinning, almost sense it, the weft and weight of it. Dark faces framed in plaits wound with red wool and silver and bone rings, smiles gleaming as they sit in the gloom chanting and spinning so industriously; this is what they do, this is what they are making, but where does it all go, this thread? Has it a beginning and where is its end?

PADME Clustered on the hilltop, the vultures are so big I think at first from a distance they are yaks. Sitting round-shouldered and patient as bald-headed old men squatting on their heels, waiting for something to happen. They look as if they can wait till the end of the world. Till the end of this, small, world. At seven o’clock this was a solid, well-fed and muscled human being, dead purplish-pink on a green ground. And then when the monks finish chanting, the vultures are invited to descend. At seven o’clock this was a whole body, a complete world. By eight o’clock it is – nothing. His stripped bones have been taken apart and smashed and mixed with tsampa for the birds, and now he has gone utterly and his only memorial has spread its wings and lifted off to wheel round and round, higher and higher, life is ended, life is beginning all over again.

HUM They ride in from the nomad camps on horses, or on motorbikes pimped up like the horses with ribbons and tassels and bright rugs. Cowboys wearing Stetsons and gigantic round sunglasses, silver and coral rings in their long black plaits, walking around town holding hands. Gathered on street corners to trade in caterpillar fungus, that weird work of nature they have crawled over high hills to collect; that’s worth much more than its weight in gold. The red-robed monks stroll up and down, arms draped over each others’ shoulders. In the evenings they wrestle on the river bank; they play basketball without a basket in the square. The low sunlight lights the hillsides green-gold, kindles the prayer flags to luminous flames and tatters. Women in long skirts and sunbonnets walk by, silver knives and snuff boxes hanging from their belts. The street fills with long-horned yaks. The one-eyed dreadlocked dogs, which have slept all day in the bins, wake up to spend all night barking. Barking and barking under the stars; is it gossip, is it argument, just the dreadful unbearable joy of living?

May I borrow you for a picture?

I’ve been borrowed more times than I can count in China and have probably lost a good many layers of my soul in the process (thank goodness Westerners have little soul still left to lose to the camera lens). I’m a guest here, so I think it’s the least I can do to agree gracefully, and in fact I’ve got so used to it I was quite offended when no one asked to take my picture on Huangshan. Upstaged by the most beautiful mountain in China, imagine.

In return, I’ve borrowed quite a few Chinese people, without always asking their permission.

At the Longji rice terraces, (Guanxi province, South China) it got ridiculous. Picture me practically running up and down mountains, chased by a local woman in the traditional costume of short pleated skirt and embroidered jacket, twinkling along effortlessly on her short muscular calves wrapped in cloth strips like puttees – all for a photo. No question of asking, it was pure coercion. And she didn’t want to take my picture; she was absolutely determined that I take hers.

viewpoint no. 542 (minus Rapunzel)

Longji has been thoroughly packaged into the Chinese Tourist Experience I’m starting to get used to (get sick of). Special viewpoints to see the sunrise and sunset have been signposted to within an inch of their lives along designated tourist paths, and given daft names. And along with the views, the Yao women of the area have been commodified into a tourist attraction.

Or rather, their crowning glory has. Allegedly these women collectively have the longest hair in the world (washed in rice water to keep it soft and lustrous, traditionally worn in big fat lightlessly black rolls on their foreheads). And, like Rapunzel sought by a prince armed with a camera, their long locks have become more significant than they are.

My woman wanted to wash her hair in the stream for me. She wanted to let it down and display its magnificence in front of viewpoint number 1 (Nine Dragons and Five Tigers). Longhairbeautifulphototenyuan. She chased me from Zhongliu halfway to Ping’an; I only got rid of her by sitting down on the path and refusing to budge until she had to walk on. A forty-three year old woman, with two grown-up sons and a grandchild (you see, in-between longhairphototenyuan we managed to have a perfectly normal conversation – as normal as my rubbish Chinese would permit anyway) literally hounding me for the equivalent of one pound, or a meal at a cheap restaurant. It was so undignified. She was old enough to know better.

And then she was everywhere! Assuming I hadn’t finally fallen for that stupid myth that all Chinese people look the same to Westerners, she was waiting for me at viewpoint number 2 (Seven Stars with the Moon). Photolonghairbeautiful. Twophototwentyyuan: by this time she’d picked up a second woman who was probably the same age as my grandmother (and I remembered how when I was little and staying with my grandparents I used to love watching Granny put up her hair, amazed at how its long strands perfectly recalled each morning the shape of the elegant bun it had been worn in every day for as long as I could remember – no fee for that). Then the same woman somehow sneaked up to the path above Ping’an to waylay me yet again. Beautifulphoto. I recognised her, but I’m not sure she recognised me – or maybe she was just assuming I had a very short memory or extremely weak willpower. Longhair beautifulphototenyuan. Fiveyuan.

Taken without permission

It could have been quite funny, and I wished my Chinese was good enough to tell her how so many Chinese people wanted to make my picture. But actually I didn’t really find it funny. The two villages that bookended my Longji walk, Tiantouzhai and Ping’an, fairly neatly represent the two ends of tourism development: Tiantouzhai, inaccessible by the dreaded shutterbug, clean and quietish, full of guest houses and some new buildings going up; Ping’an – on a road – solid souvenir shop and new building. But Zhongliu, the village halfway along the route, was just full of rubbish and of local people whom the tourist trade had bypassed, trying desperately to cash in at least a little.

“How much are you paying to stay in Tiantouzhai?” a woman in Zhongliu asked me. And then, taking my arm hopefully, “Here you can pay half that. Come with me…” In the local shop, the girl tried to charge me twice the price for a packet of biscuits.

At least they had no long hair to let down.


The bus to Dalanzadgad drives past nothing much but plains and rocks and sheep and camels for over twelve hot bumpy cramped hours.

For nomads, Mongolians on buses do not travel lightly (in any sense; they puke at the least opportunity). Bags and boxes, bundled carpets and ger covers, plastic canisters full of – I don’t know what. A little boy perches on my rucksack, entertaining the whole bus. It’s an obstacle course to get down the aisle at each stop, and I have to slot myself back into my seat snugly as a banana into its skin. “Sadis!” – sit down! – says a toothless, deel-clad old lady, grinning and offering up what may be her only word of Russian when I get back to find even this space taken over by three boxes claiming to contain rice cookers.

Around eight p.m the lights of the town appear twinkling in the distance, twinkling, twinkling like a mirage that never gets nearer – it’s not till ten that the bus finally arrives.

Next day, the streets of this dusty little town in the Gobi desert are full of schoolgirls wearing the old soviet uniform of black dress and frilly white pinny; ridiculous white bantiky (bows) in their black pony-tails. They look like cute, slightly kinky French maids.

There are trees down the main street, and the market sells the best tomatoes and cucumbers I’ve found in Mongolia.

Riding of town, the flat desert horizon roars silently with galloping heat. There seem to be blue seas out in the pink plains, seas that never get nearer, that melt and vanish.

There are more colours out here than I could possibly find words to describe. It’s almost maddening, how the tones and the light change. A shoal of sand dunes floats gently in the plain, sides wrinkled into unmoving ripples. Their backs are perfectly knife-edge sharp, until the wind gets up and they begin to smoke and blur.

At the camel-herders’ ger where I stay the night, the little girl’s small collection of toys includes a book in English about dolphin and whale watching. There are pictures, and boxes to tick off when you see the creature in question. She will never have seen the ocean, this little girl. Only the solid waves of the sand-dunes, their shark-fin, whale-hump backs. Shining false seas made of heat and flat plains and longing.

A domestic scene in a Mongolian ger: dad sitting cross-legged, sharpening knives; toddler and kitten asleep on the floor; mum sewing teeny tiny wool saddle bags for a herd of weeny toy wool camels, to sell to tourists.

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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