Siberia, Russia and beyond, late December, 2014.
Part 5: I’ve had Siberian Express dreams for years, taking a train across the vast stretch of Siberia, leaving Moscow headed constantly on, day and night, to distant places in Asia. December 2014 was our opportunity to make dreams real. We were on board for many things, but principally we were there for the ride.
We were there for the ride.
Our travel across Russia and Mongolia to Beijing, China took 10 days, departing on the night of December 20th and arriving in Beijing near noon on the 29th. Eight of nights were spent on the train, one in a ger in rural Mongolia, and one other night in a guesthouse in Ulan Bator. Except for our two planned stops—14 hours in Irkutsk, Siberia, and two days in Mongolia, we rode the train. It’s certainly possible to plan a trip with stops, or just get off somewhere and take another train later.
We were there for the ride. There’s something about the motion of a train, almost always moving, occasionally rocking slightly, or jerking to starts and stops as cars and engines change out at the few scheduled stops. During the day, the countryside blurs past, not clearly seen, but generally understood. Snatches of views of small cabins, woods, a few forlorn towns, woods, factories abandoned and crumbling, patchworks of subsistence vegetable gardens laid over with snow.
At night the movement is what you notice more as there are rarely lights in the distance, signs of far off towns. Instead, it is the steady rock, the comforting sway, stretched out or curled up in bed, you feel the motion, are lulled by it, knowing the same woods and same small cabins were out there somewhere and someone in those cabins was listening to the train as it slid by, leaving a whirl of silent snow rising and falling in its wake.
There’s something too, about the accumulated sense of distance and mass and hugeness of the Russian countryside, especially east of the Urals. To travel for so many days and always view white birch, leafless in winter, white like the snow, always there as a blur, an impression. I know of no place else where the same landscape can repeat endlessly for as long. I know of no place else where a landscape can pass for as long and still not be monotonous.
I’ve often ridden trains in Europe, and the scenery changes every few hours. In Mexico and Peru, the changes were less rapid, but the changes were distinct and recognizable. On the American “Empire Builder” which I took from Minneapolis to Seattle, we thundered across the vast prairie of North Dakota and eastern Montana during the day and the scene remained largely unchanged, but within a day’s time, it changed completely and I awoke somewhere outside of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho the next morning to see a very different landscape. In Russia the accumulation of so much the same for so long is stunning when the realization strikes.
Yet, in those days of birch and snow, I was never bored. I read, we talked, I listened to my playlists, we played cards. We straightened our cabin, arranged our clothes, walked the length of five, six, seven cars before turning around and marching back. Time neither flew by nor weighed heavily. We were there for the ride.