45 hours in
a china teapot
4 tomatoes, 2 fat-fingered cucumbers
and the three of us
the lady, 74, the kindest eyes in town
the man, Anselmo, salting and cutting
a language of 3 common words
cramped and happy in coach 3
On the 76 hour train ride from Moscow to Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan, I experienced a little of what train-hoppers used to tell me about in America- after the initial day or so time kind of swirls into the swaying of the carriages and ones mind kind of seperates into two- the totally immediate and apparently insignificant (taking out the pips of a pomegranite with a knife one by one) and the totally abstract and memory filled. The two trigger each other off. The middle bit- normal reactions and appetites and logistical worries- seems dulled and inaccessible. Superb.
As described in the previous post, I was sharing an open carriage with around 50 other people, split by little walls with beds attached, with bedding and hot water provided. I got on and offered some peanut brittle around, which was refused by everyone as always seemed to happen, but in the process passed on 2 bits of information implicitly: 1. i don't speak the same language as you 2. i am not a threat and quite messy when I eat. The man across from me, Anselmo (so called not because that was his name, but because he reminded me strongly of the heroic character with the same name from Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls), gestured to the crucifix around his neck and that everything we had was to be shared, and proceeded to pull out a flatbread, tomatoes, cucumbers and a film canister filled with salt. The lady sat next to him, who by the end of the journey was scoulding me in Russian like I was her own child, brought out a jar of honey with little bits of lemon in. Bloody genius.
Anselmo was one of those men who have clearly had huge and varied experiences and no doubt their faire share of hard times, but have learnt through them to be totally humble, generous and straight up loving to the people and the world around them, and as a consequence his step was light and his eyes sparkled like a magician in disguise. It is to meet people like him (even if we don't have a shared language- if we did this blog post would be much longer for sure) that I travel.
Through silent observation, shared food and tea and us talking to each other in languages that made no sense to the other but were significant anyway, and the fact that the whole situation was pretty unique anyway, we created an atmosphere that i can't in any way convey here in words but that was totally magic. Summed up in our silent, sunset mind-reading tea ceremonies.
The rest of the carriages were dominated by young families and males who I can only guess were either businessmen or migrant workers, or both. We communed in the smoking end of the carriage and on the regular and long platform stops. These were highlights too- each few hundred miles a new and more elaborate collection of food hawkers- platform goddesses with boiled eggs in their arms and chilrden at their ankles.
A myriad of gastronomic delights. Breads stuffed with minced lamb, steamed dumplings with carrot and spring onion, cartloads of melons big as fat babies, huge dried fish, paper cup-fulls of sunflower seeds that left their mark on the carriage floor... and at stops further east the saliva-inducing smell of lamb being roasted over charcoal... and as we travelled east the faces of the hawkers were slightly different, and I couldn't tell you the point at which everyone suddenly looked a lot like my reflection in the mirror but it happened... or was that a dream?
The scenery also kept slowly melting into itself- first forest, then low hills, then a slow but sure decrease of vegetation from trees to bushes to slow-waving straw-coloured grasslands, to tiny bushes clinging to the now yellow soil, to the cracked and moon-like landscape of the roof of the Kazakh steppe; the huge expanse of land that still sustains only the odd herder and contrasts with a white to azure sky that picks little holes in the mind if you look at it for too long
snow and sun
suffocate in turn
leaving yellow stalk grass
husky and mute
the trees hunchbacked
the foxes cunning
This is where the USSR used to do their nuclear testing back in the day. There was a whole deep day of this out of the window and i have to say it is one of the best days i have had on my whole travel so far. On the morning of the 3rd day we woke to see the landscape change in reverse as we went down the other side, a popping in the ears barely perceptible, and the back of the journey broken. It was around this time that i really started chatting to the uzbek with 5 gold teeth and the russian
the russian extra
fat scars like lips on his cheeks
intense, soft eyes like shifting dunes
rimmed with lichen
he is determined to tell me his story
of why the barely enclosed rage
of a thousand men returned from war
bubbles clear under his skin
through tone and gesture alone
and a single mobile video of his victory
in an army-fatigued bare knucke wrestle
i glimpse and grope
at a shared history:
every other man in our
70km/h train circle of men
wore the uniform of the red army.
a belarussian with bright blue eyes
has lenin's head tattooed on his shoulder
Towards the end of the journey I was invited to gamble with cards by said russian. I declined but went to watch. As soon as I sat down with him I realised there was some tension going on- everyone else seemed to have left the vicinity of him and he kept looking down the corridor. Eventually he got up and disappeared, and a moment later two massive Russian police, who i didn't even know where on the train, passed by in the direction he went. I sat for a bit and then went back to my own seat, with my new mama clucking her disapproval... later I found out that everyone thought the russian was trying to cheat me out of money and the police, with no evidence, had tried to get a bribe out of him anyway. At least this is what i think happened from the gesticulations of various people.
We reach the border late at night
Around the tran huge banks of lights
Dogs and barbed wire
Glimpse memories of the iron curtain
Inside the carriage
we sit silent and sleep tense
Starched uniforms in control
the secrets of luggage brashly rummaged
My visa is not in order
I don't and won't know why
The old lady pleads my case with conviction
My passport is stamped and we go
I have just read this post and i think i have failed to capture the moments of it. Maybe i have partly forgotten it myself. Early in the morning of the 4th day we arrived to another sunny city and everyone got off sharpish without saying goodbye.