I woke on day three to a light fog behind pines and the sun rising over a small lake with wispy mist rising from it. Birch leaves twinkled in the breeze. Then came the fairy tale houses. Ridiculously pretty little timber things. If the whole house or fence wasn’t painted, at least the window trim often would be. Frequent royal blue, barn red, and dark green coloured roofs. Strong bright colours, glasshouses, gardens of sunflowers, other flowers and vegetable patches with the biggest cabbages. The undulations grew into hills, the grasslands into the burnt orange trunks of Russian pines and splotchy white trunks of birch trees. The taiga. Grass was cut and piled high, occasionally with a small patch of tin perched on it in the direction of the worst weather. The sky was blue. After only a few days of the haze muted colours of China, the cheerfully coloured towns and villages were even more incredible than if I’d come directly to them.
The train wound round the shore of Lake Baikal and the clouds came over for a while. The range on the other side of the lake was distant but clearly visible. In either direction the ends of the lake merged with the sky, grey in the north/east and blue in the south/west. Streams and creeks ran under the train line to the lake. Pink and purple wildflowers joined the yellow and white ones. Russians picnicked by the lake, camped, and generally took a summer holiday in their swimmers or with their tops up to get a tan. I thought it was perfect weather for a Brisbane winter. At a short stop half way around the lake a woman boarded the train selling the local smoked fish. My cabin mate had been hanging out for this moment and bought one, as did our Chinese neighbours. I had a taste and thought it was better than bacon.
At Irkutsk we only had a half hour stop but we braved leaving the station again to cross the road and find more bread, cheese and on an impulse, yoghurt. After Irkutsk we left the lake behind and later in the afternoon croplands started. The moon rose big and firey orange behind the birch trees.
Day four was relatively quiet. The towns in the morning were, impossibly enough, even prettier than the previous day because they were set on hills of dark green pines and green grass. Ferns grew under the pines. Blue wildflowers briefly joined the others. I thought the bright colours of the houses might be to compensate for the long grey winter. My cabin mate and I wondered how the houses could be warm enough then. Some houses had shutters for the windows, and in the town at the border crossing we noticed a shop with multiple layers of doors. But still. At one city station we wandered to the square outside, complete with fountains and a steel lion with a sword atop a 20 meter post. A local sitting in the square had an enthusiastic conversation with one of the Chinese fellows from another carriage and a group of us gathered around. He pulled out his credit card to introduce himself, Evgeny. His mate smiled and quietly shook his head. So far it seems as if Russians are either really reserved, or really friendly.
Back on the train it looked as if half of Muscles’ job was to walk up and down the corridor on his phone. Later in the day, at another station that actually had food stalls on the platform, I used the Russian phrasebook a friend had lent me to say I was vegetarian. The stall holder pointed out which items were suitable and even went digging through the book to tell me they were, wait for it, potato and cabbage. More specifically, fried bread stuffed with mashed potato, yum, and sauerkraut dumplings, slightly odd.
What we saw of the cities changed a little as we went east. Early on, one small industrial city had a dense haze of smog concentrated on it, but that was the only one we saw like that. The apartment blocks were similar to the grey Chinese ones, but at least there was only one of each design instead of five or ten in a complex. Some of the apartment blocks did draw elements such as the roof style from the local timber houses. More and more rows of single garages squeezed into the space between the train tracks and the apartment blocks. The buildings rose taller until we reached the capital of Siberia, Novosbirsk, that night. It actually had high rises and my cabin mate was satisfied.
We couldn’t see much after the train pulled out of the station so we settled down with our reading, our backs to the walls beside the window. Muscles walked past, on his phone of course, paused at our door, ducked his head to look out the window and pointed with a rare grin. We whipped around to see the broad dark river beneath us edged by city lights. It was a sight. We laughed and turned back to the still smiling Muscles to show our appreciation of the view, his pointing it out, and the humour of having had our backs to it. All without words.
On day five, eating our third different type of bread, all sourdough, I declared we were on a bread tasting tour of Russia. The cheese, whatever it was, went best with the third bread, whatever that was. There were fewer stops and no opportunities to leave the platform. The platform shops were well stocked with biscuits, instant noodles and cheap plastic children’s toys, but not much in the way of real food other than bread. The woman doing the rounds of the first and second class carriages trying to induce us to buy from her basket or the restaurant was becoming more despondent. Someone had a stroke of genius and on her next round she carried a plate of fried bread stuffed with… cabbage. It was inexpensive and tasty, the sauted cabbage exactly how I like it. After Ekaterinburg, where the station building couldn’t be seen for the trains, a group of us decided to test out the restaurant carriage. The portions were small, but I was happy just to get some fresh vegetables. The Chinese men were happy to down their vodka. I had the merest taste of the stuff.
I wondered about describing the houses, wildflowers and woods as fairy tale like. For the people who were the first audiences of fairy tales, the houses, woods and flowers were of their lives. Does that make the stories more real for them? And does it change how we see the landscape in real life? Surely they would not describe it as fairy tale like. Train musings.
Being on the train one can’t help noticing other trains and rail yards, especially when you’re looking at something in particular, or pointing something out, and a 40 or 60 car goods train gets in the way. By the time it’s gone, so has the object of your attention. The trains carted timber and logs, crushed rock, coal, containers and liquid of some sort. Sometimes goods trains passed on both side at once. This is a busy line. The workshops beside the line are the same design, 100s of kilometres apart and have tall panels of windows so you can see the engines or cars inside. The engines are brightly coloured so a yard of them in the grass is quite a sight. Are we too commercialised to have such colour, or too proud?
(I’m in Moscow now. Day six and our arrival here will have to wait till later.)