“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”-Jack Kerouac
If there was ever a time for a shot of Russian Vodka, this would be it. I’ll even down the cheap stuff if it keeps me warm.
I yank down on the hood of my jacket and tie it shut until only my eyes and nose are exposed. Then I reach for my zipper and try to pull it up even higher, but it won’t budge, it’s already at the end of its track. My teeth begin to rattle against one another in a frigid chatter. I always thought that only cartoons characters with elastic faces could make their jaws move that quickly. Boy was I wrong.
I look down my nose and then out at the train tracks. They’re covered in equal parts snow and darkness and there’s no sign of movement anywhere on the horizon.
As I call out, “Just hurry up and get here already before I freeze to death!” my breath forms a cloud of crystalized condensation around my head.
I wrap my arms tightly around myself and squeeze, but I can’t stop shivering. The fact that I’m the only human being on the platform makes me feel even colder. Atop the Novosibirsk train station a digital clock flashes the time and the temperature:
Its 12:42 AM and -20 degrees.
I’m finally ready to resume my journey east and hop back on the worlds most iconic train, which if I’m reading my ticket correctly this time, should be here within the next 60 seconds. 12:43 AM seems like an odd time to board, but it’s the only ticket out of town this time of year.
It took the Russians 25 years to lay nearly 6,000 miles of track. The Trans-Siberian railway was built for times of the year just like this. Back then it was what connected Moscow to the Far East when all of the rivers and roads were frozen five months out of the year. But for travelers like myself, I think the words “Trans-Siberian” has always filled us with a romantic sense of wanderlust. As I was crossing Europe every time I told someone that likes to travel that I’m planning to take this route they would always say, “Aww man, that’s on my bucket list, one day, man, one day!”
There’s something about a long journey by train that’s magical. I envision myself sitting in the dining car with a few good books and a warm cappuccino unable to focus on the page in front of me because the landscape on the other side of the window is so interesting that I can’t concentrate on anything but the horizon.
I think those of us that love the open road have always thought fondly of long train journeys. In Paul Theroux’s classic book, The Great Railway Bazaar, he wrote,
“The romance associated with the sleeping car derives from its extreme privacy, combining the best features of a cupboard with forward movement. Whatever drama is being enacted in this moving bedroom is heightened by the landscape passing the window: a swell of hills, the surprise of mountains, the loud metal bridge, or the melancholy sight of people standing under yellow lamps. And the notion of travel as a continuous vision, a grand tour’s succession of memorable images across a curved earth-with none of the distorting emptiness of air or sea-is possible only on a train.”
So believe it or not I’m actually looking forward to spending the next five nights on the train. No TV. No Wi-Fi. Just me and whatever else happens to be out there. The ticket I purchased goes east to Irkutsk then cuts south right through the heart of Mongolia and then east again until it runs right into Beijing’s Railway Station.
Just as the neon clock above me ticks forward a single light cuts through the darkness and begins to steamroll towards me.
“Right on time.”
I grab my bag and shuffle down the platform to where I think car 23 will end up. As the first couple train cars pass me by I see yellow Chinese characters painted on the sides of them. I can’t help but gasp; the excitement of Asia looming in the distance steals my next ice-cold breath. I assumed that I would be boarding a Russian train tonight just like the one that took me from Moscow to Novosibirsk.
I’ve been traveling for 440 days now and this is my first brush up against anything Asian. It’s finally starting to feel like I’m beginning to make my way around the world. For the first year or so of my journey I only moved north, from South Africa to England. When I was explaining my travels to my friend Anu back in London we had a good laugh when he jokingly asked me, “Have you ever looked at a map? If you want to make it around the world you better turn left or right pretty soon.”
Once the train finally jolts to a stop, a sleepy Chinese conductor slinks down the steps. His uniform is filthy and about three sizes to big, making him look like an overgrown schoolboy in it. His teeth are terribly misshapen and he doesn’t speak a lick of English (which is understandable, I’m not expecting him to).
After he punches a hole through my ticket I lift my luggage up the steps and climb aboard.
Inside the vestibule a cloud of soot and depressing black smoke greets me. The first thing I see catches me off guard. Even though I have a second-class ticket, I am half expecting to see a waiter with a glass of red wine and a pair of slippers waiting for me, this is the romantic Trans-Siberian Railroad after all. But instead what I get is another Chinese man whose face is caked with soot; he’s bent over a furnace and he’s shoveling coal around the open flame like he’s single handedly responsible for making the entire train move. I glance into the bathroom because the door is swung open and this god-awful odor is cascading out of it. It’s filthy and smells worse than the stalls at Wrigley Field on dollar beer night.
I ask the conductor, “Is this the right train?”
He grabs my bag and leads me down a corridor that’s so narrow that I have to turn sideways and shimmy just to make my way down it.
I tell him, “This isn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
The Trans-Siberian railroad was completed in 1916 and I wouldn’t be surprised if this train made its maiden voyage way back then.
The conductor slides open the door to my compartment. It’s ice cold and empty. It’s a cramped four-berth closet of a room. It has a tabletop bolted into the wall and a blanket atop each bed. I swing my bag and myself into the room and the conductor follows me in.
“Um, its freezing in here, can you turn the heat on?”
He has no idea what I’m saying, so I pretend to shiver, which doesn’t take much pretending, and I say, “cold.”
I put my hand to the frost that’s up against the window expecting it to be on the outside, but its not, it’s actually on the inside. Then as I look around the rim of the window I notice that tissue paper is pushed in between the window and its rubber lining, which means that this bible thin tissue paper is my only insulation against the harsh Siberian winter.
I run my fingers underneath the heating vents that are beneath the table.
I shake my head in disgust; I can’t feel anything coming out.
The conductor finds two English words, “Heat on.”
It’s in this moment that I think my unquenchable appetite for travel is forever quenched.
“I am not prepared for this,” I say to the conductor, but by the time I turn around he’s gone.
Just earlier this week it took everything I have inside to pick myself up and dust my self off and now I’m finding myself having to do it again.
The train shutters and starts to move. The lights of the station and then the smokestacks of Novosibirsk quickly disappear.
I sit down on the bottom bunk that’s about as wide and soft as an ironing board and I look out the window. My body rocks as the train rocks. I resist the urge to cry.
I grab a blanket and pin in up against the window and then I work the window curtain down hoping that will provide some sort of insulation. Then I dig into my suitcase and put on all the long sleeve shirts that I own, which is a total of three.
I turn out the lights and crawl into my berth and I wrap myself from head to toe with the three other blankets.
I pull my wool hat over my eyes and nose and I begin to mentally prepare myself to sleep in my jeans, sneakers and jacket for the next five nights. I remind myself that times like this are why I choose to start this journey around the world in Africa, and that if I could make it there then I can make it anywhere. No offense to Frank Sinatra and New York, but New York is a cakewalk compared to this. The lyrics should really be, if you can make it across Africa and Siberia, then you can make it anywhere.
With that thought repeating in my brain, I listen to the wind whistle as the train creaks through the darkness.