- Write blog posts.
- Write fiction.
- Read William Gibson.
- Read Middlemarch.
- Listen to comedy podcasts.
- Learn useful Russian words and phrases.
- Devise an exercise regime that can be done in the compartment with minimal risk of falling over.
- Watch Top of the Lake on Loz’s tablet. (Zoe Bartlett sure is all grown up.)
- Make tea. (Black, Russian-style, but without the jam.)
- Allow Loz to teach me to play cards. Somehow manage this without it devolving into a marriage-threatening argument. (This plan still in beta.)
- Walk the length of the train. Trip over numerous small children and power cords. Almost choke at ends of each carriage, where people are allowed to smoke.
- Hope the babushkas at the next stop have some fresh fruit to sell.
Everything you read about the Trans-Siberian will tell you that there is not in fact any service with that name, and that there are three different lines that cross Siberia, terminating in different places; the true Trans-Siberian in Vladivostok, and the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian in Beijing. The train we’re on is the Trans-Manchurian route, running from Moscow to Beijing in seven days, but we’re getting out at Irkutsk this time, after four nights and three days. We’re travelling spalny vagon, or first class, for this leg of the trip. There’s really only one difference between this and kupé, which our previous overnight trains have been; each compartment contains only two bunks, rather than four, so we have our compartment to ourselves. The bunks fold up in the morning, back into seats, and we can fold down our small table. Our carriage has two provodnitsas, Svetlana and Natalya. They take tickets, hoover the carriage, sell snacks and drinks, and, most importantly, keep the samovar in each carriage full of hot water. Instant noodles and porridge are consequently quite popular on board. The train makes three or four stops each 24 hours, where you can jump off the train for 10 or 20 minutes, stretch your legs, and replenish supplies from the babushkas who sell on the platforms.
The scenery is hypnotic, though; it’s hard to look at it for long without your eyes closing. The weather has been flawless since we left Moscow, and the countryside doesn’t look all that different from England, woods and fields, except that the forests are mostly pine and the train can run for hours without passing any sign of human habitation. The train timetables are all defiantly on Moscow time throughout the country, in spite of the absurdities this creates. Already we’re four hours ahead of Moscow time, and we need to keep track of both, for the dining car, with its own logic, sticks strictly to local time in its opening hours.
It’s nice to be away from cities, now, and looking forward to hiking and swimming (and a shower) in Siberia. In the meantime, the train is a sort of limbo. Should you eat now? Read? Let your eyes close? Just stare out the window? Try to adjust mealtimes in line with local time, or just eat when you feel hungry? The result is a kind of dreamy, abstracted state where everything seems worth putting off, at least until the next stop at a station galvanises us into our boots.