I awoke to see miles of untouched snow, with tall thin trees poking through. It was like a scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I was desperate to put one foot in that snow where it looked as if no human had been. I had reached half-way on my journey between Beijing and Moscow. Only another 3,933km to go!
I was on my way home to Scotland after spending a year teaching English in Japan. It didn’t seem right to end such an experience by simply boarding a direct flight from Tokyo to London. I decided to make my return trip into an adventure that I had often dreamed of – a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
We arrived in the town of Bogotol to find the Russians on the platform charging around in a panic. Then we saw why. From the train opposite there were people hanging out of the windows and doors. They were holding up clothes – leather jackets, shirts, gigantic bras, even plastic flowers – and shouting like stallholders at a fair.
The customers were shoving and pushing their way along the narrow platform. They grabbed at the merchandise, haggled briefly, shoved money in the seller’s hand, threw the item in their bag and then ran on to the next one. It was like a group of starving people grasping for grain handed out by relief workers.
We opened the door and windows of our carriage, so we could get a clearer view of this spectacle. The icy air rushed in and caught in our throats. New snow had been cleared from the platform so now it was just a thick sheet of ice. I stepped down to the platform but was barely able to stay standing. I retreated to the train steps and pulled my hat further down over my ears.
The other train had pulled away and the buying and selling was now going on along the full length of our train. We watched one sale outside our carriage. The short stocky woman was trying on a long fur lined coat. It swamped her but looked so cosy she could hibernate in it. More practical than fake flowers in this weather.
One old lady offered up a basket to us. Before I could even look at the contents I got a strong whiff of the fish inside and quickly shook my head. The smell was pungent and I knew it would be overpowering in the confines of our cabin. Our neighbour obviously had no such concerns and wanted to buy a fish. He had no roubles so he bartered an orange instead. As I hadn’t seen fresh fruit in days, I couldn’t help thinking the woman had got the best deal. With no access to shops we were reliant on the restaurant car which supplied us with overcooked stews and increasingly stale bread.
Two burly Russian men came charging up the steps passed us. I felt panic rising in my chest. I scanned the corridor for our attendant’s help but I realised that he was doing a deal with these men. He was selling Chinese beer, stashed in one of the cabins. As they came out carrying the beer, one man turned indicating his leather jacket and asked me for $30. I declined.
A whistle split the air and the guards began to shut the doors. As soon as the train pulled away, the customers turned to each other to compare their purchases. They were mostly olderRussian women in fur hats but a few teenagers tagged along too. Some wore tight trousers with short leather jackets. One poor girl was wearing a mini-skirt with her hefty legs freezing above her boots.
The train edged away, back to the snowy surrounds. Our speed on this journey ranged from 12mph to 93mph. Not quite the Japanese Shinkansen.
Near the border between east and west Siberia we passed over a frozen river. It was deserted except for one man who had dragged his little wooden boat on to the ice and cut two holes beside the boat. He was now sitting on a stool fishing through one of the holes.
I was glad the train was moving so slowly. It gave me time to enjoy some peace and solitude before getting on with my life.