CAROL SUMMERHAYES. Another Trans-Siberian experience.

Sep 29, 2017

John Tulloh’s post brought back memories of my Trans-Siberian train journey, some twenty-three years after his.  He was there in 1967, and not a lot had changed when I was there in 1990, travelling in the reverse direction.

With a friend, I flew from Niigata in Japan to Khabarovsk in Russia’s east, 30 km from the Chinese border and 800 km north of Vladivostok.  While the Trans-Siberian train left from Vladivostok, it was then a closed city so we foreigners had to board at Khabarovsk – a dark, brown, eerie place if ever there was one.  It was the end of April so the thaw was just beginning – our clapped out taxi took us from the airport through puddles, potholes, cars with parking lights only, occasional dim street lights and a haze of smog, filthy dirty rickety old buses lurching along in the dark, and hardly any people, to the Intourist Hotel. Money changers and bored youngsters hung around in the gloom outside our hotel, with its dark brown interiors – heavily lacquered parquet floors and timbered walls, very little lighting, drab and sparse furnishings, guarded on each floor by a babushka who seemed well set up with a perpetually running television, a few armchairs and decorative items but no apparent purpose.

The following morning revealed Karl Marx Street populated by packs of dogs roaming over broken pavements and a few people shopping at market stalls.  It was impossible to meet anyone’s eyes, much less get a smile out of them – a national trait, if the mistrust of strangers can be called a trait.  At the train station gypsies were living in the railway underpass – as we left Khabarovsk things looked decayed, with rubbish lying where it had fallen, broken steps, making me wonder if all of Russia was going to be like this?

But nature prevailed out in the countryside! We saw blue snow-capped mountains, large stands of silver birch (some just starting to show a tinge of green, more so as we travelled westwards), tussocks breaking green through the flat post-thaw mud.  There were some strange sights – one railway station’s sign was also in Hebrew, as it apparently was an autonomous Jewish region (maybe John Tulloh’s place of Jewish exiles?); occasional cemeteries edged the track – remains of former railway workers or of labour camps?  Where there were settlements, they were wooden houses with pale blue, ornately carved window frames and shutters.  The size of the firewood stacks gave some indication of how hard life must be in winter.  The countryside changed, sometimes to dry rolling grassland and hills, with still frozen rivers and lakes, fewer birches and more firs, with the occasional cheery red tree to break the beige monotony.

After two nights on the move, we detrained at Irkutsk, about half-way between Vladivostok and Moscow.  The city streets had a slightly Parisian feel, with buildings only about three storeys high and great trees.  But it was May Day and snowing, so very Siberian.  We formed the Yarralumla-Irkutsk Friendship Brigade and set off to join in.  The streets were lined with great-coated young soldiers, with loudspeakers shouting “Oorah” or however the Russians pronounce Hoorah.  The people bore red banners, party badges, balloons and sprigs of new leaves, some with paper or fabric blossoms attached.   We tacked ourselves onto the ragged end of the procession, following the music down by the Amur River.  It was a fun occasion with “proper” Russian music and old ladies dancing to the squeeze box, only to be overwhelmed by an amplified band playing pop; kids dancing in circles or doing the Lambada – but freezing!!

Back to the train – as we left Irkutsk for Moscow we managed an upgrade to “soft” class for a mere $10, money well spent for a compartment to ourselves.   We rattled on, passing through some large cities in the middle of the night and daytime views of gradually greening vegetation as the spring sprang.  People were ploughing and planting, setting out to make the most of the growing season.  People carrying two buckets on a yoke were a common sight – such primitive farming.

At our stops people would come to the train to buy sugar, butter, bottled milk and large bagels from the restaurant car.  Others would come to the train to sell – piroshkies, dill pickles, carrots and potatoes – or to collect empty bottles, paying the steward for the privilege.  Entrepreneurs abounded.  We disembarked to stretch our legs, breathe fresh air, check the wares and take photographs – stork nests were a favourite.

Which leads me to the story of Boris and Albina Klein, Khabarovsk folk travelling to Moscow for the Victory Day celebrations on 9 May.  Boris’s first approach to me, as I was photographing birds’ nests, had me thinking he wanted to buy my camera – he wrote the number 50 on the palm of his hand and kept saying “photo apparatus”.  Fifty roubles? Fifty dollars?  After much to-ing and fro-ing with the phrase book, we finally worked out he wanted me to take a photo of his wife who was celebrating her 50th birthday!   We celebrated with a glass of something sparkling, but not before I had dug out of my luggage the plastic blow-up birthday cake I had with me (doesn’t everyone?) and presented it to Albina.  I had just enough Russian to recognise Boris’s feelings for Stalin – he said he loved him after I had made a disdainful gesture at the mention of his name.  Life must have been much more predictable for Army people like Boris back in Stalin’s time.  I sent the birthday photograph to the Kleins in Khabarovsk, and can only hope they got it as it wasn’t returned to sender with a Nyet.  Even if it didn’t arrive, at least they had the plastic cake.  I often wonder how and if they re-tell that tale.

Eventually we arrived in Moscow, after the most fascinating train trip I have ever undertaken.  Many of John Tulloh’s experiences on the train echoed with mine – using cigarettes as currency : it took one packet of fags to get a clean tablecloth in the dining car; sharing smoked fish and boiled eggs with generous fellow travellers; passing time in the train corridor with constant music and announcements from the train’s broadcast  system.  We were so lucky to have that exposure to Russia and Russians.

Carol Summerhayes worked with Prime Minister Whitlam,speech writer Graham Freudenberg and Governors General Hayden and Deane.

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