Flight UK23616: A Brexit Fable

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Flight UK 23616 is cruising several thousand feet above a stormy ocean. It’s dark outside, and no one can really tell what’s going on in the world below.  The plane has four hundred passengers, fifty of whom are in business class.

The business class area, with its cocktail bar, fully reclining seats and dedicated crew, takes up more than half the space on the plane. The other three hundred and fifty passengers are crammed into economy, where space is so tight no one is allowed to recline their seats, and dozens of people are left standing in the aisle.

In fact some of the passengers in economy are getting quite angry. Quarrels are breaking out whenever someone tries to recline their seat and the people standing in the aisle are shoving each other to make room.

Even though the curtain between the classes is closed, some of the people in business class begin to hear the grumbling from the back of the plane and it makes them nervous. They think it’s perfectly natural that they have better seats and more room – they paid for it, after all. Then one of them has a brilliant idea. He gets hold of the intercom and tells the passengers in economy that the reason they don’t have much space is because some of them have foreign passports.

The foreign travellers begin to get a little nervous. A rumour starts circulating that a quarter of the people in economy are foreign, though really it’s half that number. Some people start glaring round at everyone else in economy, demanding to see their passports.

Jeremy peeks through a gap in the curtain and tells the others that he can see empty seats in business class. It turns out that this is because some of the passengers have wandered into the cockpit to have a chat with the pilot, who’s a friend of theirs.

“Shut up, Jeremy,” says Nigel, who seems a little tipsy. “We wouldn’t need any more seats if it wasn’t for all these foreigners.”

Shortly afterwards someone notices that a large blue backpack in one of the overhead lockers appears to be ticking. Some people can hear the ticking and some can’t. No one is claiming ownership of the backpack. A few of the passengers vaguely remember helping to carry it on board but they don’t know what’s inside, and it looks a lot bigger now.

“It’s a bomb!” shouts Nigel, who’s had another couple of drinks. “One of the foreigners must have put it there.”

People begin to back away from the backpack, looking scared, but economy is so crowded there’s nowhere for them to go; everyone just gets even more crushed. Meanwhile Jeremy takes another peek into business class. “They’re eating steak!” he says. “And lobster! And drinking cocktails!”

The people in his row hear this and cry out in anger. While business class travellers have a free lunch, all they got was peanuts.  They start to shout at the cabin crew, asking for better food. Boris, one of the business class travellers, hears this and shoves his way through the curtain.

“What’s all this fuss about, then?” he says. His friend Michael hurries after him, frantically pulling the curtain closed so that no one can see the cabin crew handing out chocolate soufflés to the business class travellers.

Michael points at the backpack. “Look! It’s a bomb!”

“I keep telling them,” Nigel says. He’s very drunk now as his friends in business class keep sending him more to drink. “We need to break a window and get rid of it.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Boris says. He grabs the emergency hammer and waves it around, trying to look important.

“No, that’s a stupid idea,” says Mark, another business class traveller. “The cabin will depressurize, and we’ll crash.”

“Well, someone needs to take charge, and I think it should be me,” says Boris.

Suddenly a voice crackles over the intercom. “Wait a minute,” says David, the pilot. “I’m the pilot here, and I say we should vote on it. We’re all in this plane together.”

David, locked away in his cockpit, has no idea how overcrowded everyone is in economy, or how many people are listening to Nigel. He thinks he may as well let everyone vote if it will shut them up and let him get on with flying the plane.

Suddenly everyone in both classes starts talking about the blue backpack which may or may not be a bomb. Some people start to panic; others say they can’t hear any ticking at all, or that they think it’s just an alarm clock. Mark says he is an expert on aeronautics and he knows that breaking the window is a really bad idea. Another man, Nick, says he is a bomb disposal expert and the best thing would be to diffuse the bomb, if there is one.

“Boring!” yells Boris. “That sounds hard. It would take too long.” He’s keen to get back to business class before they serve the cheese and port.

“We’ve had enough of experts,” Michael says. “Anyway, I promise that if we throw the bomb out of the window we can all have ice cream.”

“And we can chuck these bloody foreigners out after it,” says Nigel. “Then everyone in economy will have more room.”

They hold the vote, and to everyone’s surprise 52% of people on board want to throw the backpack out of the window.

Michael immediately says there isn’t any ice cream, after all.

Boris looks at the hammer in his hand, suddenly nervous. He goes into the cockpit and hands it to David. “You’re the pilot,” he says. “You break the window.”

“Fuxit,” David says, strapping on a parachute. “Why should I have to do the hard shit? I’m not flying anymore.”

He leaves the cockpit and the plane plunges down into the darkness. Everyone screams. Michael snatches the hammer out of Boris’s hand and whacks him over the head with it, knocking him out. “Boris is my friend, but I’ve just remembered he doesn’t know how to fly,” he says. “I’d better have a go.” While everyone is staring at Michael in disgust, Theresa slips her kitten heels on and sidles towards the cockpit door.

Nigel slides back into business class, where, it turns out, he had a seat all along. “My work here is done,” he says, and passes out.

Back in economy, everyone in Jeremy’s row thinks he should be the pilot, because that way they’ll all get more space and better food. Other people are angry that Jeremy didn’t have much to say about the backpack. Jeremy’s friends grab him and lock him in the toilet to protect him from the people who say he doesn’t know how to fly the plane either.

No one is flying the plane.

George, who has been very quiet up to now, pops his head through the curtain and says he’s done the sums and there aren’t enough parachutes to go round. “In view of this, I’ve given them all to the business class travellers,” he explains. “I don’t want to put them off flying with us again.”

The plane is still spiralling out of control towards the earth, even though no one has actually broken the window yet. Some of the economy travellers are trying to push the foreign travellers into the hold, thinking that will save them. Some are weeping, or getting angry with the people who voted to break the window. Some are wishing they hadn’t voted to break it. Others are curling up into the brace position, silently wondering where and how hard the flight will come down.

The plane tips further, roaring and howling as it falls out of the sky.

The Last Stop

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So there I was: Berlin. The sixth and final country of my trip. Part of me just wanted to get home. Like Mole in The Wind and the Willows, I was close enough now to be able to smell my home, and Berlin seemed like a not-quite-London in comparison to all the other cities I’d been in, making me long for the real thing. It was the first place I’d visited that had a completely familiar alphabet on its street signs, for example. I could tell I was nearly there.

But I had two final days of exploring to do before I got back. I arrived too early to be able to check into my room at the Circus – a hostel I would highly recommend to anyone visiting the city. Instead I dropped The Beast in their luggage lockers and headed back out. One of the best things about the Circus is it’s just over the road from Mein Haus am See, a marvellous cafe/bar/club that never closes. I went there for breakfast, and ended up popping back several times for coffee. In fact when I was in Berlin again in 2014 I spent an afternoon at Mein Haus am See with Chris’s sister Maddy, who was living in the city at the time. The Edis family seem to pop up in cities all over the world.

Despite having had a disturbed night’s sleep due to the raid on the train I was feeling very energetic, so I belted around a load of sights. The Brandenburg Gate, Alexanderplatz, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie and various bits of the Wall all whizzed past. I wandered around Museuminsel, though I didn’t actually visit any of the museums. I saw the Holocaust memorial, too. Years later I’m still not quite sure what I think about it. Great grey concrete blocks rise up around you like gravestones. I like the fact that the memorial is placed right in the middle of the city, where you can’t miss it, and I like the sobering, isolating feeling you get walking through it, when the blocks rise above you, hemming you in. But the whole effect is strange, especially with crowds of happy tourists milling about, their kids playing around on the shorter blocks. I found the little brass plaques scattered about the city streets had more impact on me: little tales of individual lives lost.

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The next day was my Berlin Wall day. I only visited the one spot, so the rest of the day was left for a gentle wander around. In the afternoon I found myself back in the Tiergarten, and sat on a bench for a minute to rest. The overnight train to Paris didn’t leave until around ten at night, so I had plenty of time.

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A man was sitting on the same bench, reading a book. After a while he turned and asked if I was Russian, by any chance.

“No, but I’ve just come from there,” I said, astounded. We got talking. The man’s name was Franck. He was from somewhere near Paris, and he loved Russian literature. He was reading some Chekhov in Russian and came across a letter he’d never seen before; hence the question. I don’t know what made him think I might be Russian. We studied the Chekhov together, but I was no help there, of course. It soon emerged that he had also been on the Trans-Siberian and had stayed in Nikita’s Homestead on Olkhon Island. We compared notes on our routes. I could barely concentrate on the conversation as I was overwhelmed by the staggering unlikeliness of it all: finding a fellow Russophile there on a bench in the Tiergarten in Berlin, just as my trip was drawing to a close. After a while Franck’s family came to collect him so we exchanged emails and said goodbye, still shaking our heads at the coincidence of the meeting. It was a lovely bookending moment for the trip.

The rest of the day soon slipped by, and then it was time for my final sleeper train. Sadly, the City Nightline sleeper train from Berlin to Paris has now been cancelled. Quite a lot of sleeper trains have been phased out all over Europe in the last few years, as they struggle to compete with budget airlines. For me, there’s no competition. The train wins every time. It’s far more environmentally friendly, and it’s a far more civilised way to travel than by air. Airlines and airports seem to have made a concerted effort to eradicate any trace of glamour or excitement from air travel, and to make it as irritating, punishing and demeaning as possible. Airports are designed for shopping rather than to ease mass transportation, and the planes themselves seem designed for people with extra joints in their legs and neck. I hate them.

In contrast, I boarded the train in the centre of Berlin and was ushered into a private en-suite compartment where a small bottle of cold sparkling wine lay waiting for me. The train ticket was expensive, but if you factor in the cost of transport to and from airports, the air fare itself, and the baggage fines budget airlines charge if you want to bring more than a pocket handkerchief with you – let alone the cost of a night’s accommodation in central Europe – even a first class sleeper fare starts to look extremely competitive. I lay back on my bunk, sipped my wine and watched the night time world speed by, reluctant to go to sleep on this final night of travel.

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I fell asleep sometime after Hannover. Early the next morning the carriage attendant woke me up in time for breakfast, served in the compartment, with a view out over the French countryside.

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All of a sudden we were in Paris. I shouldered The Beast and made my way through the metro to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar. Everything felt like it was happening really fast, but it was strange to think I’d soon be back in London. In the Eurostar part of the station I found myself surrounded by English people for the first time in two months; it was weird to see them. They seemed almost foreign. I boarded the Eurostar without difficulty and dozed for the rest of France, only waking up when we were in the tunnel, when my heart began to thunder in anticipation. Then we popped back up on the other side and I saw the small familiar fields of England zip past outside the window.

I found myself grinning broadly and idiotically out of the window, almost overwhelmed with relief and triumph. I’d done it! I couldn’t believe I’d made it all the way home from Beijing overland – and all the way from Kathmandu in one piece. A trip of over 13,500 kilometres (8500 miles) in total, of which 10,500 km was made overland, by train, bus, horse, ferry and taxi, in the company of old friends, family, bossy Siberian grandmothers, knife-wielding taxi drivers, and French Russophiles. I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the journey. There’s a certain background tension whenever you’re travelling that just comes from being in unfamiliar territory and having to concentrate harder on finding your way round, working out the currency and communicating with people. Now this tension was gone.

We pulled into St Pancras station and I found my boyfriend David waiting for me. It was brilliant to see him again. We both had so much to talk about we barely knew where to begin. We stopped for a quick coffee at the British Library and then I embarked on the very last stage of my journey: the 91 bus back home.

 

A Raid on The Kiev-Berlin Train

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I spent the first hour or so on the train from Kiev to Berlin marvelling at its conveniences. A light in the compartment to show whether the toilet was occupied! A sink (non-functioning, but still) hidden under the table! I had the compartment to myself at first. It was a tall, thin compartment, with three bunks on one wall and a tiny table wedged in front of them. Not enough room inside for another set of bunks opposite. The carriage attendant was the sort of person who thinks you might understand their language better if they shout it at you, but she was very nice. A couple of times she barged into my compartment and bellowed “CHAI! CHAI!” at me until I said yes, and then she would bring me a plastic cup of sweet tea.

After a couple of hours we pulled into a station and my solitude was broken. A tall, fortysomething man called Oleg joined me. At first I was disappointed not to have the place to myself, but meeting Oleg turned out to be the highlight of the train trip. His wife had packed him copious amounts of food for the train, all of which he insisted on sharing with me – potato salad, delicious roast pork and homemade cake. Oleg also came bearing a smallish unlabelled vat of cold beer.

It’s well known that different types of alcohol have different effects. This beer was the kind that makes you a soporific, mellow, stupefied sort of drunk, and as such it was perfect for a long train ride. We drank and ate and went through the photos on my camera and the pages in each other’s passports. I spoke in Russian and mime and Oleg answered in soft Ukrainian – they are mutually comprehensible. At a later stop Oleg vanished onto the platform and came back with another few litres of beer. Oleg worked as something to do with cars and often commuted back and forth between Germany and Ukraine.

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In the evening we reached the border with Poland. When Chris and I passed from China to Mongolia the train was cranked up so they could change the bogies to the Russian gauge; now it was time to switch back. Once again we stayed on board as the carriages were slowly levered up and the wheels detached and replaced. Afterwards we sat in a siding for ages while the border guards made their rounds.

When my passport was inspected, the guard noticed that I didn’t have an entry stamp for Ukraine.

“Oh, should I have one?” I said.

I should. This was a bit of a problem. I thought back to the train from Moscow to Kiev and realised that the young guard who checked our passports must have assumed I was part of the Russian family in that compartment, and he hadn’t stamped my passport as a result.

“This is very bad,” Oleg said when the guard went off with my passport. “You might have to leave the train, and go for an interview.” I wasn’t that worried, probably because of the beer, but also because I couldn’t really see what the problem was. I was leaving the country, after all. It wasn’t as though I was missing a whole visa: UK citizens don’t need one to visit Ukraine. It was one tiny stamp.

The guard came back and quizzed me about my journey and how I had entered the country, and it struck me that I still had my ticket from the Moscow-Kiev train. I dug it out of my bag and he took it away to examine it. After a while he came back and grudgingly handed over my passport, telling me to be more careful in the future. I checked, and he had given me an exit stamp. Oleg and I toasted this with another glass of beer.

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The beer and the general anaesthetic of the train knocked us both out, so we decided to have an early night. Both of us were asleep by ten o’clock at the latest, I would estimate. However, in the middle of the night there was a rattling at the door and the shouty carriage attendant burst back in.

“Girl! Come with me!” she bellowed, ignoring Oleg. I grabbed my handbag and followed her out of the compartment, down the corridor and into her tiny little compartment at the end.

“Sit there!” she ordered. I did so. She left, then came back a couple of minutes later with two tiny apples, thrust them at me and went away again.

The train stopped. I couldn’t see much from my position, sitting on the carriage attendant’s bunk. She had made some effort to make her compartment a bit more homely, with her own blanket on the bed, a lace-edged tablecloth and a few photos and postcards of the Virgin Mary and various saints taped up on the wall. I ate one of the tiny apples. There was a lot of shouting, banging and drilling sounds coming from the rest of the train, and I saw a gang of large serious men in black leather jackets thumping up and down the corridor, sometimes bearing heavy rubbish bags. Thick dust billowed through the open door of the compartment.

Oddly enough I wasn’t the least bit worried by all this. I was quite tipsy, and all the beer had made me feel very mellow and sleepy. In fact I nodded off for a bit, and woke up when two of the leather jacketed men came into the compartment.

“Excuse me,” one of them said in English, and they sat down by the table.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Well, we’re writing a report. The carriage attendant has been extremely helpful to us so we wanted to make sure we thanked her properly.”

I nodded and ate the other apple. In my drunken brain this seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation for all the banging, shouting, and the black bin bags. The carriage attendant came in, took my apple cores and consulted with the men over their report for a bit while I dozed in the corner. After a long while she roused me and led me back down to my compartment, apologising.

The corridor was thick with dust and floating fibres. Big lumps of woolly insulation lay everywhere. Oleg was sitting drowsily on his bunk, and as soon as we saw each other we both started giggling.

“What’s happening?” I asked him.

“Contraband,” he said, and made a smoking gesture, then pointed to the ceiling, where the tiles had been pulled down to expose the insulation within. Oleg told me that the ceiling of the whole carriage had been stuffed with smuggled goods. The leather jacketed men were customs officers. Oleg was in the compartment throughout the customs bust, but because I was a foreigner the carriage attendant made sure I was safely out of harm’s way.

Oleg got off the train early the next morning, just before Berlin. I’m so glad he was in my compartment on that train. If he hadn’t been there to ply me with beer I probably would have been a lot more anxious over the missing passport stamp, and certainly over the customs bust. I wouldn’t have found out what was going on without his explanations. Considering we were stuck together in a tiny little compartment, drinking, I never once felt unsafe with him around, and our conversation flowed despite being hamstrung by a lack of a common language.

I arrived in Berlin early in the day and went straight to my hostel. To my relief I found a letter waiting for me from David, containing my Berlin-Paris train ticket. Between the lost ticket, the customs bust and the kerfuffle with my passport I’d had a few close shaves over the last few days, but I was nearly home now, and everything was back on track.

A Heatwave in Kiev

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Moscow was warm, and the overnight train to Kiev was stifling. I shared my compartment with a family of three Russians: Mum, Dad and teenage son. We had a choice between leaving the window open all night and trying to sleep through the noisy clanking and screeching of the railway, or closing the window and suffering the close heat. Neither was a good option, and no one slept particularly well that night. Even if we had managed to sleep the border control dance took place in the early hours, keeping us awake anyway.

I was dozing on my top bunk as we crossed the border, and sleepily passed my passport to the Russian Dad in the bunk below for him to hand to the border guard. A very young and rather bewildered guard did the honours, glancing over our papers in the most perfunctory of ways and handed them all back to the Russian Dad. I thought nothing of it at the time, but this caused me quite a headache a few days later.

We arrived in Kiev in the morning, and I heaved my backpack, The Beast, back up and headed out of the station. The Beast weighed a tonne by this stage of the trip. It was heavy to begin with, and I’d picked up quite a few things along the way. I had an overflow bag of the stuff I needed to access on the train – washbag, pyjamas, etc – in a plastic bag, and just as I left the station in Kiev it split open, spilling its contents over the pavement right in front of two taxi drivers who were having a row. I crouched down to pick it all up and found, to my great embarrassment,  that I couldn’t stand up again. The Beast was still on my back, and I didn’t have enough power left in my legs to get both of us upright. I waved frantically at one of the arguing taxi drivers and he hauled me up, snorting with laughter. I’ve learned my lesson. Ever since then I’ve packed as light as possible.

I found my way to the hotel and immediately settled down for a nap. A while later I woke to the sound of someone coming into the room: my Mum had arrived! It was lovely to see her, if slightly surreal to meet up in this way, in a rather anonymous hotel room in the middle of a foreign city. We had an awful lot of catching up to do, so the rest of the day was lost to a marathon gossip that moved from hotel to restaurant to bar and back.

The next day we embarked upon some serious sightseeing. It was searingly hot but Kiev is a beautiful city, and amply repaid the effort it took to get around it in the heat. That day we saw a lot of churches: St Volodymyr’s Cathedral, St Sophia’s and St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. We also went to Independence Square, site of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and of more recent events since our visit in 2012. Even when we were there a camp of protesters was evident on the main road, Kreshchatik Street.

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I followed the Orange Revolution quite closely when it took place and have read up about it since then, so it was exciting to see where it all happened. Apart from anything else, the events of 2004 gave rise to one of my favourite political stories, the case of Viktor Yanukovich apparently being assassinated by an egg.

Briefly, the Orange Revolution kicked off after the presidential election, in which Yanukovich managed to beat his opponent Yushchenko in a massive and blatant case of election fraud. During the electoral race someone (ahem) attempted to assassinate Yushchenko, who was proving to be far more popular than his opponent. The plot backfired as they didn’t manage to kill him and support for Yushchenko grew considerably as a result. Seeing this, Yanukovich decided that his campaign would be boosted by a similar assassination attempt. He visited a part of Ukraine known to hate him and arranged with his minders for one of them to shoot at him at a rally (presumably firing blanks). However, before the shot was fired, a protester threw an egg at him.  Mistaking this for the ‘assassination’, Yanukovich swooned spectacularly and was hurried away by his minders. You can see hilarious footage of this if you follow the link above.

This story makes me giggle whenever I think of it; you can see where Andrei Kurkov gets the inspiration for his  novels. However, the rest of Ukraine’s recent history is far more sobering. Back in 2012 there was a moment of relative calm, and we were lucky to see it then.

The next day we visited the Bulgakov museum on St Andrew’s Descent, a viciously steep but rather picturesque road in the centre of Kiev. Unfortunately we came at the street from the wrong direction so it was St Andrew’s Cruel Ascent for us. On top of this (so to speak) the Bulgakov Museum was closed when we first got there, so we had to go away and climb back up a couple of times before we actually made it through the door.

It was well worth the effort. The museum, housed in Bulgakov’s childhood home, is a really good attempt at reproducing his fantastical worldWe poked about by ourselves for a bit, then an eccentric woman appeared and started to give us a whirlwind tour of the place delivered in high-speed Russian. I tried to translate for Mum but my descriptions were extremely limited. Our guide would reel off a lot of information and I’d turn to Mum and mutter “This has something to do with his sister,” or “I think this stuff belonged to his father,” or “I have no idea what she just said.” Mum, with a perfectly deadpan expression, would nod and say “Yes, interesting,” as though I had actually told her something useful. Then the woman would beam at us and blast out more Russian.

At one point we had to access another room by climbing through a wardrobe. The guide herself seemed to have escaped from a Bulgakov novel: as Mum said, we wouldn’t have been surprised if, at the end of the tour, she opened a window and flew away.

In the afternoon we went to the Hydropark and collapsed on some sun loungers in the shade. It was cooler down by the river, and the whole of Kiev seemed to have descended on the park. The next day was even hotter – forty degrees at noon – but luckily we had planned to escape the city to visit an outdoor museum of folk architecture. Somehow we ended up in a different park to the one we had intended to visit, much further away and less well equipped. It was a beautiful, peaceful place though, especially at that time of year, when everything was smothered in flowers.

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The day after that was our last full day in the city. We decided to visit the Pechersk Lavra, the deeply weird monastery of the caves, an important place of pilgrimage for the Orthodox Church. Several ornate monastery buildings sit above an ancient system of tunnels and caves lined with various dead monks and saints resting in glass coffins. In real life, it was exactly as creepy as that sounds. We shuffled through the caves clutching our candles, which struck me as a fantastically dangerous way of lighting overcrowded underground spaces. Old ladies wept and kissed the glass tombs, polishing them with their handkerchiefs after every kiss. I grew more and more freaked out as we progressed – I don’t even like to step on the gravestones in churches and here we were, traipsing through dark twisting catacombs stuffed with mummified corpses. It was a relief to escape back up to ground level.

The next day we were off. I was heading onwards to Berlin by train, and Mum was going back to rush up to Edinburgh for the festival.

I only had two legs of the trip left: Kiev-Berlin and Berlin-Paris. Mum bought me a first class ticket for the overnight train from Berlin to Paris as my birthday present. For some reason I thought it was a good idea for her to bring it to Kiev, rather than for me to take it with me via Nepal, China and Russia. Naturally, by the time it came to pack for Kiev, Mum had completely forgotten about the ticket and I didn’t think to remind her. When we discovered this we made a frantic phone call to my boyfriend David in London, who was charged with locating and sending the ticket – he FedExed it to the hostel I had booked in Berlin as there wasn’t enough time for it to get to Kiev. It was nervewracking because I was only in Berlin for one night and by then I would be lucky to even find a seat on the Berlin-Paris train, let alone a sleeper berth, if I didn’t have my ticket. Plus the ticket was expensive, a really generous birthday treat, and we didn’t want it to go to waste.

I boarded the train more worried about the next stage than the one directly ahead of me, though it turned out that the Kiev-Berlin train was by far the more eventful journey. You’ll see what I mean in my next post.

Happy Moscow

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The train to Moscow was pleasantly uneventful. The highlight of it was meeting our carriage mate, Larissa, a middle-aged lady from high up at the top of Siberia who force-fed us gooseberries and raspberries and marched me out into the corridor first thing the following morning for a glimpse of Vladimir.

Chris was itching for the train trip to be over, as most of his family was due to meet us in Moscow. He hadn’t seen them for nine months. I was really looking forward to seeing them too: our families are really close, so it was like knowing an aunt and uncle and cousin were all waiting on the platform.

The train pulled into Moscow mid-morning. Chris was fizzing with excitement by then. We packed up and got ready and he peered out of the window as we pulled into the platform.

“I see them! I see them!” he squeaked suddenly. We said goodbye to Larissa and belted off the train, weaving our way through the crowd up the platform, and there they were: Cathy and Steve, Chris’s Mum and Dad, and Maddy, his sister. Only Chris’s brother Jonny was missing. It was brilliant to see them all. We had a broadly-grinning and moist-eyed reunion and launched ourselves straight into the splendour of the Moscow metro.

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The strange thing was, as Cathy pointed out, mere minutes after we met up everything felt perfectly normal, as though we all went gallivanting round Moscow together every day. We were renting a flat in a brilliant location near the Arbat, so we dropped off our backpacks and had a quick shower before we ventured out again. It was Tuesday. The Edis family, including Chris, were heading off to St Petersburg on Thursday, so we didn’t have much time to spare and there were a lot of sights to see.

Luckily most of the museums we wanted to see were closed, so we were able to tick a whole heap of them off our list in less than an hour. Herzen’s and Lermontov’s houses were both closed; so was Scriabin’s, but the doors were open as it was being renovated so we were able to wander in anyway and see his piano. The Melnikov House was closed so we peered at it through the fence. Congratulating ourselves on our excellent sightseeing progress, we headed off towards Red Square, stopping to pick up some food from a supermarket along the way.

Round Red Square I had that strange feeling you get when seeing a very familiar place for the first time in real life. St Basil’s, for example, is much smaller than I thought it was. The walls of the Kremlin are much less severe than they seem on the television; in fact Moscow is a much more colourful and happier place than I was expecting it to be.

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The next day was the first of August. We headed straight back to the Kremlin after breakfast, arriving more or less as it opened. It’s a strange mix of the business end of a government and the ultra-touristy, crammed with cathedrals, tombs and stern ministerial buildings. Onion domes aplenty. The weather was perfect: warm but not so hot it was unpleasant to move around, and the brilliant sunlight made all the golden domes shine.

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We met up with some of Chris’s friends, who live in Moscow, and went for a leisurely lunch with them. It grew hotter, but luckily we had decided to visit for the air-conditioned Tretyakov Museum in the afternoon. Inside the museum it was beautifully cool.

The contents of the Tretyakov are just overwhelming. Room after room of incredible works by Russia’s greatest painters and portraits of loads of artists and writers. At one point, exhausted, we collapsed on a bench for a bit then decided to leave – only to discover another floor of landscapes that refused to be ignored. That’s the only trouble with museums: you almost need to set aside a full day just to do each one justice, and more than that if it’s somewhere like the Hermitage or the Louvre.

One of the paintings in these final rooms was Levitan’s Vladimirka Road. Cathy has given me a postcard of this work just before I embarked on my Russian Culture MA, and I pinned it above my desk while I was knee-deep in Gulag literature and Dostoevsky and the Russian philosophers. I’d glance up at the long road in the painting with weary recognition as I slogged away at some essay or other. It was lovely to see it in the flesh, with Cathy there beside me.

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The colours are terribly off, but you get the idea.

Afterwards we went off to Gorky Park. Chris’s friend Bella told us about how the park had undergone a bit of a renaissance in the last year or so, and it was the perfect place to be that summer afternoon. We sat on the grass, drinking ice tea and watching the skateboarders, rollerbladers, courting couples, lemonade stands, the lost helium balloons escaping up into the warm evening air: everything a park should be.

We had dinner in the park then wandered down to the embankment of the Moskva. Even by ten in the evening it was still light out, and the riverside was crowded with happy people, filling out the bars and salsa dancing in an open air ballroom. It was a magical night. None of us wanted it to end.

The next morning we got up early as the others needed to catch the train to St Petersburg. Though we left the timing rather tight, they walked me to my next Moscow home, the Petrovka Loft hotel. I took Chris up on his long-standing offer to carry my backpack, which was known as The Beast: he hauled it all the way up several flights of stairs for me, and we said goodbye.

It was sad and strange to part from Chris after all we had been through along the Trans-Siberian. I couldn’t have asked for a more easygoing travelling companion. But I’d been to St Petersburg before, and I wanted to continue my journey by train, having got so far without flying.

The Petrovka Loft is what passed for a budget Moscow hotel in 2012. For an eye-watering sum I got a room with a double bed squeezed against one wall and a narrow gutter of floor around it. God knows how two people would manage to fit into it; the second would just have to throw themselves on to the bed from the door. The bathroom was down the hall. But the loft has a brilliant location, right next to the Bolshoi theatre, and that’s what you pay for. Moscow could do with a lot more budget hotels and hostels. I would have liked to have stayed longer, but I could only afford one night at the Petrovka Loft.

For my first solo adventure in Moscow I went to the Mayakovsky Museum. Russian museums tend not to spare their foreign visitors: all the descriptive labels were written in Russian, so I came out of there knowing little more about Mayakovsky’s life and works than I had when I arrived. However, that’s hardly the point. The museum is amazing. It’s a three-dimensional, building-sized collage of stuff from the man’s life, with things on the walls, floors, and dangling from the ceiling in a disorientating explosion of imagery. I loved it, though I had no idea what  was going on most of the time.

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After the Mayakovsky Museum I navigated my way to Patriarch’s Ponds. I can’t describe how nerdily excited I was to go there; I was practically trembling. It’s a small ordinary-looking park with a pond in it that happens to be the location of the opening chapter of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, one of my all-time favourite books. I went and sat on a bright yellow bench and imagined the opening scene unfolding around me, in all its comic horror:  “One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds…” 

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Somehow the sites of literary scenes are more resonant to me than the sites of historic events. I stood in Red Square, remembering all that had occurred round there, and thought “hmm… yes,” whereas in Patriarch’s Ponds I couldn’t stop grinning. Perhaps because imaginary characters feel terribly real when you’re walking in their footsteps, whereas historical figures and places always have that heavy sense of reality; or maybe it’s because a literary work allows you access to these places in a deeper, more immediate way than learning about them in history does. Well, who knows. I was very happy on my yellow bench.

The rest of my time in Moscow was spent in a similarly literary-nerdy way. I went to Pushkin Square, and the next day, my last day in Moscow, I visited Tolstoy’s house and the Andrei Bely museum. I wanted to go to Yasnaya Polyana but it would have involved more nights in Moscow than I could afford, so I made do with the Moscow house.

I found Tolstoy’s house quite moving. There are lots of photos of him and his family on the walls, and you look around to see the same chair he’s sitting in in the photo right next to you, almost haunted by his presence.  It was also good to see the waste paper basket parked under his desk. An accessible bin is a vital tool of writing.

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Tolstoy’s house

The Bely museum suffered from the same lack of translated information as the Mayakovsky, though I enjoyed looking at his sketches. I also had fun with the attendant, who refused to believe I didn’t have enough change for my ticket until she snatched my purse, up-ended it on the counter and went through the coins herself.

That evening I caught the train onwards to Ukraine. I was sad to leave Russia. For all its rather terrifying reputation, and despite the brandished knives and fistfights encountered along the way, I loved my time there. I was used to responding to a peremptory yell of ‘Devushka!’ (Girl!), and had grown to appreciate the brusque, unsought assistance so often thrust my way. Moscow had cast a particularly powerful spell over me, and I wished I could stay a little longer. But Kiev beckoned, and I was looking forward to seeing my Mum, who was flying out to join me there. So I heaved The Beast on my back and staggered off under its mounting weight towards another train station.

Things We Didn’t See in Perm

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You could, if you wanted to, divide travellers into planners and drifters. Some people rock up airily in a country and drift about wherever the wind takes them, leaving their experiences to chance: not me. I’m definitely a planner. Well, sometimes I drift, especially if I’ve been to the place before, but mostly I plan things months in advance, especially when time is tight, so I don’t miss anything I want to see. Despite this, I’m beginning to learn that however well you plan a trip, certain things will inevitably happen to make you throw your plans out the window. Sometimes you just have to surrender.

Perm isn’t one of the usual stops on the Trans-Siberian, but I especially wanted to go there. Firstly, it is near what was then the only surviving Gulag camp museum in Russia. Back in 2012 I was fresh from my MA in Russian and East European Studies, and I had recently finished a dissertation on ethics in Gulag literature, so I was particularly keen to visit the museum. Secondly, Perm was home to Diaghilev’s family when he was a boy and a lot of dancers, artists and musicians were evacuated to Perm during the war. The city’s ballet company is ranked just behind those of Moscow and St Peterburg, so I wanted to watch a performance while we were there. Chris very kindly didn’t object to this, so we jumped off the train ready for an action-packed stop in Perm.

We left the city 48 hours later without having seen either the Gulag museum or the ballet.

Perm is just west of the Urals, and marks the official start of European Russia. Our arrival marked the first time Chris has set foot in Europe since he went to China, something like nine months previously. It all started well: we arrived early in the morning and checked into our hotel in time to be served breakfast, which was a bit of a luxury. The hotel was of the bland forgettable type more geared towards business travellers, but Perm doesn’t have a lot of choice when it comes to accommodation, so there we were.

After breakfast we went to track down information about the Gulag museum. I had an address for the museum’s office in town, but it proved to be a false lead. Undaunted – though perhaps we should have been – we went to the main hotel in Perm, the Hotel Ural, which was pretty much the only source of tourist information in the city.

On the way we stopped off at the ballet theatre to book tickets, only to discover that the theatre was closed. For the whole of August. That was the end of our plan to see the ballet.

The Hotel Ural is a vast, confusing, monolithic building, with shops, tourist agencies, offices and a conference centre all heaped together. Somehow Chris and I managed to wander deep inside it and we found ourselves trailing up and down dark, deserted, menacing corridors looking for the tourist information office, and then, with increasing trepidation, just looking for the way out again. Eventually we found the tourist office by going out of the building and coming back in again via a distant shopfront.

No one spoke English in the tourist office, but they gave us a leaflet with information about how to get to the Gulag museum on public transport, including a map and careful instructions in English. Satisfied, we spent the rest of the day wandering around Perm, visiting its museum of art and generally exploring the place. It’s a lovely city, although it isn’t immediately apparent; its artsy, offbeat charm grows on you.

The next day we got up quite early and set off for the Gulag museum. We found and caught the right bus easily enough; sadly that was the only thing that went well.

The details are best forgotten, really. Suffice to say I drastically misunderstood the instructions from the tourist office and we spent much of the day wandering around the Ural countryside, miles away from the museum. Eventually we were forced to give up the hunt and head back to Perm, defeated. The nearest I got to experiencing a taste of the Gulag was a long march down the side of a road.

Despite Perm having been, even in the most generous assessment, an absolute cock-up from top to bottom, I enjoyed our time there. Chris and I keep saying that we must go back and try again. The city hosts a Diaghilev festival every year: I’d love to see that. Sadly, though, even if we do make it back to Perm, a trip to the Gulag museum wouldn’t be the same. Since 2012 the local authorities have taken over the museum and are busy re-writing its history in a much more pro-Stalinist light. Russia’s only surviving Gulag camp is now an Orwellian celebration of the oppressors, rather than a monument to the oppressed. Given that, I only hope many more people have as much trouble getting there as we did.

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Tips for Travelling on the Trans-Siberian

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Or any other long-distance train, for that matter.

  1. Bring a plastic/ metal mug and plenty of tea bags, instant coffee, or whatever floats your beverage boat. Hot water is free, and making tea will become an important activity. Cutlery is also useful.
  2. Bring lots of food and water. You can eat in the dining car but bringing your own stuff is considerably cheaper.  Aim for self-contained food that doesn’t require a lot of cleaning up, because you won’t have the equipment to do so. Instant noodles in their own pots are better than those in a packet. Apples, tangerines, packets of crisps, nuts and chocolate bars all have their place.
  3. Bring a pack of cards, or backgammon, or some other small, portable game to play.
  4. You will stow most of your luggage either in the space above the corridor, accessed by the top bunks, or under the bottom bunks. Neither is particularly accessible, so pack a separate bag of things you’ll need on the train: your washbag, a change of clothes, food, mug and cutlery, books, etc.
  5. Hide most of your money, passport and so on out of sight, but keep it with you. If you’re travelling alone, take your valuables with you to the bathroom/ dining car or wherever else you go. Otherwise make sure you leave them in the care of your travelling companion. Always bring your money and passport with you if you get off the train to stretch your legs, in case it leaves without you.
  6. Keep a small amount of cash separately in case you want to buy something either on the train or from one of the hawkers on the platforms.
  7. Most of the time you won’t be able to use the bathroom while the train is in a station, so make sure you go before it stops. You can see the timetable in the corridor. Be especially aware of this around border controls, because it might be hours before you can go. If you have an early morning border crossing you might want to set an alarm so you can wake up and use the loo before you stop. We learned this the hard way.
  8. A Russian phrase book is really useful.
  9. The Man in Seat 61 is good for planning your trip.
  10. Make friends with your provodnitsa (carriage attendant). She – mostly it’s a she – is a cross between an overbearing mother and a terrifying prison warden for the people under her care. You want to experience the mothering end of the spectrum.
  11. Make friends with your compartment mates, whoever they may be. They will become the best part of the trip.

My final point is for everyone who has mentioned that they are vaguely thinking of a Trans-Siberian trip: Do it. Book it right now. Seriously, book it book it book it. You won’t be bored, and you won’t regret it.

Life on a Trans-Siberian Train

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I’m often asked about what life is like on board a Trans-Siberian train. Well, actually, I’m rarely asked but I’m going to tell you anyway.

A lot of people love the idea of attempting a Trans-Siberian trip, but are put off by the thought of spending so much time on a train. Trust me: you will not be bored on board. Time flies by, or at least it has a different quality on a train.

Firstly, the gentle rocking motion of a long distance train is a powerful sedative. I slept really well on all our train journeys, and had plenty of naps during the day. In fact, a day on a Trans-Siberian train is broken up into short fragments of consciousness interspersed with long naps of deep sleep.

A Trans-Siberian day runs something like this: you wake up early and have a wash and breakfast. Then you stare out of the window for a while in a hypnotised, dreamlike sort of way, seeing wide rivers, fields, empty expanses of the steppe flow unhurriedly past the window; or acres of Siberian forest, dark pines and young white birch trees as slender as brooms. You pass round the back of small towns with mud roads and painted wooden houses.

After a while the train arrives at a station, and you see women in bright headscarves marching up and down the platform, displaying their wares to the train: smoked fish, fresh fruit, crocheted scarves and blankets. You consider getting out to stretch your legs and buy a plastic pint cup full of raspberries, but it seems like a tremendous effort. Then the train rolls on.

Perhaps you have a new compartment mate to talk to, or perhaps you have just said goodbye to someone who has in the space of a few hours or half a day become a firm friend, almost family. You never forget the people you’ve met on the train.

It’s only mid-morning, but the anaesthetic of the rocking train drifts you into a nap, so you stretch back out on your bunk and drop into a deep restful sleep. When you wake up, it’s time for a cup of tea. This isn’t the casual, almost unconscious act it is in the rest of the world; it’s an important event.

First, you ask each other whether you want a cup of tea. The answer is almost certainly yes, but still you take time to think about it, mulling it over while you stare out of the window at the rolling scenery. Then someone gathers themselves, drops teabags into your camping mugs and makes their way down the rocking corridor to the samovar. Perhaps they encounter someone on the way and stop to exchange smiles or fragmented jokes in multiple languages. They fill up the mugs and return carefully to the compartment, where you sit and sip at the steaming tea, staring out the window. This has taken up at least half an hour, effortlessly.

Chris and I played a lot of backgammon on the train, and a few card games. I made notes about wherever we had just been in my notebook and Chris read War and Peace on his Kindle. Lunch takes a long time, because it too requires a period of reflection before and after the necessary actions. Is it lunchtime? You ponder this, staring out the window. What should you eat? Should you have another cup of tea with it?

After lunch comes another nap, more backgammon, more reading and writing and window-staring, more napping, more cups of tea, and then supper. It becomes hard to fit everything in. Profound and beautiful thoughts will occur to you, but you largely lack the wherewithal to write them down. Everyone goes to bed early. You grab your washbag and head down to the bathroom at the end of carriage, where you become so used to flushing the loo by stepping on a floor pedal you wonder why this isn’t a universal system. Then it’s time for bed, and you gratefully snuggle back down on your cosy bunk, worn out by such a busy day.

Tourist Relay in Tomsk

Ah, Tomsk. If for some vanishingly unlikely reason I was forced into exile in Siberia, I would live in Tomsk*. It’s the Bath of Siberia I think – well, not really, not in any meaningful way. But it’s a small, comfy, laid-back university town with lovely distinctive architecture. 

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(Forgive the crap photos. At some point on the train I started fiddling around with the settings on my camera, and it took me ages to get them right again afterwards.)

However, unlike Bath, Tomsk is quietly falling apart. A lot of the buildings we saw back in 2012 are probably gone now. Its traditional Siberian architecture, featuring elaborate, decorative wooden ‘lace’,  is gradually being destroyed.  These old wooden buildings are particularly vulnerable to fire, and sometimes these fires are deliberately set by owners who would prefer something more modern to live in, or more profitable to rent. Those buildings that haven’t been wilfully destroyed are often in a state of neglect. Large parts of the city have an abandoned, forgotten feel.

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At the same time, Tomsk is a cheerful, friendly city, and home to some of the best oat biscuits in the world. Our new home, the 8th floor hostel, was right round the corner from a lovely bustling street market selling all manner of fresh produce, smoked fish, and a staggering variety of the aforementioned biscuits.

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Everyone we met in Tomsk was almost absurdly welcoming. At one point we were venturing off to visit a church on top of a hill, as instructed by the Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook. We flagged down a tram round the corner from our hostel and I laboriously asked whether it went to the church. Several people fired back quite a lot of Russian and then, when it became clear I had no idea what they were saying, they beckoned us on board.

One of the passengers took charge of the situation. She went round the bus until she found someone who spoke English, and got them to translate the fact that none of the trams went to the top of the hill, but that this one would get quite close, and then we could walk. When we got to our stop a couple of other people got off at the same time. The lady who had taken charge of us gave them some instructions then packed us off the tram in their care. We followed them along a street until they flagged down some other passers-by who were heading the right way, explained where we wanted to go, and transferred us over to them instead. As Chris pointed out, it was like being the baton in a relay race. This new set of people led us up the hill, deposited us in front of the church we wanted to visit, then went on their way. It was all done in a fabulously matter-of-fact way, as if the local people of Tomsk played Tourist Relay with each other all the time while walking around the city.

For our first night we were the only people at the 8th Floor Hostel, so we had the run of the place. It’s a really homely, friendly place to stay. On our second night we were joined by one other person, another English man called Tom. Yes: we met a Tom in Tomsk. He was from East London, near where my aunt lived at the time, but by some extraordinary coincidence he was now living round the corner from where Chris and I live: Finsbury Park. Even more strangely, he worked for Haringey Council, the local authority for whom my boyfriend David was then a councillor. He was the only other tourist we met in Tomsk, and we could easily have bumped into him at home instead.

Considering the fights, knife threats and forest fires we had to get through to make it to Tomsk, it would have been a tremendous disappointment if the city hadn’t been worth the journey. But it more than repaid the heroic effort we needed to get there. I would like to visit again, sometime when the countryside around it isn’t burning, shrouding the city in smoke. The photo below gives you a taste of the city’s strange sense of humour: Chekhov visited once and made a disparaging remark about Tomsk in a letter, so the city has repaid him with this statue of the writer from the point of view of a drunk peasant lying in a ditch. I mean, where else in the world would you find a literary monument like this?

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*Or maybe Irkutsk.