Thirty-seven hours in the blink of an eye

Dec. 9 – Novosibirsk to Kazan

It was a long haul from Siberia through the Urals to the Volga River; 2,400 km. But it went fast for me. Here’s why;


Eighteen hours, boom, done. Unconscious for half the trip. Well, not quite like that. It was a painful start yesterday at the Tsentralnaya Hotel. Up several times before my 0430 alarm, anxious to not sleep through it. Finally decided, the hell with it, get dressed and walk the two kilometres to the station through the dark morning. A security guard directed me to the train, using a bit of German. “Dresden! Tankovy!” he said, pantomiming driving at T-36. “Brrrrrm!”

Yet again I was blessed to have a compartment to myself. It’s an old wagon, with hard seats and stiff joints that squeak and groan. There’s a “clackclackclack”, like a moth beating its wings against a screen door. But it’s a more-or-less regular sound, and I settle in for six hours of deep sleep. And then later, as darkness falls again, I sleep a dozen more hours as the train continues ever westward.


Fortune smiled on me in Omsk, when Oleg the non-snorer came into the compartment. Trim, salt and pepper hair, fifties, firm handshake. His English is at the same level as my Russian. Exhausting, usually mutually-incomprehensible conversations ensue, using the inadequate Lonely Planet glossary. I gather he lives in Krasnoyarsk, is on his way to Nizhny Novgorod, works for the energy firm Gazprom, has a wife and three daughters. Oleg is a musician, plays classic guitar, as the train shakes he jokes “We will rock you!” He asks me about immigration to Canada. It’s all clumsy “I don’t understands”, vigorous nods, and guesses. A language being learned. His mobile phone rings, “My vwooman” he says. Later, I learn his grandfather was Estonian. I ask, “Why Siberia him?” Stupid question. He shrugs. “Stalin”.


After two weeks on an ocean, a couple of days on a train is easy. Clichés like “unchanging panorama” simply don’t apply on land as they do at sea. There are snowy fields and forests, alternating with villages, ice covered rivers, a pink pastel sunrise spreading over the plain.

The Trans Siberian route is not the 401 or the Interstate. On North American highways, you’re in a car, you know what to expect, you’ve seen it all before, it holds few surprises. Russians feel the same way about their railways, I suspect. But for me, even the banal details are different enough to be interesting.

And at least I’m not in the plastkartny (fourth class) wagons. I walked to the back of the train in hopes of taking more pictures of the rail line. It’s a tough, smelly way to spend a few days, in an open compartment with 50 strangers. Kupe class  is luxuriously private by comparison.


Oatmeal, chocolate, cookies, salami, cheese, noodles, plus some pastries made by Oleg’s wife. I eat a little every hour or so, chewing through the kilometres as I nibble on my supplies. I have that greasy, road trip, clothes-slept-in feel, but it’s almost done. I’ll leave my oily mark on Kazan, no doubt.


I’ve started an old (but new to me) Paul Theroux book on his journey around Britain. Many short chapters make it easy to get in, escape to another part of the world, another time. Another work of Theroux’s, “The Great Railway Bazaar”, was my introduction to the Transsiberian route.

One hour, more or less, to put together the 600 words you’re reading. Saves me having to slap things together this evening in Kazan.

Oleg has set his mobile phone to radio. Under normal conditions, I’d consider the commercials and pop and static a distracting noise. But as I mentioned a couple of days ago, I’ve been musically deprived. So here’s to “Honey honey” (Abba), “Eye of the tiger”, and “House of the rising sun”.

In Kazan only tonight, then tomorrow overnight to Moscow!

On Travel Photography

"On track through Mongolia"

Dec. 9

I’d rather write the thousand words than take the pictures. That puts me on the slow, less accessible side of the descriptive media spectrum. On the other side, fast and intense, is photography and videography.

To me, there’s something too conspicuous about travelling as a photographer – pixel bazooka hanging around your neck. You walk around, scanning for subjects, snapping away, and immediately label yourself as an outsider. I already feel foreign enough most of the time. As a traveler, I also find it odd to appear somewhere, camera blazing, without first getting a sense of the surroundings. I see lots of tourists doing that, and wonder if they’ll remember anything about the place beyond the snapshot. And some really compelling photos, strangers’ faces for example, can require cheap, grinning intrusions that I can’t bring myself to make.

This is not an attack on the art of photography. Done well, it makes you feel emotions that can attract you to a place, or repel you. With my small Panasonic, I’ve been taking plenty of pictures, some good. But for me picture taking is a chore, an after-thought. I sure wish I had camera-loving friends along to take better images for my blog (I can think of many who would do it well).

I spend my entire days observing, thinking not just about what I’m seeing, but about how my other senses are engaged. I try to remember it all, take notes, think up a good opening line, and write the day’s post. If it works out, I’ve got a good pic to go with it. Writing’s the cake. Photography’s the icing.