Life on the Skids

Trans-Mongolian veterans we met in Beijing, Ulan Bator, and Irkutsk kept on saying that the three and a half day journey between Irkutsk and Moscow flies by, but you never quite believe that will be the case. Three and a half days in a giant moving bunkbed? Gretchen and I were traveling plaskartny, the lowest class, with sixty bunks packed into an open-plan carriage. We were going for the experience, expecting the kind of broadening discomfort you get from living with absolutely no privacy.

As it turns out, the only source of discomfort was the shortness of the bunks, evidently not engineered for anyone above five foot eight. People talked quietly, played card games, shared meals, and only lit up in the no-man’s-land between carriages, sparing me the fifteen packs of second-hand smoke I had expected to inhale over the trip. The bathroom didn’t smell – though why would it, really, when the sewage drops straight out onto the tracks – and the carriage was cleaned multiple times a day. Though this is the provodnista (train attendant’s) job, at least one or two of the cleanings are usually carried out by the children traveling on the carriage. We learned this when Gretchen was prodded out of her mid-afternoon nap by an excited preteen saying ‘Russian tradition! Russian tradition!’ and pointing down the corridor. It took her a minute to realize the person wearing the teal cleaning uniform and vacuuming the hall was not Ana, our beloved provodnista, but Nikolas, a boy from a few bunks down. Nikolas has one of those unfortunate ‘I skinned a cat and pasted it to my head’ mullets that are for some reason fashionable, so I can understand the confusion. I slept through it but caught a shot of another of the kids, Alex, when he did his duty.

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O Sad Siberian night!

(Originally published in The Greenwich Citizen)

One wonders why the western Russians were so eager to conquer Siberia. The cold is the most obvious deterrent to settling in the area: lows in the winter reach the kind of temperature where you can spill your hot coffee and have it shatter when it reaches the ground in a frozen block. When summer finally comes, the flat landscape fills with pools of melted ice that breed mosquitoes straight out of a Victorian horror story. In the words of Kate Marsden, a British nurse who in 1891 rode across Siberia in search of a reported cure for leprosy:

‘During the summer the mosquitoes are frightful, both in the night and in the day… Even on the ground you will find them, and, as soon as a stranger comes in, it seems as if the insects make a combined assault on him in large battalions; and, of course, sleep is a thing never dreamed of. After a few days the body swells from their bites into a form that can neither be imagined nor described. They attack your eyes and your face, so that you would hardly be recognised by your dearest friend.’

It is easy to see why Siberia remained a scarcely populated haunt of nomadic tribes and plundering warrior bands for so long. It is also easy to see why, when Siberia finally was annexed, European Russians (those from anywhere west of the Ural mountains, including Moscow and St Petersburg) had to be forced to move there. The first colonists were convicts, sent over to harvest Siberia’s vast stores of natural resources of coal, timber, metals, and furs. Serfs, freed in 1861, were encouraged to go east and grow up with the country, but it wasn’t until the Trans-Siberian railway was built at the end of the 19th century that people began to settle there in earnest.

Earlier in the century, exile was lent a touch of glamor when the Decembrists, a group of aristocratic revolutionaries, were sent to Siberia after a failed uprising. They settled in what had previously been a little-known hovel toward the eastern end of the Trakt, the great east-west trade route of northern Asia before the Trans-Siberian. The Martha Stewarts of their day, their exile was not an eastward march in chains like the common criminals. They brought servants, families, and the discerning taste (and deep pockets) of imperial Russia to the hinterland and ambitiously set about constructing what would come to be known as the ‘Paris of Siberia’.

Irkutsk, as the city is known, is the first major city out of Mongolia on the Beijing-Moscow Trans-Mongolian train. It would be silly to expect much of this ‘Paris’: a Siberian town, however romantic, is not going to live up to a city that has been one of the cultural capitals of the western world for over a millennium. After the slash-and-burn architecture of China and the tent cities of Mongolia, though, anything more than a hundred years old was bound to look pretty impressive. The red and white facade of the old theater, lit dimly by the cloudy afternoon light, brought to mind the stately architecture of Eastern Europe. The slate roofs and beige stone of some buildings on Karl Marx St did look exactly like a decrepit version of Paris.

The real beauty of Irkutsk lies in its indigenous wooden architecture. Siberia is poor in all traditional building materials save wood, but what it lacks in limestone it more than compensates for in imagination. Houses are decorated like wedding cakes: intricate trim drips from the roof, arabesques frost the outside of windows. Like Russia itself, the houses have not been kept up and will not last. I walked by a half repainted building on the way to the train station, its thick new coat already bubbling over the unprimed wood. It looks better peeling, I remember thinking. At least until it all comes tumbling down.

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Clever Marketing

They call Irkutsk the ‘Paris of Siberia’. Given Paris : Siberia :: fertile bed of western intellectual history : region associated with forced exile and mass murder, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Wandering down Lenin St on the sort of cloudy afternoon one associates with doomed love affairs, it was easy to see why people draw the comparison.

As I wrote in an article for the Greenwich Citizen, to which I’ll post the link if it ever makes its way online, Irkutsk has a romantic history, but as I don’t really feel like writing about it again I encourage you to get the gist from this page.

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Postpunk Poems

Some say thirty million, others as much as sixty million: the numbers of people killed in Siberia in the twentieth century defy comprehension. You’d think, with all that bloodshed, that the land would seem haunted, disgraced, or even vaguely sinister. Surely so much suffering must leave its mark in eternity.

There is something to the old adages that say time heals all wounds, or life goes on. But what strikes me most about Siberia is that neither of those really apply: what wounds there were were small scratches on the vast canvas of Siberia. Nature, if she ever really noticed them, has now buried them. Looking out on the forever-forest that rolls by the train window, I can’t think of gulags or exiled Decembrists. All I can think is: the world is a big place, and I’ll never know the smallest bit of it.

Just over the Mongolian border into Russia, I notice our compartment has a copy of the monthly magazine ‘Sunny Mongolia Today’. I flip to the culture section and discover a set of poems by Galsanukh B entitled ‘Advice to God: Postpunk Poems.’ From ‘Impressionist Melody of Spring Time in Cow’s Native Land: Impressionism, Neoclassicism, and the grave of Beatniks in Cow’s Native Land’:

Today’s suffering is the same as tomorrow’s suffering.
Yesterday’s suffering is the same as today’s suffering.

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