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Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Sunday Travel Section: Grigori Pasko Takes a Train Ride

Robert Amsterdam offers readers a translation of hero journalist Grigori Pasko's recent train trip across the Russian heartland (that's Grigori at left):

An acquaintance from Vladivostok asked me where I’d been traveling for so long. I quickly replied that I had been traveling on the «Moskva-Rossiya» train. “Sure”, he said. “That sounds about right: Moscow hasn’t been a part of Russia for a long time already”. [The name of the train, which translates as “Moscow-Russia”, suggests that it goes along a route “from Moscow to Russia”—Trans.] I wanted to answer back that it had simply been a slip of my tongue. After all, I had actually been traveling on the «Moskva-Vladivostok» train, of course. But then I understood that my slip of the tongue had actually turned out to have been true in essence – Moscow really isn’t Russia. Russia is what I saw out the window of the train «Rossiya» between Chita and Vladivostok.

The train they call «Rossiya» left the Chita station at around 2 in the morning. I stood on the platform waiting for about ten minutes, but at a temperature of 28 degrees below zero Celsius, that was more than enough to chill me to the bone. I discovered that I was the only one in my compartment on the train. Conductress Marina Vladimirovna said that she doubted anyone would be coming on board before Khabarovsk.

On the morning of the next day, I could already observe the wide open spaces of the Trans-Baikal region. The landscape beyond the window didn’t change for a very long time: dreary gray wooden peasant houses, from which a thin trail of smoke from what was left of the previous night’s wood-stove fires was slowly rising in the early morning light. The houses cool down overnight in the freezing cold, so you need to start up a new fire first thing in the morning. Which is why you could see a strategic reserve of firewood piled up beside every home. Timber, a valuable natural resource, was literally going up in smoke. I can see why the monopoly concern «Gazprom» prefers to sell its gas beyond Russia’s borders, and not inside its own country. But I can’t see why the country’s leadership prefers to allow such a thing to happen. This can be possible only in one situation – if «Gazprom» and the country’s leadership are one and the same people.

In a word, Russia is sitting on the firewood [A Russian phrase meaning “sitting around doing nothing” —Trans.]. And as long as it has forests, that’s exactly what it will continue to do. Meanwhile, at those infrequent stations where the «Rossiya» made a stop, the local populace came out to the train and offered passengers its simple goods: magnolia-vine branches twisted into rings; pirozhki [small baked or fried filled pastries, convenient for travel—Trans.] of unknown provenance that had frozen rock-hard in the cold; vareniki [boiled filled dumplings—Trans.], and boiled potatoes [see photo at left]. There were no takers. Maybe they were afraid of the cold, or perhaps they had serious doubts about the quality of the goods on offer.

For the most part, the passengers ate what food they had brought with them right in their seats. At any rate, in my three days on the train, the only people I saw in the restaurant car were a group of young people from England traveling to Australia via Vladivostok and Singapore.

I was quite surprised by the meager selection in the restaurant. For example, there were absolutely no dairy products or hot porridge available.

The Trans-Baikal Railroad is 350 kilometers in length. All this time there is nothing but flat land outside the window. They say that soybeans, corn, and barley are grown here… As I understood, life in these parts exists only along the railroad. It is noteworthy an automobile highway runs parallel to the railbed in many places. You can’t look at some sections of it without tears in your eyes. There were four men riding in the compartment next to mine. They were heading to Vladivostok for Japanese cars [As Grigory Pasko has mentioned in a previous article, the majority of cars in the Russian Far East these days are used imports from Japan, brought in through ports such as Vladivostok and then often driven by private car traders to their destination.—Ed.] These men – car-runners – were discussing the road. In places, they said, it is practically nonexistent. I was surprised. How could this be? After all, last year president Putin had announced the opening of a bridge across the Amur River, describing it as the final link in the creation of a Vladivostok-to-Moscow federal highway. “Putin doesn’t drive on these roads”, the men replied to me.

At night we passed through Skovorodino (they say that this is the coldest spot on the whole Trans-Siberian – the temperature can fall to 50 below zero here), Magdagachi, Svobodny… Then we went through Seryshevo, Belogorsk, Zavitinsk, Pozdeyevka, Vozzhayevka, Arkhara, Obluchiye… Many of the names reminded me of my classmates at military school: they had served in these places, the majority of which are nothing but military garrisons. The history of the creation of the railroads of Russia is really the history of the appearance of camps for prisoners and garrisons for soldiers. For example, Belogorsk. This is not simply a station, but a huge garrison, the former headquarters of a deployed army and with a population of around 90 thousand, the second largest city in Amur Oblast after Blagoveshchensk. It is in Belogorsk that the ribbon of steel turns south, towards the Amur and Blagoveshchens.

At the present time, many of the garrisons have already become ghost towns, the military units disbanded. A huge territory of the country was previously at least settled by soldiers. Today, it is deserted and uninhabited here. Guidebooks about Russia don’t write about these places and don’t call tourists to come here and visit. At the same time, this too is Russia. A thousand kilometres. 24 hours on a train. And not a soul in sight.

And now a few words about the landscape outside the train’s window. People who know explained to me that “mari” are endless bogs lying on permafrost. Mounds frozen in the bogs in the winter. Berries, mosquitoes, dampness, squishing and sloshing with every step you take in the summer. As one traveler wrote, “the infantry won’t be able to pass and an armored train won’t be able to speed through”. In the writings of this same traveler I found a description of a typical settlement along the rail line. The settlement of Zilovo was taken as an example. Here’s how he described it: “Zilovo is a small settlement on the Trans-Siberian mainline. The houses are wooden, single-story; the streets are dusty; the post office is a wooden hut, ordinarily closed; two or three commercial shops with prices higher than in Moscow; a small river; a large rail yard and a huge station building. Next to the station building is a new but already neglected monument to the combatants of the war, created in honor of the 50th anniversary of Victory. The appearance of the settlement did not instil any desire to remain there to live. Around could be seen sloping mountains covered in forest.”

I have to say that nothing saw through the windows of the «Rossiya» train instilled in me any desire to remain there to live. The night before Khabarovsk was marked by two people with whom I was sharing my compartment – a vice-admiral and a major-general – getting drunk. Marina Vladimirovna told me many stories about her work as a conductress on a long-distance train. The majority of them had to do with generals getting drunk. One particular story had me laughing to tears. I then asked Marina Vladimirovna if anything had changed outside the windows in those 30 years that she had been a conductress on the «Moskva-Vladivostok» train. She pondered for a moment, and then replied: “Nothing, really…”.

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