Into the Great Wide Open

Siberia, at least for me, has always existed in the realm of myth – a land with a melancholy air, immense and unknowable. Siberia transcends physical space and has become a mental construct of sorts often used to describe a person or place that is isolated, somehow separate from the whole. There are no markers that denote where it officially begins but generally the term is used to refer to the expanse of land stretching from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. In any case, we cross into it without much ado. If there were mountains, I missed them and so my long-awaited entry to Siberia settled upon me almost imperceptibly – like a fog, or a cold, or that fizzy feeling you get when you start to fancy someone.

“THIS is Russia!” Olga says as we stand by the windows admiring the endless rows of birch trees. With no demands on our time, our group whittles away the hours admiring the scenery, chatting, napping, and eating. Each day the train makes several longer stops (20-40 minutes) where we stretch our legs on the platform and stock up on snacks – sometimes we’re lucky and babushkas (technically, “grandmothers”) are there selling homemade goods… other times we’re not so lucky and buy pre-packaged food of the “just add water” variety. Every night a few of us squeeze into our already cramped cabin to watch an episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ on Ashley’s iPad. Our TV time lends some structure to the evening and after being in Siberia for a while, Jesse Pinkman starts looking dateable to me…

10 Ways to Piss Off the Provodnitsa
Each train carriage has an attendant called a provodnitsa to ensure the carriage is clean and to keep passengers in line. We had several provodnitsas on our various train journeys – each had their own quirks but all of them, in typical Russian fashion, generally disapproved of our existence. Whether I was refilling my tea cup at the samovar, making my way to the bathroom, or simply passing them in the hall, the provodnitsas always seemed to be scolding me about something. I never could figure out why they were unhappy with me and eventually their grumbles became soothing background noise.

On this first train journey we encountered Stingy Provodnitsa. After a day or so of wondering why there was no toilet paper in the bathroom we realized she had a “one roll per day” motto – hardly enough for a carriage of around 24 people. This resulted in us buying TP on the platforms and hoarding it in anticipation of shortages.

Next was OCD Provodnitsa who, if nothing else, always made sure the bathroom was properly stocked! Once she was spotted in the wee hours of the morning on her hands and knees getting eye level with the dusty carriage carpet – attempting to get it perfectly straight. Then there was Sexy Provodnitsa – who, just to clarify, was not actually sexy at all. She had dark curly hair, long talon-like nails, and an enormous chest. During her off hours she would strut around the carriage in her track suit looking unimpressed with everyone. One morning she opened our cabin door without warning while we were undressing and, after looking us over a moment, muttered something and slammed the door shut. Unimpressed again, I suppose.

Wherever you go, There YOU are…
One of the coolest things (I think) about travel is the way it allows you to live in the needs of the day – dare I say, demands it. Suddenly, all of your worldly troubles pare down to: what can I eat, where can I go to the bathroom, and where the heck am I anyway? I order coffee every day at home in Boston, but when I order coffee in Russian and actually get coffee it means only one thing: I’m a genius! Being on the road allows you to savor little victories and move your mind away from the existential dilemmas of your daily life. At least… for a little while…

The lights are out and I’m snuggled up in my upper bunk, the motion of the train lulling me off to sleep. I’m overcome with a rare moment of contentment – it’s as though I’m exactly where I should be (even though I don’t know exactly where I am).

A few hours later I wake up from a sound sleep and a pleasant dream. I slip quietly out of the cabin and into the hallway. I’m relieved to find Scott is also awake, looking out of the window and eating instant mashed potatoes. The digital clock at the end of the carriage reads 2AM. The trains run on Moscow time but we’re traveling through five time zones on our way to Irkutsk so the concept of time in general has become rather nebulous. For a moment I think how arbitrary the notion is and of how often people stress about it – time to get married, time to have babies… the list goes on…

I tell Scott about my dream and we stay up talking for a while. We talk about our exes and our families and how strange it feels to go home after a long trip. A world away, surrounded by newness, and yet I find myself talking about the people and things that have always mattered to me. Traveling brings you out of your element, but in many ways the distance illuminates the things you carry with you wherever you go. And here I am again – relentless, stubborn, inescapable me.

The train passes the neon lights of Novosibirsk (Siberia’s second largest city) and our faces are reflected in the window. We look sleepy and decide it’s time to go back to bed.


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