Saturday, 30 June 2012

Life aboard the Trans-European Express

The train just before departing Paris.

With a clunking of pistons my train jolted its way out of Paris; and I began to fill with a little excitement, thinking of the coming journeys and experiences of the months ahead. I was all alone, and rolling out east like I had been planning for months, no, years. My compartment had three forward facing seats, a little table in the corner, a fold down seat, a cupboard with what looked like a whiskey decanter set inside, and a luggage rack. The carriage attendant shortly came along and dropped down one of the bunk-beds hidden in the wall above the row of seats and said something to me in Russian, at which I nodded but did not understand. The train seemed empty, I only saw a couple of people boarding when I did, and they were much further along the platform. I wasn't aware of anyone else in my carriage, apart from the attendant, and thought it unviable for a train to run across Europe with only a handful of passengers on board.
My compartment on the Paris - Moscow
sleeper train.

We hadn't got far when a shadow filled my door, and a mountain of a man grinned down at me, before settling himself on the seat next to me and introduced himself as Igor Voronov. He spoke almost no English, (but much more than I could Russian) but we communicated through a spattering of English mixed with German, but he mostly spoke Russian and nodded with an expectant smile that I would understand what he said. I gathered that he was a mechanic on the trains, and spent his life traveling across Europe on the railways, as he listed cities spanning the whole of the continent. I showed him the few photos I had on my laptop, some of my family taken in Peterborough before I left, and some of my work as I had my website files on my desktop. He showed me pictures of his family in Moscow, and played me a video of his disabled son being given a massage on a bed, which I found slightly unusual viewing at 8am with a stranger. I explained to him about my trip, and I think he understood the majority of it, and then he left as abruptly as he arrived. I settled down on my bunk and dozed off to the tapping and rattling of the fixtures and fittings, as the train gently rocked and rolled its way across France.

I'd started reading a book on the Eurostar that my dad had given me before I left, Don McCullin's autobiography, 'Unreasonable Behaviour', about his life and experiences as a war photographer. I'd finished the book by the time I was halfway across Germany; not because I had nothing else on the train to do, but because I couldn't put it down. I'd recommend it to almost anyone, as it's a really snappy and adrenaline filled read, and I plan to read it on my next journey, before perhaps trading it with someone for something new. 

A few more people boarded the train in Mannheim and Frankfurt, nearly all men, but still the carriage was very quiet. There were a few Deutsche Bahn staff aboard the train, and I made enough acquaintances with them for them to invite to invite me along for a cigarette in between the carriages, despite all the no smoking signs. I then sat alone in the restaurant car, and was served a spaghetti carbonara and a beer by a camp Russian waiter with a shy smile. In Hanover I got off the train for a few minutes, and the station was throbbing with expectantly jubilant German football fans, who would later that evening lose 2-0 to Italy in the Euro 2012 semi final. In Berlin the train really filled up, and an old Russian owl-woman scowled her way into my compartment, along with several large cases of luggage. There were many people from Belarus and Russia now aboard, and their unfamiliar language filled the air. Somewhere in Poland it became bed time, and a polite Belarusian lady climbed in the bunk above me, and the miserable old owl-woman snored and farted below me. 

I woke up just before entering Belarus, as shortly after the Polish passport control guards came along inspecting passports, and not long after the Belarusian guards collected mine for inspection and stamping. There wasn't much to see out of the window, the little civilisation I did see looked rickety and crumbly. Small 19th century looking cottages perforated the landscape, with old women in headscarves hunched over vegetable plots. Most of the way it was forested, lots of birch and pine flashing by the window with the odd meadow in a clearing. We stopped at one station, and I got out for a brief explore with Igor from the day before, but then dozed and listened to music the remainder of the way to Moscow.

A station in Belarus. I have no idea where it was, if you can read cyrillic you will know.
Inside the station in Belarus, with what I think was a painting of Lenin giving a speech hanging in the main foyer.

I couldn't pronounce this. 

1 comment:

  1. fyi: you were in "orshd" and the black and yellow sign reads "severnaya storona"...not that it means any more to me than you!