Fifty-five hours third class across Siberia was a mistake. At Irkutsk train station, I was told, in Russian, that spacious, comfy second class was full. My booking whittled down from three beds to two. I asked, in English, about first class. The girl answered in Russian. I booked in Russian. Took the tram back to our apartment, showed Judith the tickets. One Cyrillic word – Plastnakart – glared back at us. We measured it against the Lonely Planet’s sample ticket. It meant third class.
Two days later, we hauled backpacks, pushchair and carrier bags of Pot Noodles and cherries through shelves, stacked with passengers, to beds 34 and 35.
“This is horrendous,” Judith said.
“Would you mind sharing with Alicante?”
A lazy fan was cooling hot air to a warm breeze.
“You’re joking. It’s sweltering.”
I looked around for somewhere else to store the kids and gear. Perpendicular, and separated by the carriage walkway, was a middle aged, head-scarved lady and a man pressing an ivory handled pen knife into the table. Opposite, and separated from us by a table, two men lay sleeping. Our immediate neighbour on the bottom bunk looked close to death. Veins throbbed in his face. He was sweating profusely. His skin white and drained.
“I feel like an extra in a scene from Trainspotting,” I whispered to Judith.
Undeterred, we prised open the bottom bunk, crushed backpacks and buggy into the metal storage box below and dropped it shut. Sahara huddled on top, next to bags of crackers and grapes. Alicante sat down beside her and pulled out a colouring book. Judith lay under the fan.
The provodnitsa, a mixture of faded glamour and Bond villain, arrived. She beckoned to our tickets.
“English?” I asked.
A couple more hours passed. Passengers changed places. Food was passed around. Alicante and I ventured to the train’s village well – the samovar – a giant tank full of hot water. Thirty-six, clammy hours dawdled by carrying cups of coffee and formula milk past card playing Russians. Plastnakart was a fish tank of human life. Passengers came together, shared sunflower seeds and left.
Afternoon turned into evening. The baby and me lay stacked beneath Judith and Alicante.
The kids and Judith slept. I dozed, ready to open my eyes in a blink.
Night came. So did the police. I clutched Sahara and the bags. It wasn’t us they were after. They arrested the dead body. He protested but the police lifted up his bunk and marched his two plastic bags out of the carriage. He tottered in-between, looking flustered, unsteady.
By morning, he’d been reinstated. He lay on his bunk, with a little more colour in his cheeks. The journey continued.
Birch trees lined up across Russia, silvery, elfin like. Wooden houses, painted or unpainted – depending on the taste of the village – clustered around railway crossings or rivers. Woodland only ceded to agriculture near Tyumen, close to the end of Siberia and the beginning of Europe.
As the train pressed on, the carriage unfurled like a flower. Passengers streamed towards the samovar. The provodnitsa started conversing in broken English. A disapproving mother, with a neatly plaited daughter, began sculpting Alicante’s hair. Sweets ebbed down the carriage towards the children. An old gentleman reminisced about being stationed in Britain during the war.
“Jingle bells, jingle bells,” sang Alicante and a group of Russian ladies and children.
July blazed with Christmas cheer, as Russia flowed towards its magnetic centre. The train dissected worlds, cutting a straight line back to the capital, ignoring time zones inhabited by lesser cities. Moscow time defined the railways .