Dereliction will never be a fashionable aesthetic in Russia; it’s too real for too many. I’m leaving Moscow in a late summer of extreme temperatures, and I’m leaving my close friend Kseniya who put me up for ten days in her apartment here. The Trans-Siberian Railway will take six days to Beijing. Though five years in Australia has given Kseniya a taste for second-hand clothes, that’s the limit of her appreciation for old things. For her, this is transport for those who can’t afford anything else. Why would someone from Australia get on this clapped-out old train to look out at Russian misery?
I’m a little disappointed when my compartment turns out to be full of non-Russians. I’m sharing with a Bavarian couple and a law graduate from London. In the corridor on the first night I meet more British law graduates, a Swedish textile designer, a German-British share trader off to play polo in Mongolia, a lawyer from Sydney, German students, a French cycling couple and a British travel writer and his teenage daughter. Although the train must be packed with Russians, the woman who runs the restaurant car is the only Russian we meet during the entire journey. During the day we drink tea and sleep; the motion of the train is conducive to sleep. Only the travel writer is working furiously. The rest of us hang out in the corridor taking photos when the scenery changes or there is a rainbow. The landscape is a loop of sparse birch-tree fields and houses with their window frames and awnings painted blue and green, like gypsy caravans. Sometimes it resembles a desert strewn with litter. Over the days, almost imperceptibly, there are fewer birches and more spindly pine trees and, more frequently, cities, with the same colourful houses and, reliably, a central factory with a tall smokestack. Evidently, the cities exist only for the industry, but no-one can say which industries. The only other buildings in the cities and towns look like large sheds. They have to be the schools and hospitals.The stops that come every few hours spell excitement. During the first two days the stations are bustling with commerce. Dumplings and potato-filled pastries, fried fish, pickles and boiled eggs, as well as instant noodles, cigarettes and, more covertly, vodka. Some women have pockets full of Lenin badges or bundles of hand-knitted woollen socks and shawls to sell. On the third day many of us wake up at 5.30 am, anxious not to miss the spectacle of the world’s largest lake, Baikal. Stumbling into the dim corridor, it looks like we might be cruising through the sky; a soft glow spreading on the horizon is the only nuance in the pervasive grey-blue. We spend about three hours in relative silence, watching as the colour of the lake graduates through pale pink to white, an image of softness that stretches endlessly, the shore only metres from the train. We see one fishing boat, and otherwise no evidence of humans. This is the day of showers. The boys mix hot water from the samovar with cold water in the putrid bathroom, strip down and wash, then come out glowing. The girls wash isolated places, and their hair in the sink. I prefer baby wipes and dry aerosol shampoo to contending with the lurching train and smell of piss.
The vodka supplies are getting low and another night of drinking means by day four we’re dry. Offerings at each stop are more disappointing than the last. Late afternoon on the fourth day, the train begins to slow. We’ve been anticipating this two-hour stop on the Siberian border with Mongolia, hoping to be able to buy booze and food, and maybe walk through open fields. But pulling into Naushki we see the platform is austere and empty, save for small pods of soldiers and customs officials who are stationed along the platform, waiting to board each car and check visas.A bunch of us are piled into my compartment. Our customs official wears a pale grey skirt suit with a matching cap, straw-like dyed red hair and red lipstick. The two hues and the anachronistic nylon uniform make her look like an extra from Rocky Horror. She is collecting passports to take them to the border for processing. When she comes to mine she says something in Russian to her military colleague, and then to me, ‘Lily, you have a problem with Russian border control. Wait here.’
No travel agent in Australia sells straight Trans-Siberian rail tickets, only package deals like the ‘Vodka Train’. I ordered my ticket through an inbound agency in St Petersburg that had been linked to on travel blogs. Their communication was patchy and laconic but my ticket arrived, by regular post, two days before my flight out of Melbourne. The agency also provided the compulsory visa ‘invitation’, which stipulates the duration of stay in Russia. The end date they have listed is the day I boarded the train, four days ago. If I’ve noticed this I haven’t given it any thought. When the woman in grey returns she points out that my visa expired four days ago, when the train pulled out of Moscow.
Two soldiers escort me to the station building. In the station I am told to wait. There is blood on the tiles not far from my feet. Notices in English on the walls define the laws and penalties for overstay, but the language is ambiguous. I understand that the fine may be anywhere between 2000 and 200,000 roubles. After a while a young Mongolian woman in military uniform emerges from an office, saying she will be my interpreter.
My new reality is brought home to me over more than an hour of discussion. The fine is 2000 roubles, the price of a night out in a Moscow nightclub. I will not get back on the train, but will have to travel to the nearest city, Ulan Ude, 400 kilometres away, for a new visa, a process that I’m told takes one day. Today is Saturday. The Russian Home Office will be open for three hours on Monday afternoon. My request for a phone call to the Australian embassy in Moscow is refused. My offers to pay a bribe are refused or, rather, stonily ignored. One soldier, with Grace Jones cheekbones, stares with malice at my teary face. My interpreter has two attitudes; one is ‘I am sorry’, but more often, ‘It is not our problem.’
A stranger appears, looking at me, eager and anxious. ‘This man can help you,’ says the interpreter. ‘He can drive you to Ulan Ude.’ He is a local, civilian, called here by the customs officials but not explicitly endorsed. I size him up. He’s wearing heavy boots, camouflage pants and a checked shirt buttoned over a well-fed gut. In his round doughy face gleam a row of golden teeth and a bull terrier’s blue eyes.
‘My English no good,’ he says. ‘I help … I have letter at my house.’ He’s drawing with an imaginary pen and paper and showing me the shape of a house. ‘American, New Zealand, Australia—surfer! German, Swedish … Vasili help.’ He pulls me over to a window and points to his house. ‘You, eat—my wife, she cook—sleep.’ All this, acted out. ‘Tomorrow, you rest.’ Rest is hands clasped behind the head and a look of inert pleasure. ‘Morning, we drive, Ulan Ude, make new visa.’
I agree to go with him, preferring this gamble to facing the ordeal alone, and he hustles me onto the train to get my backpack. It seems we’re the only things moving in the forty-degree heat of this late July in Siberia. I collect my pack, and just as we’re ducking out of a gate and heading for Vasili’s old Subaru station wagon, the young Brit from my compartment and Phil, the polo player, hurry over to us, looking serious. Phil softly says, ‘Lily, we just realised we don’t know your name. Your surname.’ When he sees that hearing this has made me panic he quickly reframes it, ‘so that we can email you, to know you’re all right’. He makes me spell out my email address while he memorises it. Vasili seems uncomfortable with this interruption and is champing at the bit to get me to the car.
Vasili is a hustler, but he will also be my host, driver, bodyguard, interpreter, advocate, friend, and even offers to stand in for my boyfriend.
Opposite the station is a huge park lined with linden trees. In the park are stray cows. Adjacent to the park is Vasili’s house, just 200 metres from the train station. At the heavy metal gate of his house he toots and Natasha, a stocky woman with a pretty, weatherworn face, unlatches a system of locks. Two alsatians are chained up at opposite ends of the garden and a matted little dog, Churka, circles Natasha’s ankles. There are two houses in the compound; one is the typical house with the colourful paint job, and the other is more modern, solid and recently completed. There is also a shed, a well, a vegetable garden with a greenhouse, a chicken coup and a sauna. The town has a population of 3000 and is a study in decay and abandonment. It’s immediately apparent that Vasili and his wife are wealthy here, and that the security measures are for real. Vasili shows me into the new house, where he sleeps (separate from his wife, who stays in the old one) and where I’ll be sleeping. His teenage daughter’s bedroom is empty; she is spending the weekend with her grandmother. Vasili camps in the living room on a mattress on the floor. My room is large and bare with a foldout bed that is already made. He tells me to wash up before dinner. In the bathroom he shows me how to use the taps and then stands too close, grinning, not leaving. I smile and thank him, ‘spasiba’ with a little inclination of the head towards the door. He takes the hint and leaves me to it.
When I head over to the old house for dinner, Daisy, the more spirited of the two big dogs, rages at the end of her chain, snarling and leaping. At the door I am given a pair of Natasha’s slippers to wear whenever I’m inside. In the lounge room the television is on—some old US law-enforcement drama—and in the corner there’s also an old PC that Vasili demonstrates, opening up his own email program for me to use. I open Gmail instead and email my boyfriend, filling him in and asking him not to tell anyone who will worry. He replies immediately, cheerfully. Nauschki and Melbourne are only one hour apart in time. Vasili’s cat, Vasili, ironically a gaunt and debonair tabby, stalks my ankles.
Before dinner my host shows me the testimonials from the tourists he has helped before me. I learn in the first letter that his fee is US$500. It seems expensive, but I’m not in a bargaining mood. Natasha has prepared an omelette with big hunks of Spam. I’m exhausted and have an empty feeling from crying that is similar to hunger, so I eat the huge omelette and all the pink, rubbery meat, with thick pieces of light and dark rye bread. On the table is a bowl of jam, a bowl of chocolates and a bowl filled with something white the texture of melting lemon sorbet. When I finish my omelette, Vasili pushes the bowl towards me and passes me a piece of bread. I manage my first Russian phrase apart from the spasiba mantra. ‘Sto eta?’ what is it? Natasha looks at me for the first time, makes a buzzing noise, and flaps her arms. Siberian honey.
Vasili used to be a railway refrigeration engineer, but working on the trains brought him into contact with Mongolian workers and over the years he developed a business helping Mongolians with the paperwork and logistics to come into Siberia to work. Occasionally a stranded Westerner provides a windfall. He and Natasha also run a taxi service. When I refuse more food, indicating I am very full, Vasili grabs my elbow playfully, points to my face and makes his cheeks gaunt, then acts out a frail old lady. He points to my plate, to Natasha, simulates me wolfing food, and motions expanding breasts and butt—‘big Panasonic!’ He simulates an aircraft descending, and, acting as my ‘boyfriend’, at first shocked, breaks into a huge smile, extending his arms, thrilled that I am home and finally ample bodied. Natasha giggles like a teenage girl.
I’ve refused to drink vodka with them tonight. Vasili has a cantankerous side that I wouldn’t want to see juiced up. He hovers in the hall while I’m in the bathroom and follows me to my room. He shows me that the bedspread is thick and warm, how to turn on and off the light. His eyes full of enthusiasm and regret, he makes a helpless gesture. He would like to be of service, but there would be ‘Shaolin!’ from Natasha.
Sunday morning I am told to relax and enjoy myself, but I can’t leave the base because Vasili is concerned for my safety. Mid morning I head for the old house to check my emails. As I come into the space where shoes are swapped for slippers, I notice a room to one side that must have been locked up previously. The door is open and inside are masses of packed bags. The sight of this vast room filled with what look like items of luggage stuns me. Whose are these? I go to the computer and type a panicked email to my boyfriend. There’s no Australian embassy for thousands of kilometres, I have no way of knowing if I can trust this couple or whether I’m safe.
Vasili sits at the kitchen table filling in my paperwork.
I head back out to the yard, ignoring Daisy’s frothing, and sit on the stoop of the shed, trying to write in my notebook. I’m anxious to record details, clutching for anything concrete. Natasha comes out of the house with a pile of hanging mannequins, and handbags, new and shiny, Gucci and Guess. I get it. The bags are full of her market goods. These are industrious people, and they have multiple businesses. They’re not going to take my money and feed me to the chickens. After lunch we travel to Kyakhta, half an hour away by car, to get my photo taken for the new visa. In the town there are beautiful pre-Soviet buildings, but they’re dilapidated and many are boarded up. Someone has spray-painted the statue of Lenin silver. We drive slowly up a dirt road, worn away by loose cattle, towards grey skeleton blocks of flats on the outskirts, all encrusted with massive rusted satellite dishes. By the side of the road some kids are clambering on a tank, either an abandoned wreck or a monument. One of them is lowering himself into the hatch, and at the base a girl of five or six leans into a pram. We pull up by an empty playground outside one of the blocks. Some shady-looking removalists are carrying a television to a van. ‘Gift, gift!’ laughs Vasili, joking that we’re witnessing thieves helping themselves to somebody’s possessions. I laugh too.
After a while an elderly Mongolian man comes out and gets into the back of the car. The photographer. He smiles and nods at me. We’ve picked him up because it’s Sunday, his day off. His studio is a tiny annex of a shop in town, the waiting room one metre by two and the studio a little bigger. It’s painted completely white, and there’s a white mesh curtain hanging over the door. I have my photo taken and then go stand on the main street, which is pressed white gravel, making the outside world washed out and glarey. A teenage couple go by pushing a pram and peering at me. I’m too shy to photograph anything but the front of the photography studio. I go back to the waiting room and read some pages of Anna Karenina while the men scan and print.
On the way out of town, Vasili stops at a service station and buys two litre-bottles of water and two of juice. One bottle of water is for me, and the rest are for his son who is in the hospital. We pull over by a basketball court where some kids are playing soccer. To our right is a five- or six-storey building and I can see right through the windows. I can see the nurses in their white uniforms as they move around the corridors. The hospital looks hollow. I take off my seatbelt, testing whether I would be welcome. ‘No, no, come.’ I obey and watch him skid down the gravelly hill towards the hospital, clutching his bottles.
That evening, as I walk to the station with Vasili to withdraw money for his fee, he explains about the cows in the park. There are no jobs here. Since communism fell all the region’s factories shut down. Most men become dependent on alcohol or narcotics when they’re young, and many are dead before forty. The few jobs that exist are by and large taken by women. Moré. Vasili crosses his arms on his chest. Moré is not the Russian word for death, but sometimes Latinate words slip into his pidgin, helping me to understand. The cows and horses that roam the streets have dead owners.
Tonight I don’t refuse vodka. Chinggis Gold from Mongolia. I mean to stop at one, a water glass almost full. Vasili pours the same for himself and for Natasha. Pretty soon he’s talking about their son, who is twenty-seven, a year older than me. When he was six he had to be rushed to hospital, something like a hernia, or appendicitis. He was given too much anaesthetic, and went into a coma for three months. He also contracted hepatitis from an unclean blood transfusion. Now he lives in a vegetable state in the hospital, at great expense to his parents. Natasha is sitting placidly, her eyes are leaking. I say no to another vodka but Vasili says I must: he will drink another full glass, I will have the same and Natasha will too. ‘Soviet feminism!’ he chortles. We finish the bottle like this and another is threatened, but a phone call means they have to go out. Some Mongolian people in need of assistance. It’s a taxi job, and they both leave me.
I’m woken before dawn for the 400-kilometre drive to Ulan Ude. We have a solid, silent breakfast and Natasha holds the gate open for us. She waves and she’s smiling a little. Yesterday’s short trip has not inured me to Vasili’s driving. The bitumen of the roads is destroyed by the snow and ice of winter, so he takes the middle of the road. He takes the blind hills and corners at 130 kilometres an hour. At first I’m gripping my armrest and closing my eyes. When the sun starts to rise it appears tangerine behind the pines, and I start to relax into the thrill. If I die like this, at least it won’t be a mundane death. I pray involuntarily: please, just don’t let me end up in that hospital.
I think Vasili is praying too—every few kilometres he fishes in his ashtray, where he keeps loose change. He’s looking for a certain denomination but I can’t tell which, there are so many small coins. His car is Japanese, so he sits on the right, the outer edge of the road. He opens his window and flings out the coins. It’s an automatic litany. I’m wordless on the best of mornings, but I get around to asking why he does this. ‘Shaman,’ he says, and makes a trekking, then a fossicking action. ‘Tradition.’ We see them now and again, slight, suntanned Mongolian men in little hats, fossicking by the side of the road.
The roadsides are bare of houses, and the forests aren’t thick. The pines are wispy and have a snow tidemark around two metres from the ground. Sometimes there is a Buddhist datsan, and often we see ceremonial cairns of tree branches, stones and colourful shreds of cloth used by shamans. We pass some larger towns, the surrounding hills covered by miniature houses in ruins. These were the summer garden plots people kept during fatter Soviet times.
It’s getting hot, up over thirty degrees by eleven. We push through Ulan Ude, a stinking, crude metropolis, towards the Home Office, which is well out of town—twenty kilometres into the industrial zone along a dirt road. Vasili parks the car and we walk around the side of a barracks-like structure to get to another unadorned white building. The office is not yet open to the public. Going up the stairs in front of me Vasili laughs, ‘Vasili, little bureaucrat!’ waving his briefcase. This is the first time I notice his crumpled posture. He’s limping a little, and I wonder if it’s a show of humility before the mighty bureaucracy. He speaks with a security guard, and after a while a tall, elegant man in a suit comes down. They greet each other like associates and Vasili hands over my paperwork, explaining my case. We follow the man upstairs. In a nondescript office, Vasili quasi-interprets and writes out my statement of the circumstances leading to my overstay.
Now we have two and a half hours to kill before the office opens to the public. We sit in the car for a while and Vasili is excitable. He picks up and plays with all of my things: my camera, which he thinks is funny because it’s fifty years old; my book, for which he spoils the ending, making a slicing motion across his throat so I understand that Anna commits suicide; my phrasebook, of which he pores through the glossary to find words like breast and sex; and my sunglasses, also funny because they’re vintage, which he puts on, pouting like a sex bomb.
We are going for lunch to a workers cafeteria. From the car park we take a dirt road on foot, Vasili with his briefcase and me with my leopard-print hessian shoulder bag, past some factory building where they make components of bridges. These buildings have a forsaken look about them that appeals to me, and I stop to take a photograph, although it will turn out badly, having no real point of interest. Vasili is silent while I do this, looking at me sideways. I don’t think he likes me taking a photo.
Beyond the factory is a large administrative building. With flowers out the front, it looks like a hospital or school. At an office on the ground floor Vasili gets us two visitors’ meal tickets and we climb a few flights of stairs. The stairwells and corridors are all painted in colours: orange, blue, pink and green. He has to rest after two flights of stairs, and he checks his briefcase for my passport. ‘Computer work good,’ he says, pointing to his head. He explains this is hard for him, the heat, the exertion. His ‘computer’ did not work well for many years, and he still takes medication every day. I take this opening to ask about his limp, and he tells me that ten years ago, he had been helping some Mongolian people with their paperwork, as usual. This time something was not quite orthodox about their process: Natasha had signed a paper in place of the subject and the bureaucrats had taken issue with it. Vasili gestures pushing a paper back to them, saying it’s okay, take it. Then they beat him, kicked him, ‘like a football’. They kicked him in the face and in the chest and abdomen. He went into a coma and stayed in the hospital for a year. Natasha helped him to recover from severe amnesia. He still suffers from these injuries, but here he is, back in the lion’s den.
In the halls we pass men in blue overalls, blue-eyed Siberians and fine-featured statuesque Mongolians, their faces black with soot except where their goggles have been. There are also well-groomed, healthy-looking women in street clothes, young women and older women. We’ve reached the ground floor again, in another wing of the building, and we come out into the cafeteria. Soot-faced men in blue are forming a queue to one side, holding tin trays and plastic cups. They file past a light-filled kitchen where corpulent women in pale blue dresses and starched white-lace hats are stirring huge tin pots. The men turn and look at us. I take two trays and two cups from the stacks and we join the queue. There are plates of sliced, raw Lake Baikal fish, buckwheat with fish dumplings, several kinds of stew, beetroot and chopped-vegetable salads. Everything is fresh and appetising, nothing is familiar.
Near the register where Vasili hands over our vouchers are stacks of face-sized plain cookies, and urns of coffee and tea. I take a coffee, which is watery and fiercely sweet. We sit at one of the small laminate tables in the cafeteria. I see from the men eating around us that the cookie sits on top of the hot drink, absorbing the steam, so I do the same with mine. One man passes with a stack of about ten cookies, heading back to the floor. The food is good, especially the fish, but I am gorging on the faces of the workers, who sit in groups or alone, eating calmly and silently, no longer interested in us. This room, with a wall of windows lined with gigantic potted plants, would be a filmmaker’s or photographer’s dream. I am neither, and I refrain from photographing anything, having read in the Lonely Planet guide that to photograph what a Westerner might consider picturesque may cause insult and shame. Vasili has loaded my tray with too many plates and eats very little himself. His cousin, who works in the kitchen, comes to sit with us. Vasili does the Panasonic joke and his cousin chuckles. They shoot the breeze. Because she is watching and she has been cooking I eat far more than I want to.
Back at the Home Office, we wait in silence in the foyer, which is now crowded with Mongolians. As we sit, I suddenly remember how my German grandfather had been, as a soldier, on a train out of France at the end of the Second World War and was captured and sent to a concentration camp in Siberia, where he was held for five years. He used to say that his skill as a painter saved his life, as he was made to paint portraits of the Russian officers. I do my best to mime all this to Vasili, who seems to understand. After a moment he laughs, whacks me, and in mime tells me his own grandfather was captured by the Germans, and forced to do hard labour.
When my name is called we go upstairs into an office to complete the paperwork. I have my fingerprints scanned by a young blond man. Vasili looks at me intently while this is being done. When it’s over he grabs my hand and places his right palm next to mine. He has noticed that our handprints are almost identical; we have the same exaggerated M. He says Natasha has pointed out that, with our puffy cheeks and hooded eyes, we also have similar faces.
I’m subdued on the drive home, baking in the heat. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for what Vasili has done for me. We stop in the middle of nowhere because I have to pee. It strikes me that it’s worth the US$500 just to pee in this rare landscape, behind this tree. For the rest of the trip Vasili babbles and waxes lyrical with regret, recounting the difficulties of his marriage.
Back at the house, Natasha has made dumplings and she is also wearing make-up. I realise too late that this is when I was supposed to take photos. The skin of the dumplings is thick and a hot broth around squirts out when I try to bite it, burning my lip. Vasili explains to bite a little hole and suck. Vasili gives me a gift of a handful of Soviet coins and asks me to send him a Russian–English phrasebook. Suddenly, there is great haste to be away and on the train. Both Vasili and Natasha come with me to my room, shadowing me as I cram things into my backpack. I could close the zip myself but we do it all together.
The train that will take me across the border into Mongolia seems completely empty. I wave to Vasili through the window, deeply sad to leave him, and then I drop my backpack in my compartment. Next door, the attendant is watching dubbed Beverly Hills Cop. For some reason I’m in first class, and my compartment is plush, the sheets are crisp and the bunk is soft. I’m stuffed with dumplings, and I’m tempted to lie down, but I will allow myself to relax only when the train pulls away. I sit and close my eyes, and immediately am startled by a voice. It’s the mean-faced soldier come to check my passport. He takes the new slip from my passport and tucks it away. ‘That’s my visa … shouldn’t I keep it?’ I ask. ‘I keep this,’ he replies. He’s actually sneering at me. His companion, a curt, sweaty guy in camo, ferrets around my compartment, checking all the hidey-holes. I’m braced for him to ‘find’ a big wad of drugs, but he barks the all-clear at cheekbones, and they go off. I sleep peacefully and my alarm goes off in time for me to catch a technicoloured sunrise over the first real topography I’ve seen from the train during this trip, the mountains of Mongolia.© Lily Keil 2012