Tuesday June 19 – Thursday June 21, 2012 – En route to Irkutsk

Tuesday we got up at 4:20am to catch a 5:10am taxi, which got us to the train station for our 6am train. Unlike in Moscow, everything went fine: we were early, there was only one train station, the platform was marked clearly and, except for a mysterious pool of blood at the base of the fold-out stairs, we got on the right car and berth without incident, dragging suitcases, backpacks and two days of water and groceries. I lay down and slept for 5 hours – being a light sleeper, I’m impressed that I’m getting my train-legs – and am now watching the Russian countryside roll by.

Wooden houses, dirt roads and allotments:

These are both mansions by comparison with most houses (shacks would be a more accurate word):

Note – pictures from train windows suck. The ones here are the best (and I use that word advisedly) of a very bad lot, so a description will convey it better.

Every town has abandoned, partially wrecked buildings visible from the tracks. The rail infrastructure is enormous, but that appears to be because new stock is constantly added and old stock is never retired. Some engines look to be 50 years old, and there are completely rusted-out, windowless passenger cars shunted off to sidings occasionally. I guess there’s no money in recycling here, and land values are low enough that no one wants to use the space. The Russian population is decreasing and the countryside is emptying, leading to the industrial husks dotting the rail route.

A rather short horizon:

The railways of Krasnagorsk:

I don’t entirely understand it: the Soviets obviously had a policy of regional and local economic development, putting factories and infrastructure across the USSR. Was it all inefficient and abandoned once the free market flooded in? Was inefficiency the price Soviet administrators were willing to pay to keep people in smaller towns and cities? Because centralization is proceeding apace nowadays, given that Moscow is building a third ring road and even that will be inadequate to handle the new population flooding in from elsewhere. Capitalism finds its own level, and that’s not in the interior of Russia – at least, not for its people.

One thing to point out about travelling: ‘remote’ is relative. I mean, I’m the furthest from home I’ve ever been, and getting further. But there are people who have lived here for generations. It’s comforting to know that there are civilizations with a coherent set of rules and norms in places that are exotic to me – I can learn how to function in places that aren’t actually very far away for hundreds of millions of people. As Tubbs says, “London is local for Londoners, and Swansea is local for Swansea-ers.” We’ll see how I function at Lake Baikal, where the numbers of locals drops precipitously and I have to rely heavily on M.’s nursing and outdoor experience to ward off dirty water and rabid bears. Actually, I would love to meet wild but inquisitive Siberian cats, though I doubt I’d be allowed to take them to Korea (though I have no doubts the cats would want to come with me.)

Here’s a Siberian dog a woman was travelling with a few cars up from us. I was on a platform during a short disembarkation when she came by with it. I was the first to pet it (him? Her? I couldn’t tell.) S/he had a jaw that could tear rabbits in half but was polite and friendly. Someone else petted it and s/he raised a paw. I think it’s a show dog, as I asked the woman later if I could take a picture (“Pashalste – photo?”) and she posed the beast:

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