Getting on the train, into a little compartment where I was to live for the next 3 days, felt very good. I was tired but I began to appreciate the nature sliding by the berth window. Lake Baikal sparkled under the sunlight and it was beautiful, as were the quaint wooden shacks outlined with blue windowsills. Wooded hills receded into the distance. Siberia, north of China and Mongolia, is a gorgeous country, and I realized my only mistake was to actually go out into it.
Close to dinner time, our berth companion started trying to talk to us. We passed the phrase book back and forth but it wasn’t very good. She suggested “notebook” and M. found the Russian keyboard option on her netbook. So the woman – Irena – typed in a Russian phrase, and we answered in English as best we could. It took the best part of an hour and we didn’t get too far – most words weren’t in the tiny dictionary at the back, and figuring out the Roman letter-equivalent of the Cyrillic letters didn’t always reveal a word, or the root of a word that we could recognize. But thanks largely to M.’s insistence, we figured out that she wanted to know where we’d been, how old we are, how many children we had. Irena kept trying, occasionally shaking her head at our woefully inadequate guidebook.
She was from a local town that I still can’t pronounce, asked if we were frightened of travelling without a guide and asked where our favourite countries are. She was shocked to learn that M. liked China – Irena put her fingers to her eyes in the sign for Asian that I learnt in the schoolyard. She felt that Russia was the best place but hadn’t travelled elsewhere, being only 22.
After dinner a man joined us as the fourth in the compartment; when he found out M. and I were ‘English’ he at once sat down and started talking. I wondered how Irena felt about an unaccompanied man sitting down beside her on her bed, but she didn’t get uncomfortable. Alexander was accompanied by another woman, who was shy, laughed a lot and asked for a photo with M. and me. Through Irena, Alexander and the guidebook, we learned that he was 35, had a three year-old daughter, and worked for the railway, just like Irena. He pulled out a USB key and showed us photos of his family, his work and his friends going hunting, fishing and celebrating. He didn’t drink, he told us a few times – probably a big deal here, and he later said he was an amateur boxer – but his friends certainly did, and he had photos of pale, ruddy men with arms outstretched, holding bottles; “Vodka!” Alexander cried every time one came up. When I showed him some of my own camping photos, he joked, “Vodka?”
Irena also had photos, and we saw her in the same Irkutsk landmarks we’d visited, grimacing as she tried sushi (perhaps where her dislike of what she considered Asian came from), posing with her friend – who also joined our berth, so now there were six of us. I gave my camera to Alexander and he asked questions of my photos. I keep a picture of Smudgie, the Siberian cat I took care of, on my camera; he saw it and exclaimed “Siberski?” “Da,” I said, and when it came time to show some of my own photos I showed the berth my photos of Smudgie and Hiro. They liked those, and were politely interested in my pictures of New York and Chicago, but Alexander gestured out the window and said, “Russia is best!” M. and I agreed that Russia was very good.
One of the reasons Russia is good – the creepy-baby empire knows no bounds. These are separately-packaged cakes, much like Joe Louis’s. This is my closest concession to food-blogging, but these aren’t really food:
It really is lovely to spend the day on a berth in a train, writing the minutiae of this trip – or writing anything, really. I’m trying my best to put thoughts of Korea out of my head, and restrict that experience to all the great tofu-based dishes I’m going to eat. I haven’t had kimchi in over a month and that’s far too long. I admit that long, icy tentacles of terror start to wrap themselves through my insides when I contemplate how I’m going to find work, and that’s only a partial writerly exaggeration. The last six months have not built my confidence in my employability – applying for jobs and grants, and getting turned down for things I know I’m qualified to do, make me hesitant about showing up unannounced at university departments with a CV. I only brought one blazer to do it in, too. But then, it’ll be 30 degrees, far too hot to wear a jacket.
The lovely dining car on our train, late at night. We had super-expensive beer and snuck in Ararat, Armenian cognac. The shaking gives a sense of how we were moving. The man was a laptop DJ, playing 50 Cent to us and the staff:
That said, my employment prospects can’t be worse in Seoul than they were in Toronto. In a country that fetishizes qualifications, I have some. I also have native English skills, teaching experience and blue eyed-privilege. Most of all, I have an intense desire to settle somewhere, work for a living and spend my wages on nice things. That may sound odd for someone travelling thousands of miles away from home, but I don’t want to remain rootless forever. I just need to be somewhere cosmopolitan.