Across Siberia, Across Time
An online series of photographs brings the writer back to his first great journey, via the Trans-Siberia rail, from his native Yugoslavia to post-Mao China.
Life is full of wonderful little coincidences. But perhaps there is a better word for this: flukes. I learned the word only last week, through an article that some readers might recall from the previous newsletter. The universe of Internet flukes looks something like this:
I clicked on this link because I was attracted by the cover photo.
I went through all the portraits, taken by the photographer David Monteleone for the New Yorker. And the subjects’ expressions made me travel back in time. The faces slowly became familiar, emerging from my distant memory. Then I read the stories below them. The photos were taken along the Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs from Moscow to the Far East in Russia. Actually, after four days of travel from Moscow heading east, the Trans-Siberian Railway splits in two: One line, the main Russian track at Chita, turns towards Vladivostok. The other, the so-called Chinese Trans-Siberian, passes Irkutsk and ends in Beijing.
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The restaurant in the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express — Photo: Simon Plelow
I took the latter route more than three decades before these photos were taken. At the time, there were almost no passengers on that train. Luckily my traveling companion was experienced and adept at some trick around currency exchange in the Soviet capital, so we were able to afford first class tickets for the ride. (Many Europeans traveled to Moscow in those days, in order to take advantage of currency dealings and cheaper ruble-paid flights to get to distant places like Cuba, India, and Sri Lanka…) Our first class cabin came with a shower, armchairs, and seemingly endless free waffles and tea, the latter served in a silver samovar. It was the best train I ever took. There was also a huge, empty restaurant car, where, for most of the ride, we could only get lukewarm Siberian borsch.
We were young Yugoslavian kids then, en route to studying in China. In most of the stations where the train stopped for a long period of time, I got off the train and posted a letter or two, which I had written on my German portable typewriter – which, I liked to believe, my late father had confiscated from the Nazis. I wandered around, curious about every detail, observing faces that became less blond and more Asian with every passing station. It was my first big trip to Asia, and it was phenomenal. It opened up the world to me, including, later on, the notion of the Great Game and all that followed. At that time, I did not know yet that this was geopolitics.
I also read travel books, like The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, who traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad some years before me. Somehow, this idol from my youth was never mentioned by Masha Gessen, who wrote the New Yorker companion piece to David Monteleone’s photography. Gessen, a writer in Moscow, probably couldn’t read Paul Theroux during Soviet rule. That was a privilege for us revisionists, as Beijing called Yugoslavians at that time. Or was it because, for both trips, Theroux took the train in the opposite direction from Monteleone and I?
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The Trans-Siberian train in the sunset — Photo: Bernt Rostad
As my train rushed towards China, my life started to change completely. Post-Maoist China greeted us with endless choice of food in the dining car and a young, beautiful female PLA soldier with long braids and a large smile. After I read that New Yorker piece her smile and all the other faces along the Trans-Siberian Railway jumped out from my memory. I am sorry that I did not own a camera at that time. There were no smart phones either. And judging from Monteleone’s portraits, the world of the Trans-Siberian Railroad still hasn’t been globalized – it was a world standing still. Perhaps this was the reason I had to move, to travel further. Before I finally landed where I am now. At Yonder.
Postscript: According to what I hear and read, my former idol, Paul Theroux, now divides his life between the West Coast and Cape Cod, where he grows tomatoes. I love it. I could talk about tomatoes for days.
This article was first published at Yonder.