Destination: Moscow. Setting out from Beijing, I had the choice of two passenger railway lines to connect to the famed Trans-Siberian. One of the lines, the K19, goes through the border town of Manzhouli, while the other, the K3, arrives via Mongolia.
Beijing-Manchuria: familiar, strange and quiet
For most Chinese railway passengers, it is a familiar scene — the crowded carriages, even the corridors and toilets are packed with people. The smell of instant noodle mingles with the scent of passengers. There are also sounds of those selling various small novelties, lighters and snacks, mixing in with the cheerful voices of the train station broadcaster.
But when I showed up expecting to take the K19, my surprise was complete. In front of me is a Russian train with fancy wagons; and not only is the train Russian, so are all of its attendants, who speak neither English nor Chinese. Instead of the bustle of passengers trying to squeeze on, the scene around the new train was calm — in part because this line costs nearly the same price as an airline flight.
A K-19 train in Irkutsk, Russia — Photo: Anthony Knuppel
At first, after we rolled out of the station, I was not at all accustomed to the quiet. Still, the “clickety, clack” sound gave the familiar feeling of train travel. Indeed, the mixed feeling of familiarity and strangeness became more and more obvious as the train headed north.
Outside the window, small familiar stations flickered by one-by-one. Though I was still within the borders of China, the carriage with its exotic features reminded me I would be travelling far away.
Outside the window — Photo: Anthony Knuppel
Manzhouli–Zabaykalsk: border control, and wait, wait and wait
Manzhouli and Zabaykalsk are respectively China and Russia’s entry ports. It’s after crossing these two control points that the train really rolls into the Siberian Plain. The two border towns are just ten kilometers apart — however, passing through the two checkpoints plus changing the rail-gauge will wind up taking more than 10 hours.
Because the width of the rail track in China is different from that in Russia once the train enters Russian territory the wagons of the train are lifted and placed on standard Russian standard chassis. Meanwhile, all passengers are summoned to the waiting room of Zabaykalsk station, where the real wait begins.
Inside the restaurant carriage of a Trans-Siberian train — Photo: Bernt Rostad
This is one of the few chances to see who all of your fellow passengers are, and perhaps to strike up a conversation. Five hours later, the train slides out the station again while the Chinese scenery outside the window has been quietly replaced with a Russian one. It’s autumn. The white steppe is dotted occasionally with little villages. Wild animals gallop in the cold wind. The scenery of shepherds under a clear blue sky whizzes by, and sinks into the darkness of the night.
Zabaykalsk-Moscow: The lost glory
Although it has only been 10 years, for most people it’s difficult to imagine that this passenger service once lived a glorious moment. A decade ago, the train was packed with the two countries’ businessmen trading consumer products. Not only was every corner of each wagon filled with goods for sale — even under the bed sheets were laid layers of smuggled wooly carpets. Due to the Sino-Russian bilateral trade norms and continuously sinking airfares, the train has largely fallen off the merchants' map.
Never a dull moment — Photo: Anthony Knuppel
Before embarking on the Trans-Siberian line, I had imagined that I was going to see nothing but frontier landscape. The Trans-Siberian Railway is, at 9,289 kilometers (5,772 miles), the word’s longest railroad line. Starting from the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok, it extends all the way to Moscow.
In my mind, the journey was going to take seven days and be filled with boredom. I’d have more than enough time to ponder all the big issues gnawing at my life before arriving on the other end. The reality is that the time passed so quickly that I can hardly recall just what happened. There was no clock in the train — and there was always someone willing to have a chat, or ready to play a game of cards.
There are three to four stops each day. At each one, the passengers are given some 20 minutes to stretch their legs or buy the various local foods available in the station. Of course, there’s also a dining car on the train. Between Beijing and Manzhouli, it serves Chinese food while after crossing the border the dining car menu changed to Russian food.
Moscow: similarity and contrast
After crossing the Ural Mountains and the European land boundary, it takes only one more day to arrive at the terminus, Moscow. This is where the European railway network begins. One can choose to go southward into Ukraine, westward toward Germany via Poland, or northward to Santa Claus’s home in Finland.
Strangely, I thought to myself as I looked around, the Soviet-style gray hard-line architecture reminded me of home.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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