“You like?” said the chef.
He bent down beside me and put his big grimy face next to mine and pretended to also look out at the passing country. He chuckled at his own joke.
“You like Siberia?” he said again. “Is beautiful, yes?”
And he chuckled some more and coughed and took a deep drag of his cigarette and exhaled the smoke like a dusting of dirty snow. He flicked the ash and moved the cigarette from one corner of his mouth to the other and inhaled again and held it, savouring the smoke like wine and exhaled again but more like a steam engine this time. He must have had very well-developed lip muscles and fine labial motor control because he did all this without once touching the cigarette with his hand. When you’re the chef on the Trans-Siberia Railway you have a lot of time to practice your smoking.
“Yes, Siberia is beautiful,” he said, chuckling more as he shambled away to the kitchen to do something terrible to potatoes. It felt like he had made this joke a lot over the years.
Outside the window was a white haze, depthless and featureless, the world seen through milky cataracts. At one minute it felt as though we were falling through clouds at terminal velocity, the next as though we were completely motionless, actors in a movie set with crew members just off camera shaking the walls from side to side to resemble movement. On and on, Siberia stretched, somewhere behind the haze: on and on and on and on. And on.
I don’t know if the Trans-Siberian has changed now but when I took it across the right-hand top of the map in a Russian winter it was exactly as a young man wants it to be: as solid as a shipyard, as bolted and welded as the Soviet state, all iron and glass, staffed by heavy-faced, pock-marked attendants dressed in black who spent their days drinking vodka somewhere beyond the reach of passengers.
The passengers were Mongolians and Chinese and dour Russians who all stayed thoroughly drunk. There was a wood-paneled dining car that looked attractive until you spent any time in it, and served a sort of food but only sometimes. You were far better off taking your own and buying what you could at occasional railway platforms in the middle of literal nowhere where citizens wrapped in blankets sold boiled eggs or packets of dried fish.
Siberia, you must understand, is very big. It’s bigger than we can easily comprehend. When we drive across the Karoo we whistle at the size and space but you could fit the Great Karoo into Siberia 30 times and still have enough space left over to hide England without a trace. When you step onto the Trans-Siberian you’re not entirely sure how long you’ll be there, especially in winter with blizzards and storms and all of Asia to delay you. If you take the side-branch down to Mongolia and China you’re on for almost a week. If you just decide to just stay in Russia and go across to Vladivostok on the Sea of Okhotsk, it’s even longer.
The Trans-Siberian is the purest and most honest journey in the world. It is the essence of travel. One of the great secrets about travel that is seldom told – either because travelers are too invested in burnishing themselves and making others envious, or because, like women who have given childbirth, afterwards some protective mechanism prevents them from remembering just how painful it was at the time – is that travel is really very boring.
For every sunrise snapshot over the Himalayas or exotic anecdote about an interesting stranger there are hours and hours of airports and bus stations and taxi rides and metro stations and hot, dreary highways. There are nights spent in small rooms in dull hotels, staring at the incomprehensible TV because you’re too tired to go out. There are long days trudging between sights that don’t speak to you and empty afternoons sitting at lonely lunch tables thinking “Is this it? What now?”
Travel is very often like watching a game of American football: there are brief bursts of colour and motion in which things are happening, although you aren’t always sure what, interspersed with long passages in which it seems nothing will ever happen ever again. We don’t remember those boring times, though, except to make them seem somehow heroic. We remember the picture-moments and the stories. We tell ourselves that we endure the other parts in order to get to the good stuff, but I wonder now if that’s true.
At first it was exciting to be on the Trans-Siberian, leaving Moscow and heading eastwards into the unknown, crossing the Urals at Kirov and leaving Europe behind, feeling the vastness of Siberia opening up before me like a white outer space. Yes, I thought! This is why I travel! To venture into the mystery!
I seized hungrily on the new sights: the snowy fields that ran away to the snowy mountains, the dark groves of birch trees and white frozen creeks, the stony ridges lined with birches like eyebrows. On clear nights the sunsets turned the snow red and made the shadows purple. At first I thrilled to each new place name – Tyumen, Ishim, Omsk, Ulan-Ude, Amazar – the tiny settlements of low smoking roofs and blue trodden snowpaths leading to nothing, the shaggy white dogs like overgrown wolves.
But as hour led to hour and day led to day, alone in my small kupe compartment, my eyes started to tire with repetition and an unusual restlessness took me. I walked up and down the train and saw the same faces doing the same nothing as they’d been doing the day before. I became bored. I was too bored to do anything. I had a book I was enjoying but I was too bored to read. I ached, I silently shrieked for variety, for change, for stimulation. On day three or four we approached Slyudyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, the largest by volume. One quarter of all the fresh water in the world is in Lake Baikal, a vast wide well 1600 kilometres deep, and I counted down the hours till I could so much as catch glimpse of it, something new, something to see, but as we rocked toward Slyudanka a storm blew up and the moisture from the lake wrapped the train in wet wool, offering views only of whiteness underneath whiteness as we blew by.
My heart broke. This is a waste of time, I thought. This is a waste of life. What’s the point of traveling if traveling only means moving? Why do I travel if not for stimulation?
And as I sat sluggish in my long, slow state of half-awareness, staring out at the always-present, ever-unchanging nothing-at-all, those questions led to a much more terrible question: Why do I travel at all?
It’s good to discover such questions on a long, boring train journey with days and days ahead, because that boredom prevents you eagerly seizing the first and easiest answer and being satisfied with it.
I travel to experience life, I thought at once: to see life with from different angles under different suns, to know it more fully than if I’d stayed home. And that sounded good, but the longer I sat there the more I realized that it’s not true. Because when you sit with it long enough, like a prisoner in a cave, it becomes clear that life isn’t the restless highlights, the sights and sounds, the novelties and incidents. Just the opposite: this is life, sitting here, doing nothing, breathing and being. This is what life is, me alone with me, and I seek those other things because they distract me from it.
Just like TV or Twitter or alcohol or any other sensation that arrests our attention, we seek travel in order to turn away from the silence and stillness that frightens us, that leaves us abandoned with ourselves. It takes a deep, deep boredom to reveal it to us, a boredom that is almost unendurable, but once we’ve penetrated the wall of that boredom, passed through it and emerged as though from a long grey tunnel – there we are. There is life waiting for us, life in its simplicity, an event in itself not a repository of events.
“Boredom is the resistance before understanding” – that’s what my maths teacher told me once in high school, and there in the empty, freezing Siberian hills, warm and safe and moving perhaps fast or perhaps slowly or perhaps not at all, I understood it for the first time. It’s an understanding that’s hard to hold on to. Time passes, as it does even when you’re bored, and soon enough it was Vladivostok, and things happened again, and sights were seen and I managed to avoid life a little longer.
Financial Mail, January 2019