Why Russian Geography Is Good for the Soul

Why Russian Geography Is Good for the Soul

Lake Baikal. A long, long way away from almost everything, including that thing you were worrying about yesterday.

If you’re from the more bucolic parts of Ireland, the question “where are you from?” can pose a dilemma.

Your mind goes through a multitude of decisions and suppositions, taking into account where you usually say you’re from, where you’re actually from, who you’re talking to, their likely knowledge of Irish geography, and their knowledge of your specific province or county, until you eventually arrive somewhere likely north, south, east or west of where the actual answer is located.

Whatever hope I have of people having heard of the town one mile where I’m from is roughly twentiethed when it comes to them having heard of the village I’m actually from. When they haven’t heard of that town either, I usually refer to the next biggest one, about ten miles down the lake, in relentless pursuit of that nod of recognition.

Either way, I never usually say I’m from where I’m actually from. And if you can get your head around that, you’re a better woman than I am.

This became slightly more relevant than this post might suggest last November, when I was on the part of the Trans-Siberian railway which is actually in Siberia. Before going to Russia, I thought that everything east of Moscow was Siberia. Imagine my surprise when, two days outside Moscow on the train, I realised I wasn’t there yet.

Why Russian Geography Is Good for the Soul

Sigh.

“I’m surprised,” I said. “I thought we were in Siberia already.”

“No,” said the travelling companion to whom I am spousally contracted. “We’re not.”

“Oh, right,” I said.

I couldn’t help but wonder what Russians say to each other, when they meet up in that trendy bar in downtown baroque Moscow with the horse tethered outside (this happens more often than you think, but for reasons which are far less interesting and horsey than whatever you’re imagining right now, so let’s just leave it there, shall we?)

“Where are you from, beautiful blonde siren dressed head to toe in Chanelcci Vuitton?” says the burly Russian oligarch. “I have not seen you here before. Will you have another vodka?” he adds, in what is in no way a lazy stereotype.

“I am from Omsk,” she says, in that tantalising yet aloof manner of all designer-clad beautiful Russian blondes who know what it takes to survive a cold climate (I imagine).

“My family has many business interests in Omsk,” says the oligarch. “Perhaps you have been propositioned by one of them.”

“Well, it’s not really Omsk,” says the blonde, her icy-cold reserve slipping just a tad. “I come from near Omsk.”

“I see,” he nods sagely, in the manner of one who has been to Siberia, and knows what distance is. “How far away from Omsk?”

“16 hours,” she says, masking her anxiety, for a mere 16 hours’ journey could indicate deep ties between her extended family and the business moguls of Omsk, not all of them savoury.

“But a stone’s throw away,” he says, handing her a vodka which is on fire, and singing passionately of ideological battles. “Come and sit by me, дорогой, and we will speak of your father, brothers and uncles.”

Why Russian Geography Is Good for the Soul

A vast different world of people, who have never heard of things you thought were important

Travelling the Trans-Siberian any time of year can give a good sense of the vastness of Russian hinterland, but if you travel it off-peak – such as in November, which about as off-peak as a sick skier – the sense of distance damn near takes your breath away.

Travelling overland really does give a sense of how big the world is. How else could you travel non-stop on a train through a country for seven days, and still not have run out of country?

It can make one quite philosophical.

I like trains, but I couldn’t give a reindeer’s fart about what gauges they’re on, or how fast they go, or how many carriages they have. I just like going to sleep in one place and waking up in another, without the sort of infantilisation and forced entertainment which accompanies the cruise ship experience.

There’s no hiding the fact that the Trans-Siberian is rough and ready. The toilets are airplane toilets. There are no showers. Depending on your budget, you may have to share a cabin with strangers.

The food can be limited, bland, inedible, unidentifiable, or non-existent. Bunks are narrow. Train conductors are all-powerful gods, and if you annoy them you are as foolish as you are moribund.

Getting visas will be one of the most time-consuming and frustrating bureaucratic experiences you will ever endure. And if I haven’t lost you yet, it’s also one of the best psychological holidays you’ll ever take.

Why Russian Geography Is Good for the Soul

A Siberian bookshelf, just in case you thought this was becoming a travel blog

I can’t think of anywhere more mindful than a train. It’s as though your mind, confident that your body doesn’t need any direction for the foreseeable, goes off on its own holiday. And it’s probably having a better time than you.

There is nothing like watching a gigantic new world go by in comfort. A cup of coffee to hand, a book besides, but thinking and doing nothing because you are mesmerised by the way the sun touches the horizon, or the imaginings of daily life in a small hamlet you can’t name which appears to have neither roads nor cars, or the flights of fancy which accompany the utter lack of having to be anywhere but exactly where you are at that very moment.

Trans-Siberian trains run on Moscow time, so even when you’re five hours ahead and five days away from Moscow, and in the middle of Siberia, you feel like you’re existing in a separate dimension.

Your watch is on Moscow time, your phone on local time, but your subconscious is also aware of whatever time it is wherever your real life is supposed to be.

Why Russian Geography Is Good for the Soul

A Siberian church, just in case you thought this was becoming a lifestyle blog

In that delicious space in between, you don’t have to take notice of anything beyond the duration of stops, if you’re out stretching your legs. It doesn’t matter when you eat, sleep, or wake. Only the train matters. Being on it. Feeling the rhythm of it. The world of the train, and the new world outside.

You wake up at 4am and you don’t care. You might read a bit. You might look up something about where you are. You might fall back into a doze. You might wait for the sun to rise, knowing that wherever the hell that is, it’s going to be very gorgeous indeed.

The longer you’re on the train, the more easily the mind slips into hyper away-from-it drive. It only takes thirty seconds to slip into a daydream, or an entire life imagining for someone you see in the distance.

That distance makes it all possible to slip into that other dimension – the one in which the world is much, much bigger than you, which oddly makes pretty much everything all right.

And by comparison, Ireland seems even smaller. So small, in fact, that I might stop fudging the answer about where I’m from, because at the end of the day, it’s just right there.

Why Russian Geography Is Good for the Soul

I was going to caption this photograph, but then I melted, so you know, never mind.

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  26 comments for “Why Russian Geography Is Good for the Soul

  1. January 28, 2018 at 10:43 am

    You teased it long enough! But this was everything I could have hoped for which is to say, a dozen things I never expected. Fabulous trip.
    My hometown gave the world something everyone has heard and wants to believe, and most folks don’t even know the guy who discovered it, much less the name of the place. Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley is the looney-tune who ignored his dairy farming responsibilities to run around catching snowflakes on his bare hands and take the earliest photos of them, just after 1900. Jericho Center Vermont, the patterns people see on plates and earrings. Him. Every one is unique, no two alike. Some party-pooper scientists are running around today yelling that statistically there have to be duplicates. But no one believes it, and sure as hell no one’s ever run around to try for a picture.
    Hardly anybody lives in Jericho Center, for all I know I might be the second-most famous person ever to come from there. Still the journey is what matters, before we end up on the ground.

    Liked by 2 people

    • January 28, 2018 at 11:17 am

      Your hometown sounds delightful, Will, if a little cold. I must confess I never heard of Wilson Bentley myself. I will however now do that internet thing where I go “my hometown famous person is more famous than your hometown famous person”, because I am a shameless attention-grabber, and I come from very same tiny village as the famous Irish writer Edna O’Brien. Wow, I never knew name-dropping was so much fun! I’m going to do this all the time!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. January 28, 2018 at 11:43 am

    Like you, I’m from Ireland, but in school in the UK I was very puzzled when the Geography teacher was telling us about Dunleeohigeeriehy. I’ll leave you to work that one out.

    Liked by 3 people

    • January 28, 2018 at 12:12 pm

      Oh, I know Dunleeohigeeriehy well. Have walked many the afternoon along its quayside. Lovely spot, but difficult to spell when you’re drunk. I’m glad you even got taught Irish geography in the UK. In Irish primary schools you’d swear England wasn’t subdivided at all. It was just the bigger island Over There.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. January 28, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    I loved the little vignette about Tarkovich and Marovna, and then how even they were left behind as you ventured into the vast spaces.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 28, 2018 at 5:18 pm

      When you put it like that… it sounds so poetic and symbolic and well-thought out. I’ll take it, and thank you 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 28, 2018 at 5:38 pm

        You are welcome. You expressed what I always thought and hoped the Trans-Siberian railway would be like, and I enjoyed reading it this morning.

        Liked by 1 person

        • January 28, 2018 at 6:36 pm

          The part of my brain which came back from Siberia is delighted 😀

          Like

  4. January 28, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    I grew up in northern Maine in a small town named Perham, and even people in northern Maine haven’t heard of it. So I can relate to always choosing the larger town next to my native town to identify where I am from. Now I live in another small town near Bangor, so I always say I’m from Bangor because people would have no idea where Eddington is. I am so relieved this didn’t turn into a lifestyle or travel blog. But I enjoyed your musings of your train ride and the beauty of having a psychological holiday while traversing the expanse of Siberia.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 28, 2018 at 6:42 pm

      Seems I may have identified a world-wide geographical dilemma, Molly! I may have to go back to Siberia to get the headspace to think about it some more. Well, it’s a good enough excuse for me, anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. January 28, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    I have to know the reason horses are tethered outside bars in Moscow. Spit it out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 28, 2018 at 11:51 pm

      If I did, I’d disappoint you. At least, I know when I looked up “why the hell are there horses in the posh end of Moscow on a Saturday night”, I was disappointed. I would much rather readers of this blog were disappointed somewhere else, so I’m afraid I’ll have to send you to Google for that 😛

      Like

  6. carol mcnamara
    January 28, 2018 at 9:34 pm

    Great writing Tara . Lost a huge long post to you on this . Really pissed off with that. But basically saying I would love to be on a train ( not in Ireland) for seven days and enjoy the sights, vodka and difference of it all. I also come from a small village near a Market town not far from a bigger village on the Shannon. What a coincidence!

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 28, 2018 at 11:52 pm

      Ah, the old comment-swallowing machine was in force today, was it Carol? I’ll have a word with my minions. Before I beat them severely, that is. And it’s certainly a coincidence that you come from a very similar-sounding place to me. Ireland is very much the small world indeed!!

      Like

  7. January 28, 2018 at 9:36 pm

    I love the way you describe the endless landscape and the hugeness of the world. Waxing poetic, my dear. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. January 29, 2018 at 6:20 pm

    Oh I really want to go now. I have a cousin who lives in Moscow for several months of the year but I’ve not staked familial claims to her hospitality over there yet – ’bout time.
    I don’t really know where I’m from, you’ve got me thinking now, I know where I was born but I’ve not lived long enough anywhere to feel as if I belong to one place more than another.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 29, 2018 at 9:53 pm

      Oh, please do get to Moscow. I had no expectations and was still surprised. You can even do it before you figure out where you’re from, because they couldn’t care less anyway. Or maybe your cousin will, but that’s your problem 😂

      Like

  9. January 29, 2018 at 8:25 pm

    Thoroughly refreshed by this journey. Also it is making our upcoming rail adventure – train trip from Chicago to St Louis (see an opera and back a few days later) – sound like afternoon tea. A baffled friend said, but you’ll see an awful lot of the Mississipi – exactly!

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 29, 2018 at 11:36 pm

      Chicago to St. Louis sounds mighty, Hilary! Wish I could have that sort of afternoon tea with you. There’s worse places to track rivers from, than trains. I’m all for it. Can’t wait to hear how it goes.

      Like

  10. January 30, 2018 at 12:25 am

    Would I be right in thinking you’ve been on a train recently?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. January 30, 2018 at 4:44 pm

    Your conversation with Mark broke me up. Wonderful brevity. Lovely writing as ever, my dear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 30, 2018 at 8:59 pm

      Well, that’s just how we talk when we’re feeling particularly verbose, Conor, but thank you. The rest of the time, it’s really just grunting. With the odd yelp.

      Liked by 1 person

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