Journey to the East.
All aboard the Paris-Berlin-Moscow Express.
He who travels far will often see things
He is often accused of lying
For the obdurate people will not believe
What they do not see and distinctly feel.
Inexperience, I believe
Will give little credence to my song.
Herman Hesse, “Journey to the East”
It is mid-afternoon at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. I have a ceremonial Bratwurst whilst waiting in the station bar for the train to Berlin. I suppose this is my version of Phileas Fogg’s Reform Club for the start of my journey. As usual for a journey, I have mixed emotions; a great sense of wonder and excitement, along with the worry and fear of the unknown and the missing of people at home.
There is still an old-world excitement of a train journey; a journey that will take its time to get from one place to another.
Last year, flying in India and Sri Lanka was pretty much like flying in Europe or in the US, but the train journey I took between Delhi and Agra could not have been more different than train journeys at home.
So the first part of my journey is to get from Frankfurt, my starting point, to Berlin to pick up the Paris-Berlin-Moscow Express. So why am I doing a trip like this? I’m searching for answers as I wait for my train. What I can say is how enthralled I was many years ago watching Michael Palin do his version of “Around the World in 80 Days” and it left an indelible stamp. Maybe I can seek a deep and meaningful answer to the question as I travel slowly. It’s interesting to note that Phileas Fogg was forty-four in the Jules Verne book and Palin was forty-five, the same age as me now, when he took up his second career as a world traveller.
Admittedly, my wonder and excitement in the places we stop at is not conducive to sleep at all.
Just after midnight, after the complete darkness of the last few hours, the bright glare of Poznan station wakes me. Then there are a few bangs and rolls over difficult points and junctions and a lot of toing and froing between the stations in Warsaw. This is enough to wake the snoring man next door too. At Warsaw Wschodnia we sit for over twenty minutes with a loud electrical drone which battles with my neighbour who is snoring loudly again. The further east we have gone, the more snow is on the ground. At both Warsaw stations, the snow has been shovelled into neat pyramids along the platforms. I have only ever seen this done once before which was on my last visit to Warsaw. At 04:29, we leave the deserted station and I manage to fall sleep again.
However, the sign that I take as a good omen for the start of my trip is that the initials of the train destinations are my initials too: Paris, Berlin and Moscow. The tea pot which has these initials on would make a good souvenir.
My passport is taken by a blonde female official and I’m given a migration card to fill in. I’m asked by an attractive dark haired woman what my nationality is, what the purpose of my trip is and what’s in my bags. Ten minutes later I get my passport back. Outside my window two Belarussian border patrol guards enjoy morning cigarettes chatting in the snow.
I haven’t been away for twenty four hours yet and this is my third country.
Just outside Brest, at an area with no platforms, a bunch of rotund, middle-aged women get on board to sell beer, chicken and ćevapčići out of plastic bags. I politely decline and I think most of the other passengers do too.
The woman in the window opposite continues with her knitting, with a resigned air as though she’s seen this a million times. I succumb to the waiting too and pick up the tales of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days”. I can’t help but think that the border administration and food hawking could have been done while where waiting here but I guess each carriage is suspended in the air and the officials and sellers would need ladders to get to each carriage. The bogey change is much quicker than scheduled and we wait at Brest station for thirty minutes before we recommence our journey on the wider rails. There is now a long stretch through the snowy Belarussian countryside before we reach Minsk.
My next read is Leo Tolstoy’s epic “War and Peace”. If ever there was a journey to read this tome, this is it; especially for the long days coming aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Time becomes different on a train journey.
At home, the thought of reading so much, meditating or even just relaxing, comes with a guilty feeling. Somehow with travel, the movement of getting from one place to another seems to legitimise these activities. Here on the train, there is nothing else to do.
It’s seven o’clock in the evening and, as the train leaves Belarus for Russia, I wander along to the restaurant carriage. Despite the diagram in Berlin Hauptbahnhof showing it to be the one next to mine, it is actually right at the front of the train. Getting through to each carriage is not easy. The restaurant carriage has a closed metal door that’s heavy to open. I enter and it’s empty except for three staff, two talking together and one behind the counter. The latter sits me down and she throws a menu at me. It’s not very welcoming at all. The menu however looks good which gives me hope for the coming trip, but I just buy some crisps and head back to my compartment to finish last night’s wine and cheese.
Into Russia, the passport checks are quickly dealt with and we push on into the night crossing another time zone at the border. The train crossed a time zone in Minsk too and so I have advanced three hours today. The snow is deeper now, the stations bigger and the amount of railway lines criss-crossing our path has increased with masses of freight wagons parked on sidings, all with foreboding Cyrillic writing on their sides. The towns, more and more, have a communist look, with big, ugly square government-type buildings and apartment blocks. It looks and feels like Russia.
ADAPTED EXTRACT FROM REVOLUTIONS.