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Day 9 - Our Friends The Russians
As you've probably guessed by now, the Journal entries are getting shorter, due in part to less activity on the train. Our friends, the Germans and the French are gone and are replaced largely by Russians. And the scenery is demanding more attention. Much more interesting at this time. There are plenty of stops too; fourteen today out of seventy-two on the whole trip, so quite a proportion.
The rivers are getting "Younger" too. The closer the river it is to it's source, the more it cuts into the rock, and thus you get more impact to your eye; more gorges and steeper valleys, the wide flood plains left well behind us. The hills are of course still covered in Firs and the ubiquitous Silver Birch.
Last night was a bad night for sleep. The timezones caught up and I didn't drop off until past 4 am local time, but that would be about 10 PM GMT back home in Blighty. The train really bucks about in these tight curves and points. In truth, the railway here has some real rough parts and only when you get a decent stretch of Continuous Welded Track do you get the chance to be gently rocked to sleep. It was also warmer last night and Cousin Pete was snoring his head off. Only thing left was to reach for the portable CD player and listen to Marillion's "Clutching at Straws", and album from the 1980's, before finally dropping off into slumber. This album is not necessarily soporific, but I play it a lot when I'm far away from home as Fish's lyric's about Milwaukee and Jack Kerouac reflect this mood so well.
We had stopped twice in the night for about 20 minutes each. Each time these stops are punctuated by train checks and this often accompanied by the exhaust of air brakes and the clink-clang of the wheel-tappers listening for wheel defects and hot axle boxes, vital on a trip of this length. In the UK, we've replaced all this type of equipment with Ultra Sonic or X-Ray technology, I'm not sure which, but the Russians still prefer to rely on that precision instrument - the human ear, coupled with skill and experience. Also, there is usually the de-dum de-dum of a large freight train creeping into the sidings of the station or passing on the opposite track through the station. Last night, there was a particularly long container one full of stuff from South Korea, presumably shipped to a Russian port as I can't imagine North Korea having so much English advertising written on the sides of the containers!
In the morning I find Cousin Pete in his usual position by the window in the corridor. He finds the scenery much more enthralling as the train passes over girder bridges and through gorges.
The daily ritual of washing in cold water, pack up the bedding, a few stretching exercises and then breakfast has been punctuated this morning by our presentation of some small gifts to our attendants, Mariana and Tanya. Good laugh is Mariana. She reminds me much of Mrs. Slocombe of "Are you being Served" a BBC sitcom of the 1970's and she is really expressive facially. You don't need to know Russian to know she is happy or flustered.
This part of the journey passes many timber yards, which must be the main industry in this area. The coal and oil industry have largely disappeared now. Railway works still punctuate the line as you would expect. The part we are travelling through at present reminds me so much of lowland Scotland, the bit by Lockerbie. Low rolling hills covered by grass with a few copses of tress and delightful streams everywhere. It made me think about the British Scenery and how it arrived, being something of an ex-Geographer. Perhaps the diversity of the British Scenery can be put down to the fact that maybe it was used a palette by Slartibartfast. You know, try it out on a small scale before you do the rest of the planet? He won an award for Norway. Or maybe Britain was all his best bits put together for an exhibition or sales pitch or something similar? A Universal catalogue for those who wanted their own specially designed planet? Whatever!
Back to the train and the hills now remind me of those painted in Chinese paintings and pottery; you'd expect this as we are quite close to the Chinese border, which reminds me, at Chita last night, there was some gauge changing equipment, similar to the ones at Brest in Byelorussia, so that must have been the start of the Trans-Manchuria.
Well, the 7,000 kilometre marker was passed and missed but at nearly 6.30 PM local time, we're drawing near to the last full day on the train and we have been joined by some uniformed staff we think are connected with the railway authorities as they are in light-blue uniforms. We are still in the gorge and still heading East. When we reach Khabarovsk, we should turn South and hugging the Chinese border, beginning our 800 Kilometre run into Vladivostok.
Making friends with the Russian Military
An extraordinary episode happened last night on this trip. At the last stop. Mikhail, our Russian Army "Kaptain" mate, bought us some local cheese which we reciprocated with some souvenirs of England, such as pens and cards. This went down very well. Later, we encountered Vladimir, a young "Kaptain" of the Russian Navy, who promptly bought us some beer. Being English, we returned the round and of course, this carried on until we had consumed some four tins and felt quite drunk and Vladimir had descended into some drivel in Russian - his English was quite good up to beer number three, but I expect he had had more than that before we arrived. We had quite a few toasts to M.Putin - the Russians like toasting - and the Russian Navy, not forgetting our own Royal Navy of course!
Stumbling back to our cabin, we were going to sleep tonight, but we still had the cheese to eat!