“Those many hours spent in the train are favourable for introspection, it is thus naturally that I take my notebook out rather often. Today, I still have in mind the marking events of the day before. I left both of my accomplices of the hostel where I stayed in Kazan, a young woman from Kazakhstan who was doing her master in Russia and came to work there for the summer, with whom I had a lot of pleasure exchanging diverse conversations on topics such as our cultural differences, as well as another woman, a mother, who spoke very few words of English but who nonetheless took at heart to take care of me with kindness. I saw the pain in their eyes to have to let me go so abruptly and that made me a bit sad. I am constantly surprised at the speed with which one can get attached to people in such situations as well as the affection that so many people demonstrate to me when they were complete strangers only a few days earlier. The sadness I felt didn’t come from the goodbyes themselves; even if they can be heartbreaking, in some situations, I’ve been familiar with them for a long time already. I learned to accept them with serenity, while still keeping in me the trace of each soul I met on the way. No, that sadness could in some ways be related to guilt… I became aware that I am in constant movement, I always move forward, that once I turned my head those places already belong to the past and I don’t have time to get sad about it because all of my being already has to be focused on bringing me whole and on time to my next destination. And nonetheless, I am aware that in each place where I stayed long enough for my presence to have counted, I leave an empty space behind me. I don’t mean there that my presence is indispensable anywhere – it never is – but the idea that I can create a missing and that it can lead to distress, like the one I read in my friend’s eyes yesterday, touches me and bothers me.
But here I am getting lost a bit too deep in my thoughts… I am barely over my emotions that I have joined Alex, who walked the way to the train station with me. Alex is a friend from my Russian friend Ekaterina , that I know thanks to my theater group in Fribourg, and who very kindly offered to give me contacts in her home country. I am grateful to her, because Alex is a great person with whom I could visit the city and get a more ‘local’ perspective over it. When he said goodbye, he wished me to “find what I’m looking for”. That made me smile; it’s by far not the first time I hear this sentence. I admit I don’t truely get it, it’s like I was supposed to wake up one day thinking: “That’s it, I have found it! I can go home now.” I think (without ill will, and I can be wrong) that people who say this can maybe not understand my desire to roam the world without needing a goal or a precise destination, alone moreover. They don’t understand that what I am looking for, I find it day after day in the encounters, the images, the sensations, the joys and the difficulties, in a day-to-day life that is never the same and that I could never say that I have completely found it, because I don’t want to stop looking. By the way, I have officially decided to register to this ‘Open University’ of the UK so that I can pursue my studies at a distance and turn that dream into a reality. On this, I am going to stop here because, even if I haven’t finished relating all the events of the day before, I have already written a lot and I am starting to be tired, it will be for next time. I will finish on this sentence that resonates in my mind:
“Not all those who wander are lost.” ”
I have spent so much time on these trains…
“I struggle to take my eyes off the window, the sky is really beautiful tonight. I am once again on a train, for what seems to be the gazillionth time, but nevertheless not the last. My short stay in Tyumen will haunt me for a long time.
I only go unnoticed as long as I don’t open my mouth. Several times a day, someone accosts me to jabber I-don’t-know-what to me in Russian. I guess I really have the traits of the country. By the way, I don’t know how many times I’ve had to say the sentence: “Sorry, I don’t speak russian”, which slowly turned into “Ja ne gavariu pa ruski”, one of the only Russian sentences of my repertoire, but at least a good hundred times. And at that moment, depending on the circumstances, I become the general attraction. The night in the train two days ago is a good example of it: after having politely greeted the family that shared the neighbouring beds to mine and explained that I came from Switzerland and didn’t speak the language, I ask a ‘Babouchka’ accross of me if I can sit on the seat in front of her, so that I can better observe the landscape while listening to music. I was looking forward to that moment for myself before going to bed, but it was without counting on the reaction of the old woman who, when she hears me, gets into a real state. The family next to her indicates my origin – “Schvizaria” – and here I find myself surrounded 30 seconds later by a dozen people coming from the other bunks and all harassing me with questions.
Luckily, a young 17-year old girl turns out to be quite good at English, she thus take the role of translator. I feel a bit overwhelmed by this crowd around me (even the train conductor are at it), but I try as much as I can to answer their questions heard so many times before: “Where are you going?”, “Why do you travel alone?”, “What do your parents think?”, “What have you seen/done in Russia?”, “Do you like our country?”, “You’re not afraid of the danger?”, “In how many countries have you travelled?”, etc., etc. I calmly explain my situation to them, by simplifying a few passages so that I wouldn’t have to go into too many details, too personal for this invasive public.
All of this amuses me, and I manage to excite them even more by showing them my passport full of visas and stamps from all the far-away lands I have visited. I finish on a high note by taking out from my decorated notebook a small pile of various pictures, of my family, my friends, Swiss landscapes or from elswhere, in summary, a small piece of my life. They rush to grab them and soon, all of my pictures are circulating in almost all of the carriage, under the curious eyes of strangers attracted by this agitation. I congratulate myself for having the idea of printing those photos: where words are missing, images express themselves for me. I nevertheless start to feel embarrassed from so much attention; a lot of these people have never left their country or region and look at me with eyes that are both envious and admiring. A woman even gives me a “You are fantastic” that takes away the words from my mouth. The spectacle will be closed with the shooting of a few photos, everybody wants a souvenir of me.
That night, I fall asleep in a very pensive mood; I understand that crossing Russia alone as a woman who doesn’t speak the language is unusual, but I didn’t expect to provoke so much astonishment. It is true however that, since I left the capital, I have only met very, very, few foreign tourists, at lot less than what I expected. There is nonetheless tourists, but they are all Russian, for the most part, which is not surprising, I imagine, for such a big country. I find similar sensations again to the ones I felt in some parts of Burma, where I often found myself the only foreign among locals. To adapt, it is important to arm yourself, I believe, with much patience and humility, lesson that apparently still needed to be reminded to me, given the events of the following day.”
In the train once more! For two days this time. And because I don’t recount my stories as soon as they happen (maybe it’s not that bad, it allows me to have more hindsight), I thus remember the beautiful life lesson that was given to me in Tyumen.
I thus disembark from this rather intense train journey with the ferm intention of walking the few kilometres that separate the station from my hostel’s street, so that I can stretch my legs that stayed static for a long time. That was without counting that the street itself was a few kilometres long too, and it is therefore exhausted by the weight of my big green backpack and the smothering heat that I arrive at my destination, an hour later. My cold is still active and is also pumping a lot of my energy, and I can’t wait to get some rest. Unfortunately, the entrance door of the building needs a code that I don’t know (which reminds me of my arrival in St-Petersburg). I ring, no answer. I try again, I wait. The workers of the construction site nearby watch me get loudly impatient with an amused eye. After several minutes, I resign to go around the building to try to spot the hostel’s window which is luckily situated on the ground floor. Disheartened, I knock without really seeing what I am doing. Bingo! The message went through, someone comes to open the door for me. The receptionist apologizes when I let her know how unhappy I am to have waited, but I don’t answer. This does not really sound like me, I think the Russian character may be starting to rub off on me…
As I am taking care of formalities, I enquire about breakfast, because I payed a bit more than usual thinking it was included, as mentioned on their website. Bad luck, she answers me with the help of the traductor on her computer that it was ‘old information’. This irritates me, I tell her it is not normal, that I wouldn’t have come here if I had known, I am not happy. The poor young woman can’t do anything about it, but still reacts in a much calmer way than I would have if I were her. She writes on a piece of paper that she has a salad she can share with me. It is so sweet, that I realize then how disproportionate my reaction was. I accept her offer with pleasure. While eating, I attempt to make conversation, I know she speaks better English than she wants me to believe because she has understood everything I told her, but it is unsuccessful. I think she is very shy.
Later that night, she comes to ask me what time I am thinking of waking up the next day; she wants to prepare breakfast for me! I am floored by her kindness after the improper way I treated her. I feel so guilty, I don’t deserve this. And it doesn’t stop there! The next day, she is not working, she thus offers to go visit the city with me. I can’t believe it, the more time passes the more her generosity reveals itself: she insists on taking me for a tour on the big wheel of Tyumen, among many other activities.
I feel very silly: those few hundred roubles for whiched I whined now appear so irrelevant, and I give some of her generosity back with joy, notably by buying her this cheese icecream (yes, cheese) that she loves.
As the day goes by, her tongue loosens. She has nonetheless prepared a few explicative notes for some places, though she doesn’t really need them.
She explains that she feels more comfortable with the written language, and that she is crazy about books. I smile: I recognize myself perfectly in her. Later, on a boat that navigates along the river, she tells me something that grabs my attention; “I don’t really like people, especially Russians. I prefer cats, at least they can’t hurt you.”
And here I feel even more ashamed, since I am part of those people, I think. But she doesn’t seem to keep any grudge about it, on the contrary, and her humility is inspiring, she reminds me that a bit of patience and kindness can transform any situation. The same evening, she accompanies me up until I am inside the train. I leave her with emotion; I may have roamed all of those countries, she who almost never left her home town just taught me an infinitely precious life lesson: to always seek the good in others. I am grateful. The next day, I get one last surprise from her part.”
In this train, people sleep at any hour of the day. Some must have been in here for days. I am myself completely disoriented by time differences and by moving so frequently. I am happy I have left Tobolsk, not only because of my adventures there, but also because of the atmosphere a bit grim that it had and that I didn’t like at all. I was arriving late at night, and leaving even later the next day. Unluckily, when reading my guide, I discover that the station is actually situated 10 km away from the city, and that it is not a good idea to hang out around there in the evening because of its isolation and its drunks. That’s information I would rather not have, I think, because I go out of the train feeling a bit paranoid, a hand in my pocket, hanging firmly to my ‘rape-whistle’ (it emits a strident sound) that Walter, whom I met in Trakkai, gave me when learning about my intention of crossing Russia (reassuring!). I rush towards a bus that, according to my research, will leave me close to a hostel. I don’t have a reservation, this time, but I have noted down the address of several places, just in case. In the bus, the ticket seller gets really excited when I indicate to her that I don’t understand her. I don’t know what people don’t understand in the sentence “I don’t speak Russian”, because most of them, silent at first, start ranting incessantly at the precise moment I say it. I adopted over time the technique of nodding and placing a small “Da” (yes) from time to time. Generally, it works. It is what I do this time, and it works until to make conversation, I try to indicate to her the name of the bus stop where I think I have to go out (and which is not of a big utility, since I will in any case follow my GPS in order to be sure I go out at the right moment). Mistake! The poor woman starts getting upset: apparently, this bus is not stopping at this precise stop. In a first time, I get suddenly really stressed, wondering if I haven’t taken a bus in the wrong direction (which would have been the worst case scenario because it was the last one of the day) but my phone reassures me fast. She on the other hand, is far from being reassured; she doesn’t understand what a young woman like me, alone and a foreigner, is doing here late at night, she must think I am lost. The situation starts getting really comical when she phones her sister, who speaks English, in order to explain the situation to her. And now I am compelled to talk to her… she asks me for the address of my hotel. Thinking I was reassuring her, I give her the coordinates of a place picked randomly on my list: second mistake! This time, the reaction is one of total panick, apparently the place is situated far from the bus stop. I don’t know what to do or say to calm her, I keep trying to explain to her sister that I am used to this, that I know what I am doing, she doesn’t want to hear anything. She now paired with the driver to, it seems, save my life. After reflection, she orders me stay still, and on the phone her sister explains to me that she doesn’t live far away and that she will take me there. I am not really in a position to say no, or I will risk seeing her have a heart attack, I thus resign myself. I see us moving away from my stop before my eyes, when the bus makes a U-turn to go park at the terminal.
It must be possible to read the concern on my face, because the bus controller tries to reassure me by showing me the cross around her neck to indicate that she is a good person. After waiting another good ten minutes, I find myself in her husband’s car. The whole way, I can hear them speak about me (the word ‘Schvizaria’ comes out a lot), as it happens to me daily. I don’t like it, I feel constantly judged, I would rather people wait for me to be gone to do it. We arrive at the address I indicated, and – bad luck was with me that day – there is no hostel. My ‘protector’ starts asking the rare people passing by (it is 1.30 am at this moment, with all the time lost with this story) if they know the place. No… She makes me go inside the car once again, the endless and incomprehensible start again… I am beggining to really lose patience, I just want to be alone, it is how I am effective in such situations. They bring me in front of a 3-star hotel a bit further, which is far from being the kind of place I usually go to. I don’t want to go, I spot a way on my map that points to a dark and unreassuring alley, but I am determined to search. I tell myself that the worst case scenario is if I come back here for the night, and this is how I take leave from the couple with many “Spasibas” (thank you), grateful but ferm. They are offended but I don’t care, I just want them to leave me, so I walk into the alley. Then starts a very, very frightening fifteen minutes. It is dark, I am in the middle of nowhere, lost in Siberia. I wake dogs up and they start barking loudly. They are huge and don’t look very nice, they are defending their territory. I think to myself: “Don’t be scared, animals sense fear” and move on in a steady step. One of them starts following me closely while growling, and I can’t help fear from invading me; there is no one around to help me if this dog attacks me. But I don’t stop and manage to escape in one piece. After an unsuccessful tour of the neighborhood, I give up searching and go back to the hotel. When I ask the reception if they know where the hostel is (what I should have done in the first place, I know), they tell me: “It’s here! There are two institutions in the same structure.” I can’t believe it, I am mad at myself for not coming inside right away. In my defense, the name wasn’t indicated anywhere. Despite being so tired, I manage to negociate the price for the night (“On your website it was indicated 500 roubles, not 600!”), with success. The hotelkeeper asks me to follow him to my room, and there… Surprise! For the same price as a bed in a doorm, I get a luxurious private room, with a double bed and a bathroom.
Or how to end the evening’s adventures on a high note. I collapse on my bed, relieved and grateful. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”. I need a few minutes for the adrenaline to go down before I dive into a restorative sleep.”
After this tumultuous night, I still got to visit a bit of the city of Tobolsk, which was nice despite its special atmosphere.
I also visited a prison, though it wasn’t very interesting.
In a museum retracing the history of Siberia, a sign at the entrance catches my attention.
The sun goes down once again over dear Russia, so rich in emotions…
I am tired, but I have to wait until 1 am so that I can take my next train. Fortunately, time goes by fast when you’re on the phone with a friend. I cherish my regular contacts with you. Thank you!