Fifty Nine: Siberia
At 3 a.m. the Chinese boarder police shine a torch in my face shattering erotic dreams. They dissect my documents, root through my bags and shake my hand with solemn formality. Shortly, they tell me, you will be in Russia. Russia, I think, means that I can find a phone and the pain that I feel at not hearing her voice will finally be gone.
As the train asthmatically limps into the station the guard signals to me that we have a stop of fifty-nine minutes. I jump down onto the platform, take a few deep breaths of icy cold Siberian air and try to massage some life into my limbs. I synchronise my watch to that of the guard’s and the train shuts backwards to have its bogies changed.
I need to call and hear her voice or I will not feel at peace until we roll into Moscow many days from now. Optimistically, I think that to find a phone, even here on the edge of the known world, should take about twenty minutes and I plan to be back in my cabin, basking in the glow from her voice and drinking vodka within thirty minutes.
A dirty, squalid dawn is just breaking and the air smells vaguely of trains and diesel engines. I try to take in the scene: Chinese girls spilling from the train in beautiful silk pyjamas and fluffy carpet slippers; a group of pimply freedom fighters from Dagestan smooching with hard-faced girlfriends before they leave for martyrdom in some forgotten break-away republic; Babuskas clucking over family groups; smugglers in long leather trench coats loading bales of contraband into carriages whilst a carriage attendant counts her bribe whilst a pair of ferocious looking policemen barely controlling a foaming-at-the-mouth dog look on. Still trying to rub sleep from my eyes I look to see where people are heading. Some are just milling around smoking, some are staring blankly into space (a common predilection for these long Siberian train trips) but the smart people, and those whose who look most assured, are crossing a rickety wooden bridge and heading towards the small smattering of lean-to buildings which lie just beyond the pale halo of the station’s lights.
I sprint along the platform, almost knocking two babuskas onto the tracks, and take the steps three at a time. I am half way across the bridge when a wave of queasiness hits me and leaves me clutching my stomach and gasping for air like I have been kicked in the ribs. If I don’t call her I am never going to arrive in Moscow safely. The overwhelming compulsion to let her know that I am safe and hear her voice leaves me reeling. Quite simply I must find a phone. I have to tell her that today, deep in Siberia I am thinking of her and planning our future together.
The town is a fly-blown, desolate husk of a place. It’s hard to tell if it’s been recently bombed or if the buildings are in fact growing organically out of the ground. The sidewalks are strewn with rubble, industrial detritus and used hypodermics whilst the roads are cracked and sprouting clumps of weeds. The wind, blowing fiercely from the steppes, whispers her name and spurs me forward. I dive into the first shop that I come across.
The shelves are packed with dusty bottles, dented tins, and crumpled packets. Sordid looking sausages hang from the rafters and demijohns of homemade vodka are stacked six deep around the counter. In a corner stands an emaciated girl of indeterminate age. The single bare bulb lighting the shop gives her an almost fashionable crack-addict pallor. I lay a ten dollar bill on the counter and mime using a phone. She looks at me with wild eyes than crosses herself and screams like I have just evoked the devil himself.
Three more shops. Three more brusque rebuffs. My palms are sweaty and my heart is pounding against my ribs. A quote jumps into my head: ‘Absence from whom we love is worse than death, and frustrates hope severer than despair.’
I stand on the street amid chaos and destitution. Sallow youths eye me warily. Dawn is still limping across the sky and yet they already look drunk and dangerous. I toy with the idea of waving a twenty dollar bill in the air and miming making a phone call. I wonder if they would help me but I suspect that they are already assessing me as a potential mark. I square my shoulders and try to swagger a little, like I do back in London, but their eyes bore into me as I dash from shop to shop.
I need a hotel. A decent hotel would offer currency exchange, a phone and perhaps even a bar but there is little but despondency, decay and a patina of hopelessness in this place. The only hotel I find charges by the hour and seems like a perfect place to come to die. Everything is coated with a layer of grime and whilst I try to attract the attention of the receptionist I write her name on the countertop.
Frustration is boiling up and I am shuddering with anger. There is no bank, no phone, and no hope here. I have to lean on a telegraph pole and calm my frayed breathing before I can continue. Not being able to hear her voice makes me feel like I have gone beyond the realm of human suffering and, awake, I walk back to the train. Getting stranded here would be worse than death.
My mood is as black as the station waiting room which is grimy from countless years of filterless cigarettes and lit by a single, flickering, bulb. In the corner a mother breast feeds her sickly child whilst another family prepare a watery stew on a kerosene burner. Aimlessly I wander deeper into the bowels of the station. I feel bleakness descending on me.
Tucked away at the back of the station is a small room. The door is ajar and inside, through clouds of cigarette smoke, I see a row of burley Russians talking excitedly into old Bakerlite telephones. My pulse quickens. I push my way into the room. Behind the desk is a bored looking clerk. I mime phone call. She nods. I almost leap across the counter and kiss her. I pull a pile of dollars from my pocket. She shakes her head. I almost leap across the desk and smack her. She shouts something at me in Russian. I almost burst into tears. I am about to leave when an immense hand lands on my shoulder. I spin round, ready to attack.
‘You need to make a call?’
‘She says you can only pay in Roubles.’
I tell him about her, my trip and the burning desire that I have to hear her voice right now.
He smiles wistfully exposing roles of gold teeth.
‘Yes, I was in love once and if you run there is a cash-machine four streets away.’
He sketches a rough map for me and I burst out the room and run back into town.
My lungs are screaming but I find the cash point tucked away under a wooden lean-too. It accepts my card and after making some alarming sucking sounds spews out a pile of Roubles. Four young Turks hustle closer but I am too fleet for them and am away before they can surround me.
Back in the phone office. It’s even more crowed and people are shouting and screaming at the clerk. I am paralysed with the fear that I might not be able to make the call.
I hate myself for what I am about to do but I dive into the fray, elbows and knees wheeling and using skills honed on the London Undergound force my way to the desk. An old lady is pushed aside and I slap what I hope is a stupidly large pile of Roubles onto the counter. A strategic use of my elbow keeps the Russians behind me in line. I can hear the carriage doors slamming on the train.
Money talks in this part of the world and I am allocated a phone. I dial the number that I have written on my arm, and nothing happens. I try again, still nothing. I bang my head on the side of the cabinet trying to remember the international access code from Russia. I think I remember and dial a 15 digit number. My heart is racing. I say a silent prayer.
Somewhere in California a phone rings four times and an answer phone kicks in. Her voice leaves me breathless and my knees feel weak. I have to hold onto the side of the cabinet to maintain balance. I garble out a message, slam the phone back on its cradle, grab my change from the clerk and sprint to the train. I have barely time to slam the door of my carriage before the whistle blows and we are rolling, once more, towards Moscow.
Philip Blazdell has been writing for Bootsnall since its earliest inception. He is the author of close to 100 articles and has contributed to numerous magazines and travel anthologies. He still doesn’t answer his emails (as is never home) and refuses to have a web page (so last year…). He divides his time between North Korea (yes, he really does), the less salubrious parts of Europe and, of course, Maryland. He still refuses to fly Air Portugal and holds the record for number of consecutive missed flights out of Copenhagen in a single week (127). He also claims to have once been bought a drink by a Dutch man but refuses to expand further on this outrageous claim.