Russia: Once Bitten

“Yeah, base camp was amazing,” Edwin said, necking another shot of nasty vodka and wincing as it went down. I copied him, the neat alcohol hitting the pit of my stomach. I had run out of instant noodles and was starting to feel hunger pangs. Edwin was a proper traveller; a medical graduate with a mountaineering addiction. I had just spent 3 months on various beaches in tropical South East Asia, drinking gin and tonic from buckets. Luckily the heat was cranked up to the thirties inside the wood-panelled train compartment; the only evidence of the freezing cold outside was a crispy layer of frost at the bottom of my blanket where it leant against the outer wall. Looking out the train window at the expanse of Siberia it was as if someone was playing the same dirty film reel over and over. Low brown hills splotched with snow.

Half-way through the second bottle of vodka, the squeal of train brakes announced our arrival at a desolate Siberian station. Peering out the window I saw old freight trucks standing as if frozen to the track opposite. Edwin applied a million layers of outdoor-activity wear. I, however, prepared to leave the train for the first time in two days by popping a hat and scarf over my linen jungle clothes.

I spotted little shops stocking beer, vodka and a million varieties of instant noodles. Thank God. Without food, the vodka was going straight to my head. Ice coated the external door, freezing it shut. Edwin battered at it with his shoulder, but it wouldn’t budge. I started to panic. I didn’t fancy living off pocket fluff and toothpaste for the next three days.

“Excuse me!” I shouted down the carriage to no one in particular. Other than the two of us it was packed with Mongolian students returning from New Year, and they had all brought enough steamed pork dumplings for the journey.

The Provinista waddled out of her compartment wearing nothing but her thermal underwear and a deep scowl. She was large and bulky, built like a female wrestler with the skin-tight outfit to match. She grunted something in Russian, draped heavy grey coat over her thermals and started battering the external train door with the fire poker. Eventually, with an almighty ‘crack’ the door swung open and the needle-sharp chill of Russian winter hit me.

Within minutes my hair had frozen and a thin layer of ice from my breath had settled across my scarf. It felt like a thousand tiny needles were pricking the surface of my skin and by the time we reached the shops I couldn’t feel my fingers. We stocked up on instant noodles and more vodka because the timetable was in Cyrillic, for all we knew it could be days until the next station.

Just as I was handing over my roubles to the toothless shopkeeper I heard the shriek of the train whistle. Snatching up my instant noodles and renewed stock of vodka I skidded across black ice to the door of my carriage. The Provinista now hanging out of the open train door and bulging out of her thermal underwear again, shouted garbled Russian at me, holding out a hand. I grabbed on to the metal railing of the door and pain shot through my fingers like I’d been burnt, but I managed to pull myself into the carriage. The Provinista slapped me on the back and laughed like she’s never seen anything so funny in all her life.

I threw my instant noodles onto the bed and stuck my fingers in my mouth. They were in agony. Tears pricked in my eyes as the change in temperature sent searing pain through my digits. The tips were turning a dull blue and Edwin, in his serious mountaineer’s voice, shouted at me to run them under very mildly warm water.

The lukewarm water felt like it was scalding my fingers and I started to cry from the pain. Emerging from the toilet compartment fifteen minutes later I held out my bruise coloured fingers to Edwin like a child with a paper-cut, tears streaming down my cheeks.

“Just what I thought,” Edwin said as he studied my hand, “frostbite.”

“What? Frostbite?” I couldn’t believe it. Frostbite is for intrepid Arctic expeditions, not dancing about on a station platform after too much vodka. I clutched my poor, painful fingers to my chest not knowing what else to do.

Moscow was still three days away.

Note: This is my winning entry for the Pure Travel writing competition, published in Geographic Magazine.

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Africa: Rough Rails and Luxury Cabins

Rovos Rail’s train from Dar Es Salaam to Cape Town is run like clockwork. Dinner is at 7pm sharp, restaurant quality five course meals are whisked up in a kitchen the size of a broom cupboard, and if you reach the bottom of your champagne flute, someone will be at your elbow with another bottle. Africa, however, is on a completely different timetable. “We have the watches, but they have the time. Always remember this is Africa.” our train manager, Daphne, said in her opening speech.

Most trains I’ve been on have the same soothing rhythm: clickety clack, clickety clack. The Cape Gauge track through Southern Africa produces a more terrifying Gah-DOOMP, Gah-DOOMP, Gah-DOOMP as the trains rolls from side to side like a ship in stormy seas. It doesn’t matter how lavish the train is, the journey from Dar Es Salaam to Cape Town on those narrow-gauge rails is a rough ride.

Mark and I were upgraded to the middle class of cabin – a wood-panelled glance into yesteryear with Victorian lamp shades, brass fixtures, a writing desk and a sprawling double bed. It was opulence I’d never seen on wheels before. Rumours bubbled in the lounge that the fanciest compartments even had claw-footed baths.

Tanzania passed by at a top speed of 40 miles an hour. We sat in the open air observation car at the end of the train, ice cubes in gin and tonics clinking with every shudder of the carriage. Sometimes we walked the half-mile length of the train to burn off a sixth or seventh scone after afternoon tea, bouncing off the walls like pinballs. The humid air of the Indian Ocean shores thinned as the train trundled towards the Rift Valley. Waxy green banana trees gave way to rugged hills that looked more like home in Scotland than the Africa I had pictured.

In Zambia, sand coloured huts rose from dust to make the villages lining the railway. Women in colourful headscarves scattered grain for skinny chickens. Children in brilliant white school shirts but bare feet ran alongside the train, close enough to reach out and touch. They cried “Mzugu!” with delight. At first I thought it meant “hello” and shouted it back.

Rovos 1

“You are shouting ‘white person’” Daphne said throwing her head back and sticking her tongue out to laugh. She had taken a break from looking at her map and checking timetables to wave to the children. We were running a day late.

“Always remember, this is Africa.”

I tried to capture images of everyday life in Zambia through my camera lens, but the jolting train snatched them from me in an upwards blur. I started looking with my eyes. Men hunched in fields wore heavy scowls as they hacked at the dry earth with hoes. Furrowed brows turned into beaming grins when the final car passed full of waving Mzugus. I felt a ripple of relief each time a scowl turned into a Cheshire Cat grin.

The first sign of the border with Zimbabwe was pure white smoke rising from flat earth, just as Livingston had written. He didn’t have the benefit of a 650 foot rail bridge to get him across the Zambezi. As we settled into our first night in the hotel at Victoria Falls I still felt the dip and rise of train travel lurch in my stomach.

Zimbabwe saw the end of sand coloured villages and smiles. Concrete block houses lined brown fields. Workers in puffa jackets bleeding white filling looked up through narrowed eyes. No amount of waving would change that. We cut into perfectly cooked springbok in the oak-panelled dining car and I asked what happened to the food we couldn’t finish.

“We give the cakes to children at the next train station and the extra food to the adults,” Daphne said. My Western guilt eased a little but I couldn’t help feeling more like a voyeur than an open-minded traveller.

Rovos 3

That night stones ticked against our window as the train rocked back and forth. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in a claw-foot bath or fold-away bunk, it’s still got to travel across some of the roughest track in the world.