Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Guest Post - Five Days in the Life… by Lindsay Bamfield - Bookish World Cup - Russia

The train passed an abandoned Siberian prison camp. Its bleak architecture and the razor wire atop the walls brought back the starkness of a book I’d read many years before in my teens, The Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Apart from Animal Farm and 1984, it was the first political novel I’d read and it’d had a profound effect on me.

I’d dreamed of making a Trans-Siberian railway journey since I was 12 and now I was gazing at its ever-changing view. The Russian part of the journey would be five days long from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. Boarding at Yaroslavl Station my rucksack contained several books. I’d debated taking the Great Russian Novel, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but when you’re back-packing, weight is all important – this was before the advent of the Kindle – so it stayed on the shelf at home next to Anna Karenina. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky was another contender but again was too weighty so the slimmer Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev accompanied me along with Henry V both of which were on my syllabus that year for my Literature degree. There was also some lighter reading just in case!

Our train was a Mongolian one so I was disappointed to find boring electric urns in place of the romantic samovars I had read about. Instead of fearsome Soviet provodnitsas, our carriage attendants were two charming Mongolian ladies. Ours was the ‘de-luxe’ carriage with compartments for two instead of the four or five that most locals used. There was a toilet at each end of the carriage with a tiny basin providing only cold water. To ensure this wasn’t wasted the tap operated by pressing an awkward lever upwards. There was no shower but a helpful drain hole in the middle of the floor would ensure a DIY version with the help of hot water from the urn and a plastic mug. Luxury travel this was not.

Neither my companion, who’d packed Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, nor I read as much as we’d anticipated because there was so much to see. We passed endless birch woods interspersed with dachas and small farms boasting haystacks and vegetable crops. Approaching the towns we saw bleak Soviet concrete apartment blocks and industrial sites. Looking out of the back of the train we could see miles of the dead straight track and watch fabulous sunsets. The landscape changed as we crossed the Bokara Steppe with the pines, spruces and larches of the taiga stretching away into the distance.
On our first visit to the restaurant car we were shown an impressively long menu, but only a few items had prices pencilled next to them. This indicated what was actually available and items were crossed off daily as supplies dwindled. Breakfasts were tomato and cucumber salad with a huge dollop of soured cream, rye bread and for the first couple of days sliced cheese or a hard-boiled egg. Lunch was soup made from ham, sausage, onion and picked cucumber with more sour cream. Dinner consisted of rice or pasta topped with goulash or a burger with tinned sweetcorn and peas. With the addition of Russian ‘champagne’ which was very acceptable and incredibly cheap we feasted royally especially on the days we bought fresh berries or bread at the stations. No matter what time of day or night we arrived at a station, be it Kirov, Perm, Omsk, or Novosibirsk, the locals would be waiting. 

Here the Mongolians on the train would trade the piles of goods they had acquired in Moscow. Light fittings and umbrellas were popular along with shoes and clothing. In return the locals offered travellers bread, dried fish, fresh berries and, at one station, voluminous pink nylon underwear.   

The train stayed on Moscow time as we passed through five times zones. We ate breakfast in midnight darkness and my bedtime reading about Nikolai Petrovich, Arkady and Bazarov was conducted in sunlight. One morning, at first light, we plunged into a tunnel. On emerging we saw our first glimpse of Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake. In spite of its reputation for being near freezing, even in summer, several people were bathing in its blue water. Perhaps in the hope, according to local legend, of prolonging their lives. For me it indicated we would soon reach the Mongolian border and my Russian odyssey would be over. I still had two chapters of my Russian novel to read. 

Thank you so much Lindsay for sharing this experience with us.  Must have been a once in a life time trip, although not sure how keen I would be to do it.

About Lindsay Bamfield 

Lindsay Bamfield has written a number of short stories and flash fiction pieces as well as non-fiction articles. She has been published in Hysteria 6 Anthology, Stories for Homes 2, Greenacre Writers Anthology, Mslexia, Writers’ News and Writing Magazine as well as on several websites. Prizes include Hysteria 2017, Great British Write Off 2106 and Words with Jam competitions.


  1. This was fascinating, Lindsay. Evocative and beautifully written. Thanks for sharing. :) x


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