One of the most cherished books on the shelf is a little battered Ladybird volume. It was presented to me on completing my infant year at school, and I realise that would be fifty years ago, almost to the week. It has been much loved by various Urchins, the oldest of whom wrote his own details over the presentation label, whilst younger Girl Urchin made her own label, reproducing the original in a lift-up flap, which I’ve just discovered having picked up the book for the first time in many years.
And the purpose was all to do with trains. Since being presented with In The Train, with Uncle Mac, back in 1965 I realised I have read many volumes based on rail travel. From the Orient Express in much younger days I’ve discovered others – The Trans-Siberian, Old Patagonian, the Ghan, and even the West Highland Line and sundry small local puffers throughout these shores.
Trains have taken me to many great writers; from the classic travelogues of Newby and Theroux, to others such as Andrew Eames and Michael Jacobs, and no doubt many others. Indeed even the cattle trucks, crammed to overflowing, across the great plains of Europe through the war years, have a special place on the writings on rail travel. Or they do in this house.
Another has joined the list. I’ve been back to Siberia again, irresistible for me, this time in the company of David Greene. So trains, Siberia, and the legends and hardships of laying those lines. A Train Journey Into The Heart of Russia is the by-line of Midnight In Siberia.
Greene is the host of NPR’s Morning Edition. The NPR website is a useful research tool for books being discussed on America’s airwaves. A few years ago Greene was the Moscow correspondent and in that period he and his wife Rose, with his journalist colleague and local translator Sergei, travelled the Trans-Sib. He and Sergei went back to do it again, specifically to bring us the tales of the people and places along the way.
9,288, that’s the kilometres travelled from west to east. But this is not one long and uninterrupted rumble over the tracks. We get off, and we spend time along the way, making detours to meet up with the locals.
In Ekaterinburg neither the words Ipatiev nor Romanov feature in these pages, for we are looking at Russia today, with only occasional glimpses to the past. Baikal is always a grand place to stop, the world’s largest horde of fresh water but horribly polluted now by industry providing vital jobs.
The people Greene introduces us to look forward through the Putin prism, with the occasional glimpse over their shoulders to the stability of Stalin, preferably without the repression. The cities now are vast and modern, though the home given to the Jewish people two decades before Israel is struggling to catch up, remote as it as in the far east.
I enjoyed the mixture of life aboard, the sharing of food and friendships, the protocols of shared accommodation in third class where the privacy is absent and gymnastics are needed for the top bunks. But more than that I enjoyed the people we met, from the singing babushkas who found fame in Eurovison, to the entrepeneurs trying to buck the trend of bribery and corruption.
Now if Uncle Mac had taken me on this train way back then…