Reminiscing On Travel
What does it mean to travel? Is it the carefully curated Instagram photo with the yellowy nostalgic filter which hides the fact that you've been tired for days, that you've just had a fight with your boyfriend, that you've been clutching at your passport every five minutes because you’re so afraid of losing it? In that single act of losing your passport, you could stop being a carefree passenger and become a prisoner of bureaucracy.
What does it mean to travel? As if the trip itself does not exist if you fail to post all the photos on your social networks and carefully document every single thing that happened to you. You travel to “get away”, yet you anxiously check your internet connection every hour of every day.
What does it mean to travel? We go to different places, to different countries, so that we can broaden our horizons and experience new cultures. Yet I can't seem to escape the borders and limitations around us, both physical and figurative. I am constantly reminded of the structural differences between us. Traveling never fails to remind me of where I come from and where my place is. Sometimes it is in the various visa offices where I have to wait for hours, collect papers, get new documents. Sometimes it is at the border, where I am subjected to the scrutiny of a particularly distrustful border guard. Sometimes it is hiding behind a smile – one which is so difficult to fake. But sometimes, you have to be on your best behavior.
Traveling the Trans-Siberian railway is a once-in-a-lifetime experience - and, although every travel article and magazine talks about the "spontaneity" of it all, about jumping on and off the train, it actually requires detailed planning, mostly due to visa regulations and restrictions. One cannot easily remain spontaneous and enjoy such treats in today's world of terrorist attacks and surveillance.
Where and how we travel also depends on the depth of our pockets. Spontaneity is a luxury only few can afford - those who do not need detailed budgets, and to watch everything they spend.
I am in awe at this vast country and its endless birch trees - hours and hours of birch trees through the window. One would be surprised how fast thirty-five hours on a train can go by: eating, sleeping, reading. Talking to your fellow passengers - Alyona and Yura, for example. She, a train conductor traveling from Vladivostok to Moscow, as if working on the trains is not enough. He, a soldier. Merely that – “a soldier”. Both in their forties, he is the strong, silent type; she is a loving wife conducting the majority of the conversation. They have never been to China. He can't go into China, you know. He's a soldier.
They take us in immediately, without a word. They show us how to navigate this small compartment – kupe in Russian – which will be our home for the next thirty-five hours. A long time, yes. But significantly longer for them: out of a thirty-five-day summer vacation, they will spend twelve days on the train. Six from Vladivostok to Moscow, and six back. Russia and Siberia are as much the inside of the train as the outside – the birch trees, Lake Baikal, the cold in August.
The harshness of the climate astounds me even in summer. I can only imagine the cold in the winter, and that scares me. I feel I can see the harshness on the people’s faces. In the metro. In front of the train station.
I snap a photo of the train station in Novosibirsk. I looks like something out of a cartoon, and I mutter the word in Russian – multik. As if only that word in the whole world could describe what I see.
We are always on Moscow time. The country is so big that all the trains run on Moscow time, otherwise everyone would get lost in the time differences and various schedules. In Novosibirsk, but in Moscow. In Irkutsk, but in Moscow. It is seven A.M. now on the train, and it will soon be seven A.M. again. Time is a strange category, and I’m painfully aware of how it passes, stuck in the same hour here on the moving train.
Matea Grgurinovic is a Beijing-based Croatian journalist writing mostly about social issues.