by Quin Burrell (New Zealand)

Making a local connection Russia


In times long since past, if you were to ask a Buryat where they came from the only answer they could give you would have been ‘somewhere’ on the steppe. To a nomad, home is simply anywhere beneath the great blue sky. Location matters little when in every direction the grass stretches forth, with no barriers for miles to define what’s my land and yours. It is only fitting to say I met Ivan ‘somewhere’ on the steppe. He slipped onto the trans-siberian train sometime during my second night trundling along Siberia’s beating artery, and could have got on anywhere between Babushkin and Bada, but as I said, location matters little. The platskart carried seventy people, in rows of bunks, in a single cramped, and admittedly smelly carriage without dividing walls, and every night half of those bunks would change their occupants in miraculous silence as I slept. I roused to find him drinking tea. He watched me curiously as I rubbed my eyes and let my groggy brain engage, but looked away whenever I looked at him, feigning interest in the passing scenery. Finally, I felt lucid enough to try him with a hello. We spoke of the three subjects I knew enough Russian to discuss with him, before both looking out the window in feigned interest. Outside the window, the Taiga was shedding its leafy coat to stand bare through another Siberian winter, resulting in endless undulating waves of yellows, reds, and oranges across which our prism of body odour rolled. Between long bouts of silence observing a passing continent, I might remember the word for daughter, and inquire whether Ivan had any, to which he would say no, then offer me a biscuit. The rest of our transport was silent no longer. Across the walkway a group of Uzbek workers bantered energetically over semichki (shelled sunflower seeds). A family in the next bunk over was regretting their decision to buy their daughter a doll that talked when you squeezed its hand, as it proclaimed to the cramped car ‘I love you’ for the umpteenth time. Time dragged on, each moment passing imperceptibly slowly, but retrospectively seeming as brief as a dream. I produced cards, which Ivan, the Uzbeks and I played for a while. In exchange, they showed me the correct method to eat semichki. They had seen me eating the popular snack shell and all. Now I found Ivan knew the English; “Bad for liver”, but strangely not the word for tea. Other dream visions came to me through the window. A woman broke down crying on the platform as we stopped briefly in some backwater, saying goodbye to her precious Pasha or Petya. I bought blini off a babushka in Blagoveshchensk, and she told me as I was too skinny. Ivan braved the surly conductor’s wrath and snuck into the toilet for a cigarette. I woke from more dreams the next day to find Ivan once more observing me, tea in hand. We were now two thousand kilometres closer to the Pacific, and had travelled the length of Britain together, and I didn’t know his last name. I spent the day trying to get to know him better. Over the course of four hours passing google translate messages back and forth I heard/read the story of a poor Buryat boy growing up on the shores of lake Baikal, that had survived the chaotic years of the USSR dissolution to emerge a proud engineer, the first in his family qualified. He drew plans for bridge construction, where his father had once galloped with his herd only a generation before. That night I found myself drawn by flickers of English language to the restaurant car, the glammed-up carriages at the head of the snake, where one could find ex-military men offering you one more shot of vodka. I stumbled back through twenty carriages to find Ivan, humorously regarding me. Like a strange dream I recall us sitting together on some forgotten station, as we shared a cigarette and watched the silent night-time passenger change. I woke the next day, parched and hungover. Ivan was gone, but thank god, he had left his tea for me.