I arrived at the end of my first leg of my trip in Yekaterinburg, 1,600 km East of Moscow and famous for many things – of course it was the place where the Tsar and his family were murdered, but also the home town of Boris Yeltsin: we all think of him as a faintly comical man who was a bit worse for wear on occasions, but his contribution to modern Russian history is quite pivotal, as a dashing candidate for the President of the Russian Republic in the dying days of the Soviet Union and as a key man in the chaotic transformation from the state run economy of Soviet times to the peculiarly muscular capitalism we have now. I only had time for a quick walk around (some) of the town and a quick shower before getting back to the station for my next leg, to Novosibirsk, leaving at 01:50 in the morning. I got to the station early, and had the chance to wander around a bit: outside at that time in the morning everything was a bit dodgy, with feral stray dogs competing with toothless (and, in some cases, limbless) beggars for my attention. Inside, the station felt like a big old schoolhouse where there were many travellers waiting for my train (and many others – it is clearly the only way to travel long distances, the roads I saw from the train were pretty rudimentary). I was surrounded by knackered tartars, kazaks and plenty of soldiers in transit as we waited, my ginger hair, florrid complexion and Crew Clothing polo shirt blending in nicely.
My new train was a little older than the last, having a faint whiff of Art Deco about its interior which I liked, but no air con which I didn’t. After a bit of kip (I am now 5 hours ahead of London time, 2 hours ahead of Moscow time which is all a bit confusing as the train is on Moscow time) I am back to the regime of reading, Morse and watching the countryside go past. It’s now changing: it’s flatter, wetter and less populated (if that is possible). It is difficult to describe how natural the rolling hills feel, in that they appear completely untouched by man: when you look out on the fields in the UK, there are generally hedgerows etc, and the ground itself reveals the evidence of cultivation (or, at the very least, husbandry), but here the few wooden shacks look precariously temporary, the woods and grassland look ready to swallow them up at any time.
I now have a new set of fellow travellers. The provodnitsii have different uniforms this time (Russia is definitely a place of uniforms: endless varieties of epaulettes, badges and funny hats) and the crew at the bar are younger, initially more inscrutable. I get talking to some soldiers who are travelling back to points East on leave, and at last find words in common: machine gun seems to be understood, as does tank: how lovely! there follows a sort of game of charades with sound effects as I describe my soldiering, watched with some bemusement by the hostesses. The soldiers, most of whom look about five, gaze upon me as some relic left behind by Napoleon when he was last here. I appear to get funnier, or at least they get more and more drunk on cognac (with the hostesses, who become completely paralytic) leaving me to savour my comic genius, pick my way though the now snoring audience (thank heavens for staying on weak Russian beer) and prepare for my next stop, Novosibirsk, again in the dead of night.