Refugee Train across Europe

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.

Old Ghosts

IMG_7849 (2) (640x467)

His lame leg is stiff and twisted awkwardly at the ankle, the belated effect of childhood polio. The grey moustache bristles with the effort of pitching the worn tent. The lean frame bends stiffly at the waist as he works in the pegs and poles. But he has done it so many times before and insists on doing it mostly by himself. My youngest daughter, his favourite grandchild, assists him with tenderness and adoration – holding a rope here, a peg there.

IMG_7874 (2) (640x480)

I had not expected to meet him here, an old ghost who had once frequented these parts. Yet here he is; his presence palpable as I pitch my tent on the same spot. Some twenty years ago, he had come here eagerly along with my mother. They were keen to take time with their grandchildren, sharing a love of camping in the bush. Since then he had died and I have become used to not thinking of him for long stretches of time. But then he returns, unexpectedly.

IMG_7861 (2) (640x480)

Or perhaps I should have expected it, for this is one of my favourite places in the world – in the Yengo Wilderness. The long day on the bicycle, or two at a more reasonable pace, is full of anticipation. The dirt track for the last six kilometres even more so.

IMG_7866 (2) (640x480)

A last turn of the track and I glimpse the simple shelter on a nondescript shoulder of the ridge. Around the small clearing the trees and wallabies and pademelons and goannas quietly carry on as they have always done. Nothing much has changed for two decades, if not much, much longer. Here one can be entirely removed from the world and get in touch with a far better one.

IMG_7881 (2) (640x480)


While I pitch the tent, gather wood, light a fire and wash with a cup from the water tank, I pause often to look out, suck in the air, absorb the trees, greet the animals. I may see my small children playing with a ball (or a goanna running off with the ball), chopping wood, being washed in a bucket, eating a meal at a foldout table, brushing teeth before bed, reading while wrapped in a sleeping bag. I may recall the strange visit a decade ago (after too long a gap) when I was conscious of the tap on the tank while one of my sons – unknown to me until later that day – was in an intensive burns unit after his house burnt down. Or I may revisit my times here since, regretting that it has been too long since the last time a couple of years ago and vowing to return far more often. But above all, I sense my father, appreciating ever more deeply why he felt the call to come to places like this.

IMG_7900 (2) (640x480)

I too feel the pull more strongly this time. Much has to do with a profound sense of turning, of a recovery of what I like to do rather than what others expect me to do (for their own benefit). With each pedal of the day, I had felt as though one unnecessary expectation after the other had been dumped. So by the time I arrive, they are gone, as if simply being here counts as completion of the process.

No wonder I have time for old ghosts on All Saints.

IMG_7887 (2) (640x471)

Make Way for Ducklings – at the Gogol Bookshop in Harbin

I have always been fascinated by Harbin, the capital of China’s most north-easterly province, Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River). Built as part of the first Trans-Siberian railway more than a century ago, it formed a major hub on the strip of land the Russian tsar had prised from the Chinese Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty of China. The strip of land was for the railway, since it cut a straight path to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. For the time being, it saved the big loop north that would otherwise have been required.

So Harbin was built by the Russians, to serve as a major point along the far eastern route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The city has Russian names in its core, quite a bit of Cyrillic appearing here and there and not a few Russian Orthodox churches. Yet not many Russians are in town these days, unless one goes into one of the seedy dance bars. Soon after its construction, Harbin and the railway line became the site of almost continuous war and occupation. The railway had made the Japanese belligerently nervous, for the Russians could now ship a large number of soldiers at ‘high’ speed (18 km per hour at first) across Siberia. So the Japanese attacked in what became the Russo-Japanese War in the early twentieth century, soundly defeating the Russian fleet and army. It was one of the factors that led to the first Russian Revolution of 1905. Within a few years, the Japanese carried on their belligerence and invaded the area they called ‘Manchuria’. But they found themselves facing the formidable foe of the Chinese communist People’s Liberation Army, which united with other forces (including Koreans) and began an insurgency in the area against the Japanese occupation. Eventually, the Russian Red Army appeared, fresh from taking Berlin and a trek across Siberia to join forces with the locals. They drove out the Japanese and forced their surrender at the end of the Second World War. Harbin was a major focus of all these wars.

At last, I had managed to get myself to this fascinating city. I marvelled at the tall, strong Dongbei (north-eastern) people, was moved by the museum dedicated to the anti-Japanese resistance and war, examined the old buildings established in the last days of the Russian autocracy, was struck by the curious effect of Russian Orthodox Churches in a Chinese city, and tried to translate between the Chinese and Russian signs.

2015 May 130 (411x640)

Many were the shops selling traditional Russian items. But they were staffed by Chinese people and those purchasing the items were also Chinese. My guess was that the products themselves had also been made in China.

But I longed to visit Guogeli Dajie (Gogol Street), so my hosts took me there after a typical Dongbei meal of dumplings and ‘bing’, a type of wrap or roll that you construct from various items spread out on a large plate. Strolling along the cobbles, we happened upon none other than the Gogol bookshop.

2015 May 155 (640x427)

Recently refurbished, it is Russian-themed with dark timbers, boasting luxurious armchairs which invite you to sit for a while and read. It rises from the street on a number of floors, full of books in Chinese and some foreign languages (Russian and English included). Throughout, it has old pictures of Harbin and its churches. It too was full of only Chinese people.

After perusing a number of books and all the pictures, we heard a child’s voice through a microphone. She was almost lost in a massive chair in the centre of the shop, reading a book to all of us. It turned out to be the beginning of a public reading hour. I was told that during the hour, anyone could read a book of choice for 5-10 minutes.

Soon enough, a shop attendant came up to me and asked if I also would read a book. I shook my head, saying that I could not read enough Chinese to do so. ‘But you can read one in English’, I was told. I went upstairs and found a children’s book called Make Way for Ducklings. It was written in 1941, but I thought it appropriate for a grandfather to read to the children present. When my time came, I sat in the big leather chair under the bright lights and began reading.

The story concerns a mother and father duck, who were seeking a place to have some chicks and raise them in Boston. They eventually found such a place, only to realise that it was a pond in the middle of town and far too noisy and dangerous. So the drake set out to find a quieter place, which he located while the chicks were born. As they set off to the new place – a quiet island in the middle of a larger pond – they encountered the streets and traffic of a large city. At that moment a policeman came to their aid and held up everything so they could make their way safely to the new home. By this time, it dawned on me that I had read this story before, at a much earlier time – 1989 or 1990 in Montreal. Having borrowed it from the local library, I had read it to my two older children when they were little.

Now, some 25 years later and a grandfather, I was reading the same book in English to a Chinese audience in a Russia-themed bookshop in the north-eastern city of Harbin. Not quite what I had ever imagined.

2015 May 151 (640x427)


Red Centre, Red Eyes: The Ghan on a Budget

IMG_1214 (640x427)

‘I wonder far back the seat goes?’ I said, pulling on the lever.

‘Oh!’ said a young Spanish woman into whose lap I had plunged. She was seated directly behind me.

‘Obviously, it goes quite far!’ I said.

She laughed as I levered myself back into a sitting position.

We were on The Ghan, the rail service that runs between Adelaide and Darwin. A little over two days it takes, running through the Red Centre of Australia, stopping at Marla, Alice Springs and Katherine on the way. And we were in seats all the way.

The Ghan?

IMG_1061 (2) (640x427)

The route of The Ghan has been more than a century in the making. The dream may have been to run the line all the way to what would become Darwin, but the beginnings were somewhat more modest. Construction began in 1878 and, over the next thirteen years, it crawled some 800 kilometres between Port Augusta and Oodnadatta. The narrow gauge (1,067 mm) line followed the same route as the overland telegraph, believed to be the route taken by John McDouall Stuart in his final, frenetic effort to reach the north in 1862. But Oodnadatta is still a long way from Alice Springs – more than 600 kilometres – so the last leg required camels. Finally, in 1929 was the line extended to Alice Springs.

IMG_1068 (2) (640x427)

The route chosen had one advantage: it ran near water, crucial for the steam locomotives. But water in the outback also meant regular washouts after downpours. So the train had a flatcar behind the locomotive, stacked with spare sleepers and tools. Upon encountering a washout, crew and passengers would set to work repairing the line. So notorious were the train’s delays that a woman once approached a conductor.

IMG_1046 (640x426)

‘Excuse me, sir’, she said. ‘I am about to give birth’.

‘Madam’, said the conductor. ‘You should not have boarded the train in that condition’.

‘I didn’t’, she said.

IMG_1081 (640x427)

By the late 1950s, a standard gauge line (1,435 mm) began to be constructed, reaching Marree. North of here, people still took the old Ghan, which finally ceased service when the new line reached Alice Spring in 1980. By now diesel had replaced steam, so the route followed a more reliable and drier line to the west of the original route.

IMG_1088 (640x427)

But the original dream remained – to run all the way to Darwin. Against the tendency to favour roads at the beginning of the new millennium, construction on the 1500 kilometre stretch from Alice Springs to Darwin began in 2001 and on 4 February 2004 the first passenger train reached the far northern capital. It had taken 126 years of dreams, plans and waiting. The cost of the final leg was a modest AUD$1.3 billion.

IMG_1136 (640x427)

But how did it come to be called The Ghan? Theories abound, but the most reliable is that it came from a joke in 1923. At this time, the train still ran to Oodnadatta, but the time was drawn out by overnight stops. South Australian Railways decided to try a brand new idea: attach a sleeping car and run the train through the night. On 30 August, 1923, a crowd of local people gathered at Quorn station – en route – to see the new contraption. As the train pulled into the station at dusk, an Afghan passenger leapt from the train, found a quiet corner, kneeled facing Mecca and recited his prayers. A railway worker joked that if he was the only passenger on the sleeper, the train should be called the Afghan Express. The name caught on, not least because of the ‘Afghan’ cameleers who had taken camel trains with crucial supplies for decades before the trains came through. Soon enough, it was shortened to the Ghan Express and then to the Ghan.

IMG_1158 (640x427)

The Journey

A long journey it is, covering some 3,000 kilometres through the heart of Australia. The outback starts early hereabouts, appearing after only a few hours of trundling through the wheat fields of South Australia.

IMG_1034 (640x427)

Even here, the landscape is flat, with occasional mountains worn down by millennia of weathering. On the far-distant horizons they run a line for a while, only to retire from sight. After Port Augusta and the last sight of the sea, we reached semi-arid parts, with low trees, salt-bush, saltpans and the ubiquitous oxidised red soil. No wonder Australia is one of the main global sources of iron ore.

IMG_1103 (640x427)

For some, the red heart is monotonous. Endless reaches of desert stretch out on either side, with no relief in the way of rivers, mountains, or indeed forests. Yet this is to miss the sheer variety of this part of the world. Each kilometre seemed to bring new sights. I would stand at the vestibule windows, eagerly moving from one side to the other so as not to miss what would come next. A freight train might lumber past, since the line is primarily a freight run to and from the northern port of Darwin – which is closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney. A line of river gums would announce a river-bed, dry most of the time, flooded when a rare downpour happened. But the trees know that water lies further down, pushing their roots deep down to tap the moist soil. So also do the local Indigenous people, who know where rare water might be found, accessing it without destroying it for another who may pass this way.

IMG_1235 (2) (640x427)

A low hill, an escarpment or a gorge may appear, drawing my gaze as I wonder about its place in the local mythology. And the vegetation is full of surprises. Occasional low trees, well accustomed to the rigours of desert life, provide welcome shade for animals and succour for smaller plants.

IMG_1294 (2) (640x427)

Tight clumps of saltbush, like khaki balls low to the ground, flourish with minimal nutrients and moisture. Yellow desert grasses rise between cracks in the rock or around tree roots.

IMG_1353 (2) (640x427)

A couple of red kangaroos watched us pass at dusk on the first evening, while in the last hours before Darwin water buffalo chased each other around the edge of a water hole. In short, the desert is full of the variety of life, most of it not even glimpsed as the train ambles past.

No Locals

IMG_1331 (640x427)

Inside was full of life as well, for in our two full carriages a temporary community formed. A backpacker asked the conductor at the beginning of the journey whether the train had wifi. The negative answer drew a gasp of disbelief, until those affected absorbed the dreadful news and hit upon the innovative idea of reading books. The skinny and hairy young man across the aisle performed elaborate travel yoga, ate nuts and kale, and laid us low with killer farts.

IMG_1165 (640x427)

He struck up a friendship with a wok-bearing woman who joined him in the yoga postures. The bear-like trio ate only the meat on their plates, leaving aside anything that was remotely fresh. They supplemented the protein with vast bags of chocolates. The giggling Belgian girls were followed for much of the time by a young male sniffer. Two Korean women spent most of the time photographing a teddy bear in all manner of positions and in all types of scenery.

IMG_1205 (640x427)

Together we ate, juggled for space in the dining car, looked out of the windows and tried to pass the time as best we could. And we talked. Hardly was there a moment when some conversation or other did not sound through the carriage. But to understand them all one would have had to possess the gift of interpreting tongues, for it was truly a Pentecost of languages. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Belgian French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Swedish … all corners of the earth seemed to be represented in our carriage.

IMG_1193 (640x427)

Four stops we had on the way: Port Augusta, Marla, Alice Springs and Katherine. Why so few? The first was to drop off four passengers, the second for a sunrise experience in the desert (someone had lit a fire or two for us) and the third and fourth to sell tours while the train paused for a few hours. They ranged from a basic bus ride into town for $20 to helicopter flights for well over $300 per person. In Alice Springs we avoided the tours and sauntered around town, finding our way to the Araluen Cultural Centre. In town, Indigenous people speak their own languages, coming as they do from some of the big tribes and their clans in these parts. I had been in the Alice once before, some 27 years ago. It had changed much.

IMG_1352 (2) (640x427)

In Katherine we gave in and took the cheap option: a bus to Katherine Gorge, where we did some bushwalking and sweated in the heat. Others opted for canoe trips or the aforesaid outrageously priced helicopter rides.

IMG_1182 (640x427)

So why the few stops? The range of languages spoken and the tours indicate an answer: trains like The Ghan are geared for tourists. Even in our relatively cheap ‘Red’ carriages, the vast majority were international tourists. But I must admit I had expected a rather different approach, that is, a train that would regularly drop off and pick up locals in the way north. Very occasionally it happened, as with the people who alighted at Port Augusta or the young woman and her son for the few hours between Katherine and Darwin. But that was it.

IMG_1209 (427x640)

For a train geared to tourists, one need not stop regularly, except where more money is to be made. Of course, the fact that it does not stop so much also means locals cannot catch it so easily. It may be a business model that works for now, with some slick marketing focusing on rail nostalgia and the ‘Red Centre’, but much had changed over the century or more of The Ghan.

IMG_1191 (640x427)

How to Sleep in a Seat for Two Nights

IMG_1008 (427x640)

Let me go back to the seats – the very red ones. What were we doing in seats? Would we not have to sleep in them two nights running? Why not one of the two types of sleeper compartment, as is our wont? The simple reason is that the cost of such a compartment begins at $2,250 each in a shared compartment. This is the so-called ‘Gold’ class. Much higher still is the ‘Platinum’ class. To be sure, meals and drinks and shuttles to and from the train are included in the cost, but that is hardly reason to fork out so much. Once upon a time they had budget ‘Red’ sleepers, which we have used on the ‘sister’ train, the Indian-Pacific. But with the advent of a ‘Platinum’ level, the old ‘Red’ sleepers were retired, except for a sole carriage used by staff to catch up on some rest.

IMG_1371 (2) (640x412)

So seats we had, the only section left on the train that counted as ‘Red’. Our two carriages were tacked onto the end of the train. At stops we would be at the furthest distance from the station building (‘Platinum’ would of course be directly on the station). We had one attendant dealing with all matters – from cleaning the toilets to cooking meals in the dining car. Indeed, this car – the ‘Matilda’ – had seen better days. As had the meals. Breakfast involved a ‘Big Aussie’, with sausages and eggs and grilled tomatoes. Lunch involved pies and pasties and wraps. And dinner meant a small terrine of unidentified meat, surrounded by lettuce leaves to make it seem larger. We opted to buy our food before departure: beans, bread, sardines, gherkins, peanut butter, fruit, celery, carrots, oats and long-life milk. We ate far better than those who dared sample the dining car fare.

IMG_1231 (640x427)

How does one sleep in a seat for two nights and then sit in it for almost three days? The layout helps a little. They are not as tight as a long-distance bus or a budget airline, which are designed to give one varicose veins in short order. In fact, they recline into the laps of those behind, as I had already found. And if your legs are not too long, you can put a bag on the floor and rest your feet upon them. Ample leg room it was, even for someone like me with longer legs.

IMG_1150 (640x427)

That said, it was still a seat. During the days, I made sure that I was up and about on a very regular basis. It may have been for a walk, for photos in the vestibule, for a time in the dining car, or merely for a stroll driven by curiosity. At night, I drew upon my stock of travel pillows, eye-masks and ear-plugs to close off the sound of sleeping companions around me – or, for that matter, the ones who could not sleep so well. Yet, I could not quite lie on my side, for to do so would have left me with a permanent back injury. Needless to say, the sleep is not so deep and sound as one might like. Waking up in your clothes also gives the distinct impression of having been out for a night on the town and having fallen asleep on a park bench.

IMG_1219 (640x427)

How was I to overcome such a feeling, apart from putting it down to the experience of rail travel? The showers at either end of the carriage were a blessing. Towels and soap were provided, so I made the most of one of the almighty pleasures of travel: the train wash. Afterwards, I felt like a new man, even to the point of shaving. And as is my wont, I hung my washed undies and socks out in the main carriage to dry. But the shower was not the only option. For some strange, the second night made a difference. It was not that I was getting used to sleeping in the seat, but that I was weary enough to sleep anywhere.

IMG_1418 (2) (640x472)

IMG_1411 (2) (640x425)

Cabin of the Mind

A cabin in a remote place – in a fold of the hills, on a hilltop, in the desert, on a quiet beach. It matters not where, but often have I contemplated its appeal. Perhaps it has two rooms, with a wood fire for heating and cooking. Perhaps it is made of raw timber with an earth floor. Perhaps it has no more than a bed and a small table and chair. Its appeal continues whenever I encounter it, while hiking, on a long-distance bicycle ride, or glimpsed from a passing train. And from time to time I have pondered finding one for myself and retreating into it to write. For my criterion is not whether I can escape the world as such, but whether I can write there. A remote cabin is one such place.

The appeal has been stronger during some periods. When I was undergoing a difficult breakup from my first marriage, feeling out of control of events as they unfolded, I longed for such a cabin. When I was under pressure at work, with an alarm clock waking me every morning before I was ready to rise, demanding I head off to do something I did not want to do for someone I did not like, my cabin became very appealing. During the lost years, when I lived far from my children, the cabin beckoned so that I might bring them there. When conflicts have arisen, over petty matters that seemed to draw everyone’s energy inordinately, I felt the cabin’s call. When I was weary and tired of the world and its ways, I thought of my cabin often. And if I was merely passing by, on a forest trail or on a lonely road, my cabin would appear and invite me to tarry for a while.

Yet I slowly began to realise that the cabin need not be a physical place, a structure of timber and iron and stone. My cabin also became one of my mind. It is a place I enter often, especially when the world is loud and maddening. The furniture is simple, with a corner to read, a small desk and chair at which to write, a view over vast vistas of the mind and the thoughts that lie there.

This cabin too is a place of retreat, of reclaiming myself and what I love to do. I can switch off to what is immediately around me and switch on to what is more important. No longer do my ears here the noise around about, no longer do my eyes see what comes from immediate impressions of light on my retinas. No longer to the demands of clamouring people, thinking only of what they can gain for themselves, call upon me. Soon enough they realise that I simply do not respond. Instead I am in another world, the cabin of my mind. Here my thoughts run, ideas arise in peace.

On this journey I have found the cabin again.

IMG_1999 (2) (640x420)

Travelling the Soviet Union

Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov was one of the many anti-communists writers who came to live outside the Soviet Union and direct many of their energies to undermining the Soviet project. Arrested while still a teenager for counter-revolutionary activities (probably in the White Armies, but he does not say), he was given a commuted death sentence in one of the labour camps. After ten years (1926 to 1935), he was rehabilitated – as many were from the camps – and then spent a happy number of years working various parts of the Soviet Union before Hitler invaded in 1941. Voluntarily enlisting in the Red Army, he was captured by the Germans and chose to stay in West Germany after the war. What intrigues me about his memoirs, Bitter Waters, is that he found himself drawn into the socialist offensive, the amazing, chaotic and productive years of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s. Despite his best efforts, he cannot conceal the ingenuity and enthusiasm that characterised most people during that time.

However, I am most drawn to his depictions of travel after he was rehabilitated, one a brief account of living in a small village after his release and of walking, the other a longer account of an early motorcar journey.

Living in the Village and Walking the Steppes

The house had a typical provincial yard, spacious and thickly covered with a shaggy grass – called ‘broomstraw’ by the locals – lilac bushes, and dozens of fruit trees. In the back yard the widow kept a goat and five or six chickens. The animals, the fruit trees, her hand-knitting, and my rent were her livelihood. Constantly busy with her domestic chores, the fussy old woman inaudibly and unhurriedly moved about the house, accompanied by a lazy old cat whom fate also smiled upon. Evenings I went out into the yard, lay down in the grass, and for hours idly gazed upward at the magnificent sky, the brilliant, starry abyss. Alone with the rustling grass, the lilac bushes, and the dark foliage of the trees in the quiet reverie of the southern night.

As a teenager I had been a great wanderer and loved to spend the whole day out in the steppes. Traveling around the district, my former passion was rekindled. Sometimes I would walk ten or fifteen kilometres just to feel again the thrilling closeness to nature that I have fully experienced only in the steppes: the road, weaving in and out among the hills and foothills; the endless hum of wires buzzing overhead; a dung beetle suddenly appearing out of nowhere, droning resonantly; the song of an invisible bird filling the endless sky. Vast expanses, and in my chest the exact same expansiveness, happiness, and light, peaceful calmness. No one is visible for tens of kilometres around. I walked alone, with nothing but the eternal quiet and calm of the steppe surrounding me – no past, no future. Walks like these are like a bath. You are absorbed in them, cleansed; and afterward, you breathe more easily.

The Motorcar Journey

Once I was getting ready to go to Moscow on business. Neposedov, who had no travel plans, suddenly announced that he was going, too. He proposed traveling by car via Rybinsk and Yaroslavl, I was surprised: ‘For pity’s sake, Grigory Petrovich, that’s more than six hundred kilometres away! What do you think we are, champion auto racers? Six hundred kilometres on our roads! We would devour so much gas that it would cost us a fortune. And your tyres couldn’t take it’.

‘That is exactly why I am going – because they cannot take any more’, winked Neposedov. ‘We can swing by Volga Construction in Rybinsk and buy tyres from the chauffeurs there at a good price. Get my drift? The gas is a trifle, and the road from Rybinsk isn’t bad; we can somehow manage up to Rybinsk as well. How about it? I don’t want to go alone’.

It would be easier, of course, to go by train and be in Moscow in three hours. Neposedov’s route would take a minimum of twenty-four. But the weather was marvellous and the thought of more travel to new places was tempting. I agreed.

It was mid-morning, about ten o’clock, when we left. We drove hastily through town, scattering chickens in the dusty streets on the outskirts, then set off down a soft country road. A cool breeze wafted through the open windows. The road wound along a meadow with yellowing birches, set like a picture in the quiet drowsiness of Indian summer.

Twilight was rapidly approaching. The farther we went, the worse the road got. The car tossed about mercilessly on bulges in the pavement, pushed up by tree roots. ‘Let’s hope we don’t wreck the shocks’, worried Neposedov, letting up on the gas.

‘Shouldn’t we stop for the night in the next village?’ I suggested. ‘The road is lousy, and our tyres are no better; if we rip them up, we’ll be stuck’.

‘I’d rather not’, Neposedov said, twisting around in displeasure, ‘but since there’s no hurry, I suppose we can stay over one night’. (61)

The high cottage with four windows also looked uninviting. The walls had been darkened by time, and paint was peeling from the intricately carved window frames, which were rotting in places. The sharp peak of the roof leaned forward, as if the house were frowning morosely. Yet the thick log walls revealed that in its day the house had been built wonderfully well, to last many years.

We rapped on a small, sturdy gate, which also had weathered many a year, but received no answer. We went into the yard – not a soul in sight. There were no carts, sleighs, or harrows leaning against the barn, either. The doors of the wide barn had been thrown open, and one surmised that it was also empty in the darkness behind them. Beyond the barn, a few sheds and coops huddled together. Farther on, behind a picket fence, there appeared to be a kitchen garden. The yard, too, had been converted into a garden. The only footpaths were right next to the house and farther back, near the coops. Cultivated beds, either bare or with the withered remnants of potato plants, occupied the remaining space. There was no movement or sign of life anywhere, A broom leaned against the door on the high porch—evidence that the master of the house was away.

We sat on the little porch for half an hour, awaiting the owner. It was already dark when a tall, spare, sinewy old man of about sixty appeared from the back yard. He greeted us without apparent surprise. We informed him why we were sitting in his yard.

‘You can spend the night, we’ll make room for you’, the owner responded unenthusiastically, stepping up onto the porch. ‘Come on in’.

In the house he lit a little kerosene lamp and we looked around. The room was orderly and clean: a table; a wide bench along the outside wall; several Viennese chairs; a little fireplace; darkening lithographs on the walls. The place looked shabby, but it was evident that at one time its inhabitants had lived well. Neposedov inquired whether we could get some milk, eggs, something to eat.

‘Of course you can, but do you know what they’re charging for milk and eggs these days?’ asked the owner in a dry, unfriendly tone, ‘They really sting you’.

When Neposedov responded that we would pay city prices, the owner softened a little. ‘My wife will be home soon and give us a bite to eat. Till then, why don’t you have a seat?’

We sat down. Our host puttered around the house morosely. Conversing with him was going to be a hopeless task. His wife turned out to be the exact opposite. About ten years younger than her husband, friendly in appearance and efficient in movement, she greeted us cheerfully: ‘Welcome! Be our guests’. She brought us an earthenware jug of fragrant milk, some bread, and a bit of butter. Supper for herself and her husband was bread, milk, and boiled potatoes. ‘Take some potatoes, too; so tasty with milk! And even more so with butter; they will jump right into your mouth!’ the loquacious woman rattled on in a pleasant Yaroslavl accent. Neposedov, who always felt very much at home with simple people, began to joke. By the end of supper the host had also thawed, and he did his part to keep up the conversation.

After supper we sat and rested, offered cigarettes to our host, and chatted about life. The old man had come out of his shell completely and now talked readily.

It had rained a little in the night, and the sun gleamed brightly in the puddles as we drove on. The dust had been dampened down by the rain, the air was intoxicatingly clear, and we cheerfully rolled along the soft country road.

There wasn’t even a whisper of trouble in the air, and we were in a great mood. The weather was perfect, the car was running well, the road was smooth, we had lots of gas – what more could we want? Forgetting that good fortune always goes hand in hand with bad, we would pay dearly for our complacency.

We had gone about ten kilometres when the ear began to weave strangely, as if it were lame on one foot. Neposedov’s face fell. He stopped the car and threw himself out of it as though it were on fire. Following after, I found him already squatting next to the right, rear wheel, sombrely examining the tyre casing.

‘Well, here we are’, growled Neposedov in response to my inquiring look.

The casing had come apart – lengthwise, no less. Not only the rubber, but the inner cloth layer had been abraded, leaving only a swatch about a foot long, riddled with holes, through which the reddish rubber of the tender inner tube shone pitifully. Give it a little more pressure and it would completely disintegrate. We could go no farther; we were finished.

‘Well, here we are’, Neposedov repeated thoughtfully. ‘What should we do?’

What could we do in such a situation, stuck without a spare tyre in a dense forest about fifty kilometres from Rybinsk, on a country road travelled only by a Volga Construction gasoline or other truck once or twice in twenty four hours? There was no way out of this situation.

‘If only we had something to hold the casing together’, remarked Neposedov. ‘Perhaps we could somehow hold out until Rybinsk. But what could we tie it with? We have nothing’.

We dug around in the trunk, in the tool box – sure enough, nothing there.

We looked around: a wide clearing, with forests on both sides. No sign of anything we could use to secure the casing.

Suddenly I detected an amused glimmer in Neposedov’s eyes. Smiling, he flung open his coat and took off his belt.

‘Uncinch yourself!’ proposed Neposedov, laughing. ‘Your trousers won’t fall down, and if they do, you can hold them up with your teeth! We won’t be sitting in the middle of the road, but getting out little by little’.

With absolutely no other way out, I also removed my belt. Fortunately, my trousers stayed up without it. We bound the casing tightly with the two belts and proceeded cautiously. But no matter how soft the road, the belts did not hold very long; they were worn out after a few kilometres. However, we had gotten closer to civilization. A field appeared on the right, surrounded by wire fencing. In it we found good pieces of telephone wire for binding up the casing.

‘Just hope it doesn’t cut the inner tube’, worried Neposedov. So we crept along at the speed of a horse, checking the casing frequently. A farm village came into sight. There Neposedov bought dozens of rawhide thongs – long, thin belts. We substituted the thongs for the wire and crawled along farther at the same pace. The stops, the unwinding and rewinding of the casing took up a lot of time. The hands of the clock passed twelve. It was more than a little wearing on the nerves. At first it was funny; then dealing with the casing became tedious; finally, we were fed up.

After a couple more hours we came to a large village. In its centre stood a rural cooperative retail store. We went in and greedily eyed the shelves. Wouldn’t something be suitable for our casing? Learning what we sought, the saleswoman led us to the harness department. It was a treasure trove of saddle straps and small belts of all kinds. We were dazzled. We picked over strap after strap, testing its durability and elasticity, and stumbled on some thick, soft rawhide strips, as wide as the palm of one’s hand, which could not have been more appropriate for our purpose.

‘What are these things for?’ queried Neposedov.

‘I do not know, myself’, responded the saleswoman phlegmatically. ‘On the invoice they appear as lassoes, but nobody knows what they are for. They are not in demand in our locale, so they have been lying here since they arrived. No one has bought any. Almost all the goods here are defective: either too short, too narrow, or too wide’, the saleswoman explained with the same indifference.

‘Well, we will relieve you of some of your defective items’, remarked Neposedov. ‘Give us five of those lassoes’.

Not to be embarrassed in front of anyone, we drove out of the village and stopped in a field for capital repairs. We wrapped the torn casing so well and firmly with a lasso that all of the holes were covered. We also wrapped another casing that looked to be in danger.

Finishing our work, we stepped back, entranced: The vivid, bright yellow belts looked splendid against the black background of the automobile.

‘They turned out fine’, Neposedov shook his head. ‘We’ll be just like a circus, entertaining the public. Since everyone who sets eyes on us will be amused, we can collect money for providing a diversion’.

At first we drove slowly, frequently checking the patches. The straps held. We quickened the pace – the straps held. Our spirits rose. Perhaps we would get to Rybinsk? We arrived in Rybinsk – the straps were holding and nothing had happened to them.

We could find no tyres either in Rybinsk or in Yaroslavl, so we travelled on the lassoes all the way to Moscow, which we reached only toward evening of the third day. Neposedov had driven the car from Yaroslavl to Moscow at a good clip, because by then we had a strong faith in the durability of the lassoes.

The Innlander: One of the Unknown Great Rail Journeys

IMG_1640 (427x640)

I believe I am on one of the great unheralded rail journeys of the world – The Innlander. The train leaves from beneath the smoke stacks of the Mt Isa mine, in northwest Queensland; in fact, the station is part of the mine and the line is integral to that venture in the northern outback. It runs for almost a thousand kilometres, west to east, until one reaches Townsville a day later. And yes, given the distance and the time, it is a slow train, rolling contentedly across the arid landscape.

IMG_1643 (2) (640x427)

IMG_1653 (2) (640x427)

We board as two of thirteen passengers, at a nondescript corner of the mine. The train has an engine and four carriages: one for luggage and freight, one for staff and two for passengers. Many seats will be filled at the stops on the way.

IMG_1754 (2) (640x427)

We have seats only for the overnight journey, but comfortable and wide seats they are – three only across the width of the carriage. Two toilets at one end and a shower at the other, spacious and, again, comfortable.

IMG_1700 (2) (427x640)

We are greeted in that curiously warm northern way, with an offer of free sandwiches, tea and coffee, and, should the need arise, a request to press the call button in the event of any ‘emergency’ – such as the need for chocolate. Dinner packs too seem to be complimentary, as is breakfast. So much for the pile of food we had brought for the journey (based on experiences from other trains).

IMG_1741 (2) (640x427)

I am mesmerised by much all at once, the cares of the world falling away in a moment. The arid land out of the window, with its ant piles, tough trees and bushes, rough hills and red dirt constantly drawing my gaze. But then I find the lounge area – completely unexpected, for this is usually granted to first class passengers.

IMG_1734 (2) (640x416)

Except that there is no first class on this train. Or rather, we are all first class as a matter of course. At discount prices. So here I sit, trying to look out of all windows at once, amazed that more people do not travel on this train. Perhaps they will, as we stop at station after station on the way.

IMG_1770 (2) (640x427)

I talk with one of the attendants and find out that less than twelve months ago, the former conservative state government had cut out the dining car and sleepers, which attracted more to travel on the long journey. The logic is baffling unless aforesaid (and rather unpopular) government’s agenda was to close the line completely. Fortunately he and his minions are gone and the railway people are struggling successfully to have services restored. The lounge section is one such example, as are the free meals. An old couple follow me into the lounge, regular travellers on the service. He is stone deaf and would do well with an ear-horn; she is unable to make the hot water work for her tea. As she ponders what to do, we talk about the train – at some length. The sleepers, they tell me, should be back in a few months, for they have been fighting for them.

IMG_1779 (2) (640x420)

I am unable to determine whether the scenery or the people on board are more intriguing. While I continue the relish the desert, its dust storms and bare hills, I become involved with the passengers. Some alight at Cloncurry, while others join us. A few solo men in search of work or adventure set off on the few streets of the town. One has a work shirt on, the other an old pair of jeans and pack with nothing but a book and a toothbrush. But the greater number are local Aboriginal people: a mother and two children, a triple of younger people, a few men and women travelling alone. At first there is relatively little interaction, but interact we do after a while. One woman with a weathered face discusses power options for recharging a phone or a computer. I offer to watch her phone while I sit in the lounge car. A large man waits while I take a photo, before we discuss toiletry needs.

IMG_1760 (2) (640x427)

Night eventually falls and weary do I become. Time to finish writing, brush teeth and put my feet up with a book to read until sleep comes upon me. Such is the arrangement of seats that I am able to stretch out my legs horizontally, recline the seat and fall into a deep slumber. Other passengers take different options. The large man I had met earlier opts to sleep on the floor, right across the aisle. He does so for about half an hour, with some of us simply stepping over him to make our way through. A conductor comes along and wakes him. Unlike most trains, she does not scold him and tell him to get back in his seat. Instead, she takes him to the other passenger carriage where he can stretch out in a similar fashion. A teenage Aboriginal boy stretches out beneath the single line of seats and sleeps well into the morning. During the night we creak into quiet stations across the north of Queensland, pass through a dry bush full of nightlife, and stop for more than an hour due to an electricity pole that has fallen over the track. Police and electricity maintenance vehicles light up the night sky as they deal with the pole.

IMG_1687 (2) (640x427)

I wake after more than eight hours of good sleep and make my way to the end of the carriage for a highlight: the train shower. Towels and soap are present and the hot water flows freely. For some reason, beginning a shower at one place and completing it at another – in motion – never ceases to give me a thrill. I return to my seat to find a breakfast package waiting for me. A new conductor, who has joined us through the night, walks by and lets us know we will be an hour or so late, due to the electricity pole. We’ll get there, she says, at some time. As with previous announcements, no loudspeaker system is used, but rather quiet announcements to each group of passengers.

IMG_1756 (2) (640x427)

After breakfast, I return to the lounge car and my spot of the previous day. Now I am joined by some more Aboriginal people, who snooze, talk in their local language and identify sights along the way. The laughing deaf man and his dapper wife soon appear, full of jokes and their ubiquitous cups of tea. Given their knowledge of the train, my sense is that on any journey on this train they will be here.

Too soon does the journey come to an end, with the now unfamiliar sights of buildings and human occupation. Townsville it is, one place in the massive tropical parts of Australia. We haul our untouched food supplies along in the sun, soon enough sweating away. We will eat it, some time soon.

IMG_1791 (2) (640x427)

As we walk, I wonder: how can this rail journey be so unknown? Why do train travellers coming to Australia opt only for the overpriced Indian-Pacific and The Ghan? They are missing one of the quiet gems of rail travel.

IMG_1794 (2) (425x640)

IMG_1764 (2) (640x427)