If I had been born only for this experience, I would have been thankful. I mean a sleeper cabin on train. So much passes us by in life without notice, given that we are so focused on other things. Yet occasionally, an experience reminds you of how good it is to have been given the chance to live. No matter how often I have travelled in this fashion – I lost count long ago – the pleasure is as intense, if not more, every time I do so. I have travelled on overnight on sleepers in China, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Mongolia, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, the United States, Canada, Australia …
It begins with the slow walk along a platform to a waiting train. The composition of the train that awaits me varies as much as the country in which one may travel: a three-car train across the Canadian wilderness, a 40-car train that runs regularly between all of China’s main centres, or one of those glorious European city night lines, with differently designed and painted carriages headed for Minsk, Moscow, Copenhagen, Warsaw and Prague. In the middle of the night, usually at Hanover, it meets other city night line trains, exchanges carriages and the reconfigured trains then head to their respective destinations.
The platform – whether in Moscow, Beijing, Amsterdam, Budapest, Kiev or wherever – is often already dark, with red and yellow lights reflecting off the sides of the train. I check my ticket, once again, to be sure of the carriage and cabin number. A uniformed attendant waits by the door, checks my ticket and then ushers me inside. I step up on the steel stairs that have come down to platform level with the door. This is but one version of the mount, for in Canada or the USA one steps up too and then ascends some more stairs to a floor above. In Australia or Germany, it merely takes a step across at the same level, for here platforms are built to line up with the train door. Yet the search for my own cabin is in some way always the same. I peer in one room and then another, at least when the door is open, intrigued by the habits of my fellow travellers. At last my number appears. Under a light it is, attached to the ceiling or perhaps to the door. I stagger in.
Now I smile. My home for the next few days is before me. A bed neatly folded down, fresh sheet and covers and a fluffed-up pillow, with that smell of having been boiled and starched. Bag dropped on the floor, I open the curtains and look out, watching the bustle of a train preparing to depart. I marvel at the way the cabin is arranged to make the most of the compact space available. A chair and small table are an absolute luxury. More often, I need to sit on my bed and use a small fold-out shelf beneath the window. And when the beds are down, one barely has enough room to clamber in and out, risking broken bones or disembowelment with a sudden turn.
I check out the washing facilities, perhaps a basin that sits snugly in the corner, with multiple bars of soap and small cups of water for brushing one’s teeth, all neatly arranged, as in Germany. Or perhaps, as with the Trans-Siberian, it is a shared bathroom with my neighbour for the long trek across the continent. Or in Australia, the amazingly compact toilet in between cabins doubles up as a shower when you fold the toilet and its washbasin away. Or in China, ample washing facilities with many taps are to be found in a separate and communal washing room. Or on the old Soviet-era train from Sofia in Bulgaria to Moscow, the only tap (which has barely a trickle) is in the toilet, itself a simple tube onto the tracks.
I stretch and test the softness – or hardness, as in China – of the bed; put my feet up and lean back; await the whistle that signals the departure of what suddenly becomes a village in motion. Before long the conductor comes by. Ticket? Passport? Visa? Breakfast? Claude in the United States, on the run from San Francisco to Chicago, cannot stop talking, about anything and everything. Yuri, on the train from Sofia, utters a stream of Russian and then realises I don’t speak the lingo. Chen, on the week-long haul to Beijing, says not a word, but his longing eyes speak of home far away.
I may make forays out of the cabin, for a meal perhaps, where I meet all manner of human sub-species. It may be my traditional walk of the length and breadth of the train, meeting all and sundry. It may be for a piss, wash, or cup of hot water for some tea from the samovar – should it be a civilised Russian or Chinese train that has such devices. It may be simply to pause for a while and look out of the window in the corridor, or perhaps sit for a while on the small fold-out seat you find on Chinese trains, where people are able to make use of the smallest space. But the cabin is my home.
What does one do in the compact space of a sleeper cabin, at times for days on end? At night I make sure my pillow is beneath the window, with the curtains partially open. I lie on my back and watch the passing lights, stations, trees, buildings flit by, upside down and in random order. By day I prop the pillows at one end, stretch out my legs and watch the world go by through the window. I imagine other travellers in my compartment over the years. Occasionally, I need to go foraging for food when my supplies run short. If the dining car is expensive and limited, as on most trains apart from the Chinese, the platform stalls become an endless source of unexpected foods. This is particularly so in Russia and Mongolia, where women and men set up temporary stalls for the passing train. For some reason that is beyond me, each station has its specialities. There may be the chocolate station, with all manner of Russian chocolates for one’s blood sugar. Or the biscuit platform, or the leg-of-lamb platform, or the bread-with-lucky-dips-inside platform (I managed to sniff out the cabbage inserts rather than the unidentified sausage breads), or the powdered-potato-in-plastic-cups platform, or the vodka platform … On each occasion, I return to my cabin with a pile of new supplies, eager to see exactly what the food is like, and whether my stomach is strong enough to stand it.
The vodka platform is particularly handy if one is to have a party in one’s cabin. For at times I welcome visitors into my cabin. New Year’s Eve in Siberia was one such occasion. I laid all my supplies on the small table and bed as more and more people squeezed into the cabin. Soon enough they spilled out into the corridor – Swedes and Georgians and Mongolians and Russians and Germans and even the odd Australian. Strange breads, dried sausage, containers with odd smelling substances reconstituted with water, evil-smelling cheeses, and of course vodka bottles were consumed with gusto until first light. After all, it was New Year’s Eve.
On another occasion the visitors were uninvited. Once on the Ukrainian border from Moldova, the border guards were joined by men and women in such a range of uniforms that I thought the whole Ukrainian armed forces were out to inspect the train. Sniffer dogs came in, my bunk was lifted, bag emptied, ceiling checked – for four hours from midnight onwards. At one point, an interpreter was called in. She had dragged herself out of bed, put on makeup and high heels, travelled to the train and sat beside me on the bunk. She had five questions for me, which I answered in a less than a minute. It turned out they had supposedly “found” drugs and that I was the suspect. Who else would a foreigner travel by train? No drugs were found on my person or in my cabin, so eventually they departed. A Russian couple up the corridor invited me into their cabin and we talked and swilled vodka – “it is a tradition on Russian trains” – until dawn. I slept long and hard throughout most of the next day, back in my cabin.
Here I have a confession to make: I love having a cabin all to myself. In some places a solitary cabin is easy enough to obtain if you are willing to pay for it, but the pleasure is enhanced when I unexpectedly happen to have a multi-bed cabin to myself. Why? It always involves that period of anticipation before departure. If I am first in the cabin, I make a point of not watching everyone who comes close, everyone who saunters by the window on the platform, everyone who may pass along the corridor. Don’t get me wrong. Company for a long haul is another sort of journey. I have travelled often with companions – my children many years ago in a Canadian winter across the frozen tundra to Hudson’s Bay, fellow-travellers in soft or hard sleeper in China, for there one must always share, or half a dozen snorers on a European couchette. Then it involves the avoidance of rustling plastic bags late at night, talk of distance places and lives at a turn, smelly socks and the occasional fart. But for one who enjoys his own company, the moment when the train leaves the platform, sans co-occupant of my cabin, is when I can do as I please.
If anything, the pleasure is even greater when I wake to find a once full cabin empty. On one occasion at Berlin station, the train was delayed for three hours. Coming from Prague, it had encountered extensive flooding in central Europe, so it took the long, slow way around. Meanwhile, I spent a long, chill night on the platform, thankful for my winter woollens that I had thrown in at the last minute, not thinking I would need them during a European summer. At last, at 3.30 am it arrived. I staggered into a couchette with all beds but one occupied, full of the smell of sleeping bodies and airing socks. Desperately trying to make as little noise as possible (and largely failing) I eventually put my grateful head on the pillow and was asleep in seconds. Somewhere in the Netherlands I woke late in the day to find that all my snoring companions had departed the train. Given that in a couchette bed one has barely enough room to sleep, let alone sit up without giving oneself a serious brain injury, I rolled out of bed and made the cabin my home. Beds folded into seats, bag extracted from its remote corner, a wash up the hall, a luxurious breakfast I had brought along – all in the expanse of space that I now had to myself.
All journeys must come to an end, no matter how long or short. My anticipation of the end is always stronger when I have had scant washes over the last days. I look forward to a long bath, clean clothes, regular food … and then begin imagining the next journey in a sleeper cabin.