A night at the train station (day 142)

Hi there autumn (or spring, depending on your point of view). This year, for a change, I have met you with a sleepless night (although I did also get a view of another dawn (not as magnificent as the previous one, but still passable at a pinch).

I spent the day wandering in Irkutsk. I agree with another New Zealander I met – it is missable. Don’t miss the lake though.

I even met a couple of people from the UK, so it was nice to sit around and talk about my life over a beer with people I had known for five minutes.

Then I spent the night at the train station. I actually wanted to spend the night upstairs (there is a place you can kip on a bunk for a few dollars in most big train stations), but I (too politely) stood behind the mother and son in front of me waiting for them to figure out how much it was going to cost, and they promptly took the last two places in the dorm.

Still I was not alone. The waiting room (a long hall, marble panelled with graceful arched windows, and extremely ungraceful metal chair/bench things) was filled with people doing just what I was doing. Waiting.

Train stations are good like that, I think. They are social levellers. Just like petrol stations and supermarkets. No matter who you are (unless you have a personal shopper and a chaffeur driven car) you have to go at one time or another.

So everyone spends some time at the train station, just hanging out together. Very mystical. Even if most of the time people try as hard as possible to avoid any contact with the people around them.

The service at this waiting room is fairly basic. The seats are not comfortable, and many of them are separated from each other by high armrests that make it hard to lie down. The 24 hour music videos are noisy and obtrusive, and the friendly policeman who comes around at 6am to wake everyone up isn’t really worth paying for.

Then again, the price is at the lower end of the range. Food (mostly bread covered in some species of fat) is readily available, as is sweet black tea (the only way the Russians make it). And it is quite interesting to look at all the people sitting around.

People fall asleep in all kinds of positions. Some get lucky (like me) and get several seats without armrests to spread out on. Some sleep sitting up, with their heads plonked in their laps (not so good for the back), some have thoughtfully brought along a partner that they can lean against, a few fortunate fellows have lain down in the window (which affords a tolerably long, flat surface with good ventilation).

The ones who are not sleeping are drinking mostly. There is tea on offer (you can persuade the shops to give you hot water usually if you have brought your own cup and tea bag), beer (of course), and vodka. Mostly the later is the provision of the homeless people who spend quite a lot of time outside the station, since anyone drinking it inside is quickly sent packing by the friendly policeman.

I got talking to one of the homeless people (during a period when I was sitting outside). Her conversation was sensible and interesting enough (give up your Toyotas people, the Niva (a type of Lada) is the best automobile for you) until a few minutes after she started on the hard stuff. She had a bottle of Sprite but did not seem to be doing much with it. I have no idea quite where she finds the money. Still, it is very cheap here. I think the people would riot if there were a tax on alcohol.

So here we all are together in the waiting place – except the homeless people, who are already home, of course. Lots of trains are delayed, but Russians are very good at waiting.

It is a real melting pot. We have lots of white Russians, lots of the darker-skinned variety from the southern republics, a smattering of Chinese, and people who could be Mongolian, and we have a Westerner with blonde highlights in his hair. We have people without shoes, people without shirts, people with baggage so heavy that they can only lift one item at a time, and people with only plastic bags to their name (which they use, resourcefully, as pillows). We have military types (all forces), and beggar types, business people and snot-nosed children. We have traders and bureaucrats, and entire families eating from newspaper that serves as a table and a table-cloth in one.

There is a post office that has summer and winter hours that are the same, but that advertises both just in case.

You can tell who smells bad by where the flies land. Just about everyone has had better hair days than today.

Day has begun now. Funny how we divide things up into dark and light, sleep and wake.

It worked out okay, in the end. I never got a bed upstairs, but I caught a few hours snooze, and I met up with the guy from Lonely Planet again. We drank tea, wasted time, talked of affairs and waited for his train.

And I asked him, by the way, whether writing travel books reduces the joy of travelling. And it does. So there you go.

Maybe the continuous music videos are to hide the snoring.