I suppose it’s only appropriate that after a year of heavy use (almost every day) and much brutal treatment, my trusty laptop starts to show signs of wear and tear. In a way, I am happy about the breaking off of a section of plastic from its front. It is a sign of maturity. A sign that it is a trusty workhorse, not just some posey toy with a picture of an apple on. Although I wasn’t necessarily expecting this breakage, I’m not all that surprised: Sir Simon (who waved me off from Osaka port many moons ago) has a reconditioned model with the same problem, caused by near-constant pressure applied by the lid to this particular section of plastic next to the trackpad. A design flaw. Apple, please take note.
So yes, I’ve finally arrived in the EU. It makes such a refreshing change to not have my passport taken away for hours on end at the border. A brief glance at the United Kingdom emblem on the front, a casual flick through the pages and it’s handed back with a courteous ‘thank you’. No more intimidating border officials removing ceiling panels and emptying out bags in search of illegal imports of bears paws either. It feels good to not be classed as a criminal until proven otherwise.
Even the Russian woman who’s looking after us has a European attitude. There’s no more shouting at us to get back in our boxes. Instead, she comes politely knocking at our doors, asking if we would like a cup of coffee to help pass the time whilst the bogeys are being changed.
I always thought that a rather strange name for a set of wheels. That aside, the little boy in me was mightily excited when I realised that the huge warehouse we’d been shunted into was the bogey-changing station. I’d read about it in the guidebook: Mongolia, Russia and Belarus use an abnormally wide gauge track on their railways, thus any cross-border trains need to have their wheels changed at the appropriate spot. I’d missed it the other end having changed trains at the Chinese border town of Erlian. Crikey, Erlian. Seems like a lifetime ago. Remember the fun I’d had at the station, watching desperately eager Chinese passengers pushing their luggage into the x-ray machine in front of me? The endless shunting backwards and forwards for no apparent reason? The chap who I was later to spend a few days with in an isolated Mongolian yurt falling off the platform at the sight of Pepé?
The idea of trains simply being jacked up and having their wheels replaced whilst all the passengers are still on board really appealed to that part of me that always wanted (but never did have) a great big Hornby model railway. There was also the idea that by not getting off we were being allowed to be naughty – the drunken kids riding in the back of pick-up truck at crazy speeds down a New York State highway (no mum, I didn’t really do that when I was over there 10 years ago, honest…), or the secret hitching a ride in an open-top rail freight wagon from Hereford to Liverpool (thinking about that now I can hardly believe I actually did that, age 16, …but I did!).
Unfortunately, being a border crossing point I was warned that photos weren’t allowed, thus the poor quality of the stealth shots on this page.
The process was remarkably simple. First, the train was shunted into this big warehouse with its dual-guage lines and overhead crane, the carriages were then separated and each positioned precisely between 4 heavy duty jacks. Down into the pits below us jumped a load of workmen armed with hammers. They banged away for a while, before signally for the carriage to be lifted. The movement of the jacks was barely noticeable, and it was only when I found myself looking down on the neighbouring carriage that I realised that we were now riding high. From the far end of the building a new set of bogies was shunted under us and then positioned precisely by the workmen, now armed with big levers for sticking in front of the wheels. Once again the whir of the jacks was heard – down we came onto our new set of wheels. In the meantime, the overhead crane was being used to change all the couplings to the European standard. The speed with which all these huge bits of metal were replaced was staggering, and reminded me of a formula 1 pit-stop. OK, so it was a bit slower (taking about 45 minutes), but nonetheless…
It was whilst we were in that yard that we saw what I think will be the last of the old women selling berries, fish, cigarettes and loaves of bread. I’d been quite amused at the border station by the ongoing battle between uniformed personnel and these babushkas. Clearly here the practice was frowned upon, and so whenever an official appeared the babushka gang would retreat to beneath a stairwell, hidden from view. Now and then one of them would stick their heads out, and if the coast was clear she’d signal to the gang. Back up to the train they’d come clutching pieces of cardboard with what I assume was a list of what they had to sell in their big plastic bags written in Russian. One of them even managed to stow away onboard, and when we arrived at the bogey changing station just down the track she appeared in the corridor, pausing outside every cabin and whispering to us “Cigarettes? Vodka?”.
Until yesterday I knew nothing of Belarus. I still know very little, having only read the introduction to the former soviet state in a Lonely Planet guidebook. “A taste of the old Russia”, complete with human rights violations pretty much sums it up – although unsurprisingly I saw little of that from the train. No, what I saw what looked like a rather idealistic landscape. Cute little wooden houses with flower-strewn gardens, the occasional donkey and cart, and lots of agriculture stretching across the many flat miles (flatness being another well-documented feature of the country). What I saw of the capital (Minsk) from the train didn’t make any great impression upon me – it could have been any city which was yet to embrace the glass-plated skyscraper age. But of course, passing through a country on an international rail route can’t really give you any more than a general impression of the place – although of course it still beats flying where you don’t even realise you’ve crossed a border!
Poland is pretty flat too. Having not read a thing about the country I don’t know if this is a general trend or not. Once again, it’s agriculture all the way. Both large and small-scale. You might have one huge great field of corn, and then a comparatively small patch of potatoes being worked on by the whole family. In the distance, an evergreen forest forms a horizon.
We’re now about 18 hours into this trip, which with time zones taken into account is actually going to be 34.5 hours long. I’ve enjoyed it so far. I slept very well last night – the bed is ultra-comfy – and today I’ve read an entire book cover to cover. ‘Drop the Dead Donkey 2000 – the novel to end the century’. As you can guess from the title, this Channel 4 book is not exactly an intellectually stimulating read, being based as it is on the rather lame newsroom sitcom of the early 90s. I never found it that funny when I watched it as a teenager, yet despite this, I’ve been utterly riveted by the ‘comedy’ and superficial storyline contained within its 250 pages. I don’t think I could read it in normal life, but for this trip it was just right. (Incidentally, I didn’t really ‘choose’ the book: it was the only English language publication on the shelf at the last hostel where I swapped it for the well written but ultimately depressing In Siberia by whatshisface).
Right, must be time for another piece of bread and a boiled egg.