The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress about traveling across Siberia with my son. Part of the book is framed in letters to my Dad. May 23rd would have been his 94th birthday, and I miss him dearly every day.
You should be with us. We could sit in the dining car and have a few beers; you’d read Journey to the End of the Russian Empire and we’d write letters home to Mom. When I think of trains I naturally think of my youth and you at the station going and coming home. I remember one time we rode the train to the city for dinner and a show, but this ride is nothing like the Long Island Railroad. It’s odd how the Siberian rail feels safer and less shaky, but then I was so young. I would love to ride trains with you again, have a drink in the dining car and talk about baseball. If you were here you’d order the burger and fries and have a Baltika, their best beer, and of course we would have some caviar just to be able to go back home and say we had caviar. I think of you a lot and it is most likely because I am more of a father now than I’ve ever been, your grandson and I alone on the other side of the world, slightly ecstatic, slightly terrified. And it is only now, out here, that I realize no matter how strong you showed yourself to be, inside you were probably scared as well. It is my turn.
Strange how you just never know when that last ride will be. I don’t remember back then knowing we will never do this again. Those lucid moments of finality are rare and tend to sneak past us. We must be in those seats facing away to see them and I get weary always looking backwards.
So we barrel along, just a father and his son. I wonder if Czar Nicholas looked out at these same birch forests and had some sort of premonition. Did his son stand nearby like Michael stands near me now? Did his young heart still hold hope the hard days were past? Did he smile and think about being able to spend more time with his dad? When I was young, on those rare times we traveled to the city I worried about getting lost, or strangers, or the sheer majestic size of the surroundings, but I always knew somehow you’d figure it out. I guess Alexi felt the same around his exiled father. And Michael too waits for my cue to disembark or head to the dining car. I’ve come to understand finally that you were as anxious as I am, wanting your son to have the time of his life yet protect him in a world of strangers. It turns out on the rails in Russia rushing through forests, we are the strangers.
Still, If I had the ability to forget my roots, to never remember the people I’ve known and loved or the places I’ve been, I could stay forever in Siberia. I’d disembark the trans-Siberian rail and I’d live on the shores of Lake Baikal. The gentle, helpful people in this pristine landscape at once made us feel at home. This morning I thought, very clearly, “I’d love to be exiled here.” The Decembrists didn’t mind so much. These revolutionary aristocrats of the 1800’s built beautiful homes with sunrooms and gardens. They entertained nightly, wrote books and continued their lives untethered by Czarist concerns. Today the riverfront in their Irkutsk is an oasis of pubs and cafes, international foods and festivals, with banks and other businesses lining boardwalks with architectural masterpieces.
As to our companions I’m afraid to say we won’t get to know them well; no one we’ve met travels very far on the Siberian railroad. A few stops mostly; maybe one or two nights and certainly not all the way to the far side of the empire. No wonder the conductor recoiled when he asked our destination and I said “Vladivostok.” This isn’t a tourist route; for that people head south to Moscow and cross Russia and Mongolia into China, ending up in Beijing. This “Imperial Route,” St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, is mostly rural and roughly the same distance as traveling from New York to Hawaii. For some perspective Dad, it’s as if you boarded the LIRR at the Islip station to head to downtown Manhattan and met someone continuing to Honolulu. The other travelers, nearly all men, are heading to or from work projects or visiting family just one or two stops away. Some people travel further, and in third class a few families carry a month’s worth of belongings to summer dachas, but so far only Michael and I and a family from France are covering the entire nation. We talk with travelers, we get out at stations, and we eat and drink.
A woman sold blueberries this morning at the platform. Another man sold books, including Chekhov. We called the woman Blueberry Babushka for her outfit was mostly a blue-flower design, and she carried two metal buckets of berries. I bought a large bag and for a moment thought she was going to count them out, like you do with your bowl at breakfast, and I was suddenly sorry I am not home to help you separate the good berries from the bad. Still, you’d be proud of your grandson—he ate nearly an entire bucket before boarding. They are about the freshest food we’ve found. But I left without Chekhov, so I decided to record my own journey to the end of this vast land, and, like Anton, do so partly in letters home, to you.
The sun is setting Dad, and it is hard to see the birch trees. Michael is off somewhere between cars, staring, no doubt, out some window at this vast and beautiful landscape. In a few days we’ll head deeper into Siberia, passing that point where we will be closer to you going forward than heading back, and it feels fine. But for now this father and son are headed to the bar car.