I generally don’t do this, publish on the blog a work which is destined for a larger, more involved project, but tonight I am for three reasons. One, I just finished what will be a 200 page book about Siberia, called The Iron Scar, and this is only about a third of the final chapter but it feels good to get to this point and I wanted to share it while everyone is getting zoombombed. Two, it’s corona-time, and it’s the only contribution I can make to create a diversion for those sitting inside. Maybe some people won’t mind reading this, traveling across fifteen time zones with my son and me, sharing it with others if you wish. And three, John Prine just died a very short time ago. He always made me think of moving on.
Thank you for reading my stories on this site these four and a half years.
You’ll be leaving on a new train
Far away from this world of pain
The engine pulls us across the last sets of trusses and in the distance we see the small, hilly skyline of Vladivostok. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief as the flooded Amur spares this train. The tigers will have to find other fare.
The rare non-saturated fields we passed heading south on this peninsula toward Vladivostok are clearly the land of laborers. Farmers and fisherman, lumberjacks and rail workers all jockey for position, try to make a living. The non-forest land is checkered with farms separated by fences made from trees, and small, lush gardens of cabbage sit inside makeshift walls, endless tiny plots each with its own tool shed. Cattle wander at will on all sides of the waterways, and fields of potatoes and onions stretch across the hills. I’m sure it is an isolated life, but those we’ve met don’t imply loneliness. The sweeping generalizations I’ve heard about Siberia, and Russia in general for that matter, have no support, no evidence of how such trite judgments might have started to begin with. In the nineteenth century, perhaps, and even up through World War Two, but nothing here is the same as cold-war-era kids like me had been taught. Nothing.
I don’t understand the engineering principles which make this train run across these iron rails through green landscapes past forests of birch trees. I can readily enough turn my pen toward the burning oil, the human waste, the garbage, the third-class suffering and see the searing effects of this iron scar. Certainly, these rails brought opportunity to the Siberian outposts, yet these cars also carried innocent millions to gulags and prison camps. It brought soldiers to war and home again, bodies home again, Jews from their homes to eastern towns during the pogroms, tourists trying to reach Baikal, businessmen hoping to spend a few days away from the city; it brought the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the west to the east, and the hopes of millions into the vast indifference of the Russian frontier. These packed train cars have slid past vast fields of indifference for more than a hundred years, and they’ve carried the confessions of gulag guards, of Bolshevik evangelists, the wit and subversive criticism of dissident poets, the last hopes of a dying imperial family; these carriages have carted east those feared in Moscow, those freed in prison camps but forced to flee no further than the next station; these cars moved multitudes to the wasteland beyond the Urals hoping to populate the eastern perimeter of Russia, most dying from disease and deadly winters. This train has moved though our lives carrying stories of strangers, companions beyond communication, brothers without borders bonding over chess and Baltika beer during some late night/early morning leg on the Mongolian border, where laughter remained our only diction. Oh, this train.
This railcar carried this father and son from apprehension to confidence, and the further we rolled toward the barren reaches of the empty lands in eastern Siberia, the closer we came to independence and companionship. It has been three weeks, it has been ticked off the clock not on Moscow time but on the immeasurable growth of a time shared playing music between cars, or over drinks all the while this train moves south and closer to home than Moscow.
We can finally travel at our own pace, on our own tracks.
The Vladivostok skyline is ahead of us and grows across the flooded plain, China to our west, North Korea not far, and from this rain-soaked window in the dining car, my office for nearly six thousand miles, I sit one last time and listen to Shostakovich, jot down a few final thoughts, and drink a can of Baltika
If I were to ride these rails again, I’d spend more time on the platforms buying fry cakes, pirogi, dried fish, flat bread and fruit from the local women, and talk to them more, engage in what is clearly their existence, that walk from their home to the station and back. The connection I have discovered no matter where I travel, but in particular somewhere as remote as the rural sections of what is essentially already rural Siberia, is the food. It is the common denominator, the shared space on a circle graph, and like the chess games here in the dining car brought us together with strangers, the old women at the stations all along the crossing who sell us their goods make this trip personal. It is food which binds us—not language. I’ve been on trains throughout the United States, in particular the commuter routes from Manhattan to Long Island, and people who do share a language don’t talk anyway, so this isn’t much different. I challenge it is more engaging; too much common ground can kill a relationship, no matter how fleeting.
Still, across this vast empire I believe the reason I spend so much time looking out at the wild landscape, the royal-blue station-houses, the deep truth of birch trees, the small villages and eroding towns, is simply they need no translation, no subtitles. I can let my imagination drone over the landscape without the need for inquiry or answer. Certainly, I would like to know the story behind an apparently abandoned gulag, or what the primary occupations are so far from any town of note, but that information is encyclopedic, and anyway, between cabinmates and dining car chess players, we seem to have discovered a decent cross-section of eastern Siberian culture. None of the people are rude; they’re guarded. Their excited reaction to various topics is at first defensive, yet as soon as they discover our attempt to communicate and learn, not accuse, they have patience and openly desire to engage and assist. This is all accompanied by frustration on both parts when we try too hard. The railway has taught me not to try too hard.
The great irony of crossing Russia from its westernmost city to the eastern port of Vladivostok—just about the widest crossing one can undertake anywhere on the planet and remain in one country—is despite remaining on track moving forward, it is a wandering experience, seemingly erratic and haphazard. I like not knowing what is around the bend, never quite sure of in which town we might have disembarked, and which ones are better left to the tigers. There is always a cost to the choices we make.
There is a price to pay as well for being a father, especially when you are close to your child. A part of you dies with each new passage, and at some point you understand there is no end of the line, there is only moving on, separately, praying the other is well, healthy, still moving forward. I’ve gone as far as I can on this ride with my son, and it is all so familiar. I was twenty, my father fifty-five. He drove me to the airport for my one-way flight away from home toward something else with a vocabulary I had not yet even tried to unravel. I just knew I needed to go, and he let me.
That’s our job, as parents, to let them go. I imagine a life years from now, when some time will have passed since I last saw my son, and he will have aged, and I will have slipped further toward the end of the line, and we’ll embrace, and he’ll tell me a story or two about his life since moving on.
I sit up early before departing the train for the city, then the airport, then home. My bags lay packed on the floor, the linens already rolled up and bagged for the attendant. Outside the sky is grey but clearing, and the morning sun picks up glints of glass on the skyscrapers of the city. Michael returns with his last cup of tea from the samovar and sits across from me on the opposite, now empty, bunk, our knees nearly knocking. I look at him and smile.
“What?” he says.
I know he thinks we had exhausted the Train Song Game, so he stares out the window a while trying to dial up a train song by one of his favorites. Nothing. Of course not, I think. I saved this one on purpose. This one’s for the fathers:
I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams