Bob Dylan sang ‘You Gotta Serve Somebody’. John Lennon, offended by Dylan’s subordination retorted immediately with ‘You Gotta Serve Yourself’, Well, actually I think they are both kinda wrong, It depends how you look at it.
I am highly strung, full of nervous energy, distractible and scattered. Spread thin. I read 4 books at once and have more pies than fingers, I had recently got out of the London life trap and made it to Russia, but I still carried a million silly problems in my head. Stood on the icy platform in Yekaterinburg I was independent and serving no-one, but it wasn’t bringing much freedom, at least not mentally. It really took some subservience on my part to actually start feeling free. It seems independence brings it’s own pressures whereas freedom lives without them. Big difference.
The next three days could well be hellish. It was a strange time to travel, it was natives only at this time of year, and in this part of the world you are dreaming if you think you will find any English speakers. I was traveling alone but sharing a 4 berth cabin on the Trans-Siberian Express with three Russian soldiers and a dog, a beautifully behaved brown cocker spaniel as it happens, but the soldiers were huge and pretty intimidating. They polished knives in bed. Not of the cutlery variety.
They had faces I wasn’t familiar with, much harder and more defined. I remember thinking I have never met anybody like these guys. This was in February 2014, at the height of the Ukraine crisis and although I couldn’t understand a word of the soldiers Russian, the occasional ‘Obama’ or ‘Americans’ was distinguishable. Despite trying to look as nation-less as possible, at no point did I feel uncomfortable. There was some concern that if things did escalate much further (and lets be honest it really looked like it would do) I would not be getting across the Mongolian border. I could be holed up in Siberia for a little while, like a spy or something, which was sort of exciting.
So thats the political and physical backdrop. Geographically we were ploughing through the tail end of a tough Siberian winter. Through white nothingness, occasionally broken with pylons and occasional tracts of human life that cling to the metal rails like tubes into hospital apparatus. How could anyone live out here?
She pressed on, resolutely. The rhythm of the track setting the pace for life onboard. The gentle belch of heat from the corridor pipes pumped regular stints of sleepiness into the carriage. The flock patterned curtains, the hoover humming in the distance, the smell of polish, the bubble of hot water . I realised this train was reminding me of my Grandmas house, except she had toilet paper.
At one stop the soldiers bought me a little present, a small stone cat stood upright on its legs. I would have loved to have talked to them, they seemed good guys. I hoped they wouldn’t be sent to fight for our leaders ego’s. I quite possibly had a vodka too many and tried to explain Beatles songs to them at one point. I’m not too sure.
There is something about the in-between destinations where I am at my happiest. Maybe because ‘they’ can’t get you during this period, there is nothing they can bother you with until you arrive at your destination. All I had to do is sit. and. wait.
It had taken 56 hours since a shower, a little vodka and being held captive at my lost Cossack Grannies, for it to happen. Cocooned, conditioned and regimented, the Trans Siberian Express on its way to Irkutsk is the only place on earth I have ever, truly felt free – and it was down to confinement and structure.
The Russians don’t get it, well not the young ones I met in Moscow anyway. They can’t understand the Western obsession with this ‘so long, so boring train!!’. I laughed, and said to be honest I have no idea why I have always wanted to do it, I just have. The concept of a journey which lasts so long may as well be measured in football pitches or London buses, because it’s just too hard for us to grasp. Perhaps it’s the manipulative nature of time which causes us a lot of us problems, if you can occasionally do away with those shackles, you’ll be half way to serving nobody.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Running away from it all, running out of money. Working on a book on the Beatles. Never been published – probably a good reason for that.
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