It was in 2005 that I first planned to travel the Trans-Siberian train across Russia. But sometimes, things don’t work out the way you plan. I knew I would do it someday. Not if. When. Eight years later, that time arrived.
As I had my bike with me, I planned to simply use the train as a means to get to Irkutsk, from where I would begin cycling. To stop off in towns en route would mean lugging the bike box and all my gear from station to hotel and back and it didn’t seem worth the effort. But sometimes, things just evolve. I was picked up from the airport in Moscow by Denis, who worked at the hostel I was going tot stay at. He couldn’t understand why I would rush through Russia, especially as I was fortunate to have a one-year visa for the country. Most tourists only have 30 days to stay… I explained about the bike.
‘Well, my friend recently came to visit and she had to bring a generator from Irkutsk. She sent it by train separately. Why don’t you just do that with the bike? It would take maybe one week, but then you could take your time to explore all the towns along the Trans-Siberian railway.’
Now that sounded a good idea – A chance to see more of Russia. The next day, the bike was put on a cargo train and I was free to travel with just a backpack. I booked trains to Kazan, then on to Yekaterinburg and onwards to Tobolsk. I was going to explore, not just the main cities on the Trans-Siberian route, but the smaller less frequently visited towns on the railway offshoots too.
But what happened next was unexpected.
Kazan was a pleasant place to spend a day and I enjoyed wandering along the quiet street. But apart from the Kremlin, I wasn’t bothered to see any of the tourist sites. When I arrived in Yekaterinburg, despite it being full of museums, I didn’t go to any. Tobolsk, again, the Kremlin was lovely, but apart from that, I was uninspired.
So when I returned to the train station to book an onward ticket, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision. When I finally got to the front of the queue (Russians, even more than the English, are silent, patient queuers) and the ticket lady asked where I wanted to go, which I hadn’t really thought about but was considering Omsk or Novosibirsk, I immediately said ‘Can I get to Irkutsk from here?’
I could. And when she asked when I wanted to go, I said, ‘As soon as possible.’
The realisation that the next place I would be stopping at would be Irkutsk, which was after all where I was wanting to get to, was a huge relief. It didn’t matter that it would take more than 2 days and nights on the train.
I had never been so unenthusiastic about the places I was travelling through. It surprised me. This lack of curiosity and disinterest I had only experienced once, and that was when I was ill in Mali after more than six months on the road.
The reason this time, however, now I think about it, was simple. Up until the day I flew to Moscow, I had been working full-steam on writing and publishing my new (and first) book, Desert Snow, as well as working a full-time job to earn money for this trip. I had not had time to properly plan this trip, let alone read up about the countries I was going to visit. Now I was in Russia and had time and the freedom to see and explore and learn. But I was too tired to do any of it.
I spent about ten days travelling 5,000 kilometres across five time zones in Russia, from Moscow to Irkutsk, but I have travelled further from my sofa, simply by imagining distant far-flung places. Over the last ten months, I have re-visited all 21 African countries I previously cycled through, remembering the sights and sounds and smells. I have sweated my way through the Sahara and cried my way across the Congo a second time. It’s no wonder I’ve been left exhausted.
But over the two days on the train to Irkutsk, I had chance to sit and relax and not have to do anything. Gradually I felt my enthusiasm returning. I could not force myself to enjoy the places I was visiting, but I could try and make sure I would enjoy the places still to see. By the time I arrived in Irkutsk, I was almost fully restored to my usual inquisitive self. Yes, it has been a slow start to this trip, but the rest was important.
I am enjoying Irkutsk a lot. In a way, it is making it hard to leave. But that is not because I don’t want to get on the bike and start this journey across Asia. It is hard to leave for the right reasons.
I look back now at my views on the places I have seen and realise how much they have been influenced by my state of mind at the time. No doubt, if I revisited those places I didn’t particularly enjoy the first time, I would have a very different experience. And it won’t be because those places have changed, but because I have.
Helen Lloyd has cycled some 36,000km in Africa, North and Central America as well as paddling a pirogue 350km down the Niger River and packrafting 250km in Nicaragua’s Moskitia region. Now she is set for a new adventure, see http://helenstakeon.com/blog/journey-across-russia-trans-siberia/