Sleepy in Tomsk

It’s rather ironic, how exhausted I seem to be after these long overnight/multi-night train rides. Having spent three days doing basically nothing, all I could manage today was to go on a halfhearted wander through town and then to take a nap. The good news, for me, is that the energetic 22-year-olds I met on the train are also too tired to meet today. So don’t call me too old quite yet.

At the moment, it’s 6 pm Tomsk time, 3 pm Moscow time, and 7 am New York time. I have no idea what to do with myself. To keep everyone sane across all seven time zones, Russian trains all run on Moscow time. This means traveling across Russia becomes a sort of time warp. Going east, chronological time accelerates as you hurtle towards dawn. Yet this acceleration happens much more slowly than it would in an airplane, so as to be unnoticeable. Like watching a person grow older.

Then suddenly, inside the Moscow-pegged time capsule of the train, “lights out” is well after dark and dawn breaks around 2:30 am. Your watch becomes a mechanism to measure only the passing of time; it’s no longer an accurate indicator of a particular moment or time of day. Unlike in an airplane, the passage of time isn’t mimicked by the closing of the shades, the showing of a film, the serving of breakfast. Nor do your fellow passengers share your exact experience. They get on and off the train at all hours, engaged in their own individual time warp. There’s always at least a few people sleeping, while others are eating lunch or dinner or whatever.

Then you debark, stepping out of the time capsule and into reality. You find you’ve warped two or three or even seven hours ahead, depending on how far you’ve come. Suddenly it’s past lunch time, whereas a half-hour before you had your morning coffee.

It’s no wonder your body wants to sleep – to hit the reset button and start again from morning.


A few of you have asked about my state of mind. I’m trying to keep the ratio of navel-gazing-to-description fairly low, so forgive me if my blog is sounding aloof.

Also, to be honest, I’m trying to remain cheerful in the face of bewilderment.

Every other time I have traveled, within a day or at most two I snap into my happy travel place. I devour historical and current newspaper accounts about the country. I seek out strange and new places and foods. I return to my room late, exhausted and happy.

But here, on this trip, it ain’t happenin’. I feel like I’ve been close – there has been metal-on-metal, but the snap refuses to lock into place. I don’t know if it’s Russia, or if it’s what I feared – that going on an open-ended trip would be different, that I would fret more about where and when and why and how much. In any case, I feel like in some places – Kazan, for instance – I’m going through the motions rather than fully engaging in my travel. I am – dare I say – bored at times. On more than a few occasions, all I wanted to do was return to my room and read or write.

Which also makes me wonder – perhaps this is just built-up desire to do these other things I love – reading and writing – that I had to forego, for the most part, in the months leading up to my departure. During that time I was either engaged in logistical planning – visa, apartment, the disbursement of my belongings – or I was deliberately distracting myself from thinking too hard about what I was doing – giving up my life! leaving New York! – for fear of succumbing to self-doubt and despair. So I read guide books, investigated PO boxes and storage options, and, in lieu of drugs or bottles of booze, I watched the most ridiculous reality TV I could find (in a close race, MTV’s “From G’s to Gents” won over Bravo’s “Millionaire Matchmaker“).

So you see – my state of mind is a jumble. I’m neither sad nor happy. I’ve had moments of delight and frustration, both of which have been fleeting. So far, Russia and I aren’t communicating. But is it that Russia has nothing to say to me, or that I’m not listening? Stay tuned.

Welcome to Siberia

I just arrived in Tomsk, a university town just off the Trans-Siberian railway line. After a one wet, cold night in Yekaterinburg (aka Sverdlovsk) between trains, Tomsk is sunny but markedly colder than the other side of the Urals.

The train has been interesting so far. I’ve spent days in silent reading, with all my compartment-mates ignoring each other. I’ve had raucous, communal compartments where my phrasebook gets hard use and where it’s impossible to refuse offers of food and drink. And then, on yesterday’s train, I’ve had a remarkably unfriendly babushka, who deliberately placed her luggage on the bench where she had slept (bottom bunk) but which we were supposed to share as seats during the day (I had top bunk). When I offered to move her luggage to the storage bins so I could sit down, she growled at me and pointed to my cramped bunk. Feh.

Anyway, afterward on the train I met about 10 students on linguistics heading to Tomsk for a conference on “inter-cultural communication.” They’re all women, about 22 years old I’d say. They *all* want to practice their English with me, so I’ve agreed to meet them for coffee today.

Also here in Tomsk, I will be well taken care of by a Olga, a director of some sort at the Polytechnic University, who I was introduced to by a man I met through Esther in Moscow. (Confused yet?) Anyway, she sent her employee, Natalia, to pick me up at the train and has instructed her to show me all the sights.

In short, I’m glad to be here. I hope it lives up to my expectations.

Now I’m going to run and get my first real, non-cup-o-soup meal for three days.