I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gone looking for a dear friend in the back room of various clubs and bars at Silly O'Clock to find him cornering a pretty young thing regaling her with his great philosophies of light and space in building design.
Some have needed rescuing, others, clearly haven’t but it always makes me laugh. I wish he was here now. He’d have so much new material after a week on a train in Russia he’d score every time.
June in Russia is the start of the summer.
This means, for the most part, it is light. A lot.
In St Petersburg it is light nearly all of the time. They call it White Nights and festivals happen throughout the city to celebrate. It feels so strange to be sitting on a river side terrace sipping a beer at midnight with the white light of the city skies above with no plans to get dark. Or in shorts, sunglasses and a beach hat lathering yourself in factor 25 at 9pm because otherwise you’ll burn. It’s an SAD sufferers dream. I can relate to it well as someone who takes a psychological balance beating from the assault of winter darkness every year and who prides herself on being a living breathing solar panel. Let the sun shine I say.
But the light .. how to describe it, it’s not regular light. Particularly not up in the north towards the Arctic Circle, which is, I was surprised to see, really not that far (okay, a bit far) from where we were in St Petersburg.
The sunlight is a different colour. It’s white. It’s a white, blue, clean light. It makes everything exceptionally vivid in colour. Not the deep fire orange of the Mediterranean, or the dazzling but hazy light of the equatorial tropics, it is exactly the same light as those desperate ‘seasonal affected disorder’ light bulbs I took the liberty of putting all over the Archway flat lighting the whole place up like the titanic, or, more realistically, the dentists, one winter. They didn’t last long. Because it is weird to have full day light for 24 hours. And while it might stop you weeping into your duvet for a few days, it also makes you a bit crazy when you don’t get enough sleep “because it’s still so light outside!”.
Only by Day 3 of our train journey to Lake Baikal that took us from Europe into Asia, from St Petersburg across Northern European Russia, the Volga, the Urals and Western Siberia en route to Eastern Siberia home to the oldest and deepest “sacred” lake in the world did we see a peachy pink sunset.
As we dropped south, the light changed from white to normal home sunshine yellow as we chugged further from the magical Arctic circle. Darkness crept back in at night, although it never stays long, and daylight normality was partly returned.
Now the sun actually sets again and last night the skies looked like they were on fire, although right in the middle, just above the sun was a beautiful fluffy molten silver and white cloud reminding us that in St Petersburg the party was just getting started.
I knew Russia was big. But I didn’t know quite how big. Try this on for size.
You could take the whole of the USA from Maine to California and from Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico and set it down in the middle of Siberia, without touching any of its boundaries. Just for a laugh you could then grab little old Alaska and, well, why not, all the states of Europe with the single exception of Russia, and fit them into the remaining margin like pieces of a dissected map. After accommodating all of the USA including Alaska, and all of Europe, except Russia you would still have more than 300 000 square miles of Siberian territory to spare.
Maybe if we had more money we could join the super elite of ‘space tourists’ flocking to Russia, not to board the Irkutsk bound Train No. 10 but to experience a different kind of space altogether.
If this epic amount of space packed with rolling hills, pine forests, steppe and swaths of taiga is boring you, for a mere $20 million bucks you can leave it all behind and join the ‘civilian-in-space’ club for a trip as a “space flight participant” AKA Space Tourist and head up, to, erm, space, with the Russian Space Agency.
Of course, we can’t all afford to throw so much loose change on such a holiday.
Luckily there are other space options for those who don’t want to sit with 52 others sharing snacks, reading books and admiring the great space of Siberia through the window.
Real treats for those who prefer to see it from a thousand miles into the sky – things like Star City, just north of Moscow where Tanya chewed the fat with British legend Helen Sharman - a real McCoy astronaut in 1992 - and where training as a cosmonaut is a snip at $89,500.
Or, even better, if you don’t want to sit on your arse all day on a train scoffing salami sandwiches and drinking vodka pondering your existence and marvelling at your lovely-life while looking at forests and meadows and fields flooded with wild flowers and dancing butterflies you can, thank god, enjoy ‘spacewalk training outside a full scale model of the International Space Station submerged in a neutral buoyancy tank’ in Moscow for the bargain price of $33,750 for TWO people! Bring a friend! Whoop whoop.
You know what, there might be 54 people living in the little space of our third class carriage number 3, in the middle of the greatest space in the world, but I really quite like it.
The 24 hour patter of feet going back and forth to the toilet.
Oh the toilet.
The canteen ladies throwing punches at each other half an hour before closing time because one isn’t fairly sharing the profits from the three people who’ve eaten in there all day.
The changing shapes of faces on platforms as we pass through from Europe to Asia.
The Provodnitsa aka the carriage boss, hoovering at 5am.
The bunk that doubles up as a sofa, dining chair, social hangout, cave-hide-out and storage unit. The bunk that my lanky legs don’t quite fit on so they stick vulnerably out into the corridor awaiting a tickle or shove.
The locking of all toilets 15 minutes before any station stop of more than 20 minutes meaning if you forget to go to the loo you have to wait an hour in the biggest space in the world for a pee.
The thundering clanking roar of the tracks.
The silence of night. Yeah right. More like the melodic chorus of heavy breathing and bass line of snores in every conceivable tone. You’d have to sleep with more people than Jordan to experience this kind of range in such a small space in time.
My mobile phone tells me at home its 09:28am.
The clock in the carriage tells me its 12:28 and the real time outside is 16:28.
Even if you have no idea of the time, in Siberia on the train you can guess the seasons quite easily. Right now it's summer. We know this not just because it's light all the time but because, to my complete surprise, it is hot and getting hotter as we crawl into the depths of Siberia. The heat makes the mosquitoes hungry.
A friend on this train a few months ago was here in a very different time, when snow blanketed the hills and fields and dogs shivered in -40 while they pant on the tracks now as it pushes 25 degrees and the fresh chilled air of just three days and 4,000km ago evaporates into the ether.
Like being on the boat you learn to use and treat about your time differently. Unlike being on the boat you can sleep as much as you like. Some people, like the ladies sharing our bunk-zone have only ever actually got out of bed to use the bathroom and get hot water for their tea. Time really is dedicated to you.
Since leaving London on the train we’ll have crossed 6 time zones by the time we enter Mongolia. Russia alone has 5. It’ll be more.
In Russia everything is governed by ‘Moscow Time’ which is the same as the time on the clock in the carriage. If you get a train, from anywhere, the arrival and departure time is in Moscow Time. Even if you're in Irkutsk, which is 8 hours ahead. It is important to know this. It is also very easy to forget this once you're off the train. Which, when you arrive with plenty of time to catch a bus only to realise you're "five hours late", it can be annoying.
As we move far far away from the capital city it starts to be not only redundant but pretty confusing as you live in a world somewhere between the real time and Moscow Time. Trying to use and balance your time properly.
The clock tells you it is 5pm but the lights are going off and apparently it is bed time. On the first night they had the radio blaring spectacular euro-trash on speakers through the carriage (i.e. by my head) until midnight. Eating at the right time, sleeping at the right time.
But in the grand scale of things, what is the right time…?
The Astronomer in Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’, which I’ve spent some very enjoyable time reading on the train, asks “But what of time?” and the Prophet answers:
"You would measure time the measureless and the immeasurable.
You would adjust your conduct and even direct the course of your spirit according to hours and seasons.
Of time you would make a stream upon whose bank you would sit and watch its flowing.
Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness, and knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.
Is not time, even as love is, undivided and paceless?
But if in your thought you must measure time into seasons let each season encircle all the other seasons. And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing’.
For me it is with remembrance that many of the days of this trip have been tipped following the news that time on this earth for a dear, inspiring and beautiful friend has been cut short.
These ramblings are dedicated to the lovely kind, funny and wonderful Lee Buik, whose spirit has been freed to soar and play unrestricted from the boundaries of light, space and time as we know them.
She will be with us always as the white foam bubbles that explode from Atlantic waves, the foot prints and blurring swirls of the dance-floor, and laughter that fills our hearts.
“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”
So, light, space and time on the wonderful trans-siberian express as we finish the biggest travel chunk and get ready to dip our toes in the oldest, deepest and purest fresh water lake in the world: Lake Baikal. I can already taste the freshness of the air ... it's going to be amazing.