I re-edited this post to enter The Daily Telegraph’s “Just Back” competition. It subsequently became selected in the best monthly blog feature at Lonely Planet.I woke with a jolt to the bright daylight streaming through my frozen compartment window on the train bound for Vladivostok. Outside there are snow-covered trees illuminated by the low winter sun as far as the eye can see. As I head down the carriage to make a cup of coffee I pass a Russian boy travelling with his mother. He smiles at me and tells me in perfect English “it’s a beautiful forest”. It’s probably just as well that he likes forests, as he lives in Krasnoyarsk, a place that must define the meaning of being in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
Reflecting our remoteness, there are few stops today – Amazar at 05.55 for 18 minutes, Magdagachi at 14.53 for just 15 minutes, and Belogorsk at 21.37 for 30 minutes. Time to read a book and watch the world go by.
But then it starts to come back to me. Last night, after a few glasses of quite reasonable red wine from Azerbaijan I had made a communication breakthrough with the woman who runs the restaurant. After several days living on fried eggs and stale bread rolls, I discover that caviar and salmon might be on offer for breakfast. Or was this all actually just a twisted dream sent to my brain by my digestive system?
I shuffle purposefully down the train towards the restaurant carriage, hoping that I have worked out the right time zone for breakfast. I calculate that local time is six hours ahead of Moscow time. I’m greeted by a tired looking chef, hopefully a sign of overnight fish trading on icy station platforms. The deal has apparently taken place at a place called Skovorodin. The curtains are drawn, almost like this is a well-guarded secret. Two police officers hang around for some time talking to passing passengers, but I have no idea what is being said. Are they guarding the fish?
The woman who takes my order is heavily made up and wearing a dress that might have been used in a mid 1970’s James Bond film. Apparently the caviar comes with pancakes and garlic butter, but the salmon has already gone. The pancakes taste simply heavenly, and cost me just 290 Rubles, or about £3. As I’m finishing breakfast the lady selling ice cream passes through the carriage. In her time zone it might be the perfect time for such a treat, but it’s not on my breakfast agenda.
When get back to my compartment I notice that Larissa, the carriage “provodnitsa”, has put all her gear on – a sure sign that we will shortly be stopping. She always dresses like we will be walking on the surface of the moon before leaving the train, and today the temperature on the platform doesn’t disappoint. I gingerly walk down the platform taking short snorts of frozen air whilst thinking about where else in the world you could experience such great food in an otherwise cold and inhospitable place.