Monday, August 05, 2013

RTW2013 Leg 2: Moscow to Ekaterinburg

6/25 - Moscow

With a checkout time of 1200 and a train at 1310, I figure I can wait until about 1100 to actually bail.  I'm still not adjusted properly to the time, and I'm somehow adding rather than dropping pack weight -- outside of the Saco sand it's shedding everywhere -- but it's good to get moving forward.  I may not get as agreeable train companions on this leg, the first to go over 24 hours, but as long as I don't get robbed or attacked or shit, things should be ok.

My ATM card is allegedly back on, but no idea how long that will last.  I've got an ok reserve, but have $400 to change today, which should get me clear across the country, even dropping $30/day in beer caps.  This'll slow down too as I get further out into the hinterlands: no imports, no buying a liter of Orion because maybe I won't be able to find one in Japan.

I do kind of wish I had more time in Moscow, but it's ok for now: I saw about 80% of what I put tourpoints in for, and a lot of stuff I didn't, and the real part of the trip starts from today.  The landscapes, the thrown-together meetings, the deadly tedium of multi-day train rides, the horrific toilet fixtures that would embarass Shame Orb: this is what I came here for.  Piotr said it best Sunday: "crazy American".

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0059. Part of a graffiti piece under the train underpass.

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0060. Another panel in another alcove.

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0061. Probably the same artist, no idea on a date.

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0062. There's nothing in the frame for scale, so you'll just have to take my word for it that this is a half-liter can of Red Bull.  Russians party hard.

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0063. Looking up in Komsomol'skaya.  Other tourists were blocking traffic taking pictures; knowing how and when to flip and tap on a step is my next level.  Of course, it doesn't hurt that this whole area looks like a Tsarist palace.

I am a walking bank right now -- I don't think that I've had 20,000 in current negotiables on my person since Korea.  And best, I don't look or smell (especially) like it.  The only intimation of potential trouble was an obvious pickpocket in Komsomol'skaya metro on the way up to street level, but I looked him off and he went looking elsewhere once he realized he'd gotten made.

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0064. Back up Komsomolskaya to the stations, kind of from the middle of the street.

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0065. The uninteresting part of Yaroslavskiy vokzal from the Kazanskiy side of the street.  Other Trans-Sib trains leave from here, but not mine.

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0066. Inside at Kazanskiy.

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0067. Hardcore old school; I was the first of the four into the compartment, so I could take a picture where the only large sweaty dude in it was behind the lens.

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0068. Post Russia carriage attached to another train.

"Eastbound and down/Eighteen вагон rollin'" -- the rest of the song isn't there, but the trip has started in earnest.  We won't cross the line until tomorrow afternoon, but outside the city, we're already in the forest (for the time being), and dammit, it at least feels like Siberia.

video1: The world - and a platform - races past, barely outside Moscow.

A Few Words On (03):
The Damned (A. Blackwood)
Another long novella, this is among Blackwood's best work.  The tension is perfectly developed to a chilling climax, and he shows all his usual skill in deriving the malign from the mundane and bucolic.  If there's a point to pick, it's that the hippy-dippy UU altar call at the end goes on a little too long to pass as proper falling action, but you can't fault him for being an evangelist for tolerance and pantheiod atheism.  Would read again...and will need to, next.

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0069. Storm clouds gather.  It's been good weather so far, but some rain, given this damned heat, wouldn't go amiss.

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0070. Drowned birch in a marsh.

A Few Words On (04):
(The Damned) and Other Stories (A. Blackwood)
Fortunately, "The Damned" opens this volume, so I could skip it easily.  The remainder of the tales are also, fortunately, of similar standard, and all are short and punchy enough to have good effect.  Blackwood's mania for the Jura mountains is developed in several of the stories -- a guy who can do a better job of letting go of his favorite settings might whine about stuff being reused -- but we also get more old rural houses as gates to the netherworld, and the theosophical claptrap is cut down by the brutal editorial need to limit wordcount.  It doesn't have "The Wendigo" or "The Willows", but this is still an excellent Blackwood package for fans and non-fans alike.

"Gold mine Beer" can you be fucking kidding me.  This is Skol-level halfassery, and I'm pretty sure that the last one was a fucking Kingway in Russian nick.  The sacrifices I make for interesting wall art...  Maybe it's better cold, but this aint happening on this train.

We're an hour and a half out of the first stop still, but the train's at a halt.  Vendors ont he platform, folk stretching their legs.  Domesticity.  Нормално.  For most of these folk, this is just life, not an adventure.

I did not take a picture of the guy trying to sell stuffed squirrels.  This isn't a show, these people are trying to make a living here -- even if by selling stuff that is ridiculous.  Also, any activity at the windows procs vendors, since they can't get onto the train to hawk directly.

A Few Words On (05):
The Empty House and Other Stories (A. Blackwood)
This is a fairly direct volume, featuring a lot of Jim Shorthouse, who serves Blackwood, at least here, as a default 'straight' main character for horror stuff to happen to.  There are good stories here, if nothing especially great, and it's significantly picked up by the fact that it's on free distro.  Blackwood's best work is elsewhere, but it doesn't matter when the result is free.

Neither green in color -- except the glass and label -- nor outwardly greenwashed by text, this remains nonetheless "Green Beer".  Unbelievably, average quality is actually declining.  At least the rich Slavic heritage of mediocre, relatively inexpensive lagers comes with a lot of interesting caps.

A Few Words On (06):
The Extra Day (A. Blackwood)
A pastoral fantasy in the line of A Prisoner In Fairyland, but more in the line of magic realism than theosophical text, this is a melancholy child-centric story of wonder and nostalgia that is pretty much the opposite of everything you expect from Blackwood.  I found it extremely tear-jerky, but I'm a weird who has never found a Miyazaki film (ok, his Lupin III aside) that isn't worth crying the whole way through.  It's a first-rate novel in its own line, but don't get into it expecting horror.  Do read it before/instead of ...Prisoner... if you're time-limited.

I, of course, am on an eight-day train journey with significant other travel at the end.  Time is the least of my problems.  Never having been in jail, I can't make a direct comparison, but the basic idea resembles county: you are in a box, for long or short, with three other folks you hope you can mostly trust, but you keep a watch on your stuff, such as it is, regardless, and try not to draw aggro.  Our pastimes are drink, conversation, reading, writing, and sleeping.  The first writing we have is Sumerian bills of sale, but writing mist have been invented much, much earlier, the product of a lonely journey and the need to dump things somewhere, if there's nobody along to receive them.  It's why I packed three notebooks for this one.

A Few Words On (07):
The Garden of Survival (A. Blackwood)
The best thing that can be said about this one is that it's short, and hence over quickly.  This is an unfocused neo-theosophical meandering that touches on "Marion and first-person narrator through history" as seen in a couple other Blackwood works, but ultimately is not really about anything in particular.  There are good bits, but they are photos pasted into an album of derp.

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0071. Landscape at sunset.

I'm getting tired -- incompletely adjusted and an early start are not helping -- though it's barely 8.  I'll try to hold out until the two in the top bunks go up there, and no longer need my bunk for a bench.  I'm losing concentration, but really want to finish this book and maybe wake up briefly for Kazan at midnight.  A quarter of the journey done -- a lot better to think that way than "20 hours left".

A Few Words On (08):
The Human Chord (A. Blackwood)
This is the best Indiana Jones story never filmed.  Chronologically, you could probably get Sean Connery's character in as Spinrobin without great difficulty.  The twist, such as it is, is utterly obvious to anyone familiar with "secret names" magic, but the lore built into this magic system is absolutely first-rate, and as thoroughly solid as can be desired.  Blackwood keeps the plot moving while introducing the rules of magic and keeping the love interest perking over, and the result is an awesome broad-strokes fossilized blockbuster, albeit one too Christian to be produced secularly and too blasphemous -- in theme, not just in plot -- to ever be put up by religious funders.  Packed in with the magical experimentations and the climax full of explosions is a devastatingly simple critique of all forms of organized religion, and perhaps by extension belief itself.  It starts a little slow, but this is probably the best I've read from Blackwood in a longer format.

So it turns out there were only five beers in the bag -- stupid me forgot I'd skulled one waiting for the track call.  Well enough -- less to leave out more garbage faster to the garbage bag.

This Stepan Razin is the best beer I've had since leaving my hotel.  It's also the first with a pry rather than a twist top.  Not a coincidence here either.

6/26 - probably in Tatarstan

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0072. Lights of the outskirts of Kazan, reflected in the river.

So an uneventful night in a basically open carriage left me with some tweaked nerves, but no ill effects.  In any case, personally, a breakfast of beer, bread, and cheese in this setting is on its own a powerful restorative.  You can take the metalhead out of the festivals, as this year, but you can't take the festival spirit out of the metalhead.

By the clock, there's a little more than ten hours left.  Time for a couple more checks -- seriously, this and tomorrow's travel are kind of just prechecks for the Irkutsk-Vladivostok run -- and probably a couple more books before I have to repack and get my boots back on.

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0073. Morning village from the train, outside Можга.

The problem of how to observe without gawking is ever-present.  I want to make a true and faithful record, but worry about being misunderstood for finding some things noteworthy.  At the end of the day, I'm a guest here, and thus under a strong restriction not to trouble the people whose home I'm passing through.

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0074. Main station building, Agriz.  We're about three minutes ahead of schedule, so that 15-minute stop will likely go on a little longer.

Coincidentally, this finishes the first page of my printouts.  Six more stops to check off, and I can get out of this leg, at least.

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0075. A glimpse into the vastness of the country.  These vistas are rarer than you might think, since the train cut tends to have woodlots by it as a windbreak.

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0076. The blocks of the Sarapul suburbs rise out of the fields.

My second compartmentmate got off here, the first having bailed out in Agriz.  It's only the two of us left, for now, but in a way that's almost expected.  As has been noted by other travelers, ridership tends to fall off once you get out into the wide open spaces, and it's really rare to have large numbers of folk get on the train at other than major stations.

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0077. River and flood plains.

A Few Words On (09):
The Man Whom The Trees Loved (A. Blackwood)
This one is usually ranked among Blackwood's best stories, and it's easy to see why.  The motif of otherworldly menace is mostly a framing device for a very literary take on the bunkness of 19th-century religion, one of Blackwood's favorite topics, but it's all done in such a way that neither the story nor the didactics suffers for it.  It's good as a story as well, but this is great craft stuff for any writer who aspires to be more than a chronicler of events that didn't happen.

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0078. Truck on a country road.

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0079. Eroding riverbank.

A Few Words On (10):
The Wendigo (A. Blackwood)
This story is as good as I remembered it, but also somewhat more racist, the Edwardian slurs smoothed out a bit in later editions for more enlightened times.  The essence of the story, though, remains: the impermanence and impotence of human beings against primal nature.  And it's here that the more racial constructions do their hurt -- Siberia, differently peopled, is no different in essence from these trackless Canadian forests, and every bit as deadly.

A Few Words On (11):
The Willows (A. Blackwood)
If Blackwood ever wrote a better piece, I haven't read it yet.  The themes of desolate nature, proto-Lovecraftian outsiders, and the powerlessness of humans over the environment are all developed closely and strongly, with another characteristically imaginative horror plot owing little to any external tropes.  This stuff is why you read Blackwood, and this story is a major driver in why I want to try to descend the Danube.

We're three minutes early into Yanaul.  It's probably just that my watch is off.  The train, as remarked by others in the past, does a really good job of staying on schedule over dramatic distances.  Sure, things could still go wrong, but in general, the 076Э reaches its stations exactly when it's supposed to.

The downside of eating breakfast at 5 is that I'm hungry again now, and this is no good.  I need to push lunch on to 11 or so -- it's not like I'm doing anything that requires calories -- in order to have the energy to hike from the station to the hotel when I get in.  Time for the water flask.

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0080. View back down the platform, Chernushka.

A Few Words On (12):
Three John Silence Stories (A. Blackwood)
It'd be wrong to dismiss John Silence as a character, and these exoteric and conventional stories around him, as a crank that Blackwood turned in order to get paid.  The "super detective who is also a wizard" trope reeks of bad fanfic, but if these stories are slam-bang mainstream fluff, at least they are skillfully crafted slam-bang mainstream fluff, and there's nothing wrong with writing pure entertainment in the first place.

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0081. Infinite landscape and a speeding telephone pole.

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0082. Another one a klick or so on, without the pole.

These are far from the best vistas.  This country is just amazing and immense, almost too big for human beings, and we're still like 6 hours out of actual Siberia.  This is still technically Europe, and will be right up to the Yekaterinburg suburbs.

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0083. Storm clouds over birch forest.

Rain would cut down on the heat, but also greatly restrict what I do in Yekaterinburg.  Still, I brought this coat for a reason, not just for sleeping on, and it might as well get a test.

The train's slowed down greatly, and the landscape is rockier and wilder.  We're in the process of climbing the Urals; after the crest into Asia, it's more or less all down until about Irkutsk.

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0084. Out across a valley.

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0085. Timber-choked watercourse marred by a bridge support.

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0086. Rain streams down on the hillside.

You see this kind of wildness, and yet you also see the old line watcher houses, the rotting clapboard latrines by them, then the concrete culverts channeling water under the rail cut; this vast and empty place is definitely habited, but the marks that humans can make on the landscape fall away at the square of the distance from the tracks.  Nothing we do is permanent here; the only difference is the degree to which things are immediately, rather than progressively, lost.

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0087. Same storm, a few klicks on, wide shot.

Streaks on the windows, little flashes, a crumple of distant thunder; we've finally caught up to the weather.

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0088. Compartment window and the rainy wood.

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0089. Birch in the rain, minimal reflection.

video2: Slow crawl through the rainy forest.

After a brief pause, the train's underway again with some rough shakes.  The landscape is beat up, and it's not out of the question that a slide might have needed clearing somewhere ahead.

It never fails: write about consistency to mark, hit a bunch of delays.  Never again, or at least certainly not this week.

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0090. Viaduct, coming up on Krasnoufimsk.  The size of those concrete supports is staggering up close.

Lightning out over the lake as we hit the Krasnoufimsk train yards, several bolts clearly visible.  Stuff like this is why you come this way.  We're about half an hour late for a two-minute stop, but some of that will be clawed off the next halt -- and hopefully not too much in Yekaterinburg.  I'll be fully packed by about 3:15, but prefer to not have to get off the train in a running panic.

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0091. Old engines and hardware, locomotive depot.

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0092. Industry in the wilds.

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0093. Eurasia after the rain.

The train is really fucking hauling now, making up for the delay by going as fast as possible.  It's all flat from here out to those mountains, so might as well.

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0094. Houses, going through Ufimska.

It's not the case that all the houses in rural Russia are made of wood, with corrugated metal roofs, and look like they're about to fall over.  Just most of them.  The elements out here are hellish on any kind of finish, so it's not worth painting, and the crappy stone, inadequate resources for brick, and plentiful trees kind of dictate the primary building materials.  Just because you have concentrated population and a semblance of civilization doesn't mean that stuff is just magically available; almost everything that cannot be made on site, usually out of trees, has to be hauled in by rail at great expense.

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0095. Yellow wildflowers in a great green field.

The rain's gone, and the windows are drying rapidly, the landscape only a little damper.

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0096. Another drowned birch forest, a little indistinct.

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0097. Valley settlement in the gleaming sun.

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0098. On ahead.

A Few Words On (13):
Three More John Silence Stories (A. Blackwood)
This volume sees Blackwood step outside his Holmes-meets-Gandalf schtick for this character; after opening with devil worship and a racism-tinged werewolf, the book closes with experimental math and a slap at the establishment.  "Higher Space" is as exoterica dn punchy as the rest, but makes a smooth transition to Blackwood's more literary and original works.  It's not great literature, for sure, but it's still a fun way to pass an hour or so.

If you to the Trans-Sib without mile/time markers for your train(s) from votpusk, it's almost as bad as doing it without flipflops.  Your printout, your watch on Moscow time, and a mile post every kilometer: without these, you can easily lose all sense of space and time.

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0099. A rogue gray cloud outside Druzhino.

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0100. Farmhouses, Druzhino.

A Few Words On (14):
A Study In Scarlet (A.C. Doyle)
This is the first and longest Holmes story, and probably also the least finished.  The Mormon part jams a mediocre western into the main narrative that Doyle quickly learned to pack into a couple paragraphs of confession later, and Holmes' explanations get a little scattered as a result.  The foundations are there, and there's less of the melodramatic Victorian crank-turning that you occasionally get in later tales, but this is a pilot episode for the Holmes franchise, and very few constructions of such size spring forth fully formed.

We arrived at Druzhino fully an hour late, and appear to be sticking around a little.  Maybe we're not late after all, just crossed time zones wird, but whatever, it's not so bad, and a delay this small isn't going to put the schedule completely out of whack.

It looks like we'll hit Yekaterinburg about 20-25 minutes late; marking the mile posts is hard, but we're past 1610, and the more and better-finished signs of settlement are an unmistakeable sign of a major city coming up.  The rest of the train stirs as well; on the final approach, I can get repacked and set about lacing up my boots.

And then, of course, the train stops in a freight yard at about 1631.  Time continues to run; I'll be lucky to find a market tonight, never mind actually see anything.

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0101. Empty fields, looking back.

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0102. Into the metropolis.

The train got in about 40 minutes late, all told, and then it was a tricky 40-minute hike to the hotel, so actually seeing anything in Yekaterinburg is out of the question.  However, I do have provisions in for the next 6 days, and if I can get some good sleep, maybe even the strength to shift them all.

I really regret not having more time here.  Yekaterinburg reminds me of Dresden, but a Dresden I never saw, from like 10 years before I arrived.  It's weird, but it is what it is.

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0103. The divide.  This is where I picked up Uralskaya to go over to the hotel, and the contrast between the traditional wooden house and the modern high-rise was really striking.

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0104. "Эй-ээй-ээй-ээй / Япит СССР"

There were about 6 more new caps in the market, but I had six full days of provisions in my arms at that point and was kind of running out of carrying capacity.  Morgen.

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