When I got on the train, the first thing I saw was that this was a terrible, isolating Western train. I burst into tears, in the confines of my blue plastic coop, designed to keep me private, separate, uncontaminated, and bored. O tomato-smugglers of Uzbekistan, where are you? Snotty, pink-cheeked children, flirting pensioners, even stinging tomato-cockroaches, where are you?
I mean, it's not like I wanted to stay in Belarus. Belarus blew, and I'd never planned to be there in the first place, but this, this stupid chicken-house on rails, this was an insult to travel and to travelers everywhere.
The further West I got, the clearer it became to me that the giant everyone in a bus, you too goats! aesthetics of the road were dissolving behind me. I was back on the ground that had spawned me, the boredom of the suburbs, the secret dread of privacy, the stiff hierarchies of who we speak to & who we don't speak to.
Blue plastic walls, blue carpet, blue soundproof windows. Room for one or maybe two. Smoothed-out landscapes, passing, passing rain-smoothed and bland. Danger averted drunkenness hidden. No space for life to unfold an offer of marriage to some cousin somewhere, no jars of jam passing across the aisle, no Jesus Christ Superstar mile after mile of birches eating sketchy sausages under the bleary gaze of a Russian soldier helically gulping down his daily liters of vodka.
What I saw when I got on the train was: this is the pickle we're in, in the West, and you're going to have to work on it with all your strength. I didn't exactly realize that's what I saw, because I was too busy crying over this awful blue cell. It took about twenty years for me to see what I saw, actually. Twenty years of flirting with maybe it's true? Maybe safety IS what I want, a separate sense of smoothly going along towards my culturally-appointed goals?
But, no. No such zip locked destinations. I wanted the open-carriage trains of China & Mongolia & Russia back. I wanted danger and presence back - the sense of all being on this one moving thing together. All of us smuggling ourselves, our heavy bodies across the world.
On the train, I read Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward. I read Yourcenar's Mémoires d'Hadrien. I listened to the rails click clack with hundreds of pairs of ears also listening. Lives unfolding together - breathing this travelers' air.
Several times, I fucked up, and found myself on not-the-right-train. The one I missed because I meditated for too long, sitting in my unmarked Moscow hotel room is the one that landed me in Belarus. The one I gave up because I decided Bukhara was too beautiful for only one day is the one that landed me on the tomato smugglers' special across Central Asia - a train so slow a grandfather could get on board in a village with his two grandchildren and their fishing-poles, and get off easily one village down, with plans to return with perch for dinner.
Trains are the images of what we understand ourselves to be, in relation to one another. Are we speeding our ways towards destinations, with either end of the shining track the only parts of import? Are we theoretically headed somewhere, senses open to whatever may arise at any moment?
I had a dream once: a bus, crowded, with everyone on board, and my abbot as the driver. No question but to board. Of course! Here we all are.
A bus in Tibet, groaning up an icy, muddy pass. We stop to mend one of the endlessly-patched front tires. People scatter to spread their contributions to the dung piles of the road to Golmud. We start up again. but where's the small grey man, with his limp? In the thin air, no one knows. Under a burlap bag? Gone? Turned back to a goat? The bus rumbles off.
Left by the train, Left by the bus. It seems like the end of the world, and maybe it could be. Standing on some Siberian platform paying an old woman for steamed potatoes with dill, my ear is tuned to the engine, listening for the slightest change. That rolling village is my home that keeps moving. O preserve me from the home that stays still!
Leaving the train means: leaving an order with its own logic and structures, its samovar at the end of the carriage, its gritty shitter, its PECTOPAH, devoid of food by day five, but still a good place for mint tea with lots of sugar, and real wooden tables with silver-caged glasses of the last five hundred miles' wildflowers.
Leaving the train means agreeing to stop moving, and going into the early morning of some new town. Hello, new town! What's breakfast like, around here? Is there a place for some unusually sweaty, tall foreigner to park her bag?
Sometimes - only rarely in the configuration I'm currently sporting - showing up off the train means ominous western music and the cast shadows of suspicion everywhere. Not paranoid, just genuinely weird. The local syphilitic madman as a retinue. The local laws against foreigners staying in hotels as an albatross. The question of when getting off the train stops being life-affirming curiosity, and becomes a really stupid plan.
I go eat by myself, and people gather to watch me lift the rice and green vegetables to my mouth. I leave, but not by myself, saying the madman and the empty streets are nothing I wish to face alone. The cook grudgingly sends his boy to walk me home.
When I got on the train, the first thing I saw was that this was going to be home, and I was glad I'd packed good silk pyjamas and plenty of ramen. I saw: in this four-person car, I was sort of a bystander to a long seduction by cherry preserves. The quiet bearded scientist, and the blonde lady whose traveling pantry included far more toothsome offerings than ramen.
The first thing I saw was that this muscleman, his girlfriend, and their tiny white dog were very good company to have on a night train recently repatriated from Afghanistan, with anti-rock shutters on all the windows, and thugs wandering the corridors, thumping all the doors to see where they might be able to get in. Mr. Tattoos promised to tell me when we reached my stop at 4AM, and he was as good as his word, of course.
The first thing I saw was that there was no way in hell we were making Newark in time to catch our planes to Switzerland. So much snow the windows were veiled, and the meld eked its way through the roof to bounce off the seat in front of mine. Snow slowing the tracks, snow sealing the whole East Coast in a coat fitting the season perfectly, barring all passage out. I finally made it across the ocean the next day, only to land in the embrace of another storm. Hundreds of cots laid out in rows along the smooth floors of Schiphol Airport, saying, This season itself is a train. Why struggle so much to get off?
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
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