By Michael O. Snyder
It takes a solo journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway for a photographer to find that solitude can be its own kind of prison.
Of the three interrogators, I liked the fat one. He smiled when he brought me the apple that he had stolen from the kitchen. I figured that he was compassionate or interested. Or perhaps both.
The one with his beret on too tight was yelling again. I couldn’t tell whether he was speaking in Russian or Ukrainian; I was more occupied with the smell of the room, its faint odor of cat piss and wallpaper. It reminded me of my grandmother, and somehow, wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
Seeing that he had completed his inquest, I stood up straight, adjusted my underwear flap for decency, and began explaining, not for the last time, why I was traveling without documentation and had been photographing military installations.
Two months ago I had a desk job in Japan. I also had a girlfriend. As we had arranged, I made the call to her from the payphone outside of the train station in downtown Tokyo. She told me about her meeting, which had gone well. And I reminded her to pick up some fish from the market, if she had the time. I said that I would be catching the 5 p.m. train. What I did not say was that I would be making a stop at the Russian Embassy on the way home.
In the all-beige waiting room I thumbed through the dog-eared travel literature that I had picked up earlier that day from the library. I found the section that I was looking for: The Trans-Siberian Railway, the guidebook said, was an engineering marvel of its age. Completed in 1916, the builders of the line, at no small loss of life and limb, hacked their way with shovels and axes nearly 6,000 miles across one of the most sparsely populated regions of the planet -- a vast and unforgiving land of forest and snow that the native Tatars called Sib Ir, “The Sleeping Land”.
If Siberia is the first one to fall asleep at the party, I thought to myself, then Tokyo is the one wearing the lampshade at 2 a.m.. Like an electric anthill, the neon lit buildings of Tokyo barf out their 38 million inhabitants each day into a crawling spectacle of orderly chaos and interminable strangeness. Tokyo, as one of the world’s largest cities, has a single train station (the one I was standing beside, in fact) that ushers nearly 4 million people through its doors every day. It is like watching the population of a small nation being birthed out of a glowing concrete orifice; a psychedelic carnival of human motion that can make even the agoraphile squirm.
My personal response was to develop an eye twitch. By the time a year had passed, I had dissociated into full-blown staring marathons (twitches notwithstanding) with soup cans, shower drains and wallpaper. It wasn’t healthy. I made the quiet resolution that it was time to go. I took what little money I had and bought passage on a shipping vessel sailing for China. From there my plan was simple: make my way by rail to Europe via Siberia, a 10,000 mile crossing of the Eurasian continent, the longest rail journey on Earth. It would take me at least a month, maybe two. More than enough time, I thought, to filter myself through the solitude of Siberia and come out clean again. To enhance the purification process I planned to make the journey entirely in silence. If I could.
The freighter lurched as I glanced at my watch. 4 a.m. I realized that I hadn’t left my position on the floor of the boat for over two days. With some effort, I turned my body in time to see the fellow in the corner of the room relocate a ropey mass of vomit from his fingers back into his motion sickness bag. The diesel engines chugged their way through another swell and I winced, trying my very best to not to join the growing chorus of retching. I failed.
On the third day at sea we found calmer waters. I rose on wobbly legs and joined my cabin mates for a silent breakfast of cold rice in the crew’s galley. The loud speaker made a crackling announcement in Chinese and I dutifully followed my companions as they rose in unison and shuffled towards the top deck. There is a kind of freedom that comes with following orders that you can’t comprehend.
Leaning over the railing, I discovered that we were sliding past long rows of shipping crates into our port of call. With my pack slung over my shoulder I descended the plank and made my way through the docks, trying my best to appear as though I knew where I was going. I woke the sleeping cashier at the train station desk, bought a ticket with a note that I had crafted using my pocket translator and silently boarded the late train for Beijing. In Beijing, I repeated the process (this time with looks of consternation from the station master as he asked me questions in Chinese, to which I would only reply with shoulder shrugs) and purchased a berth in a sleeper car bound for Moscow. I boarded the train, a beautiful if somewhat threadbare contraption of iron and wood finishing, and made my way to my cabin. The tiny room had a double tier of cantilevered bunks that nearly touched in the middle. Finding three of the four beds already occupied by sleeping bodies wrapped in woolen blankets, I climbed into the empty bunk and, using my pack as a pillow, fell quickly asleep.
The traveler should note that obtaining a visa for un-guided travel through Russia is no small feat. The Russian embassy has two stacks of papers for prospective visa applicants. One pile is labeled “Americans” and the other “All Other Nationalities."
In addition to listing every job that your father has ever had and signing several affidavits that you have “no knowledge of or interest in nuclear technologies,” the 50-plus-page application includes a section wherein the traveler must list all stops that they will be making in Russia, complete with precise times, locations and durations of stay.
These documents must be carried at all times and shall be presented for inspection upon request. Failure to comply with these rules, the cheerless attendant informed me through the 3-inch safety glass of the embassy information window, would be met with discipline.
I awoke to a thin light coming from the window. I quietly lowered myself between the bunks and slid out of the door of the tiny berth and into the narrow hall of the train carriage. Through the soot-smeared windows I could see the Gobi Desert, a vast and undulating bed of sand tinged silver by an unseen moon. I stood there for perhaps ten minutes or more, barefoot and mesmerized, watching the shimmering landscape and my breath as it condensed on the cold of the window. Staring into emptiness, it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are moving or you are still.
I became aware that I was not alone. The ‘Provodnitsa’, or carriage mother, was slumbering in the shadow of the corner, her slick, black mullet resting on the formidable shoulder pads of her uniform. Provodnitsas, I have observed, are physiologically cubic. Her width is such that she fits very neatly into the hallway of the train as she walks down it. This is quite effective when clearing a path through unruly passengers, which I understand to be the primary function of her post. The secondary responsibility, it seems, is keeping the coal-fired samovar running for hot water for tea. Which is the more important is a matter for debate. A day ago, I was caught fiddling with the samovar and was heavily scolded for it. Recalling the incident while standing there in the dark of the carriage, I privately declared the lumpy shrew my sworn enemy and then crept back to bed.
William Wordsworth, in his well-known romantic verse “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” praises the bliss that is to be found in solitude: “And then,” he writes, “my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils.”
When the poet penned these words, he was indeed skipping through a field of flowers in a blissful countryside reprieve from the ever-growing industrial morass of early nineteenth-century London. His was a radical message to an urbanizing population: the meaning of life cannot be found in the drudgery of work, but only in the unfolding of our inner lives in contemplative solitude.
Today, in an age of unprecedented technological intrusions, these sentiments are resonant. Who among us hasn’t fantasized escape from the hypnotic stare of the glow-box to roam free among the wolves of the steppe? Or, perhaps, to simply open a newspaper without being accosted by the twerking hiney of the celeb du jour. Choose your own adventure.
At this point, however, I would like to proffer a word to the wise: neither Wordsworth, nor any of his flower-dancing friends, knew a lick about solitude. He wrote those lines while on an outing in a private country estate in the Lake District of England. Have you ever been to England? I have. I lived there. It is filled, literally filled, with people.The Lake District is a theme park for the privileged; it is the most civilized place on the planet. In all likelihood, Wordsworth sauntered home that evening, ate a roast dinner that was prepared for him, penned this misty-eyed drivel and fell blithely asleep on his feather bed.
I swear to you, he wouldn’t have lasted a day in a Ukrainian jail. God, I wished that they would have just given me my pants back.
My train companions were an old man and two very large women in even larger dresses. On the first day of travel, the women talked excitedly while the old man and I listened. By the second day their talk had lessened to smaller things such as the weather and what town we were passing through. By the third day there was hardly much to say at all, and they were content to share in the silence.
From a hiding place beneath the floral print sea that surrounded her legs, one of the women produced a bag with lunch. She tore off chunks of dried meat and shared it among us. She then scooped globs of egg and mayonnaise from a jar into small tins that looked as if they were once ashtrays. The ritual took time and we watched her do it. When it was over, we smiled and ate silently with the flesh of our legs pressed together.
The afternoons were spent looking out the windows and letting the tea go cold. My fingers would take walks along the horizon of pine, jumping over the occasional river. Sometimes they would splash and feel the cool. When the train stopped, we sat on the ground outside and smoked cigarettes while soldiers stamped our papers and searched the train for smugglers. Sometimes this lasted for hours. Sometimes longer. Nothing was said.
The open places of this planet -- sea, desert and steppe -- have a curious power to pause time, or perhaps more accurately, to lull the mind into a state of focus on what is present. Whether it is the lack of visual stimuli, the soporific motion of wave, dune or grass, or something yet more subtle, it is hard to say. That many of the great meditative traditions have grown out of solitary spaces strikes me as something more than a coincidence. From my own experiences in solitude, however, I have to say that the defining feature is not spiritual awakening, but a pronounced and desperate desire to find surcease of boredom. In absence of noise, I’ve found, the untrained mind will surely make its own.
So I made a game out of photographing people that I saw. When I got bored of that, I tried taking pictures of buildings: concrete blocks that squatted on the horizon. It was all that I could do to pass the time. A week went by. And then two.
On the final day before Moscow the carriage vigil was broken by a sudden burst of activity. A small band of young men, off-duty soldiers, had pushed past the girth of the Provodnitsa and were energetically marching through the train. Wrapping their arms over my shoulders they said “Americansky! Come!” I could have resisted, but the urge to spite the old horse was simply too great. And so I went bouncing down the corridor with them, swinging plastic bottles of vodka and dragging the bright red Provodnitsa behind us.
I was taken to the lowest class on the train, an open carriage of swaying limbs and protruding luggage. They cleared a table and laid out plastic cups. The tall one flicked his throat and shouted “Maximum, maximum!” The other soldiers joined the chant as my cup was filled to the brim. The vodka burned and I chased it with potato chips. A Russian-to-English paperback translator was retrieved from the pack of a man in the carriage. The passengers leaned in with interest as the most intrepid soldier laid assault to the words. In a gesture of unashamed humanity and ghastly phonetics the young man asked for my name. My vow of silence, which had lasted not three weeks, was renounced with gusto as I answered and asked for his.
It was night. The liquor was gone and we were drinking beer and singing in the carriage when the police came to quiet us (informed by the treacherous fink Provodnitsa, no doubt). I awoke in the morning on the floor. The train had stopped. We were in Moscow. The soldiers were putting on their uniforms and had become seemingly disinterested in me. Bleary-eyed, I grabbed my bag and stepped out into the sun.
I missed my connection and bought the cheapest ticket I could find for Ukraine. I slept through the first border crossing, probably taken for a local and a drunk. It was only at the crossing with Romania that the authorities discovered that I had neither been stamped out of Russia, nor into Ukraine. Of course, the content of that conversation was entirely unknown to me. I distinctly recall believing that I was getting a carriage upgrade. As I was forcefully removed from the train, placed in handcuffs and marched to the jail, those hopes faded considerably. There is a kind of freedom that comes with following orders that you can’t comprehend. And, now I add, a fear, too.
By the third day in jail, the interrogators had realized that the images weren’t of military installations after all. They now saw the photographs of an idle tourist. I’d been trying to tell them that. They returned my pants and let me go with a back-pocket fine. I took the next train heading west.
More than ten years have passed since that trip. Some things clarify in time. Some things become hazier. But, to this day, one thing remains with me: The mind is a curious animal. The quieter you make its environment, the louder its chatter becomes.
Michael O. Snyder is a filmmaker and photographer in Charlottesville, Virginia.