Pacing this small cage like an animal in captivity, I somehow feel more liberated here than in the larger cabin of the train car behind me. Here in the small antechamber, my fingers numbing and my joints cramping from the cold, I am in a state of being seldom accomplished over the past several months of my life: alone.
I am, by nature, an introvert to the highest degree. To me, people are stressful. In their presence, I constantly feel anxiety. I am on high alert, my guard almost entirely protective. Always one eye stays focused on the looks, the stares, the breath, the movements, the actions of those around me. Each additional cohabitant compounds the effect. In the open bay barracks of the train car, the dozens of foreign bodies – their individual needs and desires, their personal characteristics and speech – it saps my energy constantly. It prohibits my mind from being my own. In the economy of my intrinsic energy, this diverted attention is like a government in a great war, taxing energy production to the point of crushing any hope of growth or improvement, hoping only that resources will last to the end of conflict.
Here in my alcove, I can escape. Though cold, hard, and small, it is like a vast cavern for my mind to wander. Of the four doors of this chamber, three open to the rushing Siberian landscape. The fourth door is windowless and blocks any attention on my being on this side. My fellow passengers have no reason to transit this space. Only interrupted occasionally by an attendant storing dirty laundry in the corner, I can direct the eye that had been preoccupied with my outside appearance inward where a roiling amalgam of thoughts, feelings, and emotions press forth in an amorphous and chaotic fervor. With only the distant homes of rural Siberian towns as my companions, I can filter and sort these thoughts.
This is not meant to be an attack on humanity. Indeed, the greatness of this adventure has come entirely from the interactions with the people I have met along the way. Though I will have only been on the road for two weeks before this writing comes to light, I feel as though I have been here for years. Not because of boredom or strain of travel, the time has felt so full because the relationships I have built have reached a depth generally reserved for friends of long acquaintance.
Most recently, I have had the honor of spending many hours with Lena, a student of philology, addicted traveler, and eternal dreamer. When I arrived at the train station of her hometown of Irkutsk at what felt like early morning because of the darkness (though it was actually 7:30), she was waiting with her brother Slava, who had driven the 20 minutes from their home outside the city to pick me up. Too tired from the journey and intoxicated by the scenery, our conversation in the car was limited, but it was certainly not for lack of common language. Lena speaks wonderful English, and her brother can communicate passably. With a quiet demeanor, a shaved head, and hard characteristically Slavic features, I believe many lone travelers would have feared Slava. However, his kindness was palpable. When I pulled my heavy bag from the trunk of his car, he immediately took it from me, slinging it like the small bag I wore, and carried up the three flights of stairs to their home. When I entered their small apartment, I was met with the wonderful smell of roasting herbs and frying oil. Especially after the 36 hour journey from Ulaanbaatar, during which much of my diet consisted of crackers and dried fruit, the prospect of a hot meal was exhilarating. Slava dropped my bag in Lena’s room, and I put my other bag on top of it when I had taken off my dirty boots. Lena took my winter coat from me to hang in the closet, and I laid my sweatshirt on my pile of bags, adjusting to the warmth. The futon in her room took nearly half the small square bedroom and her desk took the other. Though small, it was cozy, and I took a seat.
It was only a moment before her mother came around the corner to say hello. With disheveled short blonde hair, she was a broad-shouldered, top heavy woman, and she wore a beaming smile for her new guest. Her jerky motions spoke of excitable eccentricity, and her sweatshirt and jeans attire gave her a comforting motherly aura. She extended a hand and introduced herself in Russian. I stood and did the same in English. She said a few other pleasantries, and Lena translated. She was so excited to have a guest that she had made a special breakfast of peroshki and baked chicken. At their beckoning, I joined them in the kitchen as Lena’s mother finished frying up the cabbage-stuffed doughy rolls. As Lena and I discussed potential plans for the day, Slava and his wife Masha emerged from behind the back wall of the kitchen that was apparently the extent of their mother’s bedroom. We all crowded around the small glass table on stools and plucked peroshki and chicken quarters from the glass bowls in the center. Lena translated what was pertinent of the conversation, but much talk revolved around me and my travels, a curiosity for all. As I filled my grumbling stomach with the delicious greasy foods, I relaxed into the conversation with yet another incredible group of people to whom this journey has led me.