Arrival in Siberia.

I awake abruptly to a sharp knock on the cabin door. In total darkness, I fumble for the electric light beside by bunk. It makes a low buzzing sound as the top half of our tiny room is illuminated in a dim orange glow. The man on the bunk across from me snores peacefully. His thick, weathered skin, so typical of the Mongolian nomads, is creased at the edges of his mouth in a slumbering smile, and his chest rises and falls to the rhythm of his breathing.

Rubbing my eyes, I roll over to pull the curtain away from the window. Through the frosted pane, far beyond the snow covered fields, the half-crescent moon casts a supernatural glow on a frozen river, deathly still under a thick covering of ice. The deep night washes over our train as we rush north, into Siberia.

Letting the curtain fall back to the window, I sit up and reach for the pull-down ladder on the wall at the end of my bed, lowering myself to the cabin floor. Slipping my woolen socks into a pair of dull fuchsia slippers, I unbolt the lock, slide open the door and step silently into the empty, carpeted hallway. A clock above the carriage door tells me it is half-past five in the morning.

Someone has left the window open at the end of the hallway, and a breath of winter rushes in, billowing the curtains of the corridor as it dances towards me. I wrap my blanket tightly around my shoulders and pad softly to the end of the hall, to the cabin of our carriage’s provodnista.

Like a flickering mirage, eclipsed by a wall of steam and newspaper, I find her. On a chair beside a miniature sink overshadowing a blanketed bed, her eyes move over me as she takes in the disheveled hair and pyjama clad figure standing in her doorway.

“да (da)?” she asks, raising her dark eyebrows.

“May I have a mug, please?” I query, gesturing to her steaming cup of coffee. “Err.. пожалуйста (pah-zhu-lu-stah),” I stammer, using the only Russian word I can think of (please).

She nods and lowers her paper. A deep yellow glow cascades over me from the flickering candle in the corner. As shadowed silhouettes enter the light, stacks of dirty dishes take shape, mismatched cups and bowls emerge on the shelf, and a whole tray of murky glasses spills into the sink. She reaches for one of these and holds it in her hand while fumbling for an ancient metal holster with the other. She then sits the glass into the holster and hands me the assembled “mug”.

Smiling, I whisper “спасиба (spass-ee-bah)” and take the cup from her calloused hands.

A rush of steam hits my face and boiling water fills my mug as I pull the lever on the giant metal vat. I reach into my pocket and sit a tea bag into the ancient Russian goblet. With a warmth rushing into my fingertips, and a tranquility rushing into my every limb, I pad silently to the open window. Brushing the curtains aside, the harmony of the moonscape envelops me.

There’s something about this place – something about the mode of life, with the long dark nights of winter and the dormant aspect of nature with its wide expanse of fields and thick coverages of dazzling snow. There is something about the sheer vastness of the country, with eleven separate time zones reaching to Japan in the east and to Finland and Azerbaijan in the west. Something about rushing north from Mongolia, in the dead of winter and in the dead of night, through desert and snow-covered sand dune, across delicate reed and frozen river. There is something about just being here (and I’m not even exactly sure where that is – somewhere between Ulaanbaatar and Lake Baikal, I think). Just me, my cup of tea, the half-crescent moon and my smiling provodnista hiding behind fragments of Russian newspaper. Like a dream, I am here. At the witching hour in the darkest part of night, racing into Siberia on the Transsiberian Express.

A calm washes over me and I take a deep breath. Down the hall, the sound of a door opening. A tall, strong-jawed Russian man, clad in a well-pressed conductor’s suit, white stubble, and an impressively high fur hat enters the hallway. He smiles when he sees me, “Good. You awake.” I nod, yes.

For a moment he stands beside me and rests his hand on the metal bar above the window. A breath of winter waltzes through his grey hair as he looks out to the moon dazzling the snow-covered plain. I smile.

“Welcome to Siberia”, he says, and disappears down the hall.