Reflecting in Trans-Siberia

Between Vladivostok to Moscow there are seven time zones, a handful of bustling cities, thousands of abandoned factories and what must be billions of birch trees.

As I’ve discussed in previous entries, the view out the window is nothing spectacular except for a few notable exceptions.  When I wasn’t trying to make conversation with my high school Russian skills or reading, I was trying to sleep and ended up with a lot of time to just think.

What did I think about?  Well, a lot of everything, but a surprising amount of my time was thinking about just sex and food.  Sex, food, sex, food, sex, food and then every once in a while something profound but then back to food, sex, food, sex.  Both sex and food thoughts can be divided in to two categories:

  1. The Past:  Past experience that were worthy of meditating about.
  2. The Future:  Experiences that I would like to have in the near future.  What foods will I eat when I get at my next destination?  Will I meet any nice pretty ladies?

Other things that I pondered for way too long on my trip include:

  1. How many birch trees could there possibly be in one country? How many time zones of birch trees can a human endure before he develops a lifelong hatred of that white tree.
  2. The Earth.  One can get on a ferry on the east coast of Korea and after travelling 400 miles, he would be in the biggest city in the Russian Far East.  He would be transported to an entirely different world.   Different food, different architecture, different mindset.  The most obvious indication of that city’s proximity to the great cultures of Asia is that the majority of the cars are Japanese with the steering wheels mounted on the right-side.  If he gets on a train and travel another 1000 miles and he’ll be days away from the closest city he’s likely to have ever heard of.  If he has a heart-attack and dies, who would know? who would care?  We might be more and more connected by technology but the world is still a big place.
  3. Russian people don’t read books.  At least the ones riding third class on the train and the ones on the Moscow Metro don’t.  The only printed materials I saw being read were these poorly printed joke magazines with very corny looking cartoons.  I expected a lot more books than the US and Korea because of Russia’s great literary heritage and the pride they have in their language.
  4. Aging.  When told the Russians how old I was, they did not believe me.  I am 29 years old but they all wanted to think I was 21 or 22.  I took some offence at this, but then I looked at some of the Russians and I’m shocked at how badly some of them aged.  I met a man named Sergei who was travelling from Vladivostok to London to get married.  He told me he was 38 years old; just ten years older than me, but he looked older than my father.  A hard life coupled with alcoholism and smoking accelerates the aging process. But I did end up pondering how maybe I have sort of aged younger over the past year.  In a good way.
  5. Another thing that is hard to not consider is the Soviet Union’s legacy.  Monuments of the period’s successes and failures are everywhere.  Other places through which the train passes looked like they were totally untouched by the Soviet era – wooden villages with dirt roads, outhouses and cows wandering the streets must look exactly as they did 100 years ago.   What is the legacy of Soviet Union?  Were those 70 years a total failure?  What lessons can be taken from the collapse of the Soviet Union?  What can Americans learn?
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