I had just stepped into Malaysia. Thailand was behind me.
The customs officer beamed and nodded, recognising immediately that I was a fellow Malaysian. “Hello, dari mana?” he asked. Where had I come from?
“Thailand, from Bangkok.”
“You’ve been carrying quite a load from Bangkok,” he said, motioning for me to open my bag.
“Oh, I didn’t actually start from there. I started in Russia.”
The young man looked up. “From Russia! Is that right? Wah, welcome home.”
I unzipped my rucksack and the most gorgeous perfume unleashed itself into the air. Spring blossom, or something like that.
So I went a little crazy doing laundry in Bangkok. Not a bad thing.
This whole journey, from start to finish, was about how to find my way home. Arriving at my doorstep would be the end, the only question was how and when.
The first time I asked myself how to get home was in China. On my last night in Beijing, I looked at my feet and counted three missing toenails. The toenail on my little left toe had dropped off about a month earlier. The second one from my large right toe had come loose the day before and the third one, black with dried blood, I’d torn off just two minutes earlier because it was hanging on for dear life and looking ridiculous.
Before I left home, I promised that I would decide what to do when I got to Beijing — whether to get a plane ticket straight to Malaysia, or to take the long way home by train. I looked at my toes and decided they could take another month or so of travelling and that I still had enough money. So a train ride all the way home it was.
I began dreaming about this trip in 2002 when I was still in legal practice. It was 10.30 pm on a Friday and I had a large corporate diary on my desk opened at a map of the world. Right at the top of the page was Russia, vast and irresistible. The map was bare, but I’d read about the Trans-Siberian Railway a year before and I knew about the railway track which ran across the country from Moscow to Vladivostok, a distance of 9,288 km.
Another invisible dotted line formed in my head, but this time from Irkutsk near Lake Baikal. It dived downwards into the steppes of Mongolia, stopped at Ulaanbaatar, and terminated in Beijing. This was the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
But why stop at Beijing? I thought. Why not take another train and another and another, until Kuala Lumpur? My heart leapt. Then the phone rang and it was back to work.
10 years passed and a host of things happened. I grew up, changed professions, and travel partners dropped out, but I never stopped thinking about those railway tracks.
One morning in May 2012, I woke up and realised how unhappy I was. I still hadn’t gone on that long train ride and I was still working till late. Something needed to be done, so I waited for the right moment and quit my job three weeks later.
It was September when I flew into St Petersburg. For four days, I walked up and down its streets from morning to dusk in a pair of worn-out, ill-fitting shoes that did nothing for my feet and made my toenails drop off.
I left St Petersburg from Moskovsky Station, one of the four train stations in the city. I shared my compartment with a pleasant elderly couple and a man who carried a briefcase and nothing else. From my top bunk, I watched the man smiling to himself as he scrolled through his phone. I tried to eavesdrop on the couple’s conversations but all I could understand were nyet and da.
I don’t know much Russian, but I do know how to read Cyrillic. I taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet after secondary school in readiness for… something. I don’t know what. It seemed like an interesting thing to do back then. By the time I arrived in Russia I could read road signs, maps, and menus quite comfortably; being Muslim, I don’t eat pork, so being able to read menus is important to me.
There was no menu on this train from St Petersburg, though. The four of us were handed food packets containing two pieces of bread, two slices of tomato, and a flattened half an omelette. The old woman wasn’t impressed. She looked at her sandwich, sighed, and muttered something to her husband, who clearly didn’t give a toss as he had already begun eating. She looked at me, pointed to her sandwich and shook her head deliberately. This is not how we eat. This is not a good example of a Russian breakfast, she seemed to be saying. I waited for her to make the necessary gestures for “Come to our house and we will feed you, you poor darling,” but that never happened.
The change of trains for the onward journey to Irkutsk was in Moscow. I had visited the capital before and longed to see it again, but the three-hour window allowed me just enough time to change some money and buy snacks for the next five days. When I found my compartment on train 340, an older Russian lady was already there.
There are four berths in second-class kupeyny compartments; an aisle divides the compartment into two, with one top and one bottom berth on each side. A little table decorated with a lace tablecloth and plastic flowers faces the window, which is large enough for those in the top berths to look out through, although the best views are from the lower berths. The entire top half of every lower berth, the part that constitutes the bed, can be lifted to reveal a storage space large enough for two rucksacks. The bed frame is made of a type of metal, don’t ask me what, but it is heavy and may require some effort on your part to make sure it doesn’t come crashing down on your fingers.
And being a woman of a certain small size, there I was, struggling to lift the damn bed with one hand while at the same time trying to put my rucksack into the recess with the other.
The lady leapt from her berth and held my bed up with both hands, allowing me to stuff my bag in.
“You are okay?” she asked.
“No, but thank you,” I said and we both laughed.
Liyana was on her way to Kirov, a town 960 km away, to spend time with her mother. Her English was better than my Russian, which was limited to words for food, hello, thank you, goodbye, no entry, and fire exit. She gasped when I told her I was headed to Lake Baikal, then Mongolia, China and all the way down south (“So far!”). She looked to be in her late forties. Her wavy hair reached the top of her shoulders and she wore a string of pearls, dark grey jeans, a white knitted top and black boots.
Months later, friends would ask me what on earth I did for five days on the train and I would tell them: I woke up, read, did some writing, read, ate my meals, wrote some more, and looked out the window. Repeat when necessary. That was all the two of us did. I had a book of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and Liyana had a Russian translation of 50 Shades of Grey. I’d never read it, but I had a vague idea what the book was about. Young innocent girl becomes not-so-innocent after engaging in acrobatics with a wealthy and successful yet dodgy man. Every time I saw Liyana with her book she would be smiling quietly to herself.
I looked forward to my meals on the train. They weren’t outstanding but the meals were served hot, and were a nice alternative from the cheese and tuna sandwiches I would have had otherwise. Every morning after breakfast a young girl from the restaurant car would ceremoniously present us with a menu in Russian and we would choose our meal for the day. It was usually the same menu every morning, with two possible options – riba (fish) or kuritsa (chicken), served with either potatoes or buckwheat.
There was plenty of snacking between meals. Liyana was generous with her food. She gave me biscuits, apples, and fruit juice, and I gave her my cheese slices, tuna sandwiches, and muesli bars in return.
We talked about our families and showed each other photos of the people we loved. Liyana’s husband was a physics professor back in Moscow while their daughter lived in France. She shook her head in amazement when I showed her a postcard of a beach in Malaysia. I handed her the postcard with its perfect blue sky, palm trees, and white sand, and told her to keep it. Outside the window were forests of red, orange, and gold. There are no palm trees here in Siberia.
I won’t lie — I’ve been drawn to the name since I was a child, ever since I knew what maps were. Siberia. I was fascinated by the notion of all that space, so far away, and so huge that it was large enough to swallow my own country hundreds of times over. What do you do with all that space? I was 11.
Siberia’s vastness – 13.5 million square km of it — becomes clearer to you late at night. When the world is silent and you’re lying in your berth looking out the window, that’s when you realise how vast the world is.
Railway stops in Siberia, which officially begins 2,102 km from Moscow, lie hundreds of kilometres from each other. Late at night, the space between them is a black, empty nothingness with no lights to blot out the stars. Here, the stars are clear and bright and countless, like millions of diamonds strewn over a dark blanket, filling the entire night sky.
During the day we saw farmhouses with vegetable beds and flower boxes, and I thought of my mother, who loves gardening. I waved to children standing at train platforms with their fathers, and they waved back. Identifying colours is a thing for me, and in autumn in a country with forests the size of entire nations, I let myself loose. Scarlet. Terracotta. Brick. Orange, like a pumpkin. Gold. Blood red. Claret. Burnt orange. Every day I looked out the window and knew I was travelling in the most basic sense of the word. I was moving. I was a tiny dot on a map, passing through Russia, slowly going eastwards.
After Liyana got down and said goodbye, I had the entire compartment to myself. One night after dinner, I heard angry male voices coming from next door. Feeling more curious than alarmed, I stepped out and peered casually into the neighbouring compartment, which was open.
Seated on the lower berths with their backs to me were three burly Russian men, watching a movie on a laptop. I recognised the face on the screen — it was Sylvester Stallone, shouting in Russian in Expendables 2. I watched as another actor came on and muttered something I couldn’t understand. I returned to my berth after a while but came out again after I heard the soundtrack playing, which meant that the movie had ended. One of the men was shaking hands with the other two and saying thank you. When he stepped out and walked down the corridor it occurred to me that he had been travelling alone. My neighbours had gotten to know him and called him over to watch a movie. I watched the man enter his compartment, and thought: This train is a happy place.
I returned to my empty compartment and realised I only had two more nights on the 340. As the train travelled across Russia, life had somehow slowed down for many of us onboard. There was no internet so there was no news of the outside world. Neither were there newspapers for me to (try to) read or ask someone to explain. The train had been my home for the past two days. My compartment was a safe cocoon. All this while the 340 had kept me safe the way a home had, and as much as I wanted to step out, I dreaded the thought of leaving. Once outside, I would have to leave my fate to whatever it was that lay beyond the railway tracks. Outside was adventure, but outside was also where anything could happen.
To this day, I wish I had asked for her name. I bumped into an angel in Irkutsk after I got down. She was carrying a small red handbag and walking with her teenage daughter when I asked for directions. She frowned at the address in my notebook and shook her head, then brought me to a tram stop. She could have stopped there but she led me up the next tram and stayed with me throughout the ride.
We got down 10 minutes later, which was when the woman caught hold of my rucksack, swung it over her shoulders and despite my protests, insisted on carrying it. She walked up and down, going into alleys and stopping at shops and cafes to ask if anyone knew the address. Her daughter followed dutifully, uncomplaining, reading out street signs as we went. I tried to take my rucksack back, feeling guilty that this 50-year-old woman was lugging it around but she wouldn’t hear of it. After walking for half an hour we finally found my hostel in a hidden lane off the main street.
The lady cried out, gesturing triumphantly at the signboard. Was that a light shining behind her head?
“Spasiba, bolshoe spasiba,” I said, overcome with gratitude, and hugged her. I had never met anyone so kind.
She smiled and handed me my rucksack. “Okay, okay. No problem.”
They left and waved goodbye, blowing kisses as they went, and I headed up the steps to my hostel. Here’s to leaving home, wherever that is, and to adventure.
Home. Strange concept, that. Where it is, really? If home is where I was born, it’s Malaysia, but at times I feel home is New Zealand, where my parents first met and where I’ve travelled its entire length. For a moment, my home was the train from Moscow to Irkutsk. I’d gotten so comfortable onboard that I didn’t want to get down, and yet I had left home in search of adventure.
After Mongolia and China, Vietnam gave me my first glimpse of home. The overnight train from Nanning was full but quiet at midnight. We were about an hour away from the Chinese-Vietnamese border when I noticed some strange, oddly familiar silhouettes just beyond the railway track. I had seen them somewhere before. Thick pillars with elongated shapes coming out at the top. Some of these shapes were standing upright, some were drooping down, but the ones hanging down were — wait, moving in the wind?
I gasped, and the Japanese man sleeping in the berth across me stirred. Banana trees! Banana trees, their leaves shuddering from the rush of the train. I was back in the tropics.
Three weeks later, I’m on the train from Bangkok, making my way through the Malaysian state of Kedah. At one of the stops, a wiry, white-haired woman dressed in a sari – a traditional dress of the Indian community — enters the carriage with her two sons.
An old Chinese woman sitting across the aisle nods and smiles at the mother.
“Pi mana?” Where are you going? she asks in a northern Malaysian accent.
“Bukit Mertajam, to my daughter’s house.”
“Oh, I’m from there too. What’s her name?”
“You probably don’t know her,” the Indian lady smiles shyly. She is sitting close enough for me to smell the coconut oil in her hair.
“I just might, what’s her name?”
I don’t catch the reply. “Her husband’s name is Albert, she married a Chinese man. Depa dok kat Pauh.” They live in Pauh, she says.
“Oh, is she big-sized?” the Chinese lady asks good-naturedly. I am thoroughly enjoying this.
The Indian lady laughs. “Ya, ya, my daughter is on the plump side.”
“She has short hair, and their house is near the Chinese temple?”
“Ya, ya, that’s right. That’s her.”
One of the young men fiddles with his phone, and a song from a Bollywood movie fills the carriage. A few of the passengers smile in amusement. I look out the window. In the distance: rolling green hills, rice fields and wooden huts, while here and there, closer to the railway track, are coconut palms and banana trees.