Not Here and Not There: Notes on a Ten Thousand-Mile Train Ride
Natasha, a Russian with backlit blue eyes, shouts at me and my friend Saša that, once, an ex-boyfriend made her take the train from Moscow to somewhere past the Urals and it was the most horrifying experience of her life. She reaches for her phone to show me a picture of something but stops short. “Never mind,” she says, “I don’t want to scare you.”
It’s not exactly what I want to hear, but I can’t say I’m not grateful for her last-minute discretion. Frankly, I don’t want to be scared.
We’re in a tacky little fado bar in Lisbon’s Baixa district and the singer is belting out a tune so deafening, so mournful, that it’s hard to think. When the woman finally takes a breath, Natasha asks me why, exactly, I want to ride a train halfway around the world. Through Siberia, no less. And in the winter? “You know Russia is really cold in March, right?” she says.
In the month or so leading up to the trip, whenever people would say something like, “You know Russia is really cold in March, right?” or “You realize that Russia is really big, right?” or “You know you can fly, right?” I’d just roll my eyes like a teenager. “Yes, of course I know that,” I’d say. “Do you think I’m an idiot?!” Then I’d walk away, my own question pinging ominously between my ears.
“Curiosity, I suppose,” I finally say.
“He’s an idiot,” Saša says. “And he likes trains.” She air-quotes that last part, because she’s not really buying it. But it’s true. I do like trains very much and I ride them whenever I can—the longer the better. I know practically nothing about how they work but I’m guessing there’s an engine involved. That’s about as far out as I’m willing to go. What I love is the ease with which one can—almost by accident!—board a train, fall asleep on a bed, and wake up somewhere twelve or twenty or two hundred hours away. I find this both deeply attractive and a tiny bit absurd—like a long joke with no punchline. I smile at Natasha just thinking about it. It’s the wide, simple smile of an idiot who likes trains.
“And,” I add, “I want to meet some other riders. You know, see who’s out there. Find out what they’re up to.”
“Americans,” Natasha says, more to Saša than to me—from one Slav to another— “always so very curious.”
I have three pleasant days to kill in Lisbon before I’ll board my train—alone—to Paris, where I will board another train to Moscow, where I will catch yet another to Yekaterinburg where—you get the idea. Eventually, I’ll flop out of a Trans-Siberian carriage onto a Vladivostok platform and climb aboard a South Korean ferry to Sakaiminato, Japan, at which point I will ride (just a few) more trains to Osaka, some ten thousand miles, give or take, from Lisbon.
It is one of the longest and laziest overland journeys a human in the twenty-first century can complete, and I’m profoundly proud of myself for having googled a map and pieced it together.
The train slides out of Gare do Oriente around 10:00 p.m., about twenty minutes late, which, in a seventeen-hour ride, doesn’t feel like much. We slip across Portugal and into Spain in the dark, a rolling whisper. This—this sneaking across the surface of the earth in the night—I can tell you, is a beautiful, nearly narcotic feeling. I’m excited to sleep on this train. But I’m also too excited to sleep, so for a while I just lay there on my little bed, as still as possible. I try to imagine myself waking up on the other side of the world. It says something about me that I’m at the very start of my journey and I’m already dreaming of the end. It will say something, too, when, at the end, I’m dreaming of the beginning.
By morning, the train has collected several more hours of lateness. My cabin mate, Will, sees me puzzling over the time tables and jokes that this happens to every train that passes through Spain. Something in the air, he says. The hours just—pfft—disappear.
Will introduces himself and what follows is a strange, train version of the conversation new cellmates always have in prison movies:
“What are you in for?” I say.
“Fear of flying,” he says. “You?”
“Idiocy, with a love of trains.”
“Tough break, kid.”
“Tell me about it. Where you going?”
“London,” he says, shaking his head. “And yourself?”
I let out a long, deep sigh. “Siberia. And then Japan.”
Will had taken the train to the south of Portugal for a holiday with his girlfriend, who had flown down and flown back and was already home—the flight taking a couple hours, the train over twenty-four.
Over coffee in the restaurant car, we watch the dry Basque countryside whoosh by in washes of metallic green. Will is nervous on account of the Spanish lateness. He has to make it to Paris to make his connection on to London. And to do that, our current train has to make up a lot of lost time and arrive at Hendaye on the French border before our connecting train departs for Paris at 13:12. If he misses that train and has to wait for the next one, it will mean overnighting somewhere in Paris before continuing on the next day. I can’t get enough of this stuff—the granular, heavily logistical small talk of trains: preposterously precise departure and arrival times! connecting stations hundreds of miles away! European capitals! I tell him it sounds amazing, but isn’t it an awful lot of work just to go on holiday two hours away? “Maybe,” he laughs, “but what you are doing sounds like an awful lot of work to go, well, nowhere.” I can’t argue with him, except to say that I’m not going nowhere. I’m going everywhere and nowhere. It’s different.
Russian Railways operates a weekly Paris – Moscow “express” that takes thirty-eight hours and forty-seven minutes to cover 2,200 miles. That’s roughly 56 mph, on average. But it’s a busy and reliable route that connects Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, and a handful of other major cities along the way, so, from what I’ve read, it does brisk business. Still, for the first dozen hours I’m on it, I’m totally alone in a four-berth cabin. I have no idea what to do myself. I sit. I lie down. I sit again. I read lying down. I read sitting up. I stand in the middle of my cabin. I stare out the window.
Somewhere near Frankfurt, I gain three Belarussians—two large women who look like twins, only one is blonder and possibly twenty years younger than the other, and an engineering student who energetically asks me where I’m from and falls asleep immediately after telling me he’s an engineering student. The women don’t speak English, but they do whisper to each other without pause at astonishing length. In the middle of the night, the blonder woman, seeing that I’m still awake, stops whispering and looks at me sympathetically. “Sleep, sleep,” she says. It works like a spell. My eyes close. My breathing slows. I doze all the way through Germany to soft lilt of hushed Belarussian, and wake up in time to look out the window as we’re crossing the Oder River into Poland.
Then I sleep through Poland.
At Brest, around one in the morning, our passports are checked by three border guards, one of whom is so striking that it feels like maybe it’s a joke. Perhaps she’s a supermodel on a Belarussian comedy show, I think, and she has to work some podunk checkpoint in the middle of the night to see what kind of oddballs come through. But there are no cameras, and no one else seems to find it funny, least of all the guard herself. At one point, she takes me out of the cabin to ask me some questions about my visa, my journey, and the contents of my bag. She looks tremendously bored, not only by my answers, which are indeed boring, but by every single thing going on around us and by the world in general—its horrible, unrelenting cold, its cabin-grimed train-passengers, its inscrutable American idiots who have come all the way from Lisbon. I want to ask why she’s not in Paris or Moscow or at least on a Belarussian comedy show, but I don’t have the nerve to interrogate a border agent. Instead, I ask if there is any issue with my traveling into Belarus.
“You are going to Russia?” she asks, not looking at me, but touching my Russian visa with a long leather-gloved finger.
“Yes,” I say. “To Russia.”
“Not stopping in Belarus?”
“No, officer. Straight to Russia. Hand to god.”
“Then no. There is no problem,” she says, handing me my passport. “And why you aren’t flying?” she asks before letting go.
I wake up the next morning as the train is pulling out of a station, crane my head, and grab my phone in time to take a picture: Смоленск. Smolensk. Russia.
The large station, receding slowly, is robin’s egg blue with chunky Cyrillic lettering many points too large. The outside of the train’s window is wet from rain, and there is snow on the ground. People in long fur coats and thick hats move slowly toward the station, their shoulders pulled in tight to their bodies. If two or more people are walking near each other, they too are pulled in tight, like huddled penguins.
It’s seven in the morning (I think) and the light is coming weakly through a sky the color of freshly poured cement. I drift back to sleep thinking about how suddenly I’m in Russia. All those miles and hours and days behind me—pfft—gone.
Smolensk to Moscow takes a little over four hours. At first, you don’t know how you’ll fill four hours—never mind that you’ve already been on the train for nearly ten times that long. But then you read a little. You sleep. You look out the window. You lie down on your back with your hands behind your head and try to keep your eyes open. You read some more. It’s 8:30; it’s 9:15; it’s 10:00. There’s more to look at outside now, the weedy edges of a city that’s somehow still two hours away.
I take a walk. The vestibules between carriages are primed in a layer of spotted white frost that looks like mold growing on metal. My hand freezes a little when I take a picture of it. I head to the dining car, which has been replaced with an older model. (In fact, half the train seems to have been replaced with an older model.) Empty except for a single bartender, this dining car has been decorated, rather miserably, with balloons. Electronic music blasts from a little speaker. It’s the saddest happy hour of all time. But it’s warm inside and the coffee, with a lot of sugar, tastes better than it should. With an hour or so left, I study: zdrast-vuy-tye, da-svi-da-nya, pa-zhal-sta, spa-si-ba, iz-vi-ni-tye, da, nyet. I experiment with accenting the syllables in different ways, trying to sync myself up with the clicking of the train: hel-lo-good-bye-please-thank-you-sor-ry-yes-no. hel-lo-good-bye-please-thank-you-sor-ry-yes-no-hel.
I first noticed Maria as we were leaving Paris. She wore a set of white pajamas and floated several times a day past my cabin door en route to the samovar. Now, at the outskirts of Moscow, she speaks to me for the first time, like we’re old friends: “Do you have long underwear?”
“I do,” I say, “but they’re in my bag.”
“You will freeze in jeans. You know you are in Russia? In the winter, right?”
“Yes,” I say. “I’ve been told.”
“It’s minus ten. Minus five to minus ten is not so bad. But minus ten to minus twenty is very cold. You will freeze. You will die.”
“I’ll change as soon as I get to my hotel.”
We’re slipping into central Moscow now. She tells me she’s come home from London, where she lives now. She’s with her parents. When I ask why she took the train, she says that they thought it would be a nice way to spend time together.
“And was it nice?”
“Very nice. Very relaxing. And you? You’ve come from Paris?”
“Portugal, actually,” which sounds blisteringly exotic all of a sudden.
“And how will you get to your hotel?”
“You cannot trust a taxi driver in Russia. You will lose your money. If you don’t die of cold first.”
“How should I go?”
“Do you have this app? It’s like a Russian Uber. Download this app.”
I download the app and we step off the train together. She guides me through Belorussky Station to the taxi stand outside. I go to use the app, but without a glove, my hand freezes in a deformed little claw and starts to burn from the cold.
“I will help you,” she says. And a moment later: “Okay, he is coming. I will talk to him when he gets here. You cannot trust any taxi.”
As soon as the Russian Uber arrives, Maria begins to yell at the driver.
“I told him not to fuck with you and that you are an important person in my company,” she explains. Then she takes my phone and puts her number into it. “Please,” she says, “call me if you have any trouble in Russia. Don’t trust everyone. It’s a beautiful country and I hope you enjoy it.”
Maria hugs me quickly and closes the door after I get in. We’ve known each other for fifteen minutes, tops, and by any measure, she is my best friend in the whole country, my savior, my guide, and my guardian angel in white train pajamas. She is the only soul I know for six thousand miles in any direction and I am an idiot who likes trains.
“Wait!” I shout, rolling down my window. “Be honest, do you think it’s silly to go all this way on a train? I mean, is it stupid?”
“No,” she says, “It’s beautiful, I think. It’s the only way. Good luck.”
“Spasibo!” I shout, nailing the pronunciation.
I’m pretty sure I’m on the wrong train.
It’s not enough to make me nervous, but it is enough to temper my excitement just a little and bring my body language in line with everyone else’s. These folks, lined up at the window alongside me, look about as jazzed as jurors to be on the Trans-Siberian. Well, not The Trans-Siberian, I think.
Often, when people talk about the Trans-Siberian, they’re talking about the Rossiya No. 1 or No. 2 trains, which you can board in Vladivostok or Moscow, respectively, and not step off, so help you god, for six nights, seven days, and some six thousand miles. It’s madness to do it like this. But, hey, who am I to judge?
I’m on the No. 16 to Yekaterinburg, and the towns I’m passing through are most definitely not the towns in my guidebook’s town-by-town guide to the Trans-Siberian. I am not, for example, seeing the “aeroplane monument of Chkalovskaya” at km 38, or Pokrov, where Yuri Gagarin died in a plane crash in 1968, at km 110. I’m guessing I won’t see Vladimir, founded in 1108, at km 191, the Old Believer’s settlement of Semynov at km 509, Perm at km 1436, or, sadly, the Europe-Asia Border Obelisk at km 1777, which I actually wanted to see. Instead, as far as I can tell, I’m traveling south and then east on the Moscow-Kazan line through stations with space-racey names like Murom 1, Kanash 1, Agryz 1, and Krasnoufimsk. According to a tiny, infuriatingly blurry map I find saved on my phone, I work out that I should join the main line near Yekaterinburg.
Then again, strictly speaking, as long as you are headed in the right direction—which is to say, trans Siberia—there is no “wrong” train. There is no so-named “Trans-Siberian” at all, actually, but a bevy of express, local, expensive, cheap, clean, less clean, crowded, morning, evening, and night options that operate on shorter (or longer) legs of Russia’s vast rail network, connecting hundreds of towns across the tubby belly of the largest country on the planet.
I find it helpful to keep reminding myself of this: that for all of the grand adventure and bucket-listiness of a Trans-Siberian journey, I’m essentially riding a commuter train that’s been scaled up by two thousand percent. Which is not to say it’s unenjoyable. Or that you don’t meet some interesting people.
Oleg is a giant with a bald head so shiny I can see my reflection in it, and hands the size of eagles. He sits bolt upright on the couchette across from mine, his shoulders perfectly square. He boarded in Murom (1) and as soon as he realized I don’t speak Russian, which was very soon, he grew visibly excited. When I tell him I’m American, his head very nearly explodes. Ploughing admirably through a horribly broken take on English that’s made up mostly of proper nouns, Oleg conveys to me that he’s on his way home from Thailand, which is why he’s so tan. Do I see how tan he is? Yes, I do. He works for Halliburton. It’s an American company. Do I know it?
“Yes,” I say. “Dick Cheney,” which is actually all I know about Halliburton.
“Hallee Burton,” he says. “America. Hallee Burton.”
“I know it.”
A few moments later, Oleg raises both palms to the ceiling, cocks his massive head a little and says, “Jon, seelvesdalsdkftalone?”
“America. Russia. Sylvester Stallone.”
“Rocky IV. Drago. Classic.”
“Jon. Steven Segal?”
“Jean Claude Van Damme?”
Here, Oleg gives me a meaty high-five, but unable to think of any more action movie stars, our conversation hits a sudden and decidedly sad dead end. Without turning his body, Oleg simply swivels his head ever so slightly to look out the window and keeps it there for a long, long time.
In Sarapul the next day we lose an hour and then later we lose another. It’s now noon in Moscow, and morning in Lisbon. The clocks on the train never display anything but the time in capital. So with each eastward mile comes an increasingly pronounced sense out-of-phaseness. It’s like succumbing to jet lag in slow-motion.
The highlight of Yekaterinburg is the walk from my hostel, across a great frozen pond, to a church that my guidebook gruesomely refers to as the “Romanov Death Site.” Indeed, the Romanovs were murdered there on July 17, 1918. It used to be a house, but the house was bulldozed in 1977 for fear it that it might become the site of some kind of pilgrimage. The travel writer Colin Thubron visited in the late 1990s and in his book In Siberia he describes finding nothing more than a “sheet of crumpled tarmac and a tangled copse,” a “sad and haunting” place in a book that often reads like a where’s where of sad and haunting places.
But a year or two after Thubron visited, a large, gold-domed white church was built on the spot. And it’s this church—The Church on Blood in Honor of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land—that I find after I’ve crunched my way across the pond. There is something going on inside, and since I already feel considerably uncomfortable poking around the spot where an entire family was shot and bayoneted by a Bolshevik execution squad, I buy a bottle of water from the Romanov Death Site snack stand and shuffle back to my hostel.
There are fifty-seven hours and fifty-four minutes between Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk—the longest leg of my particular journey. It beats the next leg (Irkutsk to Birobidzhan) by about three hours. The No. 70 train leaves Yekaterinburg at 7:49 p.m., Moscow time. I spend the first chunk of hours napping. I’ve always been a talented sleeper, but of late I’m reaching a new level of virtuosity. I can sleep all night, of course. That’s kid stuff. But by now, I can sleep most of the day, too. I can doze off with the lights on. I can nap sitting up. I can wake from a snooze and be asleep again within minutes. Beyond impressing the hell out of my dogs, I haven’t figured out how I can put this skill to use in the real world. But god knows I have time to think about it.
Still, even with a full night’s sleep, there is still a full day, another night, another full day, one more full night, and, depending on what time one wakes up in the morning, a solid part of another day during which one must either find something to do or find meaning in doing nothing.
My cabin mates—two men, one older and one younger—are silent when I get on and remain that way for the balance of the ride. In the sixty hours we spend together, neither one speaks a single word. Not to me and not to each other. You can drive from New York to LA in about fifty-five hours. Imagine that silence! It’s as unnerving as it is impressive.
The older one, who has the top bunk, lies in his bed without a shirt and works a crossword puzzle that fills an entire sheet of newspaper. The younger one stares out the window. I try to find the right balance of staring out the window, napping, reading, and notetaking. But there is so little happening, that my notetaking never really gets off the ground. Instead, I fill my journal with a detailed record of my napping, my reading, and my window-watching. Occasionally I write down scraps of conversations I’ve had with other passengers. When I catch myself writing “wrote in notebook for a few minutes after lunch” I grasp something of the nothingness I’m dealing with.
I can only take comfort in the fact that this—the whiling away of endless hours—is not only a time-honored Trans-Siberian tradition, it’s the time-honored Trans-Siberian tradition.
It’s 7:30 p.m. and pitch black outside. More hours of daylight have simply vanished into the Siberian sky.
In the dining car I meet my first fellow non-Russian travelers—three Danish women: a mother, her daughter, and a cousin. All three appear to be very ill.
“We have the flu,” the cousin says. “But my cousin is a doctor.”
The other cousin smiles weakly. “We are just sleeping a lot.”
“What else is there?” I ask.
“Reading,” says the mother.
“And writing in my journal,” says the daughter.
“I like to look out the window,” the cousin adds, “until I feel sleepy.”
“Then I go to sleep.”
They have been on the train since Moscow and plan on stopping for a single night in Irkutsk before continuing on to Vladivostok, where they will catch a flight back to Moscow and then another flight to Denmark. I ask if it’s worth it—the days-long train ride to the edge of Russia, just to fly back in a few hours.
“There is nothing else quite like this in the world,” the daughter coughs.
I am finally on the real Trans-Siberian!
My Rossiya No. 2 left Irkutsk at 2:58 a.m, Moscow time. I’m standing in the narrow corridor looking out the window when we begin to curve around the southern edge of Lake Baikal. From this distance, from the heated interior of the train, Baikal is heart-burstingly gorgeous, a frozen ocean hiding in Siberia. Even standing on the ice, as I did yesterday while Range Rovers did figure-eights around me, doesn’t compare to seeing it at this particular remove. Its numbers, too, are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Baikal is: the oldest lake in the world (30 million years), the deepest lake in the world (5,387 feet), and the most voluminous lake in the world (containing more water than all of the North American great lakes combined). There are creatures in its depths that do not appear anywhere else in the world. That Baikal exists way out here in Siberia, in what looks, on a map, like a long thin tear in the earth’s skin feels both too good to be true and somehow appropriate. What other place on the planet could possibly hold it?
A couple of drunks, presumably three days into a weeklong bender, are passed out upright, foreheads-to-the-window, next to me. “It’s beautiful,” I say to them, because it has to be said aloud. They both crack toothless smiles in my direction and sway like kelp in the corridor.
In my cabin is a Russian father and his young son. The son is a model rider. After the father sets him up with a tiny laptop, some Paw Patrol, and a bag of chips, the boy looks ready to roll around the world. I give the dad a thumbs up, and he smiles at me, but as soon as he does, I can see how exhausted he is. He’s been on the train with his son for several days now, he tells me. He doesn’t remember exactly when he left Moscow, but he’s sure it’s been a few days. And they are going all the way to Vladivostok? I ask.
“Yes, to Vladivostok.”
If you don’t mind, I say, why take the train?
“We’re moving,” he says, pointing to his luggage, which I see now is stuffed into and billowing out of every available space in the cabin. “I thought it would be a nice way to go. I’ve never seen these parts of Russia before—Baikal, the Ural Mountains, Siberia.”
“Well, now I have,” he laughs. “But from the train, you can only see very quickly. Look, the mountains. Look, a river. What river? I don’t know. Look, a town. What town? I don’t know. Some small town. I’ve seen it and I haven’t. We are not here and not there.”
I tell him I know exactly what he means. I’ve seen a great deal of Russia, perhaps more than many Russians, but at the same time I’ve seen almost nothing. “There are many questions,” I say, quoting something I’d read in Eric Newby’s Trans-Siberian account a few days ago, “that have to remain forever unanswered when one travels by train.”
“Yes. But it’s very beautiful, Russia—especially in the winter. And very big. Very, very big.”
I introduce myself to Amy and Laura after I overhear them haggling with an old Russian woman on a platform in English.
“You’re not Russian, are you?” I say when we’re back on the train.
“Oh my god! Amy! One of us!” Laura says. “You’re the first foreigner we’ve met since Moscow. Please, come in our cabin. We have this whole thing to ourselves. We have wine. We have chocolate.”
Their cabin is full of bags and the bags are full of furs.
“We’ve been killing it on the furs here. Just incredible,” Laura says. “This would cost a fortune back in Canada.”
I ask if they’ve been enjoying the train ride.
“Oh my god, Russia is ridiculous. Everywhere we go people keep giving us food, pouring us drinks. In Irkutsk someone invited us to go dogsledding on the lake. Some old lady made us a giant dinner with fresh fish, meat, vodka. But now I’m, like, sick as hell.”
“Me too,” says Amy.
Here they both start coughing. I admit that I’ve had a slightly quieter experience, to say the least. That by and large, the Russians on the train are not interested in me at all. Not that they should be.
“You poor thing,” Laura says.
When I board the Vladivostok-bound No. 2 train in Birobidzhan—where I’ve just spent a weird Sabbath with a deeply religious rabbi and his friendly band of totally secular Jews—a mere fourteen hours and thirteen minutes separate me from the Pacific. It’s 9:45 in the morning according to every clock in sight, and the sun is starting to set.
I’ve copied into my notebook one of my favorite moments from the whole of Trans-Siberian literature—a surprisingly robust sub-sub-sub-genre of travel writing. It’s from Rolf Potts’ account of his journey in the late 1990s:
‘Water tower like a sentinel, trackside,’ I wrote gazing outside. ‘Collapsed sawmill next to standing trees. Piles of iron: Where do these come from? Birch trees like matchsticks.’ Stopping for a moment, I flipped back several pages in my notebook. ‘Birch trees like white matchsticks on the horizon,’ an earlier entry read. I flipped back a few more pages and found another birch tree-matchstick analogy, right next to an entry that compared water towers to sentinels.
Twenty years after he wrote that, I’m gazing outside and what do I see? Birch trees like matchsticks. A water tower. Piles of iron. Birch trees, water tower, piles of iron. And with fewer than ten hours left, I’m suddenly nostalgic for the beginning of my trip. I can feel myself growing sappier by the second.
My notebook is a faithful witness to this upwelling of sentimentality. On the train, time feels so thin, I write. At first, you’re desperate for it so that you can orient yourself to some fixed point in the day. But slowly, you acclimate. Eventually, you submit yourself to the perception of time passing so slowly that it might as well not be passing at all. But it is. It must be, because suddenly it’s been an hour, an afternoon, a night, a week, a month. And like a fool who’s managed to spend an unspendable sum of money, you have no idea where it’s all gone. You were somewhere, once, and now you are somewhere else, very far away. That’s all you can say for sure. That, and how having too much of something is not always the same as having enough.
I’m starting to think that with a journey like this, any sense of weight will come from the patient adding up of small, insignificant parts. The parts themselves are quickly-jotted memories, snapshots, conversations, half-thoughts, records of time spent staring out of a window, and forever unanswerable questions. There are characters, but they are all living inside of different stories; they never meet. There is no story, actually. No narrative at all. Just minutes. And my guess is that if these minutes don’t somehow coalesce—and they may not—there might be little difference between a month on a train and a month in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. There may be little difference anyway.
At 11:55 p.m. Moscow time, the No. 2 train deposits you onto a platform in Vladivostok station. There is seven-hour time difference between this part of Russia and the capital. So it’s actually seven in the morning. The sun is coming up. You stumble out along with everyone else. It’s not even remotely celebratory. There is no hugging or high-fiving. People simply gather their luggage and head bleary-eyed for the exits.
My first night on the Eastern Dream ferry, I share a cabin with a dozen Uzbeks en route to South Korea (“for working”). They are not satisfied with me until each and every one of them has flipped through every page of my passport. After the Uzbeks disembark at Donghae, the ferry fills with elderly Koreans heading to Japan (“for shopping”), and the five or six non-Koreans are given their own cabin for the second night. Once the sea-sickness subsides, I spend as much time as possible on deck watching the water. I have no idea what time it is anymore. I don’t even know what time zone I’m in.
Though I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, I’ve never approached it like this, from the water. I’ve never seen Honshu as an island, which, of course, it is. I’ve never seen it as the Portuguese sailors would have seen it. Or the Japanese, for that matter.
The express train from Sakaiminato across the narrow waist of the island; the bullet train from Okayama; the subway from Shin-Osaka to Namba—they are a smudged set of ellipses at the end of a very long sentence. Dot dot dot. To be continued. Words omitted. A quick pause.
On the Dotomburi Bridge in Osaka, a girl mimes to me with her arms raised in the Glico Man V. She’s asking if I want my picture taken. I say no thank you and explain that I’m not really a tourist, that I actually used to live here, years ago. That I came from Lisbon by train. That I crossed Europe, Russia, Siberia, and the Sea of Japan to get here. That I’m slightly overwhelmed, actually, to be standing here, now that I’m thinking about it, and yes, why not, would she mind taking my picture.
If you could see the photograph, you would be looking at Glico Man. His arms are raised in a V because he’s crossing a finish line, even if we can’t see it, which we never can. Even better: he is always just about to cross a finish line. Glico Man is the fifty-foot, million-watt, neon icon of Osaka and it is only when I get to the Dotonburi bridge and take a picture of him that I feel my journey has come to some kind of end—that a finish line, you could say, is about to be crossed.
“Do you like it here—in Osaka?” she asks me when she hands me my phone.
Yes, I say. Very, very much.
Photos by Quentin Pinczon du Sel. The second is from Vladivostok, the third and fourth from Ulan-Ude.
Jonathan Arlan’s first book, Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps, was a New York Times summer reading recommendation. (They called it “a disarmingly engaging memoir by a millennial Kansan”). His writing has appeared in the Los Angles Times, Literary Hub, Tablet, Off Assignment, The Millions and elsewhere.
Quentin Pinczon du Sel is a french self-taught photographer, shooting exclusively with film cameras. Currently living in Paris, France, he uses photography as a way to be more connected to his surrounding, especially during his many travels around the world. You can find more pictures here: http://photos.quentinpinczon.fr