A Musical Journey Down the Trans-Siberian Tracks
Irish singer songwriter Tess Callaghan embarks on a 6,053-mile journey from St Petersburg to Beijing, a trip inspiring her 5th album, ‘Trans Siberian Tracks.’
Text and Photography by Tess Callaghan
The four and a half day train journey from St Petersburg had taken me to one of the largest towns in Siberia, 70km from the Western shoreline of Lake Baikal, a great base from which to explore Siberian culture and the lake itself.
The matronly provodnitsa, or conductress responsible for my train carriage, from tickets to cleaning to checking the samovar (hot drinking water), stood with me on the platform as I waited for my arranged host, who was running a little late. The train arriving on time despite the thousands of miles and numerous stops it had covered.
My Sigma travel-sized guitar was faring well in its padded case, and had been taken out a few times so far, including to play some songs to Russian soldiers travelling home on leave. One thumbed through my lyric sheets in amusement, I’d brought them to get more songs under my fingers while away from hectic London life.
I like trains, especially longer journeys where you can relax, looking out at the passing vista. I didn’t know how I would find the length of time on the train, 90 hours from Moscow to Irkutsk, and what people would be like, would I be a good ‘Trans-Sibber’?
Back in Moscow, the provodnitsa had pointed me to a second-class, four-berth compartment. Neat, clean and narrow, it came with overhead and lower bunk storage and a full-length mirror on the back of a sliding door. I’d requested a lower bunk through my travel agent, I’d heard it was the better option. The train eased out of Moscow, rarely reaching above 45 mph for the whole journey, with much less speed than suggested in the lyrics of my album’s opening song ‘Trans Siberian Express’, where the drummer bashes the snare with John Bonham-like rigour.
The first day, having taken an overnight train from St Petersburg to Moscow, my Russian compartment-mates were well prepared, carefully unfolding and offering their ‘travel picnics’ of gherkins, bread and cheese. They were curious about why I was on the train, especially with winter closing in. They had no English, I had one or two words of Russian, like ‘dobro’ and ‘spasiba’, but we managed to enjoy some nice exchanges, universal expressions like smiling and thumbs up going a long way. Each of my compartment-mates said goodbye within a few hours, wishing me luck for my onward journey, before disembarking to the cold platform.
The first night I had the compartment to myself. The provodnitsa seemed to have a list of names and bunk numbers. My travel agent had suggested as a female foreign traveller I would likely share with the same, but there seemed to be no rule of thumb. I enjoyed having the compartment to myself, but didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to meet more fellow travellers, so ventured out to the restaurant car, and the hallway, finding it easy to chat to others on the train, both Russian and tourists.
The next two nights three Russian soldiers going home on leave slid open the compartment door and quickly settled in, considerate and social, the most senior in rank, Vasily, fascinated by my journey, tried to find a picture of a Siberian tiger on google, which I had jokingly said I hoped to see on the trip. When myself and two Dutch tourists were hungry after the train restaurant had closed, Vasily jumped up, put on his thick puffer jacket and sandals, and expertly led us through a chilly Yekaterinburg station to some hot food stands we would not have found otherwise.
At Irkutsk I broke up the trip for three nights, one in the handsome town, visiting its famous 19th Century wooden houses, enjoying its good restaurants, the second and third nights on Olkhon Island, cooking fish soup by Lake Baikal (the world’s deepest lake) and taking a quick dip with two German friends in its 4 degree waters, before travelling for another two days, again with the cabin to myself, to Ullaanbaatar (literally “red hero”), Mongolia’s capital.
All passengers had to leave the train for a few hours while routine customs and immigration checks were carried out near the Mongolian border, enabling me to discover a beautiful east Siberian graveyard above the town, where I saw my first and thus far only woodpecker, captured in Woodpecker Song.
In Ulaanbaatar, I spent a day looking around the city, speaking with locals in Beatles Square, including two friendly sisters depicted in my song Mongolian Melody. I was delighted that, after monuments to Genghis Khan, singer songwriters come a close second as worthy subjects for memorial in Mongolia.
I sought out the spectacular and entertaining Tumen Ekh Song and Dance Ensemble, with their throat singing, contortionists and traditional dancing. With a guide I spent three days in National Park Terelj, one night with a Kazakhi family in their winter yurt (they had just moved from their less sheltered summer one), horse riding and visiting Buddhist temples and natural beauty spots. I also ascended the massive silver equestrian statue to Ghenghis Khan east of the capital, where, according to legend, he found a golden whip.
Rejoining the train, it was another two days to Beijing, sharing with an Italian traveller, whose loud snoring was unfortunately not drowned out by the metallic, cradle-like shunting and lulling sounds of the train, as described in ‘White Noise’ on the album.
Danish artists exhibiting their work near Beijing had joined the carriage, their stone and canvas work in massive suitcases at the carriage’s end. A Danish film director was recording the trip experience, immediately identifiable by his red body warmer.
We stopped in the Gobhi desert for a few hours, and in a train garage at the border after a very long wait (10 hours, with toilets locked) suspended above the ground like gerbils in a cage as the bogies (wheels) were changed for the standard gauge used in China, we passed near one of the segments of the Great Wall, then through a seemingly endless suburban sprawl before reaching Beijing station.
The trip was a rich terrain for creativity, the only effort necessary being looking out of the window. The countryside changes but retains a comforting familiarity, with Siberian picket-fenced dachas (summer houses) painted in egg shell blue and endless forests of silver birch and poplar trees, mentioned in my song Siberia. The landscape is monotonous, mesmerising and hypnotic.
Each visitor stop along the way enriched the experience. At the end of three weeks travelling, from arriving in St Petersburg on a flight from London, to reaching Beijing, I had only a week remaining for Beijing itself. A small fraction of time necessary to really explore the main sights, such as the Summer Palace, Badaling, a nearby segment of the Great Wall, and the engrossing, bigger than fantasy Forbidden Palace. I liked the sense of ordinary life found in the Hutongs, Buchao Hutong near the Forbidden City with its crimson lanterns inspired ‘Hutong Baby’, penultimate track on the album. The last track, Empty Bottle, is about a traveller friend floating a bottle with a message on Lake Baikal, a romantic if environmentally questionable gesture.
Two months after returning from the trip, I had a few days to sit down and process the sights and sounds, encounters and song ideas, and the songs for Trans Siberian Tracks slowly filtered through. It was not something I set out to do when booking the trip, but the journey captured my imagination, and I patiently waited for the songs to take shape, hopefully arriving on the cooled heels of the traveller herself.
‘Trans-Siberian Tracks’ is released on Bandcamp in March 2018: