Spies, Hunters, & AK-47s: Reflections on the Trans-Siberian Express
By Nasser Tufail
Yuri, a ‘state asset’ of the Soviet Union during the Cold War
The train pulls up to a sign with ‘Sverdlovsk‐Passazhirskiy’ written on it. I know we have arrived in Yekaterinburg and look out for my very dear old friend, Yuri. Earlier while in Kirov, I had messaged my carriage and compartment number details to Yuri so that in case I didn’t spot him, he would be sure to find me.
Lo and behold, there he is, at 62 years of age, still looking 45 or 50. Perhaps the secret to his age-defying looks is that he still swims a few hundred meters in the river almost every day. Yuri’s son, Paval, is also with him and he is always great help when we run into communication difficulties. His English has improved considerably since I last met him.
Yuri is one of the great scientists from the former Soviet days with over 50 patents to his name and a renowned authority on biometrics. I have spent some time earlier in Yekaterinburg working with him, and he has graciously collaborated with me on some biometrics projects. Yuri held the highest possible secret clearance (he was classified as a ‘state asset’) during the days of cold war when he was a young scientist, with spooks closely monitoring and following him at all times. Interestingly, it was only after the cold war ended when he discovered that his neighbor, a friend and a peer scientist at the military facility he worked at, had been spying on him for almost a decade! Yuri does not feel bad about that at all and they are still good friends. “After all”, Yuri tells me, “I too had spied on some of my friends”, following that with a smirk and wink! “That’s just the way it was back in those days.”
We have tea and piroshki pastries in my cabin and try to quickly catch up on our lives since we last met. I have brought a box of Kingdom mamoul dates with almonds, a favorite delight of Yuri’s wife, Svetlana. But I am saddened to learn that she has been diagnosed with diabetes and does not take sweet things any more. I offer my good wishes for Yuri to pass on to his wife.
Unfortunately, we just don’t have a lot of time left as the train is about to move on in two or three minutes. We say our goodbyes to each other and I promise Pavel, who loves world music, to e‐mail him some mp3 Sufi songs.
Birds in the Wild Landscape of Omsk
I catch a few hours of sleep. Dawn has already broken into daylight. I spot a flock of mergansers taking flight against the rising sun with gripping aplomb and captivating grace. What a magnificent world, I reflect for a moment, and thank God graciously for His bounties and blessings.
We make a stop in Omsk and then continue our journey for a while until the train inexplicably starts to slow down and soon comes to a complete stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A burly middle aged man in uniform is standing at the carriage entrance door holding the rail handle, with half his body leaning out as he signals someone with hand gestures. The train has stopped because the signal has not yet turned green.
I move up close to the door to get a whiff of fresh air and, man, it is punishingly cold. As I stand there for just a few biting cold minutes, I notice a gathering of some familiar looking birds foraging in an open patch of grassy land with some bushes, partially covered with snow. They appear to be a cross between a ruffed grouse and a grey partridge, but I can’t identify them exactly.
A Seasonal Migration: The Flyway between Siberia and Pakistan
It dawns on me that just south of our location there are natural habitats of bustards, cranes, geese and other migratory birds in the Ural Steppes. A large number of these birds migrate from the frigid winters of Siberia every year to warmer climes. The bustards follow a route that takes them over Iran, Afghanistan and into the arid desert plains of Pakistan.
It’s improbable that the birds I just saw would be bustards, I think to myself. For those hapless birds have already flown almost 5,000 kilometers and are likely to be somewhere in the Cholistan desert in Pakistan.
Awaiting their arrival will be the imprudent hominid studs of the royal strain from the sands of the Arabian Gulf who will have already descended in their fleets of C‐130 military aircraft carrying their 4×4 SUVs to their royal hunting fiefdoms, the killing fields of Rahim Yar Khan and the Chagai desert. They will be eagerly waiting to begin their killing spree by hunting down these birds with their trained falcons.
Misfortune of the Migrating Viagra
Houbara bustard, as it’s locally known, is one of the most prized Arab delicacies. A deeply ingrained superstitious Arab belief dating several centuries deems their meat an aphrodisiac – a modern day ‘turbocharged Viagra’, if you will!
In Pakistan, where it has been legally banned as an endangered species for over 4 decades, ordinary Pakistanis can be arrested and prosecuted for hunting the houbara, yet the Arab royals and dignitaries are shamelessly given licenses by the servile authorities for mass slaughter hunting orgies as well as unmitigated diplomatic immunity for actually breaking Pakistan’s own laws.
Sadly, from the thousands of these birds that migrate from the Siberian steppes, only a few will survive the hunting season and return.
On the Banks of the Ob River
After a 10 minute unplanned stop, we continue on for a few more hours. We finally arrive in Novosibirsk, the biggest city in Siberia situated along the banks of Ob River. There still remain ahead so many more mighty rivers, vast forests, colossal plains and massive slopes of the Urals that I am sure will amplify the romance and allure of my travel, yet for now my plan calls for disembarking here, which brings to an end my train journey. I get off the train and note that the train station is very clean and comfortable. I have a few hours to pass before I catch a flight early morning to my final destination, Krasnoyarsk.
I check out some of the little shops and cafes as well as the photo exhibition in the main hall. The large panoramic photographs of the majestic Lake Baikal near Irkutsk are absolutely stunning. This lake holds one fifth of the total fresh water in the world and its length at 636 KM is more than the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco! Another large striking photograph that grabs my attention is that of the Mirny diamond mine in the Sakha region of Eastern Siberia. This is one of the deepest open pit diamond mines in the world where temperatures can go down to a piercing ‐57 °C. I pick up some postcards and make my way out of the station.
AK-47s and a man named Kalishnikov
About a 3 hour drive due South from where I stand there is the village of Kurya, home to a man who, whilst proud of his invention, “wished he had invented something like a lawn mower”. His name: Mikhail Kalashnikov. That over 100 million AK‐47s are out there, many in wrong hands, is quite a sobering thought. My aversion to guns notwithstanding, I still acknowledge Mikhail’s brilliant design of the iconic AK-47 and respect the tremendous contribution and distinguished services to his motherland.
Flight to Moscow
I take the metro from the train station to get to the city center and disembark at Krasny Prospekt. The last time I was here, the temperature was a bitter ‐25 °C, but today it feels ‘relatively comfortable’ at ‐7 °C! From here, I catch one of the very popular and cheap public transport vans called ‘marshrutkas’ to go to the airport. As we approach the terminal, I notice the striking green and lime colored ‘S7’ airline livery on an Airbus 320 aircraft parked on the tarmac and am immediately reminded of the ‘flying colors’ of Braniff Airways that I first flew in December 1973 on a flight from New York to Memphis, summoning a pensive feeling: ‘Where have all the years gone’?
My luck, however, is with KrasAir today, and I board a Tupolov‐154M tri‐jet which looks remarkably similar to a Boeing 727. It is noisy and not as modern and comfortable as the western jets, but a time‐honored workhorse in the Urals nonetheless. After a comfortable and uneventful flight, I arrive at Yemelyanovo airport in Krasnoyarsk which will be my final destination of the East-bound segment of my trip.
Krasnoyarsk is situated along Yenisey, one of the most beautiful rivers of Siberia. There is a daily train that goes in the other direction to Moscow but it would take me over 50 hours to return. If time was on my side, I would love to take the train again, but a 5 hour flight back seems more justifiable, given my circumstances. I return to Moscow on a direct KrasAir flight.
So here are my concluding thoughts
This trip has been a truly remarkable experience and a tremendous opportunity to see the variety and extent of the tangible objects that support our natural existence in this world, as well as perceive the essence of and diversity in creation. During my long train journey, I would sit looking out the window at the spectacular wildernesses in the forests, the tranquil villages, fragile meadows, rugged snow‐capped peaks, sosna and beryoza (pine and birch) expanses, winding streams and pristine lakes, just imbibing the beauty of God’s creation.
I am ambivalent if I should feel sad because this journey is over or exultant because it came to pass. Either way, my life if far richer than before. In my solitary broodings, I have had a chance to reflect a bit on life ‐ to think about where we are today, where we have been, the pledges we kept and the promises we breached, bonds that we sundered and liaisons that we never made.
- Dare to dream a little – if you can’t dream a lot.
- Keep your curiosity alive – explore.
- Take fewer things in life seriously.
- Go climb a mountain, swim a river, pick a few daisies, pansies or even poppies if you like, but leave those poppy buds alone!
And most importantly:
Never be more afraid of life than death. Experience life as an intrepid adventure – as a Trans-Siberian train journey.
Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: Remembering Ibn Khaldun in a World of Illusionary Truths
Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the US where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and MBA. After working in the field of aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM in various engineering and management positions, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence, Data analytics/mining and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.
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