Love in a cold climate - Suitcase
'It's getting dark enough to light the lamps in our tiny compartment. Moscow is somewhere behind us and Omsk is 39 hours ahead. On the table lie several dog-eared Dostoyevsky novels and a travelling backgammon set, and the only noise is the sound of the train thundering through the wilderness. Suddenly an army boot smashes open the door. Its owner, a hulking figure with hooded eyes and several gold necklaces, shoots us a look of disgust before cramming himself on to the tiny bunk opposite. He is followed by a giant with a cauliflower ear on either side of his shining pate and a litre of Russian Standard in each hand. He plonks himself directly opposite me, slides his wedding ring off his sausage-like finger and winks.'
'On stepping out of the peeling door we feel as if we’ve slipped through a wrinkle in time. A procession of thousands of babushkas with patterned headscarves and tears running down their cheeks.'
'Today the entire place has a slightly unkempt feel, like a widower trying to carry on after losing the wife who cared for him. Ancient cars are covered in layers of dust and the nine miles of beach on the shores of the Ob Sea, a putrid reservoir, are littered with broken pedalos that look like the carcasses of bloated seals.'
'It’s then that we notice the curious flying beetles, about the size of fingernails, that are clinging to our clothes like buttons. Balkan chuckles so hard his white cloth cap falls off, yet says nothing. It’s only when we’re undressing later and see that the insects have burrowed under our clothes that we realise that they are in fact enormous and apparently ravenous ticks.'
'Over the next two weeks we share things we’ll never forget. Riding camels over the scorching sand of the Khongoryn Els, the biggest dunes in the Gobi Desert. Trekking along a frozen river known as Ice Valley while golden eagles soar overhead. Cooking over a camp stove in the freezing night beneath stars so luminous they take our breath away. The only thing we haven’t managed to share is a bed.'
'We’re sharing our compartment with a pair of English teenagers who have just left Harrow School. They spend most of the journey listening to loud house music and arguing about which of them has taken the most Valium on the trip, which gets me thinking about my own stats over the 33-day adventure. Nights spent in the same bed as my boyfriend? Nine. Total amount of showers? 16. Number of once-in-a-lifetime experiences? Too many to count.'