“In your house
I long to be.”
– Like A Stone, Audioslave
It is only recently as an adult that I have the opportunity to indulge in train journeys on my travels. And the question that I ask myself is, why did it take so long for me to discover them?
Naturally, the countries and cities I grew up in — case in point: Conakry, Guinea — had no train infrastructure to speak of. Unlike in Malaysia, where at least the British left us with KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu) to remember them by, the French left no such farewell gift to the Guineans — hence my train-less childhood.
Last year I decided to treat my mother to a fourteen-hour train journey from Astana to Almaty. The destination actually mattered little; it was the journey into the heart of inner Kazakhstan — this vast land of which I know little about, and whose name incites great curiosity in my mind — that was the highlight of the trip.
The view we were treated to outside our window was nothing but vast, wide open steppeland covered in a blanket of snow. After a few hundred miles or so, a cluster of houses and buildings, and the odd industrial factory spewing black smoke from tall, grey chimneys — perhaps a Soviet legacy — would emerge into view, and I always ask myself in wonderment: how is it possible that here, in the middle of nowhere, there could be thriving life? Half-buried in snow and seemingly in isolation, people in these communities live their day-to-day life as they have done; as their ancestors too have done; and as their children will in the future. Despite the cold and blizzard and the harshness of the land, they keep their chin up and carry on.
As soon as these questions float in my mind, I had to check myself — for I then came to the realization that life is whatever — and wherever — you make it to be. Of course, being a nomad of sorts myself, this is hardly a strange thought; but what did make it strange to me as I was looking out that window into Kazakhstan was perhaps the fact that I had never tried to build a life in such harsh environments, and to survive here was absolutely unthinkable.
Perhaps it is time to pick up some Russian and live among nomads in the Siberian steppes to appreciate the true meaning of “survival”.