The scenic route through France

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Stoytcho and I have been invited to go visit my uncle and his wife in the countryside outside of Eymoutiers, a town in the province of Limousin. My cousin has apparently purchased a house there, where we’re welcome to spend a couple of days. But of course, trains (and buses) lead to Paris, making direct public transit nonexistent between Grenoble (in the south-east) to Limoges (the nearest city, in the south-west of France). So we rented a car and got this:

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Yeah, I know, I wasn’t sure Stoytcho would be able to drive the tiny thing. But it turns out he fits fine.

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When we picked up the car, we asked the rental agency what roads to take and they emphasized that most highways in France are toll roads. And French toll fees make U.S. tolls look like spare change–the rental agency staff estimated our trip might cost 30+ euros! We opted for the scenic route instead.

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Our route took us ~6 hours and through two national parks (Livradois-Forez and Volcans d’Auvergne), past dozens of adorable towns scattered on plains and nestled in the hills, across forests clothed in warm autumn colors. (P.S. if you do the same drive, stop in Livradois-Forez National Park at the signs advertising fresh local cheese and tell me how it is! We did not stop and I forever regret it.)

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The castles made me wonder if we had fallen into some sort of fairy tale…

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We spent the night sleeping in the car somewhere in Livradois-Forez and woke pre-dawn to keep driving.

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Dawn was slow over the misty landscape, and it wasn’t until we stopped for a break that we realized that the thin veil of white across the fields was more than mist. It was our first frost in nearly two years:

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Summer is over. But the coming winter doesn’t look so bad.

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P.S. Here’s the route for those interested. It’s basically the Google Maps directions if you select “Avoid Tolls”:

Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 1

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Our traincar’s attendant watches people disembark.

Cabin-mates

Today we bid farewell to Ulan-Ude and board the trans-Siberian railway westward to Krasnoyarsk. Our trip will last 26 hours, and we’ll be sharing our journey with two others in our cabin in kupe. Stoytcho is apprehensive about this, but it’s already a compromise; if I was choosing alone, I would’ve gone with plazcart, which consists of just rows of bunks with curtains for privacy. But as the train arrives and we watch the people piling into the plazcart cars en masse, I’m glad we went with kupe.

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The hallway of kupe.

We board after an attendant scrutinizes our passports, and we find our cabin, a tiny 7’ x 4’ x 7’ room that hosts a table and four bunk beds. There are two guys already in there, one older and one younger, and they fall silent as we walk in. Neither one is smiling. After we drop our stuff off on our bunks, we step outside of the cabin and Stoytcho gives me ‘the look’. “They don’t look friendly,” he sighs.

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Stoytcho stands in our 4-berth cabin.

Lay of the Land

Siberia is endless. Our traincar glides through the landscape, and fields of flowers, open plains, and dense forests fill our window. I feel that if I could get out of our tiny room and run, I could run forever in any direction.

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A road winds through the Siberian landscape.

Occasionally we pass a house or small village huddled near the railway, usually old wooden structures with meticulously-painted accents and a vegetable patch nearby. Wires seem to extend from beside the tracks out to these houses—the electrical wiring running parallel to the railway appears to be their source of electricity. I wonder if it’s the only source of electricity out here, so far away from a major city. I wonder what the people do when it goes down.

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A lone house peeks between freight railcars.

In the late afternoon on the first day, I watch the landscape bathed in golden light move past our window. A stand of pines gives way to a sparse birch standing in a field of tall, brilliant purple flowers. We’ve seen these flowers before, on the shores of Lake Baikal. The family who hosted us our first night there explained that the leaves could be made into to tea, giving it the name ‘Ivan-chai.’ “Иванчаи,” I say out loud, pointing at them. The young guy in our cabin replies with a grin, “да.”

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Birch trees stand in a field of blooming Ivan-chai.

This Is Chai

There isn’t much to do on the train besides sit and watch the scenery go by. You can read, although the swaying of the traincar can give you mild motion sickness. You could write, but the jolts can send your pen scratching across the page. And you could use some electronic device of your choice, but the only outlets available for charging are found in the aisle outside your cabin. Instead, you watch the scenery go by and you have чаи (tea).

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Snapshot of Siberia: pine forest (right) gives way to birch trees, then bog (left).

Every Russian traincar is equipped with a samovar, a hot water dispenser. The car’s attendant lends you mugs for free, which consist of a simple glass held in a gorgeously ornate tea glass holder (подстаканник). Add your own teabag and presto, you’ve got hot tea to sip as you watch the scenery slip by. Not knowing about this, we did not bring our own tea, but the older guy in our cabin pushes his boxes of teabags and sugar to us with gusto. “Please, help yourself,” he says warmly. We thank him and dip teabags into our cups, watching the dark color of tea ripple out into the hot water.

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The traincar samovar.

The young man returns from the restroom and sits down next to the older man, on the bunk across from us. “чаи?” he asks. “да,” we reply cheerfully, pointing to the mugs. He glances at the older man and smiles. “нет,” he shakes his head, and rifles through his stuff. Seconds later, he produces bountiful containers of Russian salad, boiled potatoes, hardboiled eggs, lukanka, bread, and cheese. He lays them out on the table, beside our mugs of tea. In the meantime, the old man disappears and returns with two more mugs of hot water. The four of us sit together at our table as Siberia passes by our window, “This,” the young man grins with a flourish, “This is чаи.”

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A podstakannik with tea and some snacks from our trip.

Politics

Our cabin mates are Nikolaj, a younger man on his way to visit his sister in Novosibirsk, and Ivan, an older man homebound after a six-month work stint on electrical lines out in Siberia. I introduced myself as “Natasha” and Stoytcho introduced himself with his name. Ironically, it’s a funny name even here, although Nikolaj and Ivan recognize it as Slavic. Stoytcho explains that he was born in Bulgaria, but works in the U.S. now. The guys are evidently pleased that they’ve got a Slavic brother in Stoytcho, even if Russian and Bulgarian have only about 50% equivalence. Both groups struggle to find synonyms and simple words that might map complicated thoughts and feelings.

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A building stands alone in the Siberian landscape. Some buildings standing near the rails appear to be old factories, perhaps abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Nikolaj asks us if Americans hate Russians, followed by what we understand as, “If I travel there, will I be welcome?” We reply with “Americans don’t hate Russian people, it is the governments that don’t like each other. Big countries want to be the best. People are people, the rest is politics.” Both Nikolaj and Ivan nod, “It’s the same here. The government says that America hates us, makes trouble, sanctions. But the Cold War is over already. America won,” Nikolaj sighs with a laugh. “You should come visit us in America!” I offer helpfully. “Yeah, I want to try to visit,” he replies, smiling. Given U.S. visa costs and requirements, we both this is nearly impossible.

View part 2 here.

The Jakarta-Yogyakarta Train

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Passing the edge of a city by train, Jakarta->Yogyakarta.

We’re bound by train to Yogyakarta, the “cultural capital” in southern Java that’s affectionately referred to as “Jogja”. Though a flight is only an hour compared to the train’s nine-hour trip, it’s nine hours well-spent admiring Java’s scenery.

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Trees silhouetted against empty rice paddies.

 

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Rice paddies thick with the greenery of rice plants in Southern Java.

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Javanese dwellings on stilts.

 

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A passenger texts while catching a ride on an ojek.

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An unfocused photo of construction work on a river (likely for a bridge). 

This is the most densely-populated island in Indonesia, and villages, fields, and rice paddies speed by every second. Each moment is a snapshot of Java beyond the cities, where most people farm and know no other way of life. As we speed by, I imagine all of the knowledge they must have about farming and the seasons of Java—how to start rice shoots growing, when to plant them in the flooded paddies, when to harvest the rice plants, when to let a paddy lie fallow. I try to imagine what it must be like to push the rice seedling into the muddy water, feet sunk into the same mud that will nourish this rice plant as the sun beats down on my back. It’s hard work and I’m lucky I don’t have to do it, but I want to know how it feels.

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Terraced fields near one of Java’s many volcanic cones.

 

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A man plants young rice seedlings in a flooded paddy.

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Farmers escape the heat of the day in a dwelling on the rice paddies. Most fields and paddies we passed had a shelter to hide from the sweltering tropical sun.

 

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A farmer walks through lush, peridot-green rice paddies.

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Farmers dump harvested rice from sacks for husking.

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An ojek stands before a harvested rice paddy.

As people increasingly flock to Indonesia’s cities (a worldwide trend), the passage of this agricultural knowledge halts. Maybe one day it will disappear entirely, forgotten or as good as forgotten, left only in written texts. But hopefully someone here will see value in this knowledge and keep it alive.

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An island in a sea of rice paddies. The erratic growth of the rice here might be from grains lost from the last harvest in a field now fallow.