Friday, 31 August 2012

Remembering Ledo in Russia

9288 kms. from/to Moscow, says the milepost on the main platform at Vladivostock train station. It was erected in 1996 to mark the centenary of the Trans-Siberian Railway, connecting the capital Moscow to the eastern-most part of Russia. In the initial years, this railway was the life-line connecting the vast stretches of the Siberian no-man’s land  to the rest of the world. Possibly nowhere else in the world can one find a train terminus located so far away from the capital. And this is perhaps also Vladivostock’s greatest claim to glory. In any case, that was the only thing I knew about the city till we landed here last week.

So why did they build this incredibly long train line all the way through empty, dreary and cold Siberia so long ago... ? As if on cue, my thoughts immediately flew several hundreds of kilometres southwards to another railway terminus I have become very familiar with in recent years – the railway terminus at Ledo,  a little beyond Margerita, in Upper Assam. Granted, it was only about 100 kms. of track that the British laid to enable coal, tea, oil and wood to be transported from the Ledo-Margherit area to the port at Dibrugarh, but it was constructed roughly around the same time – end of the nineteenth century.  Granted also that there is nothing left that can be called romantic or worth-being-nostalgic-about in the completely ordinary-looking train station at Ledo today, while the quaint and tiny train station at Vladi is possibly still its crowning glory.

And how long does a train journey from Ledo to Delhi take – not much over two days I guess, while the journey from Vladi  to Moscow, even today, with sleek fast trains, takes close to seven days! But even 9288 kms is not the longest continuous train journey one could embark on, I was told, one could travel continuously all of 11,055 kms. from Kiev  (in Ukraine) to Vladi via Moscow. The Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian railways lines which go along the Trans-Siberian one for part of the way are also long....So much for distances!

With a 10 hour time difference to London, and being 7 hours ahead of even its own capital Moscow, I guess there is no competing with Vladi on that score either. There is not much further eastward one can go on mainland Russia, not much east one can go in any case unless one wanted to cross over to Japan or cross the International Date Line and then begin another round... One can’t go very much further eastward from Ledo either, if one wanted to stay in India. But there is one point in which Ledo is perhaps one up on Vladi – for one could get around in Ledo if one knew a bit of even one of the languages – Assamese, Hindi, Nepali, Telegu, Bengali, Bhojpuri, even English -- but Vladi would be very difficult to negotiate without any Russian. And remember, the script is also different.

But besides being railway terminuses, both eastern ones at that, what else did Ledo and Vladi have in common? Not much I guess, except that both places are kind of relatively forgotten by the rest of the world. However, with N. Korea, Japan and China within striking distance of Vladi, Ledo is no match for it, although who knows how international Ledo would have been if one could travel all the way along the Stillwell (Ledo) Road  and if the borders with Burma and China were open. For Ledo is not just a rail terminus, it is also the starting point of the Stilwell road which, at least in theory, is supposed to go all of 1736 kms. to Kunming in China via Burma. And the Stillwell Road was initially called and is still referred to by many as the Ledo road.  

But Vladi is perhaps  too strategically located to really be a forgotten back-of-beyond Russian city, so much so that an APEC summit is due to be held in the city in a few days time – the only bit of news in that regard: Too bad, Obama is not coming! Well, reminded me of the preparations leading up to the Axom Xahitya Xabha Session that took place in Ledo last year. What an occasion that was for the proud Ledo-basindas! Like the average inhabitant of Vladi, most of them weren’t sure what the fuss was all about but they did like the idea of their city being all spruced up to welcome so many  VIPS who were VIP enough for all their roads and crossings to be  manned by walkie-talkie-carrying policemen for at least a couple of days.  In any case I suppose many more politicians (pretending to be writers and poets) came to that session than will gather at Vladi for the APEC summit...

And going by the preparations, Vladi looks almost like how Delhi might have looked, I imagine, one week before the start of the Commonwealth Games – scaffolding everywhere, new paint, new signs – an entire city under construction, and time running out very fast! As one Russian friend pointed out – the more you pretend you are doing, the more money you can siphon off from the big pot – sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Corruption is rampant -- endemic, my friend corrected me -- and like in Guwahati, one can still ‘buy’ driving licences and the like.

Otherwise, I guess neither place gets many tourists. I haven’t met an Indian so far in Vladi – hard to believe, for they are to be found almost everywhere. Guess I’m exotic enough to be put in the local zoo! The two times we ate out we were taken to Japanese restaurants – they were not sure where in the city we could go to eat Russian food. They get tourists here from the neighbouring countries, but not many Russians from other parts would bother to come, unless they had good reason. Ledo gets even fewer I guess, unless you count the Burmese people who come and go without anyone noticing. Consequently there are not many shops selling Russian souvenirs in Vladi, if one discounts the stalls by the harbour selling sea-shells and such stuff. One wouldn’t know where to buy an Indian or even an Assamese souvenir in Ledo either, I suppose. But for me there is still a difference – while Ledo is the first stop on my way to my many Tangsa,  Singpho and Tai Phake friends who live around and beyond, there is something final, terminal, end-of-the-road about Vladi – with only the waters of diverse seas and oceans around it, unless one wanted to proceed on to Japan and carry on there.

Vladivostock today, a city of close to 600,000 people, is the capital of the eastern most Russian province of Primorsky, and the HQs of Russia’s Pacific Fleet. Located as it is on a peninsular and surrounded by water on almost all sides -- swimming, marine-life, fish, beaches, bridges  -- seem to be part of the character of the city of Vladi.  Nothing that would ring a bell in land-locked Ledo, I am afraid. Someone important had once, long time ago, called Vladi the San Francisco of the East – and to prove him right, even if rather belatedly, they now have a beautiful cable-stayed bridge over their Golden Horn Bay. And just to make doubly sure, they have built a second one, connecting the mainland to Russky island, which is more than 3 kms. long and will be the longest of its kind in the world.

Russia, from what I have seen of it in the last days, is a weird mixture of the old and the new – there are high-rise apartment blocks coming up everywhere and shopping malls and amusement parks – but public toilets are still dirty and bus fares are still very cheap -- the ramshackle and rickety city buses reminded me very much of the buses in Guwahati. Food is expensive but petrol is cheap – no wonder there are so many Japanese cars everywhere.  And believe it or not, in the last week I could not find anything, besides food in a supermarket, that was actually ‘Made in Russia’. Even the Kwas that they drank and the Matryoshka dolls that they sold were possibly manufactured elsewhere.

I guess the only things that are really made in Russia are oil and gas. We were told that Putin’s future depends on the price (which depends on the demand) of oil – I’ll leave you to work that one out. MacDonalds and Starbucks have not arrived yet (neither have they arrived in Ledo, for that matter), but the Russians have their own answer to them, Royal Burger and Traveler’s Coffee (note, not Traveller’s Coffee), respectively.  But for all their new found prosperity life expectancy of Russian men is only 58 years! Reasons – poor quality food, unhealthy life-style, too much cheap alcohol, too many wars – don’t know what the life expectancy of the miners working in the mines in Ledo is, possibly not much higher, but still...

There is not much going for Ledo compared to Vladi I have to admit, but still we don’t have a Putin in place there. Okay there is the coal mafia instead, and people do get killed also in Ledo, especially snooping journalists and the like, just as in Russia you could perhaps be put in jail for wearing a tight-fitting bright-coloured balaclava – know what I mean? I better stop here – I still must last another week here, you know. And several years after that in and around Ledo, more importantly,...

1 comment:

  1. Reading my blog above, my friend Avinoam had this to say...
    Hi Meenaxi. Read your blog about Ledo and Vladi(vostock). Try to get `La Prose du Transsiberien` by Blaise Cendrars. Despite the name, it is a poem, a long and beautiful one, though not nearly as long as the train line. I read it in Hebrew translation, but I'm sure that there are English and German translations. It was written in 1913, describes the author's journey on that train, I assume that you did not make that journey but flew. Too bad, we could have your description of that journey today.
    Two lines from the poem:
    I was then already such a bad poet\ That did not know to go all the way.
    one english translation is to be found in
    It is a very beautiful poem...