July 6th, 2003

(no subject)

Smell can evoke memories more vividly than any other sense. As I was getting on the overnight train from Vilnius to Riga, I got a whiff of burning coal. My memory flashed back, and I was back on the Trans-Mongolian, with Victoria, on our way from Moscow to Beijing.

I looked to the head of the train and saw a diesel loco. For a moment I was confused, but then I saw the smoke rising from each of the passenger cars. The Lithuanian railways had inherited their rolling stock from the Soviets, so they had coal-fired samovars in their cars. That smell had been in the background for the five and a half days it took to cross Siberia and Mongolia. And here it was again. Sure enough, when I got on the train and looked down the corridor, I saw the attendant putting a shovelful of coal into the boiler.

Later, as I rode from Riga to Daugavpils, I'd pass freight wagons with the embossed CCCP and coat of arms spray-painted over, and the logos of the Russian or Latvian railways stenciled on.