Cultures Sauvages (Raw Cultures) is a radio show on Radio Eponyme, a local radio of Mulhouse. The show was created in 2017 and talks about culture and especially music and literature. Since October 2019, I’m doing a chronicle every month about my travels and I decided to draw something to illustrate my adventures!
The December 5th 2019 show was about “Transe” and you can listen to it -in French- right here:
HOW I DIDN’T TRAVEL THE TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY:
A STORY OF ÇÄKÇÄK, LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT IN KYOTO AND THE GOD YUE LAO’S MAILBOX
As this new show’s topic initiated by Emilie is a wonderful subject for wordplays (let’s talk about shamanic trance as well as trance music, transsexuality and transgression), I chose today to tell you how I didn’t take the Trans-Siberian train.
It was looking good though. The idea germinated when I first read Sylvain Tesson’s book The Consolations of the Forest, in which he wrote about his isolation in a little cabin on the edge of the Baïkal Lake in Siberia. Then, in 2016, as I just came back from New-Zealand and was about to leave for Taiwan, I hosted a young Russian Couchsurfer in my flat in Strasbourg. She was from Kazan, a city I never heard about and couldn’t even place on a map. Now I know that Kazan is located in the South-East of Russia, 600km from the Kazakhstan border and it’s the capital of the Tatarstan Republic.
For the first time, I discovered the very existence of Tatarstan as well as the one of Çäkçäk (you can say “chakchak”), a fried dessert with honey, which is very popular in the region. No need to say that I adopted Çäkçäk right after the first bite. The Russian dream started to sparkle inside of me… and inside my stomach.
Once in Taiwan, as I was living and working in a hostel, I met a Chinese girl my age who had travelled on the Trans-Siberian. As my interest was growing, she gave me loads of information, anecdotes, feelings and websites to check out. Trans-Siberian became an obsession, strengthened with the experiences of other travellers that I enjoyed reading and listening to.
I knew I didn’t want to come back to France after my year in Taiwan, so why not a train journey? I discovered then the different routes of the Trans-Siberian because it turns out the Trans-Siberian isn’t a train but a railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. There are several trains on this route, and a lot of different itineraries are possible, through China and Mongolia as well!
I always liked the train. My mom used to work for the French train company, the SNCF, so I always travelled by train: it’s a bit like a second home. I like to lean my forehead against the window and watch the landscape shooting past. I’m getting impatient just to think I’m going to crash in one of the seats and read a novel for hours. I enjoy falling asleep while listening with attention to the conversations of my neighbours. Travelling the Trans-Siberian feels like the ultimate travel for those who love train. You can spend your whole day on board, sharing your cabin with other travellers, drinking some hot Russian tea and meet the provonitsa, those ladies taking care of the passengers’ wellbeing on each wagon. I read it’s even possible to get some food on the platforms!
Eventually, by the end of Summer 2017, I was preparing an itinerary as well as a budget for the upcoming year. I knew how to get a visa for Mongolia, China and Russia. I could feel a warm heat coming from my abdomen, which was the sign of a thrilling upcoming new adventure, but also a guarantee: I was going to keep on travelling for a little while. It always feels good to have some plans for the near future, it’s reassuring as well as exciting.
Except that… I should know better by now about making plans. Life always happens. And here comes November and I’m freshly arrived in Kyoto, Japan, having a month break from my Taiwanese Working Holiday Visa to go back exploring this city I fell in love with two years before. I’m visiting as many temples as I can, and I’m getting completely amazed by the autumn’s colours. Every garden is bursting in warm colours and my eyes can’t get enough of it.
And I let myself being kissed by a young Israeli who was taking me out singing endlessly in karaoke, guiding me through the city by bicycle and tapping the rhythm of Alt-J’s song Nara on my knees.
I think Kyoto has been the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever had for a love story. We were in awe in front of the Golden Pavilion telling each other we should live there, and we would spend the summer evenings drinking tea on the balcony while roaming around with the deer of Nara. Our days always ended with hot ramen, and a good amount of time spent in a sentô, the Japanese public baths.
This love story was intense. Of stunning beauty, it was not meant to last, like it’s always how it goes with love at first sight. I needed to go back to Taiwan anyway and he had to go to Argentina to visit his family.
My heart was heavy, my knees were shaking, but the freedom I get while travelling always comes with a price: encounters are ephemeral, and hearts are breaking up to the four winds.
I could keep on dreaming about the Trans-Siberian then.
I missed him, though. It took me so much energy to create a precious box in my mind so I could keep him, his songs and his scented scarf safe inside and carefully lock it up.
I was in Tainan by that time, Taiwan’s former capital city. I was discovering the old temples and its famous night markets with my British friend Jayne and my Taiwanese friend Chia Ling who used to live there. She was the one showing us around and introducing us to the temple’s numerous deities and how to pray them properly. One of those deities had way more success than the other ones, Yue Lao, the matchmaking God.
According to the legend, this old man is supposed to bring soulmates together and unite the couples using a red cord, the red thread of fate in Chinese mythology. Many singles come to pray Yue Lao on a regular basis and Chia Ling showed us how to proceed: you have to write your name, your birthdate and a little message to Yue Lao on a tiny red piece of paper and post it in one of the two mailboxes of the temple. The green one is for normal matters and the red one for urgent matters… I let you guess which one was packed!
Back then, I asked Yue Lao if by chance he could put some honest, funny and charming guy on my way, and I attached one of those red bracelets at my ankle to bring me some luck.
A few weeks later, the young Israeli guy finally decided to postpone his flight to Argentina and came to see me in Taiwan for three months. I guess the Tainan temple deity must have had read his mail from the red box.
During those three months, I obviously fell madly in love with him, ignoring our age difference, our cultural gaps, our linguistic issues. Romantic passion ignores everything as long as there are still people dancing on Taiwanese rooftops under fireworks.
“You should come and travel South America with me.”
I was dreading that sentence as much as I was calling for it. What about the Trans-Siberian? And my Asian dreams? And my Russian dreams? What about the Baïkal Lake? Would I jeopardise everything in favour of a guy I kissed under a bridge in Kyoto? Would I move on the other side of the world for his beard that sometimes smelt like a chocolate bar? Would I take 5 flights to go living in South America without even speaking Spanish just to hear someone wishing me good night in Hebrew? Not to mention a month salary spent on flight tickets and my ecological consciousness wiped out considering the carbon print of such a journey… But I did it. I went to meet him in Ecuador.
Since I came back to France, over the last year, I cursed myself quite often for going all the way to Ecuador to break our hearts. If I had jumped into one of the Trans-Siberian trains, it would have stayed whole. A bit crooked as usual, but intact and alive, thrilling on the Asian tracks with a hot tea to keep it warm.
And some other times I pick up the box, turn slowly the key in the lock and find his smiles, his orange t-shirt and our Golden Pavilion dreams. I then remember the Ecuadorian mountains, the blue-footed birds and the taste of Colada Morada. Then, I find myself happy I didn’t take the Trans-Siberian train.
That was probably Yue Lao’s will: I had to live this love story until the end. The red bracelet finally broke when I left Ecuador.
I could still jump on the Trans-Siberian some other time, don’t you think?