An Economist’s Rambling Thoughts on the Trans Siberian-May 2015
Posted on July 12th, 2015

Garvin Karunaratne

Two days well spent in Moscow

Our Guide Olga showed us the way

The Kremlin and the imposive buildings

The Diamond Fund showing  the regalia of Russia

Gone are the misadventures in the economy,

Gorbachov, is no more,

Gone are his Perestroika and Glasnost

Gifted with a  Noble Prize he lives in luxury’

While Russia did suffer with poverty bursting  peoples lives.

Our Tour driver, a chemistry grad lost his job in that economic upheaval

Russia seems to have  now regained its strength’

the Production base looks back in full swing

The shops were full of local produce,

The Imperial Sanctions has not brought a starving people,

Instead,  it has actually spurred production

Low are the salaries and so are also goods,  low in price.

Even Metformine- a medical tablet made in Germany is dead cheap

The Rich plundering the people and making them poor is not on.

Its communism, with a tinge of the Free Markets

A controlled economy with a place for the Private Sector to contribute.

Moscow was full of elegant people, not a beggar in sight,

Looks a contented people with memories of a victorious past?

The Trans Siberian Train pulled up at Moscow Railway Station,

 

A two berth for me and my wife  and our son in the adjoining,

Bag and baggage all cramped up.

A train taking us across  two continents to Mongolia and far away China.

A lifetime trip of some four thousands miles,

It took off on the rails with a bang.

 

The country sides were full of fir trees, endless.

We were in the thick of the Taiga, the largest forest in the world

Those  economists who opine that the world will be bereft of trees.

I am dead cert- they have never been on the Trans Siberian

For once I remembered my geography lessons at St Peter’s College, Colombo

We learned of  the Russian Taiga and the Urals

 

It stopped a while at main stations, when we could alight

A quick wander in the shops, have a bite, buy some  bread and off we go again

A one minute stop at small stations

for a lone passenger drop and a stray pick up

And off it goes again at a steady pace, unstoppable, undeterred

 

The fir trees ended and then it was Silver Birch, endless.

There were timber yards everywhere,

where Silver Birch were felled,  debarked and made into logs

All loaded for another Freight Siberian to take it away.

 

Then came the Russian Steppes, massive farmland, endless hectares

There was no end as far as my eyes and field glasses could see.

It looked like my gazing at eternity

In the scattered villages, a farm yard here and a veg patch there,

men and women with rakes and forks,

hard at work, they are everywhere

land  being readied for planting.

People in small dwellings painted in an array of colour

Homes, All clustered together, well lit, blessed with people

The roads were dirt tracks, the cars old and ramshackle, but that was life.

No luxury homes for the rich, All looked alike

 

A lone tractor  was straining in the distance- dry ploughing.

The earth was dark, ideal for crops and the extents legion.

I recalled the Canadian and US Prairies I had seen. earlier

In them, there were no settlements of people. no life.

Only tractor stations, godowns and large offices,

All bereft of people; robots and tractors had taken their place.

Not in Russia; there were people, in settlements all over

Huddled together so that services- education and food  can be easily provided

The Russian Steppes do  breathe with human life

 

The sights of the Russian Steppes and the Canadian Prairies

Tells me that the World will never be short of food.

Economist pundits have to go by road to the Prairies and Steppes

Get on  the Trans Siberian before they  come  with their concoctions of global  misery

 

In the US farmers are paid for not cultivating their land

All to ensure that there is no glut of produce which could  cause a drop in the price.

The American Prairies are commercialized- all to make a buck

While Russia’s Steppes are devoted to make bread for the masses

Naturally in Russia there is plenty of produce, rice,  wheat, buck wheat,

all at ridiculously low affordable  prices,

Bread at the lowest prices I have ever seen, at half the price in the US

Russia has actually controlled hunger with its massive production.

The wages are low, but cheap food, cheap energy,  cheap electricity

Enabling  a happy and contented people.

 

At Irkutsh, Guide Sergie  greeted us.

We broke journey for two days
It was a City humming with life,

While the  waters of the Angara River flowed calm and certain

 

Next day we were at Lake Baikal

The marvel of all lakes I’ve ever seen,

One dark sheet of water, deep blue ,  stretching endless

as far as my eyes could see,

Further on the horizon,  on the Buryat shore

Shining silvery snow capped mountains,

A glorious sight that I do hope to see someday..

 

The City Market was well stocked with local fish and veg.

More, it was womenfolk that ran them

 

We were again on the Trans Siberian

Heading for Mongolia,

The train   skirted the waters of Lake Baikal.

At times it seemed we were on the Lake. It was that close.

The heavens lit up,

A varied hue of orange, red and yellow

Another day was born

 

The Trans Siberian is yet moving along.

The waters calm and placid are shining in all its glory

All in the dead of the night.

 

A lone star, far away, shines, speaking out that she is also there.

The Trans Siberian, all alone, stealthily ploughs its way, slowly but surely

Never at break neck speed, all in measured steps,

Lest we get shaken up, like dice in a tin

The driver knows the art of gliding along

We have to pass not one not two,   some  four thousand  miles.

And at the end we should not be  having broken bones

It is all different from trains in India- the Shatabdi Express that speeds

Making us hold our breath and life in our hands

The Trans Siberian has to learn one thing from the Shatabdi Express

that’s how the passengers have to be cared for.

The carriage attendants- the provodnitsa are a law unto themselves

 

 

The Trans Siberian halts again, a minute for a lone passenger to alight

She walks  home to meet the loved ones who may yet be fast asleep.

Her home, a wooden cottage can be seen, a distance away,  on a well lit path

As she strolls along, she waves Good Bye to the Siberian that goes its way.

Bringing the habitats of lone Siberian settlers

To be  in touch with the rest of the world,

 

The waters are seen shimmering through the silhouette of fir trees

The Trans Siberian is almost touching the water,

The Sun is casting its first ray of light, a golden  orange hue,

Telling the world that another day will dawn.

 

The orange hue becomes brighter

The bark of the Silver Birches doth shine,

The Sun says, “ I am there, I’m coming soon,

Surely, Do Wait for me,  Lest ye forget, It’s I that brings you life”.

 

The Trans Siberian has now gone into a settlement

It’s a Railway Station, with shining rails all long

On one side it is cranes loading logs,

On another it is Foremen Plate Layers

Bending down- they are taking levels on the two rails

Casting a sharp eye on the sleepers and fish plates,

All to see that we are safe and sound.

 

Off we go  on with a thud and a bang.

Again a one minute stop, another one out and another one in.

Rumbling along its path by the Lake, Baikal,

The deepest of all  fresh water lakes

 

The sky is now brighter

Yet  the Sun is lingering on, getting ready,

Giving time for the resting men to regain strength

To get ready for another day’s toil

 

A Mist casts itself  over the shimmering blue waters of Goose Lake

The Rays of the Sun lights up the Heavens,

Off goes the Mist,

 

Meanwhile the Trans Siberian takes off

We entered Mongolia

The land is rugged, the mountains unkempt

In the valleys herds of cattle loiter along one after another

Hundreds. They are always very busy, munching a stray plant

Wandering all over, by nightfall destined for a Ger, far away,

Being goaded along when straying, by a nomad on horseback

All going to their master, in a Ger, visible,  far out in the distance.

 

The Trans Siberian gets to Ullan batar

It is the capital of Mongolia, our stay for two days,

Our tour guide  Enny greets us

A night in cosy Edelweiss Hotel

The next day we are escorted to the town.

 

I gazed,  amazed at he massive Chinghiz Square,

With the mighty Chinghiz Khan, carved out of a huge marble

Flanked by armed riders, astride on horse back ,

The sheer size of the square, the riders on horseback armed to the teeth,

Make me relive Chinghiz  Khan, the mighty,

along with his ten thousand warriors

Riding  to China, to Russia, to Poland, to Afghanistan, to far off lands

All put to the sword- to his bows and arrows.

No talk of Human Rights Commissions then

 

The next day we were off to Kharakhorum,

The sacred sanctum  Erdene Zuu Khlid Monastery,

Endless statues of Lord Buddha Sakyamuni,

Of Kassapa the Buddha of yore, Of Maitri the Buddha of the Future

All tell the devotion of a grand people

The Lamas- priests, the custodians of Buddhism are omnipresent

– their chants rendered the air

 

We lived in a Ger Tourist  Camp

Our Ger, a nomadic tent, with all comforts

 

In the nights the light blue heavens were lit with numerous stars.

Shining bright, the brightest sky I’ve ever seen

It was not the bleak sky I gazed on my lawn at Anuradhapura

On the SOB Road- Staff Officers Bungalow Road. That was five decades ago

Trying to identify the few stars that shon.

Then we saw Orion and his belt. That was all.

Now it was, countless brothers and sisters of Mother Earth

The sheer numbers of celestial bodies- stars, galaxies defied me.

It was a myriad, shining bright casting a ray at me

At times winking at me, a stray stranger gazing from far

Telling me, “You are not alone. Don’t think you are alone,

We may be far away, but we are there”

 

We were taken to a Ger, a nomad’s tent,

A nomad family feted us wholeheartedly,

It was unbelievable an entire home in a tiny Ger, twenty feet in diameter

Beds and tables all arranged, a small kitchenette on a side

That’s where an entire family lived.

Around it were a few sheds to house the calves and the foal

and the dairy milking enclosure,

A rugged makeshift fence to keep off wolves.

 

The Gur was unpicked and moved to newer pastures often

On State land that belonged to all

To find eatables for the cattle and horses,

The only assets the nomads ever had

The Concept of State land that belonged to all, to be used and not abused

Makes me think of the Crown Lands Ordinance of the Colonial British,

A Decree that all unoccupied land belonged to the Crown

And then sold off the land at five shillings an acre to European settlers

Depriving the Sinhala highlanders of their water resources, their livelihood,

Leaving them paupers for ever

 

 

Again on the Trans Siberian – off to China.

At the border at Zamun Ude

Where the carriage wheels were unlocked and moved to the new China gauge.

A Great job, done in record time, with Chinese workmen working pell mell

 

Off we were on our way again,

This time the Chinese carriage attendants  were more human,

No more frowning faces,

Chatty with the little broken English they knew

They even helped carry our luggage.

 

Lo and behold,

The Mongolian steppes and mountains turned into green in China.

They were teeming with people

 

A tractor in the distance, ponies dragging the ploughs,

Land was being tilled by hand, prepared for the onset of rain

trees were planted on the contours, the land graded with care,

Vast nurseries making plants

Canals, well maintained, took the water along.

There were new homes being built for the masses

Everything was breathing with life

It was a marvel of a sight, people at work in soiled clothes

plants sprouting, trees waving in the winds, brick after brick being laid

a country at work, all hands to the deck,

All while the Trans Siberian rumbled along

 

Beijing is a City that shines, Sindy took us around.

Exceptional Development bursting at the seams.

Endless Skyscapers  scraping the skies for space,

Massive hotels teeming with smart businessmen,

The Beijin International my home for five days

Swarming with Sales Supermarkets

Full of everything that one wants.

 

I held my breath at Tinneman Square,

People moving solemnly, in reverence at Mao

Mao Tse Tung, the Creator of Communist China

Who built the people in communes

However today it is Communism with FreeMarkets,

Looks to be a well worked out strategy

 

It is No Wonder,  China has stolen the thunder

While the world lingers in slumber.

In the USA  the Republicans and the Democrats are at loggerheads

The one in the opposition wont allow the other to rule.

There is no new development, ever.

The Fed, Bernanke and earlier Greenspan

Both talked a lot; They only knew to change interest rates,

Little knowing that people will cash in, draw loans at low interest,

The earth was drawn under their feet when interest rates were increased.

Simply, they could not pay up; defaults  inevitable.

Pundits did not know basic human behaviour

but the bankers had their way, giving out dud loans

and the Fed changing interest rates

Led to a crash in the economy in 2008.

The homes, the assets of the people crumbled

and their worthy assets lay in ruins even today full seven years later

It was a Humpty Dumpty having a great fall-never to be put back again.

Then in Europe,  Greece is in trouble without paying dues on its foreign debt

The IMF and the EU insists on payment and advocates austerity,

Little do they know that  Austerity is the IMF’s strategy  to cause a Regime Change

All have forgotten that the foreign debt comes from the days

when the Greeks had to fight the Ottoman Caliphs and raised loans for that.

That was centuries ago

Why have today’s people to suffer for that

Meanwhile the Third World is in worse tatters

Following the IMF and its Structural Adjustment,

The countries were told to give up import  and forex controls

which once enabled them to manage with what they had

They were advised to raise loans and spend

Borrow and spend made them indebted.

Exactly like Greece.

Now it is their lot to rack their brains and raise further loans to pay up the debts

Meanwhile the IMF like Shylock insists on repayment

Little knowing that it was misadventure on their part, the cause.

It is Austerity, wage cuts, moré taxes

They fail to understand that Austerity can bring a saving,

but never Growth, Production and Income

 

Meanwhile China has kicked the IMF’s preachings

Goes ahead from strength to strength

That is what I saw, a country full of vigour and strength

Peoples power to the fore, undeterred, bashing ahead

The Trans Siberian shows us the way.

The rumblings of the train shall never leave my head.

 

Thanks be to Trailfinders, to Matthew, for planning our trip,

To our able Guides who knew it all

And to the friendly wonderful people,

I am sorry to have left them behind

Best Wishes to them all.

 

 

 

Garvin Karunaratne

For more reading:

Garvin Karunaratne; How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka, Godages, Colombo

China Development at the Seams; The Nation.lk

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