To write waylaid by curiosity is a better thing than
closing the chapter
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “… to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”. Now that I write, I’ve found a parallel; settled at my desk, curiosity drives me deeper than my story requires. It’s seductive; the manuscript makes slow progress, but the quest uncovers destinations and kindred spirits that make it all worthwhile.
Paris Spring in 1900
Last week I paused in April 1900 for the Paris Exposition Universelle - a grand celebration of the achievements of the closing century where art and design showcased seamlessly with the mechanisms of the future; diesel engines, talking films, escalators, and the telegraphone - the first form of magnetic recording, forerunner to video, audio tape and computer hard drives, to name a few. Fifty million people visited the exhibition. Fifty million!
Flamboyant Stage-Set under the Eiffel Tower
Under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, National pavilions sprung up, flaunting cultural myth, art and innovation. Art Nouveau in vogue, the hard mechanics of new-age infrastructure were softened with flowing natural forms. Moving sidewalks carried visitors past mock castles and pagodas and a square rigged caravel. The Belgians recreated their Gothic Oudenaarde Town Hall. Flamboyance and optimism heralded the new millennium.
Paris to Peking, via Moscow
In truth I never got past the Kremlin-styled Russian Pavilion, for here was exhibited the Trans-Siberian express - Moscow to Peking. A journey time of months by sea and overland, reduced to days. An extraordinary achievement. To court the business traveller and wealthy voyageur, real carriages were rolled into the Pavilion.
"... one was decorated with white lacquered limewood mirrored walls, ceiling frescoed with figures from mythology and embroidered curtains, another was in the style of Louis XVI with bulging furniture of gold embellished oak and a third as French Empire and a fourth imperial Chinese".
The world's longest railway line and
the world's longest painting
Visitors could eat in the train’s restaurant car while canvas scenery scrolled past the carriage windows. All the atmosphere of travelling from the Volga River east across Siberia evoked by the painted panels of pastoral life complete with changing weather.
The young Tsar, Nicholas II, patron of the Trans-Siberian Railway, had commissioned the Russian artist, Dr Pavel Pyasetsky, to paint the panorama. Pyasetsky travelled by train, cart and bicycle, sketching bridges and fords, hamlets and villages, railway stations and halts, working teams and depots. He condensed the 10,000 kilometer journey onto three rolls 850 meters long.*
Train Connections with Russian Dolls
The Trans-Siberian held me in thrall but at the Russian Pavilion was another product launch right at the opposite end of the scale. It was the first time babushka dolls were exhibited. The designer, Sergey Malyutin, a folk artist, inspired by Japanese nesting dolls, characterised them with Russian fairytales.
Finding both the Trans-Siberian Express and the babushka dolls at the Russian Pavillion, took my writer’s dream-time to a physical shiver.
My fascination with the Trans-Siberian began when I travelled the line in 1968 on my way out to a job in Hong Kong and the souvenir that I have of that journey is a babushka doll given to me by a Russian passenger on the train. He bought it at a wayside station and I gave him Nivea Creme for his wife - a simple exchange of gifts - after a week of shared laughter laced with copious amounts of vodka as we rolled across the Siberian steppes.
The carriages, Hard Class, were not quite as elaborate as the Tsar envisaged, but then a lot had happened in sixty-eight years.
* After a hundred years of being rolled up, the canvas scrolls have been restored and are now at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Google the Paris Expo of 1900 - it is a lot of fun! http://www.expomuseum.com/1900/