From Moscow to Irkutsk, Russia, via the 340 Trans-Siberian train
Travelling platskartny (3rd class, open carriage, cheapest option; something like 3000+ miles for about 120$) proved to be totally freaking awesome. I ended up getting basically adopted by the three guys across from my bunk, Vlad, Mikhail, and Erik, and a German-speaking babushka in the bunk next to mine, whose name I never caught. Mikhail and Erik kept me fed the entire trip. I, being one with ever so much common sense, forgot to buy supplies for the journey in my mad dash to make sure I got to the right station after wandering around the wrong one, and these guys basically saved my bacon. They also kept telling me I was too skinny (in Russian) and to eat more (those are the two guys in the photo with me) and to come back to Russia in summertime and visit them. The babushka kept giving me apples, candy, and once, fish and potatoes, and I think she was convinced that I spoke German.
I wish I’d taken more photos, but as platskartny is an open carriage, taking photos felt like it’d be a big invasion of privacy and just awkward. Also, the train windows are filthy, which makes photos all look kind of boring and grainy. I am glad for many things on this trip so far, including the fact that a.) I am not a picky eater nor allergic to certain foods, b.) I am not claustrophobic, and c.) that I enjoy my own company a fair amount. That being said, the journey would have been 100x better if I spoke halfway decent Russian. Vlad very kindly translated as much as he could into English for me, but that only gets one so far. For the really interesting questions, like religion, life goals, hopes, dreams, politics, etc. I could not understand anything nor convey my own thoughts. It’s incredibly frustrating to be surrounded by people who are intensely curious about you and vice versa and not be able to have a decent discussion. This was to be a recurring theme throughout Russia for me…
Anyway, the train was insane. Thank heavens that no one offered me any vodka at any point in Russia (I hate vodka). In fact, there was far less alcohol on the train than I had previously imagined. And unlike the movie Trans-Siberian, there was far less drugs, sex, and danger. Also, far fewer English speakers. There was a lot of sleeping, since the sun didn’t rise until about 10am and set at 4pm, and you cross multiple time zones. There was a lot of staring out of the train windows. There was a lot of smoking (but not by yours truly). The three guys shook my hand and congratulated me on my “strength” (?) when they found out that I don’t smoke. There was not a lot of showering. There are two bathrooms for the whole carriage, each with a sink which you cannot stick your head under. But I have a plastic orange cup from Florence with which I was able to sort of wash my hair with twice. And I used a lot of baby wipes. I finished Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux and the fifth Percy Jackson book. I met a pair of Italian brothers who are expanding their wine business into Russia, and who tried to give me some life advice. All in all, not very eventful, but very relaxing. My cold from Moscow (that I suspect was due to pollution..which doesn’t bode well for China..) was cured by the enforced rest.
The best parts of the trip would have to be the times where communication wasn’t so vital. One night, when a very young brother and his sister were on the train, we played (what I think was) a Russian version of Hearts, which I was terrible at on my own. The little boy started helping me, though, and we won every subsequent round. A lot of laughter that night. There was the night that we decided to do twenty questions via drawings, which I have in my sketchbook and will treasure for always. Some things are surprisingly hard to communicate via drawing, especially bridge building (Erik’s profession). The pinnacle of it all had to be my last night on the train, when we stopped in Novosibirsk and ran across the frozen train tracks to pick up more groceries and ice cream, and we ate dumplings from a platform vendor, and we wished each other Merry Christmas. And on this night, the German-speaking babushka searched for chess competitors, and we ended up playing. She thoroughly trounced me multiple times in a row, but kept shoving candy at me the entire time (to soften the blow?). She was intense! We played chess for so long that the lights went from the regular night time lights, to the dim lights, and finally they went totally off. Mikhail and Erik had a flashlight, so we rigged up a swinging flashlight over the table and continued playing on. Ahhh, it was wonderful. I will always remember that chess game, like a perfectly frozen postcard, as the highlight of my trip to Russia.
I think that I what I was looking for in Russia was a human connection. I definitely found it on that particular Trans-Siberian train. I think that that’s what we look for in our travels, or at least, one of the main things I look for. To know that for just one moment, someone else in the world cares about you, even just a little bit (or a lot) and is interested in you and your life when your paths cross in this world.
And then came Irkutsk…