Trip 3: Moscow - Irkutsk

This was hands-down the longest trip, and the one that I was the most concerned about. Again, my biggest concern was the fact that I wouldn't be taking a shower until Eastern Siberia four nights and a day later. My other concern was having enough food for the trip, so I went on a mission to Yeliseyevsky's Food Hall right before setting out. Yeliseyevsky is a grand old place with 30-foot high ceilings and plenty of marble, and they stock just about everything. I bought 2 large salamis, canned goods, vodka, water and chocolates for the trip, and then went next door and got bread, rolls and buns. I didn't know that I could buy a lot of these things (and more) from ladies on the platform who meet the trans-Siberian trains, but everyone I shared dinner with said they thought the salami I brought from Moscow was particularly good.

I didn't want to carry all the food around, so I planned my shopping trip for the last minute. I got back to the hotel just in time for my lift to the station, which would get me there two hours early. As I was leaving, the woman at the Intourist desk said she thought I must be very important, since someone had called from London and left a message with her. It sounded very strange. Perhaps she was making it up. Perhaps they had discovered bomb-making equipment in my building and there were 2 men with handcuffs waiting for me at Heathrow. No idea.

This part of my trip was taken care of by Intourist, and they really take care of you. A very nice driver dropped me off at the Intourist office inside the station. I sat there had some great conversation with Boris, a very soft-spoken and intelligent man who spoke perfect English. A while ago they offered the Intourist employees a free trip to Germany. He had the same idea that I do, that it's always better to learn the language. Without a tutor, he taught himself enough German to know what was going on. Impressive. When the time came, he walked me over to the train, found the berth, argued with the train people so that they wouldn't charge me for linens, and off I went to Siberia.

This trip was earlier in the evening, so we all had time to hang around in the hallway and meet each other before it was time for bed. I spoke to two guys, one was a berthmate, and one was a soldier from down the hall. They wanted to know how old I was, was I married, did I have kids. I think they thought it was peculiar that anyone my age wouldn't be married, but such is the advantage of being foreign. You have the right to be strange, and no one would expect anything less. I heard some English from down the hall, and discovered a group of Australians and New Zealanders who were doing a similar trip to mine.

My berthmates were the fellow who wanted to know how old I was, a rather full-figured woman with a black moustache, and her 5-year-old daughter Slavina. The three of them had already been on the train since Crimea. The fellow was rather trim, and I couldn't figure out whether or not he was her father. Later on I told him I thought the little girl was very bright (as you say to all parents), and his response was, "Yeah? You think so?", so I assumed that at best he might be an uncle. Actually, she was a very nice little kid. She had a huge stuffed dog named Kukla, which she dragged around on a leash, balloons and other toys. She would talk to me all the time, and I don't suppose it matters that I didn't understand a word. When she saw me in the hallway she would hug my leg, which was very sweet. Her mother was endlessly patient. Though the guy gave up trying to communicate, she was pretty easy to talk to (with my limited Russian), and offered tea and sugar. I tried to reciprocate with supplies, but there was very little she didn't have.

The provodnitza on this trip was a young woman, probably about 25, who wore a very high miniskirt and thigh-high boots. She wore this attire while vacuuming the compartments, and presumably, while shovelling coal into the boiler. She hung around in her cabin with her friends. There were a few people who worked in the dining car who came around, including a dazed-looking older fellow with some gold teeth and an immensely pale 14-year-old boy who might have been some relation. The dining car was a bit grim, but there was a TV, and it was a good place to have some vodka in case your own supply ran out between the station stops. They also had a supply of pot noodles.

On a ride like this, everyone keeps a list of the station stops, and you want to be sure to get out of the train. First and foremost, it's something to do. Also, there's variety. The local women meet the trains with cooked food, and you can get some tasty things. There are various types of meat pastries, boiled eggs, chicken, smoked fish and cakes. In fact, if you can live without vegetables, it's a happy life. There are also stalls that sell water, sodas, chocolates, and more pot noodles. The pot noodles, by the way, are from Korea. They come in a rectangular plastic container which doubles as a bowl, so that you can pour the water directly on top. The lady on the label looks like a nurse, and there are several different flavors. I had brought my own supply from London, so I didn't buy these until much later in the journey. I was a little sorry that I had so much food to finish off, since I could have sampled more on the station platforms. But better safe than sorry, I suppose, and I ate very well the entire time.

The ride was very pleasant. I looked out the window, and read a lot. I had a trans-Siberian guidebook that told me where I was, various tour books, and a book by an English traveller which talked about Siberia. I wasn't bored for a minute. I had thought that perhaps I had to have a think, not having done so for a long time. Instead, I realized that I was perfectly comfortable, and that's who I am nowadays. I think that happens when you get over the shock of turning 40.

I didn't have too much to say to the Australians, but a pleasant surprise was the soldier down the hall, Ruslan, turned out to be very talkative. He had had as much English in school as I had Russian lessons before the trip, and armed with my dictionary, we managed to have some conversations. He was a radio operator, on the way home to Irkutsk after a vacation in Moscow. He was a military brat, his father being an officer of some kind, and he had lived in Belarus and Azerbaijan as a kid. He was travelling with a friend of his, and they were sharing a compartment with two of the Australian girls. His complaint was that he was spending 4 nights on the train with two nice girls, and he couldn't talk to them. Apparently, he tried his English on them, and they spoke back so quickly that he couldn't understand.

Having a dictionary on the table was a huge success, and pretty soon we were all hanging around. The soldiers and I pooled our resources and made a nice dinner. I say "nice" because it was nice we were having dinner together and sharing. The dinner itself was salami, pot noodles, bread and vodka nothing you would find on the better menus, even in Siberia. Everyone broke out their stash of vodka, and none of it had a chance. By the way, after living in one of the booziest countries in the world for the last two years, I found that I could keep up quite well with the Russians. Everyone in the world has the same concerns, the same feelings, and also the same liver. What do you know?

When we stopped, I got two more bottles of vodka at the station. So, we drank and talked for the rest of the evening, with the two Australian girls joining in. Ruslan's friend was very quiet, but we all had a very good time. I decided to turn in early, and went to bed. The next morning, unfortunately, there was some bad news. Apparently, the provodnitza didn't approve of the state of Ruslan's friend, words were said, and she called the police, who handcuffed both of them, beat them up, and dragged them off the train at Novosibirsk. Details are sketchy since I don't understand the language very well, but I was really sorry to hear about that. Ruslan managed to give one of the Australian girls his number at work, and I asked my tour guide in Irkutsk to please get in touch to see if they were all right.

I mentioned somewhere else that trains are like planes, only slower. Where on a plane you get jet lag, on the train, you get train lag. We had been travelling east at a steady 70 kph, with all of our clocks set to Moscow time. The sun started to go down earlier and earlier, until we were having lunch in the dark. By the time we got to Irkutsk, we didn't know which end was up.