Tales from the Trans-Siberian (Krasnoyarsk->Moscow)

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Oil cars at sunset along the Trans-Siberian.

Springing for Splany Wagon

We’re bound from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian, a trip of 2.5 days. We’ve got a little bit in the budget to spare, so we’re springing for splany wagon instead of kupe, so we’ve got a cabin all to ourselves this time. It’s uh, definitely a step up:

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The ticket also includes one meal. Yeah, one. For 62 hours on a train. But don’t worry, now versed in the ways of Russian train travel, we’ve come prepared. We visited a grocery store just before leaving our hostel and used the kitchen to boil potatoes and eggs. We also bought vegetables, cheese, and lukanka for salads and sandwiches, fruit, and a lot of chocolate. Bring it on, Trans-Siberian!

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Yes, those are eight chocolate bars. The best chocolate you can get in Russia (in our experience) is Alpen Gold (common, yellow wrapper) or Kazakhstan (rare, bright blue wrapper)

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Stoytcho finds a home for the bananas where they won’t be squished.

The great unbearable silence

AUGHHHHH. Death by starvation is unlikely in our cabin, but death by boredom sets in fast. The excitement over our Splanywagon cabin lasts for a few hours as we find places for things and settle in for the long ride. The silence follows. We read books, write blog posts, read more books, and organize photos. When we’re done with that, we stare out the window. Though we now pass more towns and cities, the landscape continues to be endless.

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The undeniable boon and bane of Splanywagon is its privacy. With only two in a cabin, you never have to interact with anyone you don’t know, save for the traincar attendant. With my interest in reading and writing exhausted in half a day, I find myself walking the corridor outside our door restlessly, pausing to look out the window. I rarely see anyone and the few people I do see give a half smile and nod before diving back into their cabins. They don’t want to talk.

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So there are no chance meetings, no funny stories here in Splanywagon. There is only the countryside and your mind to keep you occupied. And beyond that, there is the great unbearable silence.

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The anatomy of a stop

As we head westward, we encounter more towns and cities and find the train stopping often. While most stops only last a couple of minutes, the train will stop for anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour at certain major cities. These are the long stops everyone is waiting for.

There are two types of long stop, the short-long and the long-long, and the stop type determines what everyone will do. The short-long is hurried and frantic, as everyone rushes out of the traincar to walk around, buy snacks from kiosks on the platform, and chat frenetically. In the plazcart section, the additional goal seems to be huffing as many cigarettes as possible in five minutes. People try not to stray too far from their traincar and the attendants keep a wary eye out for anyone wandering off.

The long-long is somewhat more relaxed, though it depends on who you are. Most people take the chance to slow their pace of walking and conversation, and the frantic cigarette huffing is replaced with a slower burn. We’re free to wander around the platform, which from end to end can be more than a half a mile long. And we can stare out between the fence at the city we’ve stopped at, watch its people carry on with business in the square outside the station.

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People from our train enjoy a long stop.

Then there are the long-long runners. These are the people who take the opportunity of a long stop to actually go do something in the city. It’s usually a run to the grocery store or liquor shop (though alcohol is not allowed on the train), and you can spot them because as you’re getting off the train, they’re already running through the doors into the station. They’re gone for fifteen or twenty minutes, probably visiting a store in the main square, and return about five minutes before the train departs laden with grocery bags. I have no idea whether how they get through the security and ticket check in that time.

Mailcar

How does mail go between east and west Russia? Well, apparently one of the options is by train. These guys were unloading mail from a traincar at one of our stops, just bags and bags of letters:

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I can’t explain my joy at seeing this, although it may partly stem from the total lack of new things to see or do in the last 48 hours. But the Mailcar is just so cute. It’s labeled as the ‘Почтовый вагон’ or ‘postal car’ and they’ve got a tiny tractor out hauling little carts with packages and bags of letters and everything. I love it.

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Seriously though look at this setup with the tiny tractor and mailcarts. Is it not the best?

A change of scenery

In the last 15 hours of our trip there is a marked change in scenery. We’re no longer in Siberia, with its open plains and pine forests and emptiness. Instead, the scenery outside looks more European, frequent villages and cities separated by small patches of countryside. We’re encountering the ‘дача’, the ‘dacha’ or ‘country home’, something common throughout Eastern Europe. The dacha is the original farm or homestead of a family, kept even when everyone in the family has moved to the city. In the warmer months, it serves as a weekend getaway. It’s also a place to grow some fruit and vegetables, saving some money on the more expensive city produce.

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Cheerfully-panted dachas with gardens.

On the morning of our arrival, we awaken at 4 am and catch the sunrise over the misty countryside. In an hour, the last of the green fields disappear and dense buildings spring up in their place. This is the edge of Moscow.

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Sunrise

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Passing a station on the way into Moscow.

Our train edges in to Moscow’s Kazanskaia Station at 5:38 and we stumble off with our belongings. I have a hostel booked for us, but they’re not going to let us check in at stupid o’clock in the morning. “10 AM”, the attendant at the hostel says, “We can have a room for you then.” We drop our heavier bags and wander out into the 7 AM world, devoid of all but a few people and a handful of cars. We’re unsure of what to do until we spy a familiar landmark in the distance.

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Hey, is that…?

It turns out absurdly early in the morning is a great time to visit St. Basil’s Cathedral. Our only company is a cluster of policemen directing traffic and a handful of construction workers working on the nearby bridge. I am not a morning person, so this experience is possible only because we’ve been gaining hours as we head west. But the morning sun, the open space, and empty streets of Moscow feel good.

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St Basil’s Cathedral and the Red Square, 7 AM. And yes, that is a guy getting a ticket/talking to by a police officer in the bottom right corner.

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Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 2

View part 1 here.

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The Other Trans-Siberian

During one stop, we disembark to stretch our legs and find a sleek, forest-green train waiting across from ours. Emblazoned on the side is the seal of the People’s Republic of China, and beneath that in three languages it reads “Beijing – Ulaan-Baatar – Moskva”. The people spilling off of it are mostly white, dressed in shorts or jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps, all armed with cameras and cell phones. A flurry of camera shutters captures tourist selfies with their train, our train, and each other. This is the one of the Trans-Siberian “experience” trains that people take from Beijing in China all the way to Moscow in Western Russia. It takes nine days. Nine days on a train.

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How Do You Say

In Russia, I am functionally mute, voiceless because I am wordless. I rely on Stoytcho to translate into Bulgarian-Russian, hear a response in which might understand one English-like word (like ‘politicheskii’), and then rely on Stoytcho to translate the rest. It wears him out quickly, so our conversations with Russian cabinmates, Nikolaj and Ivan, are brief bursts followed by long silences. And in those silences I can ask a question that I’ll always understand the answer to: как сказать это?”

Our older cabinmate, Ivan, has two young daughters and knows this game well. I point to something and say “как сказать это?” He smiles and returns an answer. When I point to the sugar cubes, he returns “сахар”. When I point to the pillow, he says “подушка”. When I point to an apple on the table, he gives me “яблоко.” My pinhole view into the Russian world grows question by question, word by word. Ivan is infinitely patient.

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Goodbye/Hello

In our conversations, Ivan speaks glowingly of his wife and daughters. He’s been away repairing electrical pole wires around eastern Siberia for six months, and now he’s finally headed home. This train is the second-to-last part of his trip; at the next station, he’ll board another train to carry him through the last part of his journey home.

Ivan disembarks in the early hours of the morning, while Stoytcho and I are still huddled in our bunks. His rustling wakes me up, and I squint over at his bunk to find him packing things away. Seeing me awake, Ivan smiles and holds an apple up to me. “яблока?” I ask. “Da,” he says, followed by words I don’t understand and a gesture to take it. He points to other food left on the table, packets of noodles and fruit. “What about you?” I ask him, pointing between him and the food. Ivan responds with some more words I don’t understand, and Stoytcho below me translates. “He says he has better stuff at home, this is for us.” “Ah, спасибо,” I smile. “пожалуйста”, Ivan replies. Then he’s gone. I drift back to sleep and am only vaguely aware of the click of the door as someone else comes in to take Ivan’s bunk.

In the morning we have a new cabinmate. He’s quieter and more reserved than Ivan, but he’s curious enough about us to engage in idle chat. We find out that he’s a Lieutenant in the Russian Army, but little else—he’s vague on his destination, his work, and his life. When he asks what we’re doing here, we explain the trip around the world. “Natasha just finished her PhD in Biology,” Stoytcho tells him. “Ah, I majored in Biology at university,” the Lieutenant replies with a smile. “Has he found it useful in his work?” I ask Stoytcho, who translates the question on. The Lieutenant replies with a laugh, “Not really with my job. But it helps when I’m hunting.”

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Drunken Russian Men

The battery of my phone is running low, so I plug it into one of the few outlets in the hallway outside our cabin and sit down next to it. There’s nothing but darkness out the window, so I pull out a fabric flower-making kit I got in Japan to while the time away. I sew and watch the occasional light streak by in the darkness and listen to the chatter and laughter from the cabins. Eventually, the traincar slows to a stop and the speakers overhead announce the station name. In response, cabin doors open and people spill out into the hallway to get out into the night air.

Two gigantic men, more than thrice my size, stumble boisterously out of their cabin and notice me sewing. One waves and I wave back with a “Здравствуйте.” “Ah, you speak Russian?” he turns and walks toward me excitedly. I pinch my two fingers together and squint in a universal “a little” sign. “Where from?” he asks. “США” I reply, and try to explain our trip. “один лет…нет, один год…мир,” I say and make a circle in the air to indicate going around the world. They don’t get it, and sway as they stand in front of me trying to make sense of the situation. Stoytcho steps out a moment later and after an exchange in broken Russian, the guys invite us out for a smoke and stumble toward the exit. They’re clearly drunk, and the last thing we want to do is make two drunken Russian men angry.

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Outside, the smoke from the two guys’ cigarettes drifts through the open air, mingling with the smoke from dozens of cigarettes. People cluster together, sucking in the smoky air and chatting. Most are balanced, but some people are sloppy drunk despite a ban on bringing alcohol onto the train. This includes our two hosts, who offer us cigarettes that we politely decline and tell us how wonderful our trip is, how wonderful we came to visit, and how wonderful we have each other. We smile and nod but are unsure of what to say. Stoytcho once showed me a video of a drunken Russian man punching an unsuspecting newscaster in the head and I can’t help fearing that as an eventual scenario, though I feel ashamed about believing stereotypes. These guys just want to have a good time.

We’re eventually saved by my lack of a jacket and break free of conversation with the two men to return to our cabin. The Lieutenant, laying in his bunk, glances up as we open the door and we nod to him as we walk in. In an instant, he bolts up, looks out the door in both directions, and pulls it shut. He then sits down, and staring Stoytcho straight in the eyes he whispers in a low, hurried tone. I know none of the words he is saying but know the chill creeping up my spine. The Lieutenant glances at me for a second and concludes his sentence with a sharp, cruel twist of his hand in midair between us. “What…did he say? Did I do something wrong?” I ask Stoytcho after the Lieutenant has returned to his bunk. Stoytcho turns to me and sighs, “No. But he said we should stay away from those two guys because they’re really drunk. And Russian guys, when they’re drunk, they can turn on you just like that.” He ends the sentence with the same sharp, cruel twist of his hand in the air.

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Destination

I sleep fitfully that night. Every time I’m awakened by the train jolting, I’m momentarily afraid that we’ve missed our stop. This is irrational, because fifteen minutes before our stop the train attendant comes by to bang his fists on our cabin door and shout, “Krasnoyarsk!” I’m not sure if this is standard, or we’re getting the tourist treatment.

The Lieutenant is no longer with us in the cabin, disembarked at some station in the night without a trace or whisper. But Nikolaj remains with us, and as we pull into Krasnoyarsk Station he comes out for a cigarette and to say goodbye. We wish each other safe journeys and depart. I wonder whether what standard Russian conduct is on the Trans-Siberian; do these trips lead to exchanges of contact information, new friendships, or even love? Or is a shared journey on the Trans-Siberian an ephemeral phenomenon, a distinctly-partitioned act in the play of human life where characters that are strangers meet, speak, and share space for a brief duration before departing again as strangers?

We get lost in the station for several minutes trying to find a nonexistent information booth and a wifi signal. When we finally stumble out into the sunlight, a twenty-foot high mural greets us with the same face we left behind in Ulan-Ude’s central square. He is the constant, ever-present companion in Russia: Lenin.

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Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 1

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Our traincar’s attendant watches people disembark.

Cabin-mates

Today we bid farewell to Ulan-Ude and board the trans-Siberian railway westward to Krasnoyarsk. Our trip will last 26 hours, and we’ll be sharing our journey with two others in our cabin in kupe. Stoytcho is apprehensive about this, but it’s already a compromise; if I was choosing alone, I would’ve gone with plazcart, which consists of just rows of bunks with curtains for privacy. But as the train arrives and we watch the people piling into the plazcart cars en masse, I’m glad we went with kupe.

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The hallway of kupe.

We board after an attendant scrutinizes our passports, and we find our cabin, a tiny 7’ x 4’ x 7’ room that hosts a table and four bunk beds. There are two guys already in there, one older and one younger, and they fall silent as we walk in. Neither one is smiling. After we drop our stuff off on our bunks, we step outside of the cabin and Stoytcho gives me ‘the look’. “They don’t look friendly,” he sighs.

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Stoytcho stands in our 4-berth cabin.

Lay of the Land

Siberia is endless. Our traincar glides through the landscape, and fields of flowers, open plains, and dense forests fill our window. I feel that if I could get out of our tiny room and run, I could run forever in any direction.

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A road winds through the Siberian landscape.

Occasionally we pass a house or small village huddled near the railway, usually old wooden structures with meticulously-painted accents and a vegetable patch nearby. Wires seem to extend from beside the tracks out to these houses—the electrical wiring running parallel to the railway appears to be their source of electricity. I wonder if it’s the only source of electricity out here, so far away from a major city. I wonder what the people do when it goes down.

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A lone house peeks between freight railcars.

In the late afternoon on the first day, I watch the landscape bathed in golden light move past our window. A stand of pines gives way to a sparse birch standing in a field of tall, brilliant purple flowers. We’ve seen these flowers before, on the shores of Lake Baikal. The family who hosted us our first night there explained that the leaves could be made into to tea, giving it the name ‘Ivan-chai.’ “Иванчаи,” I say out loud, pointing at them. The young guy in our cabin replies with a grin, “да.”

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Birch trees stand in a field of blooming Ivan-chai.

This Is Chai

There isn’t much to do on the train besides sit and watch the scenery go by. You can read, although the swaying of the traincar can give you mild motion sickness. You could write, but the jolts can send your pen scratching across the page. And you could use some electronic device of your choice, but the only outlets available for charging are found in the aisle outside your cabin. Instead, you watch the scenery go by and you have чаи (tea).

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Snapshot of Siberia: pine forest (right) gives way to birch trees, then bog (left).

Every Russian traincar is equipped with a samovar, a hot water dispenser. The car’s attendant lends you mugs for free, which consist of a simple glass held in a gorgeously ornate tea glass holder (подстаканник). Add your own teabag and presto, you’ve got hot tea to sip as you watch the scenery slip by. Not knowing about this, we did not bring our own tea, but the older guy in our cabin pushes his boxes of teabags and sugar to us with gusto. “Please, help yourself,” he says warmly. We thank him and dip teabags into our cups, watching the dark color of tea ripple out into the hot water.

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The traincar samovar.

The young man returns from the restroom and sits down next to the older man, on the bunk across from us. “чаи?” he asks. “да,” we reply cheerfully, pointing to the mugs. He glances at the older man and smiles. “нет,” he shakes his head, and rifles through his stuff. Seconds later, he produces bountiful containers of Russian salad, boiled potatoes, hardboiled eggs, lukanka, bread, and cheese. He lays them out on the table, beside our mugs of tea. In the meantime, the old man disappears and returns with two more mugs of hot water. The four of us sit together at our table as Siberia passes by our window, “This,” the young man grins with a flourish, “This is чаи.”

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A podstakannik with tea and some snacks from our trip.

Politics

Our cabin mates are Nikolaj, a younger man on his way to visit his sister in Novosibirsk, and Ivan, an older man homebound after a six-month work stint on electrical lines out in Siberia. I introduced myself as “Natasha” and Stoytcho introduced himself with his name. Ironically, it’s a funny name even here, although Nikolaj and Ivan recognize it as Slavic. Stoytcho explains that he was born in Bulgaria, but works in the U.S. now. The guys are evidently pleased that they’ve got a Slavic brother in Stoytcho, even if Russian and Bulgarian have only about 50% equivalence. Both groups struggle to find synonyms and simple words that might map complicated thoughts and feelings.

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A building stands alone in the Siberian landscape. Some buildings standing near the rails appear to be old factories, perhaps abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Nikolaj asks us if Americans hate Russians, followed by what we understand as, “If I travel there, will I be welcome?” We reply with “Americans don’t hate Russian people, it is the governments that don’t like each other. Big countries want to be the best. People are people, the rest is politics.” Both Nikolaj and Ivan nod, “It’s the same here. The government says that America hates us, makes trouble, sanctions. But the Cold War is over already. America won,” Nikolaj sighs with a laugh. “You should come visit us in America!” I offer helpfully. “Yeah, I want to try to visit,” he replies, smiling. Given U.S. visa costs and requirements, we both this is nearly impossible.

View part 2 here.