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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.