Monday, November 24, 2008
77 hours on a Russian train: Irkusk to Moscow
The Russians on the platform at Irkusk were a motley crew of rough looking characters. We were joining the Vladivostok to Moscow direct train (which is the trans-Siberian route, as opposed to our trans-Mongolian route starting in Beijing), which we'd heard is used by the military -- the packs of young men with shaved heads and barrel chests seemed to fit this bill. A couple of them were swaggering about bare-chested wearing Umbro soccer shorts and thongs clutching beer bottles (it was -2 C). I gave the one with blood on his forehead a wide berth. Our carriage attendant was a formidable presence, but gave me some comfort - he had a dark scowl and a dragon-tattoo running up his neck.
Our cabins were again slightly rougher than the first ones, but at least there was more space for our bags this time. We walked through what seemed like an endless number of carriages to the dining cart. The hallways were haunted with the ghosts of meals past ... boiled egg, smoked fish and a carnival of processed sausage meats lingered in waiting. The people who'd been on since Vladivostok clearly set up camp like home. When we finally made the dining area, I opted for some chicken borscht, which was unexpectedly good (the cook was wearing an American flag bandanna, Bruce Springstean-style. Our meal was accompanied by a blaring DVD of Van Heilsing (dubbed in Russian). Despite the vampire and werewolf screams, the cabin was charming in a high kitsch kind of way.
On the previous trains, there had been a number of tracksuit clad Russian women. Kat and I thought it would be hilarious to buy matching velour tracksuits in Beijing to 'blend in' on the train -- we'd been told tracksuits were basically uniform, but no one told us we needed a full set of gold teeth as well. On this one though, we seemed to be some of the few woman on the train except for the dining cart attendant, but in the dark, that was a questionable call anyway. This wasn't lost on a group of military guys having beer and juice (?) in the cart. One spoke a little broken English and after a few minutes of awkward conversation at the bar, he said: "We go back now, you will come with us." No thanks, Captain Romance, having just finished reading Anna Karenina, I know all about men like you.
R unwillingly acquired a friend during the journey, Nicholai Augustine, who sported an awe inspiring mullet (surely not military standard?) and constantly had a beer or two in hand. He didn't seem popular with the military guys, which may explain why he kept rambling incoherently in Russian at us, pressing us for vodka, and examining R's tattoos. During one session when he delivered a monologue from the doorway and we did our best to ignore him and continue a conversation, the only English word he understood in about 30 minutes was 'mistress'. Says a lot about a man's character. He followed R into our cabin one night, but we had to kick him out when he shifted from being vaguely amusing to slightly threatening (mostly because he kept kind of dry retching and clutching his hand over his sweaty mouth before slurring another torrent of Russian at us).
As he left, he dropped a cabbage-fueled weapon of mass-destruction in his wake to punish us. A soldier at heart. For the rest of the trip, he stalked the hallway, occasionally kicking things and muttering, and loitering at the door to our cabin -- like a vampire, waiting to be invited in. Luckily, he wore his earphones draped around his neck blaring offensive techno at all times, so we could hear the mobile disco approaching and close the door. At one stage toward the end, we actually slammed the door in his face (he was being particularly creepy) and he stood outside, clinking his bottle on the door. Fun guy.
My main mission on the journey was to try to get our attendant Dragol (so named due to the dragon tattoo) to crack a smile. The situation looked dire, but on the last day he caught us having a giggle in the hallway at the LCD sign that welcomed "worshipful passengers" and wishes us "Godspeed." He tapped my arm and pointed at himself when it named our attendants as the "Eastern District Division attendants." And kind of smiled.