Sunday, September 28, 2014

In transit on the trans-siberian

Monday 25–Thursday 29 August 2014

As you can see from this map, the stretch between Irkutsk and Moscow was the greatest one we would traverse on our entire trip. That's a distance of over four-thousand kilometres and four nights of continuous travel, apart from brief stops at stations along the way. So great was the journey, in fact, that I've dedicated this entire post to it. 

Our cabin for this leg.

As with all the trains so far, Til and I were the odd ones out who'd been allocated berths in a cabin with two other strangers, rather than people from the Vodkatrain group. Sometimes it sucked being separated from everyone else, and other times it worked out because we got to meet interesting people, or have more space to ourselves when the other berths were empty.

On Monday morning we woke up and lazed around until we heard a party horn go off at around 10am Irkutsk time, so we all went and wished George a happy 25th birthday. A little while later he'd gone to contemplate life and the universe while gazing pensively out the train window, so we took the opportunity to stick balloons all over his berth.

Russian party hats.

George ruminating.

Originally the plan was to fill the whole cabin with balloons, but there were fewer than anticipated in the packet, so this had to do.

Soon after that we had our first of many run-ins with an older French couple we would come to call 'the Frenchies'. The husband of this belligerent duo seized the first one of the group he could find, an unfortunate and bewildered Zac, and began ranting at him to tell us all to be quiet. 

He wouldn't have been happy shortly afterwards, when the Sundowners tour group (or the 'oldies') the people doing the same tour as us but aimed at older folks and costing bit more stopped by to sing George 'Happy Birthday' and we all joined in. After that George went to smooth things over with the Frenchies and explain that it was his birthday in anticipation of the probably rowdy night that was to come, even offering them (and the provodnitsas) some of his birthday cake. But alas, as we were to learn, their fathomless irascibility could not be so easily appeased.

The oldies crowding around George's door.

After that it was time for a very special lunch. The day before in Irkutsk we'd been to the most Western supermarket we'd seen in a while, where we were able to procure most of the ingredients (or approximations of them) that I'd usually have for my favourite lunch at home: my delicious salad wraps.

A liberal slathering of avocado, which must be quite an exotic fruit in Irkutsk, because they were all pretty shrivelled and brown. But I wasn't complaining. Then we substituted my usual dip or hummus with some (pretty decent) pesto. Then there's roughly julienned carrot, cucumber slices and cherry tomato halves. These babies, accompanied by a tall, frosty soy iced mocha, are more often than not the highlight of my day at home. What can I say? I really like food.

Mmmmm. Goofy eating face.

George invited the oldies to join the rest of us in the restaurant car to partake in some double-decker birthday cake (also from Irkutsk).

Filling the whole restaurant car (which was decorated in a sporting theme for the Sochi games).

Maybe it was the dirty looks being shot our way by the Frenchies, prowling around up their end, or just cabin fever, or whatever, but we started to spend a lot of time in the restaurant car over these four days, starting with after the birthday cake. I'm pretty sure the bunch of us stayed there for the rest of the day, getting increasingly rowdy as we ordered more drinks and my personal favourite Russian dish, fried potatoes with mushrooms and onions, and (in mine and Til's case, at least) debating sexism and animal rights with Ajay, Chris and Matt.

We only left when it was time to go play the game of pass-the-parcel that had been put together especially for the occasion, with dares as well as prizes. We all crowded in to one of the cabins and started the game, the highlights of which included: me going to kiss the provodnitsa (on the hand – the dare didn't specify where, luckily!)

George eating a cupful of oats soaked in red wine

Max kissing George

and Emma doing a 'thongy' (drinking off someone's thong).

Team Switzerland (an actual Swiss banker we met on the train).

We were probably only back in our car for about half an hour while we played the game, but that didn't stop the Frenchies grumbling about it. Every time we'd see them over the next few days, He-Frenchie would ask whom we booked our tour through so he could complain, no matter how many times we told him. He'd also refuse to move to let you through to the toilet.

Then it was time to crash the restaurant car once again and party hard.

Drinking through a curtain.

Team Switzerland doing his nudie run, as per his parcel-designated dare.

The random creepy off-his-face Russian dude who kept hanging around.

Our partners at the disapproving couples' table (not really).

George humouring the creeper.

The defining moment of the night for me came when Ajay disappeared and later reappeared in the restaurant car wearing nothing but his underwear, unknowingly bleeding from the forehead and with hash symbol 'abs' drawn on his stomach. 

Ajay was also the centre of controversy earlier when he outdrank a Russian, who proceeded to throw up, and later when some Russian guy in the restaurant car took exception to some of the nudity and chose to take it out on him, putting him in an arm lock. 

Here's some footage from the celebrations:

The next day Til and I got our new cabinmate, a solemn Russian automaton of a man who just looked at us blankly when we said hi. We came to think of him as 'I, Robot' because we never saw him speak, smile, eat or drink. When we stopped at some station in the middle of Russia for fifteen minutes he went to stand outside, where he just stood staring at the ground for the entire duration of the stop. Probably using microscopic solar panels embedded in his hair fibres to recharge his battery or something.

I, Robot. Coincidentally, that happens to be one half of the Frenchies walking behind him. Perhaps they were colluding.

The other half of the Frenchies.

A little boy running alongside the train as we pulled out.

A worker sitting down at the end of the station.

Judging from his frosty response to our initial greeting, we assumed that I, Robot wasn't programmed to speak English, but when the cleaning lady came around with a big garbage bag and gestured to a plastic bag under one of the beds, speaking in Russian, he translated for us: 'Is it garbage?' Perhaps he merely needed an imperative from a Russian citizen before he was authorised to communicate with us, I don't know. He also surprised us with a warm farewell when he left, though, so maybe he was just on a four-day journey to discovering his humanity.

That was another day we spent most of our time in the restaurant car, playing Presidents and Assholes or, if it was just Til and I, Spit. After a while we noticed the wiry young waiter watching us with interest, so we invited him to join and learned as much as we could about him given his limited English and our nonexistent Russian. His name was Anton, he was circa twenty, from Siberia, and had a passion for being a barman. After a while he tried to teach us a Russian game, but its rules were beyond us.

Funny menu.

Til and I with Anton.

Later when there were more people in the carriage, Anton joined us again. This time two other young Russian guys, Dmitri and Latif, were watching us, so we got them involved too and had fun teaching them the rules without a shared language. Dmitri bought us all a round of Cokes, presumably to thank us for letting them join in.

That was our third night on the train, and it was safe to say some of us were going a little stir crazy. After spending basically the entire day in the restaurant car, we returned to our cabin at what seemed to us like 10pm. It's hard to say what time it was actually. We crossed through five of Russia's eight timezones, gradually acclimatising to Moscow time while we were on the train (Russian trains run on Moscow time, I guess because it'd be absurd to keep changing as you went across the country).

In any case, we weren't drinking or being loud, but Isabell, Chris and Anika stopped into our cabin and sat on the now-departed I, Robot's empty berth while I reclined on Til's bed. Both Anika and Chris were a bit hysterical, and Chris was coming up with conspiracy theories about the trans-Siberian, so we began to laugh probably a little too loud for whatever time of night it was. All of a sudden, our doorway was darkened by none other than She-Frenchie, shouting 'Goodnight!' before slamming our door shut. Already in a silly mood, we of course erupted in laughter at the incongruity of this encounter, fuelled even further by hearing her progressing down the hallway slamming everybody else's doors.

The next thing we knew, He-Frenchie had wrenched our door back open, slavering like a crazed bulldog and shouting in French and/or heavily accented English. Seeing my recumbent form as the closest viable target, he seized me by the collar and begun shaking. I was pretty shocked, and instinctively just tried to pry his hands off my shirt. I couldn't make out a word he was saying, so I was also just trying to work out what he wanted. I later learned he'd been saying, 'Be careful, British.' So I guess he thought we were all British or something. I could see Isabell arking up over his shoulder, yelling 'Hands off, please!' while the provodnitsa who'd blushed at my hand-kissing the night before screamed in Russian behind him and She-Frenchie slapped him crying, 'Giles, no!'

After maybe fifteen or twenty seconds of me failing to pry his fingers open, I finally snapped into gear and stood up, at which point he rapidly backed off. 

So that happened.

The next day a bunch of us went to the restaurant car to play Scattergories and the Frenchies passed through. I glared at them, but they scrupulously stared straight ahead. My guess is that they were coming down for food, saw us, and decided it was too awkward and continued on through, because there was no reason for them to keep going otherwise. Then when they returned after some time, probably realising we weren't going to leave any time soon, George gave them a stern talking to and extracted a grudging apology from Giles.

The Frenchie encounter was pretty much the climax of the journey. Not much happened after that.  I read some Pushkin. Ate some delicious piroshkis. Paid exorbitant prices to charge my laptop in the restaurant car so I could finish one of these blog posts. That was pretty much it. I think we all just settled down and waited to arrive at Moscow at 4am that night, surrendering ourselves to the trans-Siberian, defeated and desperate to get off. Russia will do that to you ... Wear you down. Just ask Napoleon.

The wonder that is a piroshki: like a cross between a doughnut and a pie filled with potato or cabbage.

Passing the time with some travel journal writing.


No comments:

Post a Comment