Friday, November 24, 2006

Trans-Siberian Banter

It was late and I was a mixture of tipsy, excited, slightly lost and a wee bit apprehensive about the trip ahead of me as I stood on the tiny platform that marked the starting point of the mother of all train journeys. My awe inspiring Russian language skills had got me this far and now it was just a matter of waiting under the announcement board for my train number to come up. I decided that seeming I had already started drinking I would continue, so I headed to a kiosk to pick up a bottle or two of Baltika 7 to pass the time. Standing outside, I spotted two lads laughing and speaking English and as I passed they made a beautifully inappropriate comment about some people they had been traveling with that made me chuckle. As I returned from the kiosk, they were still at it and I decided I had to introduce myself, it was clear they were waiting for the same train as I was, they seemed like fun, and I was eager to establish some English speaking acquaintances on the train as sooner rather than later. The very moment I decided to say "hello", our platform flashed up on the screen and so I used that as an excuse to strike up conversation. It turned out this would be one of the better decisions I would make on my trip.

Adam and Jon turned out to be a really nice pair of young lads from London who were in Russia on a program to practice their Russian whilst traveling across the country. It also turned out they were staying one carriage down from my own and had an almost identical itinerary to my own whilst traveling across the trans-Siberian. What's more: they had a bag full of snacks and vodka and spoke Russian. On getting to my carriage I was feeling very lucky to have met the pair of them and we arranged to meet up and hang out a bit after we left to get settled into our cabins. My luck only seemed to get better when I got to my room to find I have been moved to the Provodnista's cabin which instead of being a 4-berth is made for 1, with a sofa seat instead of a bottom bunk and a bed on top. I dropped my bag and took a photo of what (I thought) would be my home for the next four days.

Soon after I had made the top bunk bed, my Provodnista was tapping on my door, and told me to make up the bottom bunk as that is where I would be staying. Concerned that I might be staying in the same room as her, virtually rendering my chances of partying in my cabin impossible, I cursed my luck and started making up the bed. However, it turned out to be my lucky day and the top bunk was in fact for an energetic teenager who seemed quite good fun, though we could barely communicate. He declined my offer of a beer but invited me to the smoking cabin for a cigarette, which I accepted even though I don't really smoke. Whilst standing between carriages, Adam and Jon showed up and had a chat with the Russian lad who turned out to be called Igor, and was the son of my carriages Provodnista. We went back and introduced ourselves to Igor's mum and then the four of us disappeared into my cabin for the rest of the night armed with some munchables, a pack of cards and a couple of bottles of vodka.

When I awoke, slightly hung over and completely unaware of what time it was, the train was stopped. I clambered off my bed, slung some shorts and sandals on and pottered, bleary eyed, onto the platform. It was a miserable day but the cool drizzle on my face did better for me than a hundred aspirin ever could and soon Igor was waving a pack of cigarettes in my face again. Soon after, the other two had joined us and we went for a stroll to pick up some food and drink. So it continued for the next few days, the four of us hanging out in our tiny cabin or the restaurant car, drinking, smoking and playing cards. We made an effort to get off every time the train stopped to have a little wander or pick up supplies. A few of the stations have some interesting things to see, or an impressive interior or such, but a large proportion offer nothing but a chance to stretch your legs. I could write for hours about the journey and the things we saw and discussed along the way but it would be of no interest to anybody but me. Likewise an exact itinerary of the journey would be a bit of a dull affair. I guess the trans-Siberian railway is a fairly dull affair at its core. I don't know what possible appeal I saw in days and days on a train traveling through the closest thing there is to 'the middle of nowhere' but not for one second did I regret it. A whole host of weird things happened from stealing the key to the rear door of the train and getting photos of us hanging out the back to late night discussions with Russian fighter pilots, but in general most of the time was spent doing...not much really. I suppose 'surreal' is the only way to describe the whole occasion.

Whilst alone, most of my time was spent staring out of my little window, marveling at the enormity of the Russian landscape. All along the way, I was pinching myself. Whether at a decaying Siberian industrial town or making tracks through the beautiful Urals into Asian Russia I found it hard to believe that I was finally here; traveling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway.

Then, as quickly as it had begun, I was standing on the platform in Irkutsk, saying goodbye. I left the station alone, figured out roughly how to walk to my hostel and set off across a bridge over the Angara River. It was sunny. Painfully bright. In fact, Siberia was damn hot...

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