Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Strangers on the train - or, The American who mistook my bed for a toilet

The greatest variable on the Trans-Siberian trip is your travelling companions. Spending 40 hours in a confined space can be trying with best friends, let alone complete strangers. E and I have experienced a mix, from the heartening to the bizarre and slightly disturbing. Of the people we have met on the train, three groups stand out: the warm Siberians; the Russians bearing vodka; and the American who mistook my bed for a toilet.

The most enjoyable leg of our trip so far was the 19 hours we spent travelling 3rd class (platskartny) from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk. Travelling platskartny was a bit of an experiment. It is described in our guidebook as a "rolling dorm": 54 beds crammed into a carriage and very little privacy or opportunity for escape. The beds are shorter and thinner, the bathrooms stronger on the nose, and vast amounts of luggage are strewn throughout the carriage. The advantage is that there is little opportunity to crawl into your shell, and you almost certainly end up communicating with the people around you. We shared a space with two mild mannered Russian men from northern Siberia. After several attempts to engage them in conversation by offering up various treats from our snack bag, our chocolate chip biscuits finally proved the ice breaker and we spent an afternoon learning about each other's very different lives.

Alexander was from Norilsk, Zepitkhan from Dudinka. Alexander explained that the first snow had just fallen and that it would continue for the next nine months. We eagerly asked for more details on winter, and they obliged: -40C days, two metres of snow and 45 days of complete darkness each year. I naively asked if they ate lots of soup to keep warm, and they laughed and pointed at a bottle of vodka on the table. We asked about their jobs (computer programmer and lawyer) and their interests (home theatre and cars). They were very interested in our lifestyle in Australia, down to the number of bedrooms in our home and the size of our television screen. We showed them some photos of family and friends and the Australian landscape, and Zepitkhan took a particular interest in the marital status of my younger sister J and began asking questions about obtaining Australian citizenship. The remarkable thing about this afternoon of conversation was that we did not share one word of common language - the key to it all was a Russian-English/English-Russian dictionary which was passed back and forth. As the train approached our destination Alexander reached into his suitcase and pulled out a jar of Siberian honey and offered it to us as a gift. We reached into ours and gave both of them koala keyrings and Sydney Harbour Bridge pins. Zepitkhan then scrambled up onto his bed and rustled in his bag for a few minutes before producing a video advertising tourism in his home town, and a cured fish. The fish sat there on the table staring back at us and he explained that it was a staple for the indigenous people in his region, who fish for it by cutting a hole in the ice and throwing a line into the icy waters. It was chewy and salty and somewhat of an acquired taste, but we munched on it until the train pulled into the station and the time came to reach into the phrasebook for 'It was nice to meet you' and 'Goodbye'.

On the 34 hour trip from Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk we shared our four berth compartment with a Russian soldier, Alexander, and a self-described '911 man', Victor. On the second night they offered Edwina and me some of their beer and, somewhat tentatively, I pulled out of my backpack a half litre bottle of Moscovskaya vodka (which is of mid-range quality and cost me all of $6). I was a little apprehensive because I had heard that nights spent drinking vodka with Russians can be endless and that it is very difficult to refuse a drink. As I poured out 50ml shots (the Russian standard, although many establishments serve 100ml quantities), another soldier, Andre, joined us. Alexander instructed me to make a toast, so I said something about new friends and we threw back our first drink. Soon after I was encouraged to refill the glasses, and when my bottle was finished Alexander produced his own. In between shots we ate small snacks - bread, salami, lemon - designed to soak up the alcohol. Again without a common language, we learned a little about each other. Alexander, for instance, had been posted to Khabarovsk in the far East and was leaving behind a wife and young son. And all three of them were into cars, and somehow even without a word of English they managed to figure out that Edwina knew more about cars than me, which was the cause of much amusement. Unfortunately, it all came to an abrupt end. One of the last things I remember clearly is Victor pointing to a page in my phrasebook which sets out how to say "I'm going to be sick". He was referring to Alexander, who had suddenly gone green and began to throw up on himself. But it was only the next morning that we worked out that it wasn't the vodka - it was the chicken, which they had provided and which had been sitting on the table with the other snacks. I was the only other person who had eaten it, and it wasn't long before the sudden, violent illness fell upon me. The rest of the night was a bit of a blackout, although E remembers it quite vividly as she tried to put me to bed and work out what was the matter. As an epilogue to this night, I was nursed back to health by a combination of E's care and the home remedies of the host of our Krasnoyarsk homestay. A babushka in her sixties, Galina insisted I drink her chicken soup and Siberian thin jelly, and the day after I was back on my feet.

We boarded our Irktusk to Ulaan Baatar leg to discover that our carriage was full of Westerners - foreigners had been put together to streamline the Russia-Mongolia border crossing. We packed away our phrasebook and dictionary, started chatting to the Canadian and American sharing our compartment, and sat back to enjoy what we thought would be one our easier legs. We were wrong. The American, K, stayed up longer than us, drinking beer and vodka with the people in the adjacent compartment. I woke up briefly when K came to bed, for he was very drunk and the provodnitsa was insisting on strapping him into his top bunk. I put it out of my mind and went back to sleep. A short while later, I awoke to the feeling of a warm liquid drizzling onto my back. I was disoriented at first, not sure whether it was all part of a dream, but sat up and saw K perched in a sitting position on his top bunk. Then E cried out as something warm drizzled onto her, and in the ensuing confusion we pushed K out into the corridor and into the bathroom. It was at that point that I recalled that, earlier in the evening, K had been telling us about a Mongolian man who, before going to sleep on the top bunk of his train, intentionally urinated on his wife in the bunk below. K had apparently decided to test out this local practice for himself.

We were furious, but it was a full train and there was nowhere for us to go. We got changed and threw our soiled bedding into the corridor. We bought new sheets and climbed back into bed, but there was little sleep to be had and I lay awake most of the night expecting another warm projectile to come my way. In the morning K apologised, but it was of the charm-soaked sort, full of phrases like "If there's anything I can do" and "If you want to shout at me, I understand". We had a full day and a night left on the train, and I planned to spend most of it far away from him. But then we reached the Russia-Mongolia border and we were instructed to stay in our compartments until immigration and customs checks had been completed (it is often quipped that it is harder to get out of Russia than into it). E, K, the Canadian and me sat in the compartment, waiting for the Russian officials to visit. The train had come to a complete stop, so the air circulation had been shut off. After two hours the smell of stale urine hung heavily in the air. After four hours I began to nuzzle my nose into my deoderised armpit, desperately seeking some relief. And still we waited for the immigration and customs officials. After five hours we were cleared and we proceed to the other side of the border, where we sat for another three hours. Thankfully the Mongolian officials were more efficient and after the formalities were completed we were allowed onto the platform for some fresh air. The train eventually got moving again, and I sat in the corridor for as long as I could before retiring to bed, where I spent a second night watching K.

We knew almost immediately that the incident would make for a good story, but there is little joy in the retelling. We worry now that we will approach each subsequent train journey with a suspicion of our travelling companions, half-expecting to be woken in the night by one of their less savoury personality quirks. And for K it is probably more serious, with a realisation that he has a problem with alcohol. We have one more leg of our Trans-Siberian journey left, and we have our fingers crossed that it will be of the sort that brings honey and fish, rather than dirty sheets and bad memories.

Loads of photos are now up, including pics of Krasnoyarsk, magical Lake Baikal and the train


At 9:45 PM, Blogger Iqbal Khaldun said...

Oh Lord, what a trial! Definitely a story for the grandkids!


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