Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Aboard the Trans Siberian Railway (St Petersburg to Irkutsk)

"I've got it, I know exactly where I want to go!", I informed my (then) girlfriend (now wife) Lee one Sunday night, in our shoebox apartment in Changwon, South Korea. Without removing her gaze from the TV, and between sips of wine, she replied "ah ah", as disinterested in my latest journey proposal, as I was in her TV show.

I'd been working as an English teacher in South Korea for the past 4 years, and Sunday nights were a time that Lee and I would wind down from the weekend's excesses, with a few slow glasses of wine to help with the fear of the coming working week. For Lee the winding down process meant tuning in to the History Channel, which I was able to focus on for approximately 2 minutes before the carousel of my mind spun some more, and I was onto the next thought. This particular evening my mind was fully consumed with the prospects of my forthcoming holiday. Lee and I had signed our contracts at different times, which meant that our holiday dates were not the same. Since our interests are vastly different, this turned out for the best.

"Do you want to know where I'm going?", I blurted out, unable to contain my excitement. "Ah ah!!", came her reply, as she remained transfixed on some ancient stuff on the telly.

"The Trans Siberian Railway", I shouted, as I clapped my hands together and bounced around the room in glee.

"Oh wonderful honey!!", came her reply, as she attempted to brush me out of the field of vision of her TV programme. If I'd told her that I'd booked us in for a swinger's weekend, I'd probably have got the same response.

Before the ancient stuff on the telly was even over, I'd messaged a specialist travel agent, 3 hotels, and worked out which flights I was going to take. The Trans Siberian Railway was going to happen!

Three months, a Russian hat, a shopping bag full of dehydrated food, and a shit load of planning later, and I was at the airport waiting for a flight to St Petersburg, with a connecting flight in Moscow. Now the purists amongst you will say, " But the Trans Siberian starts in Moscow!" And yes, I agree, the Trans Siberian does officially start in Moscow, but I really wanted to see St Petersburg, so I thought I'd add a few days there onto the beginning of my trip.

As I waited for my flight at Gimhae airport, I read the news on one of the free computers there. Would you credit it, the main headline was about a meteor that had crashed to earth somewhere in the middle of Siberia. It was a sign for sure!

I was feeling slightly nervous as I passed through customs, largely due to the fact that my knowledge of Russia was mainly related to the cold war, and all those 80s films that portrayed them as the bad guys, I'm talking Rocky 4, Red Dawn, War Games et al. I handed my passport to a surly faced female customs officer, who I smiled at without realising that smiling was the sign of a fool in Russia. She examined it and allowed me to walk away 5 paces before calling me back. As I slowly walked back to her my knees were knocking. She looked me in the eyes, and without cracking anything that resembled a smile she said to me in a full on Russian accent "Vee share the same birthday - velcome to Russia". To which I replied "yeah, me, you and Adolf Hitler."

"It is true, it is true", she responded, "me, you and Adolf Hitler." I can' be sure, but I think I saw a glimmer of a smile upon her countenance.

My first taste of Russian trains came on a Sunday night. I'd just spent 3 entertaining days in St Petersburg, and now I was on my way to Moscow, aboard a 12 hour overnight locomotive. I shared my carriage with 3 very attractive young Russian women, who had spent the weekend partying and were heading to work the next day in Moscow. Apparently this is a thing in St Petersburg. I spent a few hours chatting to them, as they all vied for my attention, in the most obvious manner. I've never considered myself to be anything of a fanny magnet, but it seems that foreign men are in short supply in Russia, and I was in high demand.

I was awoken the next morning to the sight of the 3 ladies getting dressed for work, which seemed to be a work of art. Once again, it appeared that they were all trying to outdo each other, as they applied makeup, pursed their lips, and flicked their hair around. By the time they alighted the train, they looked like they were ready for a fashion show. As the last of the 3 Russian beauties got off the train she turned to me and said "make sure you've got your tickets!". Casually I removed my tickets from my pocket and gave them a cursory glance. As if I would I would ever....... AAARRRGGGHHH FUCK!.... OH NO!.... SHIT!....  (Half of my tickets were missing). Observing my concern, Lolita (I'll call her this because she was the youngest of the 3, and I've long forgotten her name), came to my rescue, and despite being late for work, wandered from window to window in the railway station as she attempted to get me some new tickets printed. A task which took 2 hours, and miraculously had a positive outcome. I thanked her for her valiant effort and bade her farewell, whilst wrestling with my conscience that she was now 2 hours late for work. This guilt was soon to be increased when I arrived at the Apple Hostel, and the lady behind reception said "Mr Mitton, we have envelope for you!" I'd only gone and ordered the rest of the tickets to be posted to the hostel, and then forgotten all about it. Whoops!!

I spent 2 delightful days in Moscow visiting all those famous sights, The Kremlin, Red Square etc, whilst the snow came down thick and hard. By the time I boarded the Trans Siberian I was ready for the comfort of my cabin. I'd been warned to bring my speedos because they cranked the heat right up on the train. I must admit to finding the concept of travelling through the middle of Siberia in winter, donned only in a pair of speedos to be highly amusing, and I did consider buying a little pair of red, thong speedos with a hammer and sickle emblazoned on the front.

I'd elected for the relative luxury of a second class sleeper and I was eager to see exactly how much comfort this would afford me. I had also been pre-warned that if I wanted a lie in, I should aim for the top bunk. In the day time the bottom bunk became the seat for the other people in the carriage, whilst the person in the top bunk could carry on sleeping for as long as he/she wanted. Being a lover of a lie in, I was eager to claim a top one.

I burst through the doors of the carriage full of excitement, and curiosity, wondering who my carriage mates for the next 3 nights were going to be. Only to be disappointed when the carriage was completely empty apart from bundles and bundles of magazines which were tied together with ribbon, and rather annoyingly occupying the 2 top bunks. Reluctantly I took one of the bottom bunks, and started to spread out my possessions. After all I was here for the long haul. But wait! Something else was rather unpleasantly filling the room, and that something just happened to be possibly the worst pop music I'd ever heard in my life, which appeared to be emanating from a speaker located behind the humongous pile of magazines. And that is why I spent the first 2 hours of my Trans Siberian trip frantically pacing around the carriage, searching in vain for the source of this excruciatingly bad Russian pop music. In the end I could find no way to turn it off, so I resigned myself to a sonically torturous journey.

The spartanly furnished carriage offered little in the form of luxury. Apart from the 4 rickety red leather seat/beds, there was a fixed table beneath the window, a lamp for each bed, and of course the speaker that bellowed out the incessantly awful music, which appeared to have no switch to turn it off, nor down. I'd been told in advance that there would be a samovar at the end of each carriage, hence my carrier bag  brimming with de-hydrated foods. Do you know what a samovar is? No, neither did I!  Well, I'll tell you, a samovar is a large metal urn of piping hot water, which was to become my best friend over the coming days. For want of anything better to do I pulled out my newly purchased plastic mug, which I filled with a tea bag, and a few sugar cubes, and did what any self respecting Englishman would do in this situation, poured myself a cup of tea. As the whistle blew, and the locomotive chugged into life, I sat on my own on the bottom bunk, with a cup of tea in my hand, staring out of the window, as thick flakes of snow fell from the sky. Holding my cup in the air, I made a toast to my own reflection in the window, "To the Trans Siberian - and all that she may bring." - we we're off.

I'd read that the Trans Siberian operates on Moscow time, although I wasn't entirely sure what this meant. To be perfectly frank I'm still not sure what it means, all I know is that every time I was able to communicate "what's the time please?", the answer that came back was "Moscow time". This meant that the entire 9289 km journey was to be spent not knowing what time it was. A concept that I found most enthralling, but did not prevent me from asking the time on more than one occasion. The best answer I got was "when the sun goes down vee drink wodka, that's all vee need to know." And of course he was right, why else would the time be relevant?

And so it was that the first 5 hours of my Trans Siberian adventure were spent sat on my own in the carriage listening to god awful music, whilst drinking cup of tea after cup of tea, and contemplating 3 questions. 1. When should I crack the wine open?  2. What time is it! 3. Was I going to have the carriage to myself for the entire journey?

Four hours into the journey the train came to its first stop. I was to find out later that the train made a stop every 4 hours to let new people on, and for those that were on the train to replenish their supplies from the babushkas that occupied the snowy platforms. As the train drew to a grinding halt, I contemplated getting off to stretch my legs, but I was afraid that the train would leave without me as I wandered the platform looking for something meatless to eat. This had happened to me once in Albany, New York and I was keen not to repeat the mistake. The fear of losing my bunk was also a factor, I'd already had my dreams of a lie in destroyed by a pile of magazines, the thought of being relegated to the grimy carriage floor did not fill me with glee.

As I sat protecting my sleeping quarters the door opened, and in stumbled Sergey, who attempted to have a conversation with me. Sergey (that's the only bit that I could decipher) had the most horrendous stutter. If you think trying to understand somebody in a different language is bad enough, try understanding them with a stutter. After hours of going around in circles we decided that alcohol was the best solution, Sergey placed his vodka on the table with all the determination that his speech lacked, and I matched him with my wine. Sergey seemed far more interested in my wine than I did, or for that matter he did, in his vodka. He signalled me to open it, and then picked it up and glugged from the bottle. When it was time to drink his vodka he became far more ritualistic and civilised. For each shot that we slammed, he insisted that I eat a piece of sausage on bread. It took me the best part of half an hour to get him to understand that I was vegetarian. It's good job that charades is international. Sergey looked on in absolute disbelief as I ran around the carriage pretending to be a chicken, and thrusted my crossed arms in his face to signify that I didn't partake in the eating of meat. When I eventually came to a halt, he looked at me as though I was demented, before offering me the sausage again. This charade got repeated many times over the next 3 nights, by which time the recipient either thought that I was stark raving mad, or actually understood that I didn't eat meat. Given the Russian penchant for eating meat, I imagine they would think I was stark raving mad for not eating it anyway.

I decided upon a change of scenery and headed to the bar. Apart from the barman there was only one other person in the carriage and he appeared to be drinking Coke. Upon noticing my arrival, which was not difficult in a space that was 6 meters long by 2 meters wide, he looked up, and began conversing with me in perfect (posh) English.

"Excuse me good sir, and where may you be from?", he asked me - understanding from first appearances that I was not a Russian, despite my fake Russian hat from River Island.

"I'm from England", I replied.

"And why would you be undertaking a journey on the Trans Siberian Railway?", he enquired.

I informed him that I was just on if for the journey itself, and I had no specific reason to be travelling. This seemed to baffle him, and aroused a suspicion in him, that I was unable to quell. I offered him a drink instead, an offer which he turned down. It seemed that I'd found the only Russian in the world that did not drink. The conversation just sort of fizzled out, and I sat there sipping my beer (expensive beer) whilst under constant gaze from my posh, tee-total carriage mate.

Gladly I returned to my sauna-like sleeping chamber, which had been plunged into darkness. The Russian pop music however still assaulted my ears. Sergey had fallen into a deep slumber, and his nostrils were emitting the most awful accompaniment to the music. The only way I was going to be able to sleep was with the aid of alcohol, which was rather unfortunate because Sergey appeared to have supped the lot. In an attempt to drown out the music, I rammed my ear plugs deep into my ears, and stuck on some Prodigy. I'm not suggesting that "Firestarter" is by any means a lullaby, but it offered sweet relief from the Russian pop.

When I awoke the next morning I was stuck to my sleeping bag by a coating of sweat, and my crotch felt like a mushroom patch.  Sergey had already departed, and had been replaced by Sasha. Sasha's English was no better than Sergey's, but at least I didn't have to contend with his stutter. Within minutes of entering the carriage I'd managed to mime to Sasha that the piped music was killing my soul, which prompted him to casually walk up to a switch on the wall and turn it off. I followed this with a mime that I was sweating my nads off, and once again this was met with a positive response. He walked over to the window and opened it, something I'd been attempting to do since my arrival in the carriage. Over the course of the next 48 hours Sasha and I were to become well acquainted, thus proving that language is no boundary to friendship. He produced a small, plain paper notebook from his bag, and proceeded to draw his life in pictures. From what I could gather he was a 45 year old PE teacher, who had damaged his knee in a football accident in 1997, and was on his way for surgery somewhere in Siberia. I attempted to draw my own life in pictures but in all honesty I'm not sure he he had a clue what I was trying to depict. I once got 4 percent in an art exam, and I really had tried my best.

As the sun began it's descent the alcohol once again came out, and as we slammed shot after shot of vodka, language became less and less important. By the time the bottle was half empty (or full depending on which way you look at it) we were comrades. At this stage he pulled out his camera and began to show my photos of his wife, which started of innocently enough, but which ended with her in various states of undress. I wondered whether his openness came from his alcohol saturated mind, or the fact that he realised that beyond this night we would never see each other again.

We soon ran out of alcohol, but that, I was to find out was no problem. As the train drew to its 4 hourly halt I followed Sasha and a queue of drunken Ruskies out onto the platform, and down the embankment beyond the babushkas. This, I was to learn was the place where the alcohol shops were located -around 400 meters from where the train had come to a halt. A birds eye view of a line of drunken men running to the booze shop would have been priceless, especially when they were being led by a drunken English man in his pyjamas, slippers and fake Russian hat. By the time we reached the shop it was almost time to return to the train. Fifty guys, all in a line, looking at their watches every 5 seconds, wondering whether they were going to get served, was a sight to behold. Fortunately I was able to buy my stash before the train blew it's whistle and the whole process was repeated in reverse. Which is probably why half of the guys ended up in our carriage for the next stage of the journey. News of free alcohol passed down the train with lightening speed, and the whole evening was spent receiving drunken guests, who stumbled into the carriage, and proceeded to drink all my alcohol, whilst attempting to tell me their life stories. Of course I hadn't got a clue what they were saying, but that wasn't a problem because Sasha beautifully brought their stories to life with detailed illustrations upon his notepad. The best of which came from an extremely leather faced gentleman by the name of Bolot, who apparently made a living as a bear hunter.

As the drinks flowed to a dangerous level the atmosphere became quite sour for a while when the train conductor came into the carriage and offered me dried fish. An offering which despite my level of inebriation I was able to resist. After much failed persistence from the conductor he suddenly burst into perfect English to inform me that he'd been sent in because the man in the bar was convinced that I was a spy. Accusations which seemed to be adequately dispelled by a carriage of drunken men, to whom which I was a hero, due to the fact that I was the only one giving away alcohol. They sent the conductor packing, and the party continued.

My bladder full of vodka and red wine, I informed my comrades (by way of charades) that I was off to relieve myself. As I staggered off to the toilet compartment I was followed by Sasha, who seemed intent on me going the opposite way from the toilet carriage. When we reached a no man's land between 2 carriages he whipped out his Russian todger, and proceeded to pee through the gap where the cold Siberian air flooded in. He signalled for me to do likewise, a request that I eagerly followed. By this point even standing up straight was a gargantuan effort, never mind attempting to pee through a gap in the carriages, as the Trans Siberian did its best to cover us both in each other's urine. Our task complete, Sasha gave me a big smile, and then held out the hand that 2 seconds earlier had held his penis. I returned the smile, offered him the hand that had guided my own golden liquid into the icy wasteland, and we shook hands as if a secretive deal had been reached. It was a moment that will stay with me for ever, and a moment which was repeated around 5 times throughout the course of the same night. Much to the curiosity of the posh tee-totaler in the bar area, who scrutinised us every time we made the journey to our secret pee zone.

Soon the alcohol was gone, and our carriage emptied, even faster than our bladders had. I've no idea what time that was, but I can tell you for sure that it was "Moscow Time".

I awoke the next morning to the deep bellowing sound of Sasha's snoring, which continued well into the day. I'd drunk away my ability to do anything apart from sit and stare through the window, at the endless white landscape, with fir trees, and animal footprints offering the only break to this repetition. As the train reached the next big station Sasha suddenly awoke, and beckoned me to join him in the mad dash to the liquor store. A challenge that I quite willingly undertook, even though I realised that my success in completing the mission would only be of benefit to all the vultures who cheered me on. By now my train dashes had become a thing of wonder for the rest of the passengers, not only in our carriage, but also the neighbouring carriages. As I charged down the embankment towards the liquor store, the faces of my spectators pushed up against train windows. When the traction on my slippers failed to engage, and I went into a roll that Sonic the Hedgehog would be proud of, the looks on their faces didn't change one iota. Although when I returned to the carriage with my arms fully laden with alcohol, they all smiled like Cheshire cats.

The rest of my night was spent raising my glass to toasts (that I had no understanding of), slamming vodkas, refusing sausages, miming my vegetarianism, and pissing into a Siberian glory hole. Needless to say I woke up the next afternoon half dressed and half on, half off my bunk. The legions of free loaders had left the carriage, and the alcohol supply had left with them.

When Sasha finally awoke he was in a tearful state. I waited whilst he produced his drawing pad, and put pencil to paper to help me to understand the source of his sadness. When he finished he beckoned me over to show me his picture. He'd drawn himself (labelled Sasha), with tears dripping from his eyes, whilst he waved goodbye to a fat bald chap (labelled Andy). He then delved in his pockets and pulled out a very communist looking fridge magnet, which he placed in my hands and gesticulated that it was for me.  But wait! There was a catch! Sasha seemed to want a gift in return. For the next 5 minutes I rummaged through my possessions searching for anything that may be of interest to him, gifts that ranged from out of date condoms to a half squeezed tube of Colgate. The look on his face made me aware that these were not satisfactory. But then it came to me, my camera had ceased working properly in Moscow. I mean, it worked and all, but the autofocus had gone all wonky, and taking a picture of any quality was more than a little labour intensive. I pulled the defective camera from my bag, and handed it over to him. This resulted into Sasha (not a small man by any stretch of the imagination) grabbing me in a bear hug whilst tears poured from his eyes in cartoon-like fashion. All he could say was,

"Me magnet, you camera".

I didn't have the heart (nor the Russian language skills) to inform him that it was defective. In any case it would have been cruel to spoil his moment of total capitalist ecstasy The communist fridge magnet, by the way sits proudly on my fridge today, whereas his Nikon camera is no doubt in a Russian landfill site.

Within an hour the train had come to a stop, and a still tearful Sasha made his exit. A task which took the help of 5 guys (myself included), because apparently the magazines which had occupied the top bunks for the past few nights belonged to him.

With Sasha and the magazines gone, the rest of the journey to Irkutsk passed in silence - no terrible Russian pop, no vodka slamming toasts, no faces at the window waiting for my nightly alcohol run down the embankment to the booze shop - just me, the seemingly endless Siberian wilderness, and my wayward thoughts.

As the train chugged its way in Irkutsk station I gabbed my stuff, ready to alight the train. Behind me I felt a presence, so I turned to see what was going on. Standing in my shadow, his warm breath defrosting my neck was the tee-total fella from the bar carriage. I bade him farewell, grabbed my bags and exited the train. Halfway down the platform, I turned to see if he was still there, and through the heavy snowfall I could see that he was watching me like a hawk. Just to mess with his head I burst into a canter. It was as close to being James Bond as I'm ever going to get.

1 comment:

Claire Keenan said...

Heh Mittons, fine form! A pleasent way to spend an afternoon off on the sick!

I did that journey myself, but in reverse, having backpacked all the way from Singapore to Beijing where I boarded the train. I was also vegetarian and know how bloody ridiculous that is in Russia. I met the film director Richard Longcrane on my journey to Irkutsk from Mongolia. He had come to meet his 19 year old son, who was on his way back from his own backpacking sojourn in Asia. We all became friends, him on his satallite phone more often than not discussing the finer points of the film he was directing at the time, the rather dull "Wimbledon". He told us tales of the years he directed Tomorrow's World for the BBC, and how his cottage industry was making newton's cradles and other kind of science related office toys for middle managers, while I drank beers with his son. When we all got out in Irkutsk, we took them to our own planned destination, the shores of Lake Baikal. There, they offered to take us for a parting meal, at the best restaurant in town. So we went to a huge hotel on the bank of the lake. Upon entering, there was no one to be found. The reception was in darkness, though the door had been open, and it was warm enough to know that it wasn't closed for business. The distant clang of a pot indicated that we were in the right place, and we set off into the bowels of the cavernous building, heading towards a distant light. The light was indeed the restaurant, and what a restaurant it was. It was the biggest expanse of tables set up for a meal I had ever seen. It stretched as far as the eye could see. We were the only people there. We were sat in the middle of the room, crystal glasses upturned, and Richard ordered some Rioja wine, fiendishly expensive (and what currently costs £5 a bottle in the Co-op across the road). The menus were brought over, and to my utter lack of surprise, of 10 pages there was nothing vegetarian except chips. Richard was horrified and asked if they could do anything for us. The waitress disappeared for 15 minutes and came back with... egg and chips. To this day I don't know how much that meal cost, but suspect it was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten.