Sunday, May 15, 2016

Two Days On The Train

This is the longest leg of the Trans-Siberian train that I have taken yet.  It is the section from Chita to Birobidzhan, and I am spending two nights on the train. Siberia is big, and this is just a wee slice of it.

This is also the first time I have reserved an upper berth. It is really not too bad. There is a ladder that folds out of the wall to get up there, though originally I wasn't aware of that. There are also all kinds of amazing little secret nooks and crannies to keep your stuff in the upper berth, I guess to make up for the lack of space that you have otherwise. But after taking the Trans-Mongolian train and several legs of the Trans-Siberian, now I'm a train veteran. I know where the outlets are, so I can charge my device. There are only two in the car, in the hallway, and they are in high demand. Or, that is, until I discovered the secret third one by the bathroom that nobody had been competing for.  But now that everybody knows about that one from seeing me there, I bet it will be hard to use that one, too. Quite a contrast from the Trans-Mongolian, which had outlets in every compartment in the car. The provodnitsas and provodnitsas have extra outlets in their compartments, and I hear if you ask them nicely, they will let you charge your device.

I shared a compartment with Tatiana and Ariana, two lawyers from Ulan-Ude with Buryat features, and a Russian guy who wasn't very talkative, but was helpful when he could be. He got off fairly early from the train, so for the rest of the journey, there were only the the of us in the compartment. At least I didn't get put into a compartment with a bunch of vodka-crazed soccer hooligans or nationalists. Tatiana spoke a little bit of English, but her English was heavily broken (but still much better than my Russian). Between her English, my terrible Russian, a little pantomime, and Google Translate getting whipped out occasionally, we managed to communicate pretty well. Both of the lawyers were on the way to Khabarovsk to undertake some further lethal training. Unlike in the US, where lawyers have to take continuing legal education every year, they told me Russian lawyers have to undertake further study every five years. So they were on their way to do that. Tatiana told me her mother was a judge, and was retired, but there was no way she had the resources to travel around the world on the pension she had.

Tatiana asked me if I had been to any of the Buddhist temples in Ulan-Ude. I told her I hadn't.  She said I should go, because it would change my life. She said there were monks there who were herbal healers, and they were better than doctors. She told me about one monk who preserved his body so well that they say he is not dead, but in a state of perpetual meditation. She asked me if people did herbal medicine in the US, I told her that people sometimes did, but mostly on their own. She said she thought that was dangerous. I told her people sometimes consulted herbalists, but didn't often go to folk healers, but some Native Americans did.

The upper berth was really not bad at all. I would definitely prefer the lower berth, but now that I had an upper, it was OK. The only thing was that it got really hot up there. Russian trains are kept furiously hot anyway, and with heat rising to the top, it got insanely toasty up there. Luckily the window in our compartment had not been locked by the provodnik, so I was able to open the window at the top to let the gathered heat out when I needed to.

The train ride was really mesmerizing, even though it was two days long. The scenery was gorgeous, filled with Siberian taiga and steppe, with the occasional horse-riding shepherd or picturesque village filed with log houses and corrals. The restaurant car was a cool place to hang out for a change every once in a while. They didn't seem to mind if people bought anything, but it wasn't the gathering place that it had been previously when I had taken international trains. The domestic trains in Russia are mostly filled with Russians, unlike the trains that cross borders.

The train stopped often for little towns, and they would only let people off the train if they stopped for fifteen minutes or more. Some of the tiny towns only had stops of a minute to five minutes, just long enough for people to get on or off who were scheduled to do so, but there were a good amount of long stops where I was able to get off the train and run around (usually literally) the towns taking pictures, paying careful attention to the time, because the train will definitely take off without you if you aren't back by the time it is scheduled to leave. There was one time I had a little bit of a scare, because I got off the train in one town, crossed several tracks to get to the station, ran around snapping luxuries, but on my way back, another train (a freight train) arrived on one of the tracks between me and the train I needed to board. It was a REALLY long train, too. I saw Tatiana run across the tracks and beat it back to the train, but I was too far away to even consider that.  So I had to wait a long time for it to pass, and I barely hauled ass back to the train before they closed the doors. Whew.

About two hours before I was supposed to get off the train, I had gone to the space at the end of the compartment, because there are windows on both sides and it is a good place to take pics. There were two guys sitting there smoking. They started taking to me in rapid-fire Russian, and all I could do was shake my head, and say, "Ni ponimayu," which means, "I don't understand." Suddenly they realized that I was a rare foreigner on the train, and they asked to take their picture with me (that happens a LOT). I complied, and let them take a bunch of selfies with me. They introduced themselves to me as Sergei and Andrei, and insisted that I accompany them to their compartment for some vodka. My spidey-sense was tingling a little, but what the hell, sure.

We went to the front of the car, and they led me into a compartment that I didn't even know was there before. It was between the provodnik's sleeping compartment and his working compartment. It only had one upper and lower bunk, rather than two of each. Sergei and Andrei were very insistent about the vodka thing. They mixed two bottles of liquid together, one clear, and one tannish, and started pouring drinks. I only drank a couple and then begged off.  But then they wanted to talk about political stuff. They asked me what American people thought about Russian people.  Honestly, I didn't know how to answer that, because I have no idea what most people think, so I told them I didn't really know. They started asking me questions about Barack Obama, to which I just answered vaguely and in a non-committal fashion. Then Sergei and Andrei told me they were both police officers.  I tried to just keep the same expression on my face that I had had before,  and started thinking, "OK, time to start figuring out the exit strategy. "

Then Sergei asked me to trade phone numbers. I was a little hesitant to do that, but did anyway. I gave him my number, one/then the area code/then the number, and he put it into his phone and tried to call me.  It didn't work. I said I really didn't know how international codes worked, and what one needed to dial to get through. He insisted that I enter his number into my phone, and then try to call HIM. So I did. This time it worked. So now he had my number.  He kept saying, "Telefon?" I said, "Da." He asked when, I said,  "Cztery dnia (four days)." Andrei told me he was a boxer, and showed me a bunch of pictures of him in martial arts uniforms and in the ring.  Then he jokingly asked me if I wanted to box and started making sparring gestures.  I smiled and said no, but he kept asking and punching the air. I tried to beg off and leave at this point, because I needed to pack my stuff to get off the train in about a half an hour, but they were very insistent I stick around a little longer. So I did, and they played me a bunch of Russian pop music, asking for my opinion. I made thumbs-up gestures. But now I had to get my stuff together to get off the train....they were getting off a few hours later, as were most on the train. I finally managed to escape back to my compartment, and furiously got my stuff ready to debark. Tatiana told me I must be very careful, because I could be arrested, and I told her, "I know." I got my stuff together, went to the front of the train to get ready to debark, and Sergei and Andrei showed up there again to chat. The provodnik didn't seem to want to have anything to do with them.  I just answered their questions politely, and then when the train stopped, I bid them, "Da Svedaniya" (goodbye), and took off into town of Birobidzhan.

1 comment:

  1. YIKES. Pay attention to that spidey sense. Even small tingles. It sounds like any time men ask you to drink vodka, something unsettling winds up happening. You handled it really well.