Wednesday, 12 May 2010

People and Life aboard байкал, the Moscow - Irkutsk train

As I boarded the train at something past 11 on a sweltering Moscow evening, it seemed like the hottest, least spacious environment I had ever come across. I had chosen to be in third class, or плацкартны, which is not corridor and cabins, but open plan, with bunk beds along each side of the carriage - parallel on one side and perpendicular on the other. The remaining space was full of people, food, and blankets piled high. It didn't seem like there would be any room for anything else. The first challenge was fitting my backpack and all extra bits and bobs into the space under my bottom bunk. The bed lifted up on a hinge, and one or two people immediately rallied to help me squeeze my backpack underneath. The space was surprisingly large, so after removing my rollmat, my pack fitted perfectly. Everyone else in the carriage was Russian, and all were immediately friendly and helpful and interested.

At the start of the journey, the people in my immediate vicinity of 6 bunks were as follows: In the bunk opposite me on the same side of the carriage was a middle-aged lady who had been visiting family in St Petersburg. In the bunk across the carriage was a tiny, extremely ancient, fairly toothless, wizened granny who was presented to me as "very old". Old she may have been - I guessed probably at least in her 90s - but she was nevertheless very energetic and talkative, and when she wasn't engaged in deep and animated conversation with her daughter or one of us others, she was on her bunk doing situps and leg stretches. I later learnt that she had previously been a top volleyball player.

On the bunk above Granny was a somewhat younger middle-aged lady who turned out to be her daughter. At one point, I saw her grating an apple! This made me intensely happy, as I thought I was the only person in the world who grated apples, and here was a lady doing the same in the middle of Russia as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. All three of these ladies were heading home to Irkutsk or nearby. On the bunk above me was a man who, having asked if I was English when I first got on the train, mostly slept until he got off the train a day later. On the other top bunk was a young girl - presumably the man's daughter - who, as far as I can ascertain, did not speak for the entire duration of the trip, and like her father mostly slept.

I was amazed to discover how much information can be shared with little or no overlap of language, using gestures, maps, place names and a lot of enthusiasm. The lady in the bunk opposite me spoke a fair bit of German, and while I cannot claim to having any proficiency in that language, I can just about manage the sentences "Ich habe ein brüder und eine svesta" and "meine svesta ist im Korea, und mein brüder ist im Canada". When you find an even vaguely shared language, there's a kind of click as minds open up, allowing a flow of information. Speaking limited, bad German was immensely satisfying: I could actually get an idea or two across to someone with whom, a few moments before, I had had barely any mindflow whatsoever.

A somewhat tipsy man wandered past every now and then on his way to have a cigarette in the smoking area at the end of the carriage. He seemed to take an interest in me and once asked if I had a light. I ran through my mental inventory of belongings, and decided that if I did have a lighter or matches, they were buried far too deep in my bag to be worth hunting for. However, when the man later managed to get hold of a chess set from one of the Provodnitsas, I had no excuse not to engage in a game or two.

At various intervals, a lady with a trolley full of meat and potato doughnuts and beer would wander past, saying something like "Soukh? Kartoschke?!" in a soft but persistent voice. "Soukh" may have been a different pronounciation of сок; Kartoschke no doubt referred to the potato thingies. At some time on the first day, I decided to try one of them: there were two varieties, one without meat. It was not bad, but luke warm, a little greasy, and not particularly worth the number of roubles I paid for it. After that, every time the lady went past, she caught my eye and tried to persuade me to buy another kartoschke. Having refused a few times, I gradually noticed that noone else was buying them... The other passengers eventually explained in mimes of approximately the following meaning: "Think about it: the Kartoschke go past on the trolley every day. And they're always warm. You think they cook them fresh every day? No, no, no! These same doughnuts have been with us since Moscow. It's pretty likely, don't you think, that the same potato doughnuts have been going back and forth between Moscow and Irkutsk for goodness knows how long?"

I was keen to practice my Russian, so with a combination of my phrasebook and copying what I heard others saying, I started each morning by wishing the others доброе утро, and asking как спалнй? Granny took this very seriously, and upon hearing my words would stand to attention, and, with a carefully controlled bow, wish me a slow, steady доброе утро in return. I somehow found out that as well as playing volleyball, she had been a teacher of Russian. I continued practising my previously non-existent Russian with her, and when we passed through a city I couldn't identify on the map, she taught me the word for city, by eliciting the concept from "New York, Moscow, Leningrad..." and told me all about it.

The chess man's name was Dmitch, and we ended up playing chess for hundreds of miles. It was a great aspect of the journey: the bunks that along the side of the carriage converted into a table with two chairs, so we sat by the window with a foreground of chess and a background of endless silver birches passing by. I surprised us both by beating Dmitch in the first game we played. He beat me soundly in the second game, but i managed to win the third. After that, he gave me a meaningful glance every time he walked past.

On Wednesday, i woke up to discover a strange pair of boots below my bunk, and the bunk above occupied by a new arrival, sleeping. When he awoke, he became Ed, who had joined us in the night at Yekatarinberg and was the only other Brit on the train. What were the chances of this? Miles from nowhere and even further from anywhere; the only 2 Englishmen within hundreds of miles, and here we were sharing a bunk! Was there some conspiracy afoot in the train accommodation planning office?

Ed was en route to Vladivostock, from where he was going to fly back to Europe and hike across the Alps (a bit of a funny way around, but that's Englishmen for you...(

Dmitch and I continued our chess battle: after 5 games, we were drawn 2-all with one stalemate. I think i was distracted by the sheer volume of silver birch trees. I spent a day or two reminding (or teaching?) Ed how to play, so that he could join in the competition.... I admit to having a selfish motive: I was hoping that Ed would play chess with Mitch, giving me some time away from the chessboard to explore the train. But of course, we had plenty of time to explore: Ed and I spent a couple of hundred miles wandering between carriages, discussing the (then recent) changes in British politics.

Wandering the corridors

In between carriages

At Barabinsk, Ed and I both got off to sniff the air. I immediately had to get back on to put my second fleece on. Such a contrast from Moscow - it was positively Siberian! (I was extremely glad to be able to use that phrase without exaggeration for the first time ever.)

What a contrast from Moscow! We walked up onto the footbridge, keeping our eyes fixed on the Provodnitsa standing by the open carriage door - we did not want to miss that train! The prov. seemed to make a sudden move, and my heart went into double time. As I ran back down the bridge, my Trans-Siberian handbook fell out of my pocket, scattering loose pages, bookmarks and useful bits of paper away over a fence. I had no option but to climb over and gather them up. As I hopped back over the fence, I found myself looking up into the eyes of a Russian policeman glaring at me. I waved the bits of paper at him, miming that I'd dropped them, and scarpered back to the train, where I learned that the engine was still being changed, and we had a while to wait.

Every now and then, Dmitch would bring his guitar along the corridor, and start playing Beatles' songs (there's nothing like being British for getting people to reveal their inner Beatles' fan..) So we had a good few jamming sessions, him on the guitar, and me on my Jews harp, which, with a completely different tuning, gave songs such as You've Got To Hide Your Love Away and Day Tripper a completely different macabre edge. In between chess games, wanderings and busking sessions, the others on board shared food with us, and I felt very much like my companions were treating me as their guest. It was a homestay on a train.

In retrospect, the 5 days aboard the "Baikal" train are a tiny part of an extremely long journey. But they are a wonderful part. Not only did I cover more ground during those 5 days than I have in any other 5 days this year, but I think I learnt more than ever before or since about the resilience of human interaction - the ability to communicate whatever the linguistic circumstances. I was quite sad to arrive in Irkutsk, knowing that this experience was behind me, and never again would I be able to travel for the first time on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

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