Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Russian Hospitaility

As I'm writing this I'm mid-way through the longest single leg of my Trans-Siberian rail journey, traveling from Irkutsk to Moscow. A journey of four continuous nights on the train and a five-hour difference in time zones, all the while sharing a "soft sleeper" cabin with three other passengers. This is the train ride my little one and two night overnight trains through Vietnam, China, and Mongolia have been preparing me for.
And it's hard for me to put into words what an experience it has been. On the surface it's just a long train ride, but that doesn't begin to do it justice. The train itself and the incredible, beautiful, unending snow-covered landscape that unfolds before us is just the stage for the show. The real experience comes from the people I've met and the real-life movie that I've become part of.
Although I expected passengers to get on and off the train during the journey, I didn't really think how that would effect my experience. for some reason I expected to spend the whole journey with basically the same group of people. Instead I've shard my cabin with seven different people so far, and I still have two nights to go. Two of the bunks in my cabin are currently empty, and each station we stop at is a lottery about the possibility of new roomies.

As I write this now, a little girl from the next cabin (aged maybe 2) keeps popping her head into my cabin and waving to me. When I wave back she bursts into laughter and waddles back to her dad out in the corridor. Even the quiet times are interesting here.

When I first got on this train in Irkutsk, I had the cabin to myself. Normally this might be a good thing to have some space and privacy, but the prospect of four days alone is enough to drive anyone mental, and I didn't come here to just be a spectator anyway.
But I needn't have worried, About 2 hours later I got my first visitors; A young Russian couple in their early 20's named Pasha and Nastja traveling with Nastja's mother; Tatyana.
Neither Nastja nor Tatyana could speak a word of English, but Pasha's English was pretty good. Certainly good enough to have some decent conversations and learn about his home and talk about Australia, etc. They come from a small town of 500 people near Tomsk, and the main source of income for the people there is a coal mine. Tragically in May this year there was an accident killing 17 of the workers who live in the town.
I spent my first night with these quiet yet friendly people. They were happy to chat but also kept to themselves a bit. I think they perhaps didn't quite know what to make of me, but were still hospitable and polite, if a little serious. As well as chatting I had plenty of time to read and listen to music and relax by myself. This was a good easing into things without being thrown into the deep end.
They did seem to appreciate my terrible attempts at speaking Russian from my little phrase book. Tatyana was in fits of laughter!

They left the train the following afternoon and for the next few hours I had the cabin to myself again, in fact the whole train seemed pretty empty.
Then we arrived at a fairly big station and while my cabin still had three empty beds, I heard people move into the cabins beside me.
Soon after I noticed a young woman standing out in the corridor gazing out the window while she charged her mobile phone (there are power sockets in the corridors). She saw my cabin was empty and asked if she could join me. I soon discovered why she was so keen - the people she was sharing a cabin with next door included the same 2 year old child that has been popping her head into my cabin as I write this entry, except last night she was crying her head off and her parents were trying to get her to sleep.
So Ksacha and I spent the next few hours chatting in my cabin. She has a job designing nails (as in decorative fingernail designs), but is also studying English at university. This meant her English was excellent and it was so refreshing to be able to have an in-depth conversation where we could actually discuss complex things without running into language barriers. These moments have been few and far between over the last month, so I take them when I can. We only spoke for a few hours but discussed many things including music, politics, photography and travel. Her father is a portrait photographer, and although she is studying English to become an interpreter, her heart is more in music and the arts, so she's having second thoughts about her career.
Then we pulled into another big station and the trans-sib lottery dealt me up some new cabin-mates and condemned poor Ksacha back to her cabin of infant noise hell for the night.

I went out into the corridor to make room while my three new cabin-mates moved into their bunks. There was a man aged about 30 traveling alone, and a man and wife couple in their 40's. I wasn't quite sure how this was going to pan out, but things soon became very clear when I walked back into the cabin and Alestar, the guy traveling alone, pulled out a bottle of cognac and plonked it on the table, followed by Andrey and Tatiana with the bread, cheese, pork, and tomato. The best I had to offer was some decent chocolate and some mixed nuts. It was going to be one of those nights.
And so it began. The most memorable yet a bit hazy night of my trip so far, sharing a cabin with these wonderful people.
Alestar is a fireman while Andrey is a military doctor and his wife Tatiana is his assistant. I'm not sure what rank Andrey is, but I get the feeling he's a pretty highly-ranked officer. He and Tatiana have been together 15 years, since he was a luitenant. He is now 48 and has had many promotions since then but I couldn't understand the specifics.
The language barrier presented it's ever-present head throughout the night, but that proved to be half the fun. Communication just became a hilarious drunken game of charades/pictionary. It didn't really matter.
After the cognac, a bottle of vodka appeared from somewhere. Then we stopped at a station and Alestar disappeared and came back with some Russian champagne. Then finally when the champagne was gone and Alestar had gone to bed, Andrey and I continued on beer while Tatiana stuck with tea.
You couldn't imagine a more lovely couple than Andrey and Tatiana. The most warm, friendly, unassuming, patient, down to earth and kind people you could hope to meet. And to be having a night like that in the context of a train traveling across Siberia is an experience money just can't buy. That alone makes a trip like this worthwhile.

My little 2 year old friend just poked her head in the door again, but this time the train lurched and she banged her head on the door frame. It ended in tears instead of laughter. Maybe that's the end of that game.
I should point out that on this train, time doesn't work in the normal way. My journey from Irkutsk to Moscow spans a five hour time zone difference, so at any point we are just somewhere in between Irkutsk time and Moscow time, but nobody really knows where and it doesn't really matter anyway. The whole Russian rail system works on Moscow time, so I just set my watch to that so I can at least keep track of where we are when we arrive at a station and I look at the schedule. But it's been dark outside for hours and my watch says it's only 4pm, so it makes no sense to try to live by Moscow time until I get to Moscow.

So Andrey and Tatiana left the train just before I started writing this entry, and Alestar is getting ready to leave at a stop soon. I wonder who my next companions will be?

And my little friend is back waving at the door. It seems it takes more than a bump on the head to keep her out of action. They breed 'em tough in Siberia.

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