Monday, July 04, 2005

The Trains Are All Right

Between Irkutsk and Vladivostok

The trans-Siberian trains are much nicer than our little guide book led me to believe. We did the journey in three legs: Moscow to Omsk, Omsk to Irkutsk, and Irkutsk to Vladivostok. The first two were local trains. They are cheaper and slower than the standard long haul services and the cars aren't as nice, but only marginally so. The advantage of the local trains is that you meet more Russians and less tourists. Our current train (not a local - the #2 Rossiya) is filled with vacationers. They parade past our door every 3 hours to take in a meal - each fatter and more laden with cameras and fanny packs (ahem - bum bags) than the last. We took this service hoping to meet more English-speakers. Even if these folks speak English, I'm not sure we have much to chat about.

Second class cabins sleep four in a pair of bunks separated by a 2 foot table that comes out from beneath the window. The beds are comfy enough, but my body is just a bit longer than the available space, so I've had to scrunch up. It is not possible to get total darkness and the train jerks around a bit. My sleep has not been great, but I'm getting enough rest. A side effect of train sleep for me has been very anxious dreaming. My slumber is currently full of worries, mostly of the trivial kind. For example, I had a long dream about how I couldn't get my laundry done because I kept running into friends from high school. That sort of thing.

We've been living on a steady diet of bottled water, cookies, cheese, salami, bread, tea, and cup o' soup brought on board with us. You can get boiling water from a samovar at the end of the car at any time, but that's the only cooking you can expect to do. We've supplemented this with surprisingly good meals from the restaurant car and supplies from the vendors at the stations along the way. Eggs, beer, and BBQ chicken are available at almost every long stop - everything a boy needs to live. On our current train, we went for the "service" option - three hot meals delivered to the cabin and free sheets. Sheets normally cost about 40 roubles. I reckon it is not worth the extra cash.

Because the cabins sleep 4, we have shared space almost the entire way. Our companions have been:

* A mother, son, and grandma who spoke no English. The little boy was about 4 and very full of life. He didn't understand that we couldn't understand him, so he chattered away at length about the fashionable topics of the day without getting much in response. It was fun.

* A mother and son. They boy must have been about 9. They were with us a very short while and the only thing I learned is that the son prefers Playstation 2 to other gaming systems.

* A man around 60, Sergei, and a babushka (possibly his mother?). Neither spoke English, but Segei was very game to chat. We managed to communicate our origination, destination, and how the power system on an iBook works. Babushka seemed astonished that we were traveling to Lake Baikal without being able to properly understand Russian. She shook her head a lot.

* A mysterious alcoholic smoker of about 40. He offered us beer and chicken and took something of an interest in our game of chess, but little else.

* A father and son. The boy was around 7 and very interested in English. He had us check his spelling of words like "Halflife" and "skateboarding". Papa made some small talk for a bit.

* A lone girl in her 30s. She lives in Newport Beach of all places and speaks fluent English. She's attractive and fun and a breath of fresh air after it being only Jason and I for the better part of 24 hours. She is visiting family for the summer before heading back to LA.

* One (very?) drunk and heavily sweating Russian named Nikolai on his way to a hospital in Vladivostok. Professor Kolia (as he was later dubbed) took an immediate and profound interest in us. We were forced to get out of bed, drink vodka, and eat cheese and sausage. In one memorable scene, me and Dr. K sprinted from the train and back to avoid being left behind while acquiring more supplies.

There isn't a proper shower available, but it is possible to get a decent wash. The bathrooms at either end of the car have a drain in the floor covered by a thick plastic mesh. On the fancy train, there is a shower nozzle that you can connect to the sink. Elsewhere, you have a plastic bucket to fill up with water and pour over your head. I do not have shower shoes and I am not brave enough to stand on the mat barefoot. I have been sticking to the "whore bath" style of hygiene.

Power outlets tempt us from the hallway, but they are only on intermittently at best. On this train, we learned that we can get them turned on for one hour for 50 roubles. I am not sure if that is the system elsewhere. I have yet to kill both laptop and both video camera batteries, so I always have one electronic toy to keep me busy.

On the topic of cameras, it has been difficult to get quality video or stills because we are almost always shooting through glass. The odd instance of an open window then forces one to confront the camera stability issues caused by a moving train. I've got maybe 2 hours of footage to work with. With luck, some of it will not be full of reflections and/or hopelessly bouncy. A few of the still shots look OK.

Total time on the train is something like 8 days, but I'm not feeling it. Between chess games, eating, staring out the window, sleeping, reading (I just finished Eugene Onegin), and toying around with the laptops, time passes quickly. The plants are green, the flowers are out, and the rivers, lakes, and sky are (generally) blue. It's hard to believe that we have passed through some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. This must be a very different journey in the winter.


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