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All aboard for the Trans-Siberian Express


Our itinerary allowed for only a few days in Moscow, followed by a train trip across the whole of Siberia, arriving finally at Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast.  This leg of the journey alone was over 6,000 miles, easily the longest stretch of track known to man, covering one third of the latitude around the earth.  While the Trans-Siberian Railroad dates back over 100 years, it has only been open to “foreigners” for the past 12 years and as a result it can be a bit tricky to arrange travel therein.  I ended up booking train tickets through an Italian agency   (it was the best price) and providentially, I had requested that they be delivered to a friend’s apartment in Moscow.  As a result, moving our room residence unexpectedly from Godzillas to the Tsverskaya Hotel did not put the tickets in jeopardy.

St Basil’s

Meeting up with my Moscow resident friend Mark, however, was quite a feat in of itself.   This consisted of several trips to a local internet cafe to exchange emails, and attempting to use both public phones and our hotel phone (none of which allowed us to call his mobile).  So, having set a time by email, we met up at 6:00 p.m. that second night at a cafe.  Having spent a day and a half in Moscow by now, we were quite glad to chat with Mark who could finally shed some light on a thousand questions about Russia.
After meeting outside the cafe, the four of us went up to our hotel room and talked things over.  I hadn’t seen Mark for about four years, and was obviously interested to know how his work and life were going in Moscow.  For his part, he had obviously made good use of his time there, having an excellent grasp of the language and culture, which proved helpful for us!
For unknown reasons, the Italian travel agency would not deliver the tickets unless I was there to receive them, so Mark told us how to get to his place for the following day (Friday) would be when the tickets arrived.  After confirming our route and meeting time, Mark went to take care of some business while we went to dinner at a Turkish restaurant.  This particular one had good food, plenty of smoke (as usual) and, much to my surprise, a roaming belly dancer.  That night, it was Mamo’s turn to crash while Robert and I went to check out a local bookstore.  While there we found some postcards and ran into Dimitri; a piano student at Moscow Conservatory who was clearly happy to have a chance to practice his English.  He told us, as had the girl on the street earlier that day that “everyone in Moscow speaks English.”  I hardly think so, unless they were all very good at pretending.

On the other hand, as a visitor in Russia, the responsibility was actually mine to be much better at Russky then I was.  Admittedly, what I’d learned of Russian by listening to Penton language cd’s before coming simply wasn’t enough to get by.  So, while at the bookstore, Robert also picked up a pocket dictionary which proved to be quite helpful. Also of interest in the bookstore was an entire shelf devoted to books about chess masters and chess techniques.  At the front of the store in a glass case were some very expensive decorative Bibles (starting at about 50 USD) along with Orthodox prayer books.  They were available, and yet, they weren’t.

Friday morning, we headed north to Mark’s flat.  It took a mere 25 minutes on the green line metro followed by another 20 minutes on a “trolley bus” (a regular bus on rubber wheels, but run on electric lines overhanging the streets.  These were plentiful in Moscow and quite an interesting hybrid of a vehicle.)  We arrived safely on time only to discover that the travel company had delivered the tickets early!  Thankfully, though, they all seemed to be in order.

While at Mark’s flat, we met a few of his friends and learned that there would be a huge event the following morning.  All 25 Baptist churches in the city of Moscow (which, to put this in perspective, has 12 million people) were meeting for a semi annual baptism service at the Moscow River.  There were 47 new believers, and for Russia, this was a large group indeed.  Obviously interested in witnessing this unique experience, we promised to come.

Also from Mark’s flat, Robert called Bank of America to try to regain access to his mysteriously denied debit card.  They said it was shut down because of “fraudulent activity”.  They shut it down on the 13th  of June, the first day of our travels.  There had, of course, been no such activity.  After a bit of debate, B of A promised to turn Robert’s card back on for a generous amount of time: 2 hours.  Mark told us that Russia, particularly Moscow, is a hotspot for fraudulent bank activity and that similar things have often happened to American visitors.

Speaking of security, Mark relayed a few stories about being stopped by police on the street demanding “papers” (passport, etc.) and often a bribe.  Mark suggested that we not give bribes, but rather make it difficult, counting on the Russian police to not want the hassle of wasting their time when they saw we would not be intimidated.  We later decided that if we ran into trouble with the police, we would smile and hand them as much money as they needed.  I, for one, had no desire to visit the inside of a gulag.

With now about an hour and a half left on Robert’s ATM window of opportunity, we made our way to Ramstor: a Russian shopping mall.  Naturally, none of the mall’s 3 ATM’s dispensed any cash for Robert.  We took our lunch there and then had a go at the Russian ice cream which proved quite delightful.  At this point, with most of the day still remaining, we decided to head back to downtown Moscow for a few more sites.
That afternoon we visited the Cathedral of Christ our Savior, the largest Eastern Orthodox church in Europe.  No access was permitted.  It was not a tourist attraction.  We saw a stand behind the cathedral selling icons and several women with prayer shawls standing at the great doors of the church offering up their petitions.  I later learned that this church was demolished by Stalin back in the 30’s, but in 1995, the people of Moscow voted to rebuild it exactly as it was originally.  The architecture was impressive to say the least, but I couldn’t help wondering why the place was locked up so tightly with  security cameras all around.

After taking in the cathedral, we set out to find a souvenier shop that Mamo saw recommended in his Japanese language tour book of Moscow.  We finally stumbled across it, walked in and observed that the place was filled with senior citizens from Japan shopping.  We had met no Japanese in Moscow up to this point, but suddenly I understood why.   They were all here, guided by the same tour book.  Robert and I started to compare prices and came to the conclusion that even after haggling, we had been ripped off in the market earlier.  In talking with one of the girls working there, though, we realized that all of the prices in the store were in dollars, not roubles.  Our fortunes suddenly changed, and realizing that this store was charging about double what we had paid, we went to warn Mamo.  Talking more with the sales girl (Anastasia), I learned that she had lived all over Europe and was fluent in English, French, German, Russian, and Japanese.  I asked her what line of work her father was in that caused them to move so much and she simply answered, “Oh, he was in the KGB.”
After such a stellar experience at the Japanese tourist trap store, Mamo wanted to return to our market place of plenty.  It was easy enough to retrace our tracks and before long we were back outside Mumu, talking with our friend from Georgia.  Also, while back in that shopping district, an elderly woman kept following Mamo, trying to sell him postcards, then buttons, refusing to take “nyet” for an answer.  At one point she snuck up behind Mamo, stepped directly on his feet, and insisted that he buy something.  This was certainly a far cry from the uber-polite sales techniques in Japan!

We returned at last to the hotel that evening, and began preparing for the train journey to Vladivostok the next day.  Wanting to wash clothes before our departure,  we scoured the dilapidated building for laundry service.  In the process, we stumbled into a local agency designed to help Russian students pass entrance exams to study law in the U.S.  Inna, the girl working there, offered us tea and talked for about an hour.  Surprisingly, she said she had friends in the DFW metroplex of all places!  She advised us to beware of thieves on the train, then tried to help us find the laundry service, but it was already closed for the evening.

At this point, Robert and Mamo gave up.  I, however, having reached the end of my patience with our seemingly endless setbacks, refused to be thwarted this time.  Determinedly, I marched off to the community shower room (thankfully with separate stalls, but one room used by both men and women) taking my three days of dirty clothes.  During my extended stay in the duch (shower), another hotel guest became agitated with waiting (I spent probably 45 minutes in total, washing myself as well as all my clothes) and began to yell in Russian.  I replied, “Izvinitchye, ya nye punemayo Russky”  (I’m sorry, I don’t understand Russian).  The man replied in broken English, “You speak English?  Where you come from!!”  Aware of the incredibly warm and jovial feelings between our two countries,  I hesitantly replied “The U.S.”  He then muttered, something in Russian and eventually was able to use another stall.  After finishing, I cautiously exited the shower room, peering over my shoulder and hoping not to meet my fellow patron.

The following morning we journeyed north one last time to attend the baptism on the Moscow River.  All of the new believers wore white robes while the women were further distinguished by white head scarves.  After singing some Christian songs with the group gathered there (about 2 to 300), a few people gave testimonies and then they all waded into the water.  Two Russian pastors participated in the dunking procedure, finishing the entire group quite quickly.  Wondering why they seemed to be rushing through the baptism, I tested the river water’s temperature and found it freezing cold.  Afterwards, the new believers took communion there by the riverside.  We met a few people, said our farewells to Mark and his friends, then headed back to our hotel.          

Checking out, none of us were sad to be leaving the place behind, neither, so I gathered, were the hotel staff sad to see us go.  Then, it was off to the bank for a supply of cash and one last stop at the internet cafe before cutting off contact completely with the outside world for nearly a week.  A brief stop at a grocery store for provisions was memorable as I was mistaken for a Russian once again, but this time by an obviously western businessman, who spoke to me in broken Russky.  Not wanting to make him feel foolish, I merely nodded my acknowledgment and kept walking.  Hands now full with luggage, food, and several liters of water, we boarded the metro to Yaroslovsky station and arrived with time to spare.  After pausing to take a photo of Lenin’s statue outside the station, we waited with several hundred others for our train to arrive.

Being on the Trans-Siberian Train for six days, one easily loses a proper sense of time.  For one, living in a coupe for nearly a week without any set schedule of activity can be disorienting.  In addition to that, though, we passed through so many time zones and were so far north that the sun itself seemed to mock our attempts to use it as a timepiece.  I recall, in particular, one evening when the sun was shining at midnight.  As a result, my memories of those six days are not nearly as precise as the ones in Moscow.  There are several points, however, that bear mentioning.

The train itself was actually more comfortable than the hotel we’d just stayed in.  Although the sleeping car  was not especially spacious, it was clean and large enough to relax in.  The train consisted of 10 sleeping cars and a dining car.  Our car, which was second class, had 9 coupes, that could hold four people each.  For these potentially 36 people, there were two lavatories, one at each end of the car.  Being a Russian train, naturally there was also a samovar, which supplied boiling water for making tea, coffee, soup, and showers.  Showers were rationed to 10 minutes each, consisting of a hose hook up to the sink inside of the bathroom.  Each shower was an additional 2 USD on one’s tab.  Being spoiled westerners, we didn’t mind paying for a daily wash, but it became increasingly obvious that many of our neighbors were more frugal in this department.

Our provodnista (car attendant) offered us tea and coffee from time to time.   Skeptical, after three days in Moscow, we asked her what the price was and she indicated that it was free.  At the end of the week, however, she brought a list of all our drinks with the prices noted out to the side.  Hmmm.  Furthermore, we found that the various provodnistas were willing to sell just about anything on the train for the right price.  We attempted to purchase a metal tea glass-holder that Robert wanted for his father and found the price ranging from 500 roubles all the way up to 1000.  After consulting with a fellow passenger from Europe and discovering that he planned to lift one for free,  Robert decided that 500 roubles was worth the price of a clean conscience.

This brings to mind the analogy that often occurred to me while riding across Russia, that being on the train was somewhat like being in a small self contained country.    There were certain rules, laws, if you will, that applied on the train, that everyone was supposed to recognize.  For example, you never enter the lavatory while the train is stopped at a station, no smoking except in the space between cars, no eating in the dining car because it is overpriced, everything is for sale, and if you want to buy something, never accept the first price, and if you socialize with other passengers in their cabin, always offer some sort of drink.  This code was not posted or explained anywhere, but everyone somehow knew.
I was able to meet a few people during our journey by playing “shukmati” (chess) and “durak” (a popular Russian card game).  In particular, our next door neighbors: Ivan, Anatoly, and Alexander, enjoyed playing chess and cards.  In turn, I taught them how to play spades, which they soon favored over durak.

One day while playing a round of spades, Anatoly (who is a mechanic for the Russian airforce) pointed out the window and said, “Look David!  Russian tanks!”  Sure enough, the train passing us looked like it held at least 100 tanks, all heading west.  More problems in Chechnya?  I thought it would be rather odd to run and get my camera, but now wish I had this shot on film.  C’est la vie.

On the other side of our coupe was a family, whose father (Sergey) we got to know fairly well.  He taught me how to play “shashki” a Russian variation on checkers, and then eventually we transitioned into the more familiar shukmati.  When trying to take my pawn across for a Queen promotion during one game, Sergey commented, “Ah, American dreams?”  A few moves later he captured it with the proclamation, “Goodbye American dreams!”  He was a nice fellow, but I couldn’t help wondering what he’d heard from the communist perspective as a young lad.

Food was another interesting facet of the trip across Siberia.  As I mentioned previously, the dining car was overpriced, so everyone brought rations with them and supplemented those with food purchased from babushkas at the stops.  We enjoyed all sorts of fresh home made Russian dishes, including pilshki, kartoshka, of course bread, and various sausages and cheeses.  In addition to the babushkas, at most stations there were small kiosks that sold various food items.  Outside one of the them, I noticed an advertisement for Coca Cola and walked inside expectantly only to discover they carried “Crazy Cola” instead.  Can’t beat the real thing.
As for the stations themselves, there simply wasn’t much to see, but I learned from a travel book I’d brought along that many of these stations were stopping off points for political prisoners or munitions factory towns.  Apparently that has changed in the past generation, but sadly, many of the villages seem to be in decline.

Perhaps the most interesting place we went through was Ulan Ude.  This stop was on the southernmost edge of Baikal Lake.  Baikal Lake, of course, is the largest body of fresh water in the world, with a depth 1 mile straight down, and home to certain types of vegetation and fish that are not found anywhere else in the world.  I wish we’d had the time and finances to do some scuba diving there!

Robert, Mamo, and I were able to get amply caught up on our sleep, reading, and conversation, discussing important topics such as, “did the engineer get plastered every night?”  We thought it likely he did since the train went from about 80 mph during the day up to around 100 or 110 during the evenings.  Sometimes the train jerked and bounced so severely that we thought we would literally fly off the track.

The trip was unquestionably relaxing, but on the third day, we began to flirt with insanity as claustrophobia set in.  Robert commented,  “Dude, my brain hurts when I shake it.”  Pause, laughter.  “Does yours?” Mamo, for his part, observed, “There was a guy looking out the window and smiling.  I thought he must not be Russian.”  In fact, he was Italian.  Suffice it to say, that by day six we were ready for the luxuries of a regular shower, a hot meal, and a chance to wash some clothes.

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