Tuesday 4 September 2012

The Trans-Siberian Saga - Part 1

We have finally come to the crux of the Trans-Siberian Railway experience - the train journey! One of the reasons why we travel is to learn all the ways people do things, and every country does trains slightly differently - from rusty slow-moving engines with bench seats and open windows creeping to Cambodian borders, to super-slick Eurostar speedsters whizzing nonchalantly through European countryside. So how do the Russians do it?

Our First Russian Train - Saint Petersburg to Moscow
Tonight we had tickets for Train 029, an overnight sleeper from St Petersburg to Moscow for our first leg on Russia's famous Trans-Siberian Railway. Getting aboard was easy enough; show our tickets and passport to the provodnitsa, the carriage attendant (or provodnik if male) and if you pass her stern scrutiny you jump on-board and find your compartment. In a second class kupe carriage, each compartment has four beds, two lower berths and two upper berths. Claiming one upper and one lower berth, we stowed our bags, sat down, and waited for the mystery of "Who will be our companions tonight?" to be solved.

Pretty soon, we heard heavy footfalls as two sweating middle-aged men dressed in full camouflage clothing dumped some large military-looking duffle bags onto the seat, acknowledged our presence with quick nods, and scoped out the compartment space. They left again as we warily eyed a couple of long sacks that appeared to house something hard, long and thin (are these guys seriously packing rifles?). We heard more scuffling as they came back with a trolley-load of two massive black cases, measuring roughly 1.5m x 1.5m x 0.5m each and looking extremely heavy. What on earth could they be shipping? my mind started to wonder, sifting through stereotypical spy-novel scenes wondering what a gun-toting ex-miliary Russian mafia crew would be doing in a second-class kupe. Some grunting effort followed, as they decided to stow their obviously heavy, large black cases above our heads in the upper storage area. At least half of the case stuck out from the shelf, just above where my feet would be, and I worried that it was poised perfectly in order to crush my legs should it fall out while I slept. Tia and I exchanged some skeptical looks.

All appearances and prejudices were cast aside as soon as the train started to move. We were treated to our first lesson in Russian train etiquette - the taking-turns-to-change-in-to-something-comfortable ritual. As there is no privacy in a four stranger compartment, it is polite to leave the room so that your companions can change into more comfortable clothing and footwear for the journey. With a mixture of hand signals and charades, we realised our companions were treating us to a "please, you first" when they stepped out and closed the door, before politely waiting for us to step out so they could do the same. Once this was done we all sat down again, massive black cases hanging over our heads, clapped our hands on our thighs saying "Ah", followed by awkward silence.

Ok, time to break out the "Language" section of the guidebook. Oh so your names are Genya and Sasha, you are from Moscow and you are just coming back from a holiday. A camping holiday in fact (explains the canvas and camo) where you did a whole heap of fly-fishing (explains the long thin sacks, not guns but fishing rods). Oh, and you carried your own boats? Ah, inflatable boats, hence the big black cases looming above us. Proving yet again that a picture tells a thousand words, we were treated to a bunch of fishing stories via photos of lakes, trees, and men proudly holding up fish, scrolled through the screen on the back of Sasha's camera. So, that explains it. When people go fishing here, they take public transport and carry a massive inflatable boat with them.

I slept pretty well after that knowing these were just a couple of good mates heading home after a successful fishing trip, only waking a few times to check that the big black boat had not moved.

Some friendly Russians, Genya and Sasha - On the train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow

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