10 days. 90 hours travel time. 4,832 miles. Countless precious memories. An adventure this big and this grand requires at least a couple installments to do it justice. So I’ll begin at the beginning: three days on a Russian train.
After a juicy hamburger (my first in over seven months—I was hoping to compensate for three days of instant noodles), my friends and I boarded our train to Vladivostok.
The time spent on the train, though at times painfully dull and far from comfortable, was undoubtedly the most memorable part of our adventure. The train operates in its own little universe, completely independent of the world around it. Officially, schedules operate on Moscow time, while each passenger thinks in terms of his or her “local” time, but really, there is no time. And endless time. Upon boarding the train, each passenger undergoes a personal transformation. Gone are the high heels and fancy clothes—suddenly it’s socially acceptable to appear outside in a bright yellow shirt, orange shorts, tie-dye socks, and lime-green tapochki. Gone too are the reserved “street faces” and all boundaries between people. Boarding the train, you join the train world, and the bonds of train community are pretty tight.
Nici and I were traveling in a kupe (a compartment with four beds and a small table) with a Russian man named Maxim. The first afternoon, we didn’t see much of Maxim—he spent all his time hanging in his brother’s compartment next door, only popping in occasionally to grab a beer. But that evening, when he was getting some hot water, the train conductor apparently asked him how the foreign girls were doing. “What foreigners?” As soon as he realized his kupe-mates were foreigners (and not, as he had suspected, Russian girls practicing their English), he stopped in to introduce himself and his brother Vitaly. After that, we became best friends, of course.
I have never been in less of a hurry than I was on the train. Three whole days with absolutely nothing to do, nowhere to be, no obligations. It’s the ultimate form of forced relaxation. Days were spent reading War and Peace in Russian, writing the Train Diaries, napping, and listening to music, but mostly I just stared out the window and let time slip by with the beautiful Siberian countryside. Surely, this must be the most beautiful way to get from point A to point B.
Even the madness takes time. But its eventual coming is all but inevitable. Maddening beauty, maddening boredom and restlessness, maddeningly close quarters—plus, of course, a dollop of Russian crazy. Slowly but surely, the madness will come. Soon, a half-hour talking about facial tissues can send you into fits uncontrollable laughter, you could burst into song at any minute, and suddenly “Shower-Donalds” is the funniest restaurant name ever, and the highlight of your life is the next 15-minute stop, where you can cluster on the platform and soak up the fresh air and sunshine.
The evenings were time for bonding with Maxim and Vitaly. And by “bonding,” of course, I mean drinking. Strictly speaking, vodka is forbidden on Russian trains. But that never stopped anyone. To my great amusement, our train conductor was running a black-market booze operation from under Nici’s bed. So we were well-supplied with Russian vodka. With nothing better to do, the four of us consumed an ungodly amount of vodka—something tells me my liver would not have survived the entire six-day trip from Moscow to Vladivostok.
The last day was a struggle. We were all restless and bored out of our minds, sick of sitting, sick of standing, sick of lying. Also just sick—though Maxim assured us that it was those “damn Chinese noodles” that made us sick, not the vodka. But the final morning was full of hopeful anticipation. Everyone waited eagerly in the hall as the ocean passed by and slowly turned into a city. People shed their train clothes and became real people again—the transformation was alarming. It was just so strange to see people in pants and shoes! Finally, at 10:30AM on May 4, we pulled into Vladivostok—and with a rushed “счастливо!” our best friends Maxim and Vitaly were gone forever.
Images: Waking up to a smelly fish-head on the table. Watching Maksim and Vitaly eat an entire bag of hard-boiled eggs that had been sitting in the hot, hot train for over 24 hours. Being scolded on multiple occasions for not putting enough sugar in my tea. A plate of fresh pelmeny, courtesy of Maksim and Vitaly. A mirror with the caption “It’s possible a millionaire is looking at you.” Learning how to play Durak. Our conductors telling me to find a Russian husband. A shirt that said “Who this he?” Vitaly’s cackle. Maxim’s incessant “ё-моё!” A really awkward declaration of love. Watching Siberia burn.
Join me next time for our adventures in Russia’s Far East!