Thursday, April 16, 2015

Strangers on a Train

My stay in Novosibirsk was brief—one day was long enough to ascertain that Siberia’s largest city is also its least attractive. So after a performance of “The Queen of Spades” at the Novosibirsk Opera, I changed into my “train outfit” (which I am going to burn at the end of this trip, or maybe even next week), and dashed off to catch an overnight train to Krasnoyarsk.

My planned route (I’m at the fourth star on the map)

I found my way to my compartment, where a woman was fast asleep in one of the lower beds and a guy was eating instant noodles in one of the upper beds.

“Hello,” he said, his English completely devoid of any Russian accent.

It was the first time I’d heard anything but Russian on the train, so it took me a second to fight off the automatic zdravstvuyte. Once I found the proper English greeting, I learned that my new compartment mate was a Dutchman named Robin.* He was taking the train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia, and had already been on the train for two days straight. Like me, he had yet to cross paths with any other foreigners, but since he didn’t speak any Russian he was especially grateful for some English-speaking company. We began chatting, and it soon came out that he was something of a beer aficionado who hopes to open his own microbrewery someday. I asked him what he thought of Russian beer, but he still hadn’t tried it.

“What?! Let’s go buy beers in the dining car,” I suggested.

He looked at me in surprise. “You mean you can leave the car?” 

As I led him from one railway coach to the next, I felt like I was going to more or less blow his mind when I introduced him to the wonders of the dining car (although he was already fairly blown away by the novelty of leaving Car 5). But when I tried the door, it was locked. It seemed that the dining car had closed at midnight and we were too late. I tried to see if a porter would sell me some beer, but they just shook their heads disdainfully and reminded me that they don’t peddle pivo.

Incidentally, there was beer in my compartment on the prior train ride

We returned to our compartment in defeat, where we found our remaining travel mate blinking herself awake. This was Lyubov, a recently retired schoolteacher of Tatar origin who lives in Khanty-Mansiysk (an oil boom town to the north). She had just come from Omsk, where she’d been visiting her daughter and frequenting cat shows, and was now going to Krasnoyarsk to visit her sister for two weeks. The three of us stayed up chatting in a mix of Russian and English, and shared Dutch candy care of Robin and Kazakh chocolate care of Lyubov. I, uselessly, had nothing American to contribute since I destroyed the Cadbury mini-eggs I brought back from LA long before my trip started.

Before I left Moscow I had worried I might get lonely traveling solo for a month, but I am finding that there are plenty of strangers who are eager to open up to a random foreigner. There was Tatiana, who was so friendly that she even kissed the cranky porters on the cheek; Roman, a military officer who asked such interesting and in-depth questions about American culture and politics that I felt bad about my linguistically inadequate answers; and Artem, a mid-20s engineer who wants to leave Russia and was disappointed that I didn’t share his intense dislike of the Motherland. I guess Dima was right when he said before I left, “Russians don’t need therapists—we’ll tell anyone who will listen about our problems.”

*Hi, Robin! Hope you made it safely to Listvyanka and finally got to enjoy that shower!

Bridge over the Yenisei River (Krasnoyarsk)

Obligatory Lenin shot (Krasnoyarsk)

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