Friday, May 1, 2015

The Con Artist in Car 10

The second to the last leg of my journey was from Ulan-Ude to Khabarovsk, a 53 hour and 24 minute ride. This sounded less painful when I bought the ticket, though I’m not sure why. I boarded the train in Ulan-Ude bright and early on Wednesday, fresh off of three hours of sleep. When I reached my compartment, I was none too pleased to discover an old lady sprawled out in my bed.

“Excuse me,” I said, “is this spot 15?”

The old woman made a feeble attempt to sit up, revealing a face corrugated with wrinkles. “I can’t climb into the upper bed,” she said pathetically.

I’m sure this would have tugged at my heartstrings if this had been my first week in Russia, but I’ve been knocked around on the metro by a babushka or two, and I know they are stronger than they let on. This old woman might have looked like she had one foot in the grave, but I suspected her other one was ready to scissor kick me into submission.

“Lady, I paid more for a lower spot because I don’t want an upper one. I’m not going up there either.”

“But I can’t get up there. I can’t.”

This last line was delivered with such anguish that I almost cracked. But then I thought about how uncomfortable the next 53 hours would be if I were trapped in an upper berth, and I quickly got comfortable with the fact that I was a heartless monster.

“Then talk to the porter, because this is my spot.”

She groaned and made her way out to the hallway in resignation, her movements as slow as if she were underwater. I started to wonder if I had been too harsh, especially when I found her squatting in an empty bed nearby. She didn’t return until that evening, but then she was agility itself climbing up to her bed—so much for “can’t.”

After the remaining two travelers got off on the second day, the old lady pounced on the lower bed they’d vacated. That, however, was only a temporary fix. Around 9pm, a middle-aged woman got on and was greeted with the same sight that had welcomed me: the old lady “fast asleep” in her bed.

“Excuse me, ma’am, you’re in my spot.”

The old lady remained face down, pretending like she hadn’t heard a thing. She continued “sleeping” as the middle-aged woman tapped her arm, gently shook her shoulder, and even grabbed her hair to give her head a shake. The little old lady was doing such an admirable job of playing dead that I started to wonder if maybe she actually had died.

Finally, the middle-aged woman gave the old lady such a violent shake that she couldn’t feign sleep any longer. After nearly being thrown from the bed, she stumbled upright and said, “What’s going on? Where am I?”

Her assaulter gave her an exasperated sigh before saying, “You’re in my bed is where you are!”

“Oh, I had no idea!” said the old woman. But when the newcomer had her back turned, the old woman gave me a mischievous smile and a wink.

With nowhere else to go, the old woman seemed ready to turn in for the night. She started to climb up to the top bunk, but then gave an anguished cry and went toppling backwards into the hall. She lay motionless on the floor until a porter and two passengers ran over.

“What’s going on here?” barked the porter.

The old lady rubbed her elbow and tried to sit up. “I was just trying to get into my bed.”

One of the women who’d stumbled on the scene looked at the middle-aged woman and me and shook her head in disgust. She knelt down to help the old fraud up and said, “You can sleep in my compartment, ma’am. I’ll give you my bed.”

And so the old lady finally got that lower bunk she wanted, and her Oscar is probably forthcoming as well.


  1. Amazing. I'm proud of you, but also pretty sure the only person I know who could badger an old lady up to a top bunk.

  2. We just got back from a 29-hour train trip (California to Oregon) and that felt craaaazy long... good luck with your 53! : )

  3. I love this story. It would be hard to do that, but it sounds like that lady knew exactly what she was doing!

    Also that is a crazy-long trip and makes me grateful for Spanish train rides. Even the 8-hour bus to Granada doesn't sound so bad anymore.

    1. I'm definitely train traveled out for the near year or so! Maybe even until I've reached an age where I can pretend I'm too old for the lower bunks...

  4. I ran into this on a flight to Africa...a well dressed and abundantly proportioned lady used a stub from a previous flight to "prove" that she belonged in my seat so she could spread out across two seats, claiming some random discomfort. Shysters are everywhere.