TP 1: The hairdressers from Kirov.
I set about making up my bed with the sheets which were provided in plastic wrap. I got halfway around tucking in the bottom sheet before I realised that it was way too short: either a crazy Russian sheet design or I had it on the wrong way around. As I wondered which, my hairdresser-from-Kirov friend (in very good English) told me to step aside and completed my bed making herself, haven taken pity on my ineptitude. Thanks! I learned from the girls that it is much harder for young women to obtain travel visas than it is for men. Apparently the government imagines them all to be potential mail-order brides, and doesn’t want to lose them to the European men who (the government imagines) obviously desire them as such.
TP 2: The thug.
At half past midnight on the first night, a bear of a man became my new neighbour. He had a couple big bags which he threw under his bed with fury. He sat there facing me, glowering at the train ticket in his hands, his bicep tattoos pulsing. I’m not talking about angst here- there was real fight in his eyes. Perhaps he only looked the look, but I wasn’t about to enquire. I went back to bed nervously. After just three hours he got off and I slept the rest of the night much more soundly.
TP 3: The babushka.
She replaced the thug. I think we may be in for the long haul together. She’s 50ish, round with a stern face that breaks into genuine smiles occasionally. Our first meal together- from her bag out came bread, hard boiled eggs, salami, honey and salt. She insisted I join her. I thanked her with my quintessentially British embarrassed smile. I took some bread and salami. She pushed the eggs in front of me. I couldn’t refuse although I can’t say they were top of my culinary wish list post Middle East. Also, they hadn’t been in the fridge! Well, I ate it, dipped in some salt. I’ll let you know how it goes.
TP 4: The Russian army.
Why does everything intimidating on this train happen when I don’t have my trousers on? At 2.10 last night, after a couple hours sleep, we arrived in Yekaterinburg, and the Red army invaded. Our carriage had been three quarters empty- not any more! On they marched, bulky winter uniforms, bulging kit packs and all, filling every empty seat. It took them an hour of stripping to undergarments (army issue too) and making beds before they finally settled down. When they did, in the top bunk opposite mine, the young soldier pulled out a crumpled envelope. It was a letter from his beloved, complete with a 5×7 photograph (taken up almost exclusively by her face). I have become a fly on the wall in this rolling Russian barracks!
TP 5: Rema.
We arrived at Ishim at 10.00, the troops were having breakfast and I was feeling cooped up and in need of air, so I burst onto the platform in my T-shirt. It was close to 0 degrees but I’d only be out for a few minutes. As I stretched, up came a heavily lipsticked blond lady who began an animated monologue in Russian. I didn’t know the words but it was easy to understand. It went: “what are you doing outside in this?! [she tugged at my shirt] You’ll catch cold you silly boy! Go put some clothes on!” She slapped my arm. It was all done in good humour though. I shrugged and told her I came from Scotland. She laughed and launched into another tirade. I think I made a new friend. Might catch up with her next platform, let her do some more reprimanding.
TP 6: The smoker.
I was walking through the train. At the end of each carriage there is a door onto the ‘porch’ where the exterior doors to the platform are on either side, and another door which leads to the next carriage via bouncing metal platforms inbetween. The porch area is where smoking is permitted. The intercarriage doors are automatic: press the green button and they slide open. I had been up and down the train a couple times with no problems, but this time I stepped out onto the bouncing twilight zone (you look down and can watch the sleepers whizzing by!) and the button for entry into the next carriage was not lit up green, and did not open the door. As I stood fiddling, the door behind me closed so that I was completely ‘outside’ the train. I could still open it and go back, but not forwards. (I didn’t want to go back the way I came because I was sort of running away from somebody, but that’s another story.) Nothing I did opened the door. I tried pulling and yanking at it, to no avail. I thought I knew what the issue was- I had seen from inside the doors sometimes a switch had to be flicked to ‘automatic’ before the door-open button worked (Russian design fail?), so all I needed was someone to come along and flick the switch. Within a couple minutes someone did, three someones in fact. The first man did not register me, just took up a spot to the left of my door out of my sight, and lit up his fag. The woman – the smoker – entered next. She took up her place directly facing me, leant back against the wall, and lit up. A second man walked past her, giving the slightly desperate stranded boy through the window no more than a cursory glance, and stood to my right, again out of my sight. So – reasonably I presumed – I thought “great! People! I’ll be out in no time”. (I checked behind me to see that the button on the other door had timed out, so there was no longer the option of going back.) I smiled at the smoker expectantly. Nothing happened. She wasn’t looking away. I fixed her gaze and she gazed back, with mild hostility and overwhelming vacancy. I wondered if she could have not realised I would quite like her help? I stood in a space a couple of feet wide, being thrown side to side at the train’s whims, waving at her. I doubt it. The frequency of my waving increased. She blew smoke towards my face. It curled up the window which separated us. I tired and took a break from gesticulating “if you just flick that switch, the door will open, I’ll get out of your face, and you can return to your carcinogenic pastime.” More smoke filled the air between us. I felt frustration rise with my incredulity; it wasn’t that she was failing to help; she wasn’t trying! I tried banging on the door. Ha! I could barely hear the sound over the train. I waited another few minutes more calmly then, seeing her cigarette burn to its butt, began a new frantic attempt, not exactly frightened but certainly not keen on being left stuck here. At last something happened. It wasn’t her though; the younger man to her left stepped up. Began fiddling and within a minute, the door was open. As I pushed through them I muttered a thank you to the man whilst giving the smoker a look which I hope said (I’ll admit it’s a lot to convey with one look) “Do not think I give thanks to you. I stand here incredulous at your indifference to my predicament”. I tucked myself firmly back into my window seat-bed (number 19) and I did not venture anywhere for the rest of the afternoon.
TP 7: The hammer men.
When we stop at main stations, railway workers in orange jackets walk up and down the train swinging long metal mallots with satisfying clangs against select parts of the train’s undercarriage. It is a comical sight. I guess they are checking that bolts are still tight after so many millions of revolutions a day. Pleased to know you’re keeping my train safe guys. And it looks like fun work, too!
With the momentum of the railroad on your side, 76 hours passes in no time.