Crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway: Day 1

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On The 1st of March, I left at 4 PM on my first train, #56, for my first night, to PERM. The train was full, not a berth free, these people were travelling to anywhere from the next stop to Vladivostok, and I shared my “cubicle” with a middle-aged man and woman, and a hugely tall 30 year old guy, all very sullen. As I boarded I thought, Oh my god, what am I doing here…

The young guy helped me lift my knapsack up to the top shelf over my top bunk, I could never have done it myself, but I immediately realised that now that it was up there I couldn’t reach to get anything out of it, and that I’d have to have him help me take it down again, and put it up again. I started growing very uncomfortable but the atmosphere got a bit lighter as people settled and as I struggled to get a few things out of my bag he helped me again very gallantly. It’s a small space though so everything you do is visible to all, and they all seemed very organised and me not at all, and I was starting to get quite red in the face as I could tell all eyes were on me as I pulled out my guide books and tourist stuff.

Now most people back home questioned me incessantly about the sleeping arrangement on the train. I was in fact in no way concerned about that, I can sleep pretty much anywhere and to me the idea of lying down all day and night and being free to read or write or just look out the window without having to get up to answer the phone or do the wash is total bliss.

Throughout the trip I travelled both in 2nd (Kupé) and 3d class (Platskartny), and started out with 3d, for the 2 longer legs of my journey. it’s cheaper, and I figured that when in Russia one should do as the Russians. Also I felt less intimidated by being in a large space with 54 people than in a small 4 berth compartment with, possibly, 3 large Russian men.

So, back to my sleeper…

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The 3d class, called Plastkartny, comprises 54 people sleeping in berths arranged in nine 6berth groups forming a cubicle. 2 top and 2 bottom perpendicular to the corridor, with a small table in the middle, and 2 “closing” the square on the other side of the corridor and parallel to it. Those 2 are the least comfortable as you have less privacy and the bottom one turns into a small table during the day. Also if you’re tall you can’t let your feet stick out. I had managed to book top berths for all my tickets, so as not to be disturbed and to be able to just lie down all day if I wished, and also so that people would not be sitting on my bed, as during the day, the people on top climb down and sit on the bottom berths.

Also, when on the bottom berth your luggage is under the bed, so you have to have everyone get up if you want to grab something in it, whereas on the top berth there is a shelf over you where you keep your stuff and which makes it easier to have things at hand (though it’s quite an acrobatic feat to reach it). All these little things count of course on a trip such as this one, and discovering extra little tips is part of the fun (for instance, I discovered that it’s not all that easy at age 48 to hoist myself up to the top bunk, and that most people prefer the bottom one I think for that reason)

Now the most important person in the train is your Provodnitsa. She is the woman (can be a man but I never saw one) who is in charge of your car from A to Z, checks your ticket and passport suspiciously before allowing you aboard and reigns pretty much over your life during your trip. There is one in each car and her job is also to keep the samovar full and running at all times, the samovar being in the train what the coffee machine is in an office. All day long one goes to fill one’s cups, thermos and dried noodle bowls with the constantly boiling water.

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The Provodnitsa brings you your set of sheets, pillow and cover all clean and ironed, and she lends out glasses and silverware to passengers if needed. She does favours for you if she’s not angry with you and if you are smart enough to purchase a snack from time to time that she sells in her compartment. Quite similar to a concierge in Paris, she can make your life aboard very agreeable or totally unbearable.

There is a bathroom at each end of each car, which she is supposed to keep clean and you often see her walking down the corridor with a metal pail and brush; there is a garbage bin at the opposite end of the samovar, which fills rather rapidly with empty beer bottles and which she empties at every stop. She also wakes you in the morning or in the middle of the night before your stop, and lets you know how
long you can wander away at the various stations (stops are between 5 and 30 minutes but you should always check with her and never go by the schedule).

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There is an electronic information sign at the end of most cars telling you what car number you are in, the time (Moscow time, I’ll go over that later on) and temperature in the car. It was usually between 22 and 25°C (71 to 77 °F) and even went up to 28 (82°F) one day, so needless to say people are in T shirts. A red or green light also tells you if the lavatory is occupied. The Provodnitsa locks the toilet ½ hour before and ½ hour after each stop (as the toilets dump directly onto the tracks).

I know you are wondering about the toilet, well, I may disappoint you but those on the train and in general everywhere I went were reasonably clean, and yes there was toilet paper almost everywhere, though in some public toilets you take a few sheets as you pay the lady at the entrance. I must say that much of the time I found the toilets cleaner than in France… OK, enough on that subject (though it is not a minor point on a 16 day trip)

Once on the train ALL Russians immediately make themselves very comfortable. They fold up their (usually long, fur) coat and put it in a bag, place their large chapkas on the upper shelf and change into sweat-pants and a T shirts, and most importantly slip on plastic flip-flops. All their normal clothes are neatly stored away under the bunk or overhead. I of course did the same, and aware that it was best to dress down if I wanted to mix, I wore an old pair of sweat-pants, a Tshirt and flip-flops which they smiled at as if to say “she knows the ways”.

They also immediately pull out their provisions and lay them out on the table, as well as their cup and tea. They are super organised, have everything at hand, and even the kids I saw were all well behaved and seemed to know what was expected of them.

I saw no travellers at any time in the restaurant car. I don’t understand how they do any business, though they usually have a full menu and even karaoke equipment. I had a meal once in one, figuring that it was the right thing to do, and never went back (though I did try once because I needed to get away from an annoying old woman but the waitress told me they weren’t serving -at dinner time… ). Mostly people use the restaurant car just to buy drinks or potato chips or such. You want to overt your eyes from the messy kitchen to the right, and in fact you generally want to keep away from the dining car where they seem as a rule not to want you.

So on my first day, this is how it went, and it went pretty much the same way each time.

I get on the train, manage to hoist my bag up to the top helped by some young guy who speaks to me and to whom I answer the usual “Ya nye gavariou pa rouski” (I don’t speak Russian). Then I add a couple of “Izvinitie’s” to say sorry for knocking into everyone with my boots, not knowing how to climb onto the top berth, dropping my map etc…

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After an hour or so, the Providnitsa comes in and asks again for my passport and gives out bed linen to any newcomers, and talks to me again, and again I must answer “Nie Panimaou”, I don’t understand. This is usually the moment that some traveller decides to help me out, as they now feel they “know” me, and when the Providnitsa has left, that person asks me where I am from, I say France, all at ear distance stare, and they ask me the ONE question I got from EVERYONE: You’re not alone are you? and then when I say yes, they stare disapprovingly and ask WHY?

I explain I’m travelling across Russia, as a tourist. Here most men grumble and look away, finding the whole thing ridiculous, while the women start to look fascinated. I hear the word “Journalistka” said among them, I say no, “vacation”, and add “because I love Russia”, which I noticed wins me a few points. They ask if I have a family, I pull out photos of Hubert, Pierre, and Mom and Dad (sorry guys…). They love this and pass them around, other people usually have joined in at this point from other cubicles, and the women now keep saying something to the effect of “she has a husband at home, and she is travelling alone!” Several women, after several hours (this happened four times) came up to me and congratulated me, gave me a religious icon (a little plastic card with a saint) or chocolate or something. The men go on grunting, and a few times I heard from a few people the word “cachmar”, which I understood as it’s the same word as in French, “nightmare”.

But usually after this most people are extremely kind and helpful with me, some men continue to avoid me, but in particular the women look at me as if I were a saint and keep congratulating me, want to see my guidebooks, can’t believe the name of their town (when they live on the Trans-Siberian line) is in it, I tell them (as well I can) what it says, they love it, and I explain as well I can that there are kilometre signs on the side of the road during the entire trip and that my book tells me everything about the places we pass. This they find not only incredible but totally ridiculous, and I can tell they are all kindly making fun of me when I keep looking at my book to check what kilometre we are at.

Though at first the people were frankly cold and impatient, there was a very clear change when they realised I was here because I was truly interested in Russia. My mediocre Russian was more than they could speak in English, and they were rather amazed I did know any at all. Once we started talking it’s as if they were different people; they opened up and showed they cared, tended to my comfort and tried to help out with whatever I didn’t understand. Their personality switched completely and I was rather thrown each time.

We then share each other’s provisions, usually tea and black bread and pickles, they love my exotic ginger and herbal teas, I do my best to avoid their sausages, most of them have chicken or smoked fish in tired looking plastic containers that sit unrefrigerated for several hours or even days and I am rather afraid of being sick on the train, so I motion to my stomach and make a face and they leave me alone. No one at any time tried to make me drink vodka or anything for that matter, and no one forced anything on me. I say this as the Russians seem to have the reputation of drinking masses of vodka on the train and of stubbornly pushing anyone they meet to do so with them.

The Providnitsa, seeing that I am accepted by the group, usually warms to me and allows me to use her electric socket for my camera battery. When the train stops for 20 or 30 minutes, the smokers get off and I usually get off as well, either to put my post cards in the mailbox or to buy something on the platform from the women who sell snacks, or just to take pictures.

My great fear is that when crossing the street from the station to the mailbox I may slip on the ice and fall and miss the train when it leaves, so I always carry my passport and train ticket and some money in the inside pocket of my jacket just in case. My other great fear is having my camera confiscated by the police – Militzia – as they have told me several times that I am not allowed to take pictures at the train stations, which I do anyway. Once I was photographing a man selling fish and I sort of mocked the cop, saying, “even a picture of the fish is forbidden?”, and he said yes, so I climbed on the train and took a picture of him behind the curtain, just to get back at him…

Train stations, even in small towns, are busy places, you sense both in the train and in the stations that train travelling is a big part of Russian life (and literature). There are old steam engines lying around (you’d love it Dad), and trains stopped often on the opposite side of the track. So when you get off, if you don’t leave enough time, you could have a train that moved in blocking access to yours and you have to walk all the way around it (walk, not run, because of the ice), and those extra 5 minutes can make you miss your train… The Providnitsa usually forewarns you, but she was always warning me about something and I never really knew if it was about not catching cold or if she is saying that the train would leave 5 minutes earlier than on the schedule.

At 9 or 10 PM the lights would go out, and I read with my little head light (thanks Josh). I’d wake up at each stop during the night and take pictures of the stations, that was my big thing, to take a pictures of EVERY station, they are all different, and I loved them all.

On that first trip the woman on the bottom berth grew very fond of me and questioned me several times about my reason for getting off at Perm (which is not a very pretty city). I had wanted to avoid saying that I intended to visit the gulag, as I figured they wouldn’t be too happy about that, but I finally told her, and she called it the man’s attention. Both of them gave that quite a bit of thought and spoke about it, they seemed very vaguely aware that there was a gulag there to visit, and I pulled out my article from Le Monde to show them. They were extremely impressed that a French paper had written an entire page about it. I then pushed my luck to tell her about my further destinations, namely the stop I was planning in Birobidzhan, the Autonomous Jewish Region, as it tickled my curiosity to see how she would react. I said I had read about that too and was interested in going to see it for myself.

I know this will sound a bit immodest on my part, but I truly could read in her expression that something had hit her, she was realizing that you can just decide you want to do something and do it, alone, decide to go somewhere and go there. Somehow, when words are missing, something happens in the expression on people’s faces and I could read what she was feeling. She was the first of several middle aged women whom I had this experience with, and it was extremely unexpected and touching. I had intended learning about Russia and myself during this trip, and in fact I was also bringing them something, a part of my Western world.

An older man came to sit down with us, questioned me about Gerard Depardieu, Jean Paul Belmondo and the Bastille. He was so sweet and sort of stuck by me for the entire evening. He kept going up to people and telling them about me, and he asked if he could wake me to say goodbye as he was getting off at 5 in the morning, at Kirov. I motioned sure, wake me, I don’t mind. At 5 when the train stopped, I guess he was too shy to wake me, but I woke up and jumped down, pulled my boots on and ran to the door. There was a queue of people lining up to descend, and he was near the door and I couldn’t get by, so I called to him and he looked at me over all the heads and the look on his face was so proud and pleased – the fact that I had got up and was coming out to say goodbye to him, that I cared about him -he looked so touched, and it was early and I was tired and a bit lost, and I had to keep from crying. I made my way to him and gave him a kiss on the cheek and he gave me the flashy plastic battery-operated flowers he had bought for his wife on the platform the night before. A moment I will remember (though I did leave the plastic flowers behind)

In the middle of the night I ran into trouble when, trying to see out the window as we were to cross the Volga, I pulled the shade slightly to peep behind it and the entire shade came rolling up with a clang. It didn’t wake anyone, but I was sure they would all awake the next morning when the sun rose and understand it was I who had wanted to see out the window to take pictures with my stupid camera. I felt like a little girl and desperately tried to pull the shade down again but I couldn’t without waking the guy beneath. I started laughing at the situation, couldn’t stop myself and laughed myself to sleep feeling like a silly little child.

To Be Continued…

Meanwhile you can browse my Photo Gallery

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  • http://castlehearttimes.blogspot.com Dani Heart

    I am so intrigued by your travels and I am enjoying living vicariously through your words. :) ty

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  • joan federman

    Helene, Thank you so much for including me in your travel description. I loved reading Day 1. It is written with humor, just the right amount of detail for me to get a strong sense of what the experience was for you. I love your comments on your personal feelings, your honesty and willingness to be persoanlly revealing. I also love your descriptions of your interactions with people on the train.

    I love your humility and self-effacing style.

    I look forward to reading more,

    Love, ~ Joan

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  • Annabeth Karson

    Yay! So cool to read and see the photos. Love the page.

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  • Janet Angell

    Helene

    Congratulations on taking the road less travelled! It must be amazing to experience that road trip. We are all rooting for you here. Hope you have a wonderful trip and come to visit me in California for your next adventure. Love, your “Sista” in California.

    Janet Angell

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