In Siberia aboard the Baikalo-Amourskaya-Magistral: Chapter 2

Elena at the bouffet

I am aboard the train to Severobaikalsk, a city on the extreme north coast of the lake, to which I travel from Moscow on the only direct train, the number 92, whose advantage is to switch directly, without my having to change trains, onto the BAM – the other Trans-Siberian.

For those of you who are looking at a map, while the main Trans-Siberian runs south of the lake, the BAM, once at Taichet (a former transit camp for prisoners en route to the gulags), heads north to join the Pacific coast at Sovetskaya Gavan after crossing – among other rivers – the powerful Angara, the only river to take its course in the Baikal into which 300 rivers flow, and then the beautifully-named Lena.This Baikalo-Amourskaya-Magistra, or BAM, was not named after the river Amour (which, sorry to disappoint you, has nothing to do with the French word). In fact Count Amourski Mouraviov was one of the great explorers and governors of Siberia and he gave his name to a number of sites, among which
the river.

Train WindowConstruction of the BAM railway began in 1933 only to end in 1990. The government was divided between pro and anti BAM believers and work on the railway came to an end dozens of times. All those who worked on the railroad were not deportees; there was also a huge population of engineers who were paid large bonuses for settling down in these Eastern lands, and who once accustomed to them were not about to give up such advantages. Because of those bonuses, hundreds of requests swarmed in for each available position but the government chose only the very best applicants and hired the others by force for hard labor, even if they were in fact engineers or trained technicians. Thus a population of highly qualified men was also sent out to work under inhuman conditions side by side with deportees and German or Japanese war prisoners, forming a workforce of very disparate origins that participated in building the famous BAM.

To this day the people who grew up in the area are called the Children of the BAM, as if their life remained in a sort of class of its own.

One would naturally figure that these 3000 km (1,950 miles) of railway at the end of the world, from Taichet to the Pacific Ocean were built, at the price of millions of lost or shattered lives, to link cities so far from all civilization. But I was to find out that these cities were in fact built by the BAM workers… Apparently, as the saying goes, the BAM is a railway that runs from nowhere to nowhere, via nowhere.

Plastkart Compartment

My Plastkart compartment
(mothers tie a sheet to the top bunk to protect their babies from the light)

My number 92 train ends its course in Severobaikalsk which it reaches four days and four nights after having left Moscow. Other trains that run the BAM route continue all the way to the Pacific Ocean, but I had chosen the un-picturesque city of Severobaikalsk because it is far from the beaten path. Its rather unattractive immediate coast is understandingly less touristic and I read that there are hardly more than 90 Westerners who visit the region each year. I will be the 91st.

Severbaikalsk, built in a virgin forest for the railway workers, is where I hoped to find someone to drive me to the opposite side of the lake, my idea being to visit the wilderness of the Barguzin region on the east coast. I was soon to be disillusioned, I will never make it to Barguzin, but we’ll get to that later on, for now, back to our train.

Given that the higher the number the less comfortable and fast the train is, and that the widely-known Rassia bears the number 1, you can easily deduce that my number 92 is hardly spic and span. In fact, it is downright rundown, or should I say somewhat filthy and my Provodnitsa is clad in an out-of-style, vaguely mini woolen skirt and tired boots. But she is cheerful, works hard and does as best she can with a mop as filthy as the floor she continuously cleans after each treading of muddy boots.

No rug runs along the corridor on my train this time, no electronic sign shows a red light when the toilet is occupied. One has to go see for oneself, and in fact after having lauded the lavatories aboard Russian trains, it seemed I had had it easy on my last trip. In this train the lavatories are a mess, you don’t quite know where to hang your towel after your morning’s minimal washing-up, you roll up the bottom of your sweat-pants to avoid them touching the dubious ground and you wonder if you’re better off washing your hands before going to the toilet or after having touched the faucet to… wash your hands.

Train Sink

Train Sink

But I am not one to complain, I even manage on day 3 to wash my hair with the trickle of cold water in order to arrive nice and clean in Severobaikalsk (I mean after all, how many times in a lifetime do you get to step down in a place with a name such as that!)

All these details are familiar to you now, you know what my travel companions look like. Among them are groups of soldiers who stand by twos or threes to smoke between the cars and whom I try to avoid contact with. In spite of their lighthearted, jovial ways they aren’t quite as cool as they look and show no interest for those who come from a different world than theirs. I have read about these young boys who are drafted, about how harsh and downright brutal their year in the army will prove to be, and about those mothers who are ready to lie, bribe and pretty much do anything to keep their sons from having to live through such an ordeal. I think the moon would seem closer to them than the life of luxury and freedom that you and I lead.

And you are familiar as well with the gentle rocking of the train and the never-ending time that flows so slowly by. My train has kind of grown on you hasn’t it?…

So I am now ready to introduce you to the bouffiet (buffet) where I hang out quite a bit of the time during this trip. Train number 92, which lacks the stature for a proper restoran, boasts asimple buffiet comprising a tiny counter and two long tables for 6 persons each. People who don’t know each-other therefore share the same table which is of course fine with me. It’s less formal than a restoran, less intimidating for a touristka such as me.I’ve adopted the bouffiet as a home away from home, I must admit that my car smells of cold tobacco and that I am glad to have a place to
breath away from the old men who occupy the bunks next to mine. Not that I mind those old men, who are in fact very pleasant, it’s just that I’ve become quite friendly with the waitress at the bouffiet and she very kindly brings me my pomidori i tchai c molokom (tomato-cucumber-pepper salad and tea with milk). She goes as far as beckoning over the provodnitsa from another car whose brother-in-law lives in Severobaikalsk and could possibly rent me a room, she wants to call him then and there and I have a hard time talking her out of it. In short, at the bouffiet I am happy as an omul in the Baikal.

The Bouffiet

The Bouffiet

For most travelers the bouffiet is out of bounds, they simply never set foot there, their budget does not include such expenses. As I return to my bunk the first evening I am questioned on what I had to eat and drink, and when one of the guys across from me starts putting on his sweater, the other guy asks him “are you getting off at the next stop?” and he answers “niet, I’m going to the
bouffiet”, at which they all burst out laughing as if it’s the funniest joke they ever heard.

For those who did not read Elena in Siberia part 1, plastkart, or the 3d class car is an open sleeper compartment comprising 58 bunks and where the least one could say is that you are not alone.
Over each of these cars, just as over the second class cars called Kupé with 4-bed compartments, reigns the Provodnitsa who guards, cleans and, secondarily, is at the service of her passengers. On returning from my first trip in 2010 I had gone to the screening of a documentary about the train in which an entire class of student provodnitsa sat in a classroom before their teacher as
she went over the essentials of their duty and explained that one of their tasks was to say hello and even greet the passengers on board with a smile. The students nodded and took notes, clearly such an attitude was not something that came naturally.

Provodnitsa

Provodnitsa

Their job represents something similar to that of an air hostess back in the sixties; it’s a way for these people, mostly women (on all the trains I took I only saw one male provodnik which is why I mostly use the term her), to get away from their hometown and see other parts of their vast country, maybe even meet someone wealthier than they. Back in the Soviet days it was a luxury to be able to travel, as normal people were not authorized to do so. Consequently there is an element of prestige to such a position and for many it’s considered a possible opening to a more enviable life. Entrance exams are tough, many fail, and once on the job they are re-assessed all along their career.

One of the key activities of the provodnista is entering in the register anything worth noting, any particular problem that arises during the trip or any comment about a passenger or fellow worker. A station master can request to see the register at major stops and can board the train to check what is going on in the cars. Like everywhere in Russia, there is equally a notebook which the
provodnitsa must present to passengers who wish to file their complaints or comments.

Throughout the entire trip an inspector is liable to step aboard and remain for whatever time he judges necessary in order to evaluate the provodnista’s work, the cleanliness of the car and how the register is being held. He or she can reprimand or reward the provodnista whose career will be affected in consequence. Such controls are very frequent and I now better understand the state of constant anxiousness I found these women to be prone to. On a train in the western world, the conductor is chief on board, captain of the ship, whereas here, even if it is she who rules over her car, she is herself being watched and I now see as only natural the rigidity born from this constant state of insecurity.

Travelling with us aboard each train is also a mechanic who equally holds a register in which he must note any anomaly or repairs he has attended to. Given the extreme weather conditions, he is often called on to fix doors or windows or to address problems due to the frozen equipment. When the train leaves a station, each provodnitsa stands on the foldaway step of her car and waves acolor flag to signal to the driver that he can go. Orange if all is well, black if there is a problem. In the documentary I saw, one of them waves a black flag to make the train wait for a passenger
running along the platform to jump on. On returning to Moscow she received a formal reprimand for this.

blind couple

The blind couple

On my second day, I think it was after leaving Omsk, as I glance around my compartment to take a look at any new passengers who have boarded, I notice a young man wearing dark glasses. He looks slightly simple-minded, dressed in a pair of beige pants and a short-sleeved shirt, the shirt tucked tight into his pants and the pants pulled up high almost under his armpits, the belt holding them tightly and his backside and stomach showing rather unattractively. He looks like Pierre when he plays the village idiot… The guy has a white cane and
is travelling with a young woman who looks just as blind as he but who apparently is dealing with the organization and settling them both into their
bunks. Both of them are no older than 21 or 22. Easy to stare at them, they can’t see me.

And what do you know, the next moment, feeling around in his bag, the guy pulls out what looks surprisingly like a gun and sets it on the table in front of him, keeping his hand on it as if to
avoid someone taking it from him. I think to myself that he may be slightly retarded and is carrying a toy pistol around. But the thing is weighty, I am totally ignorant about firearms but somehow I can tell that this thing is not fake. This guy is blind, he is in a car with 58 people, he is sitting practically opposite me and he is carrying a gun. I must be dreaming. The couple occupies the 2 bunks parallel to the corridor, those that one usually avoids to book when buying a ticket as they are in the passageway. I can watch them without having to hardly stretch my neck. As I do, I wonder if the other passengers are as bemused as I.

I often stand in the “smoking area” (freezing unlit space at each end of the car where there is an ashtray on the wall and where smoking is allowed) where I can take pictures without peoplestaring. Here I had met a slightly intoxicated guy who follows me around and seeks opportunities to talk to me. As his French is limited to a loud “Camrades please be seated”, a phrase he learnt in school and which he is evidently very proud of, and as he is too intoxicated to take the time to figure out my meager Russian, communication between us is tedious. He’s a nice person but a bit of a pain. On the platform when I step down he always seems to be standing next to me and again, he happens to be there, at the bouffiet, sipping vodka as I walk in. The screw-cap of his mini bottle of vodka is stuck and he struggles to open it so I am mighty proud to take o

looking out the window

« Comrades please be seated », looking out the window

ut my Swiss knife and do it for him (I’ll take this moment to instruct you on a basic of the Russian language: voda means water, vodka means little water, therefore… vodka).

At this point in the bouffiet steps in another (slightly less) intoxicated gentleman who considers himself more apt to converse with a person of my stature and who pushes “Comrades please be seated” from the bench to take his place. This new man begins all his sentences with a loud “Madame”, and when he can think of nothing more to say to me he just barks from time to time another “Madame” to get me to raise my eyes and look at him. He takes me under his wing, introduces me to the various people who come and go including those he doesn’t. He now orders the first of what will be a series of tiny pitchers of vodka. No, I don’t drink with him, I stick to my Tchai c molokom.

In Moscow I had found an antique shop that sells old postcards; I was tired of the small choice of identically hideous cards from the usual tourist stands. This was a dingy, three-story curiosity shop packed from floor to ceiling with all sorts of bric-à-brac. But as much as I am a fan of all things Russian, I found nothing of interest aside these old postcards. These stores cater mostly to old men nostalgic of the Soviet era or to collectors seeking a very specific item. Boheman-Bourgeois such as I don’t frequent such places, apparently the vintage craze has not yet made it here.

my friend « Madame! »

My friend « Madame! »

I have held on to my very favorite old postcard of all, but when I show it to my “Madame” he actually pulls it from my grasp, takes my pen and writes in his shaky hand his own address on indicating that it is he I should send it to. Darn.

In fact, postcards, photos, printed pictures have kept their special quality here. I remember my amazement, in ’67, when my family arrived in Paris from the US, at discovering the “bon point” in school. When a child had a good grade she would be told to get up and go the metal box containing a collection of little picture cards featuring an animal, a flower, a mushroom or some such image of no interest. The little girl would walk down the aisle to fetch it under the envious gaze of the other schoolgirls. The first time I witnessed that, the well-off American in me couldn’t help but wonder “why on earth such excitement about a boring piece of paper??”

Well here in Russia this has remained true, a postcard is not just a cheap piece of paper with no value, and if this guy took the liberty of writing on mine without my permission, it’s that it was an old postcard that he saw as a sheet of thin paper, dirty-ish and even insulting. He didn’t want me to have it, he couldn’t see why I would have bought such a thing in the first place.

And just then, to my great surprise and delight, my blind, or should I say “visually impaired” couple – though I doubt the notion of politically correct has made it inside this train – make their way into the buffiet and slide their big bottoms over the bench opposite us, she facing me and he facing the destroyer of vintage postcards. Before I can utter a word he lets out, in my direction “vui frantsouzi?” (are you French?), I say Da, without trying to figure out how he knows who I am as I have not yet spoken.

He goes on to tell us that he and the girl are married and both proudly put out their hands for us to admire their wedding bands as she, a young woman with slanted eyes, chubby and cute like a five year-old, giggles mischievously. In fact she is to giggle every time she says something, with her hand in front of her face, as if every word coming out of her mouth were somehow terribly daring.
It is so charming and funny that I have an urge to take her in my arms.

He has removed his dark glasses and I can see he has no eyeballs at all, his eyelids are practically closed on a thin red line but it isn’t too disturbing once I get used to it. She is almost blind but can identify what she holds an inch away from her face. I figure she can make out shapes and that is why it is she who seems to be in charge, though she is clearly in awe at her husband who is the cleverer and more at ease of the two. They look a tad simpleminded, but that is due I think to the total lack of sophistication in their clothing, their behavior and expressions.

Pomidori salad

Pomidori salad

They each order a cabbage salad and a beer and he shares a number of tiny pitchers of vodka with my “Madame” man sitting next to me, who directs his hand for a toast after each refill and makes sure it is constantly full when the blind guy dips in his finger to check the level. Neither hardly touches their cabbage salad.

From what I can figure out they were married in January 2011, he develops computer programs for the blind and she is a student. I ask them if they speak any English, she just giggles and he answers with a strong accent “yes, very technical English only”. At this my “Madame” sets his mind on him being my interpreter and asks me questions, but the blind guy only knows computer vocabulary so we don’t get very far.

When the time comes that I feel comfortable enough with them, I ask what the story is with the “bang bang” that I saw on the table back in the sleeping car. She giggles a bit louder, her hand still in front of her face to hide it. Then from her handbag she pulls out the gun in its holster, sets it on the table, I take a picture as discretely as I can and the guy next to me is now clearly
impressed.

The blind guy explains that guns are his hobby. I don’t know if that includes shooting… I try to find out if it is loaded but as sole response I get the giggle with the hand in front and the gun goes back into her bag. When I attempt to ask if they are actually allowed to have a gun on this train, and what would happen if the police saw it, my “Madame!” gets angry with me for the first time and signals to me that I am being difficult and should be quiet. So I shut up. I’m travelling with a blind couple carrying a gun, but hey, why worry…

After an hour or so spent at the table with them I am to discover that their arsenal equally comprises a beautiful, surprisingly large knife made in Chechnya.

My blind couple walking away into the night …

My blind couple walking away into the night …

In the middle of the night, at some obscure station, my two blind lovebirds descend arm in arm onto the platform and I watch them walk away in the snow and the freezing cold, trying to imagine their life, most probably in a dingy little two room apartment in this town lost in the middle of one of the most inhospitable regions of the world. Well, at least they’re armed.

To Be Continued…

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