Irkutsk to Vladivostok: A Fireman, a Pharmacist and James

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Dima at large


Lari and I find ourselves sharing our cabin with a middle aged couple and Don is by himself in another cabin with an array of Russians.  Leaving Irkutsk comes as a relief and a release from the unseen pressure.  I didn’t realise how much that black cloud was weighing on me until it’s removed.  This doesn’t stop me from wanting to return to Lake Baikal, the feelings at Bolshie Koti was undeniably good, if challenging; the feeling of being checked and tested by something unseen is very unusual.  I’d still like to return there and stay for longer.  Listvyanka is another story, I suspect the problem there is that it only exists for tourists.  As a foreign tourist you become an easy target for enterprising locals with no money and nothing to lose.  During the day you’re fine; the police were permanently on patrol in pairs.  I didn’t, however, have the same feeling that last evening in Listvyanka when the hysteria hit me.

The constant movement of the train with the clicking across the track junctions becomes hypnotic quickly as we return to life in the mobile village.  Our cabin companions are friendly, but speak no English.  I retrieve my Russian dictionary to make things easier and we begin to communicate using it and a lot of charades.  They are both middle aged, he is a fireman and she is a pharmacist; and they are very much in love.  He has rough, worn features and a huge craggy nose; such a Russian man. He seems to balance her finely structured face with an almost porcelain doll complexion.  They spend every moment together, normally touching and they often sleep together on the single bunk.  They feel like a teenage couple meeting secretly away from their parents and you can see they’re enjoying every minute of the experience.  They’re also on their way to Vladivostok for a holiday, so we will be with them for the whole three days.  I wander off to make up a noodle bowl for lunch and run into a curious man at the samovar.  He has a strange animal intensity in his eyes, but he speaks a little English and he says that he’s actually a driver of the very trains we’re on today.  He is also on his summer holiday and is going to Vladivostok with a friend of his.  A middle aged woman joins us as I’m explaining where I’m from and what I’m doing in Russia and the three of us talk for a few minutes as our tea and noodles soak up the hot water.  They are both amazed an Australian is visiting their country and both bid me welcome and ask how I’m enjoying Russia.  A huge smile grows on my face as flashes of memory of the trip flood through my mind.  How can I explain all of that simply?  Where do you even start?

“I love Russia and the Russian people”, I manage to say, in Russian.
They both look suitably proud of their country and are very happy that I love it too.
“I wish our government … love Russian people”, ventures the women in broken English.
The man looks sideways at her as I nod seriously and agree.
“I don’t like the Russian government, only the people and the beautiful country”, I add in equally broken Russian while gesturing at the countryside passing by the windows.
All three of us turn to admire the forest view for a long moment before we break up and return to our cabins.  I finish my lunch as Don and Lari are still talking to our new friends, sharing music and lunch before all of us feel tired and sleep away half the afternoon.

Dima at play

I awake feeling sweat on my body and wander to the toilet to wash my face with cold water to try and cool down.  I discover that the air-conditioner isn’t working very well, if at all, anywhere in our wagon.  My ablutions complete, I stroll down the passageway to find Don sitting on one of the small seats that line the corridor chatting with one of the Russian kids.  Don is teaching him English and as I approach the boy looks up at me, smiles and waves as he greets me,
“Hello.”
“Hello”, I return.
“Hello”, ventures the young boy, waving crazily and I smile and shake his hand.
The three of us chat for a while and I discover his name is Dima, he’s ten years old, only speaks Russian and seems completely baffled that we don’t understand him.  We are so much older than him but he knows so much more than us and enjoys this surprise immensely; it feels like he takes us under his wing.  From the door of a nearby cabin a woman who looks about thirty is watching the scene with a broad smile on her face.  I smile and wave at her and she smiles back before stepping inside again.  I assume it must be his mother and he confirms this as he climbs to stand on the seat to look out of the window more easily.  He reaches to open the narrow top section and I help him to get some cool air inside the wagon.  As if on cue, the provodnitsa appears at the other end of the cabin and starts opening the other windows.  By the time she finishes opening two, everyone in the passageway finishes the job for her and stand with their faces immersed in the cool breeze.

The countryside we’re passing appears to be almost virgin temperate forest with teasing glimpses through the undergrowth of the south edge of Lake Baikal .  We regularly pass villages of log cabins scattered amongst the trees and pass through small train stations and stops along the way.  We are on the Number 2 train, the Rossiya, for the final leg of the journey and we only stop at major towns and cities.  The general quality of the train is high, toilets are clean and working well, nowhere is crowded and most people are happily letting the day roll by drinking and talking while the children play in the passageways.  Lari appears with a dazed look on her face and suggests the dining car might have working air-conditioning.  Don and I quickly agree and the three of us say goodbye to Dima as we make our way down the train hoping for relief from the heat.

We quickly realise we have no idea which way the dining car is on this train and I’ve just chosen a random direction.  This train also appears to have more carriages on it than normal as we pass through four without any sign of a dining car.  Reaching the end of the fifth Don decides it must be the other way, so we return.  After returning to our wagon, we travel five wagons in the other direction before suddenly emerging into a ‘platzcart’.  The open bunks have blankets and sheets strewn in every direction and the people have gathered in groups drinking beer and vodka, playing card games and laughter permeates the room.  If it wasn’t so hot, it’d be a great place to visit.  Most of them are men are wearing only shorts or tracksuit pants and the three of us suddenly feel very out of place.  We look at each other and turn around, deciding that it wouldn’t be the other side of these wagons and we must have been right the first time.  So we march back across ten wagons and find ourselves suddenly following a familiar figure; James the obsessive Englishman is on the train with us.

I pass by him and he doesn’t really look up, I glance over my shoulder and then Don smiles and passes him too.  We both come to a stop in front of him at the next doorway and pretend we can’t open the door.  We don’t turn around and wait for him to notice he isn’t walking anymore.  As he appears ready to say something, Lari taps him on the shoulder and says hello.  He is awoken from his reverie by a woman’s voice, we figure he must be in paradise by now, so Don and I turn around and greet him loudly.
“James mate!  Got a new girlfriend yet?”
“So you are….I thought I saw you in the station…maybe you were…I am…looking here…”, he stumbles, trying to remember how to speak again.
“We’re on the way to the dining car for some air-conditioning, come along”, I invite him earnestly.
He looks baffled for a moment, then decides to join the group and we find the dining car two wagons later.  We settle quickly and Lari asks James how he went in Irkutsk while we wait for some vodka and orange juice to be delivered.

“I stayed at this hostel and this American guy was there and this Dutch girl and she was so beautiful and I wanted to talk to her but I found out she’s on this train too, so I didn’t much and then went outside and these two Russian girls found me and took me on a tour of the city, it was fun”, he rambles in typical style.
“So did you have to pay these women?”, I ask impishly.
“Oh no, they just noticed me and they spoke English and it was fun, we saw stuff and they were so friendly.”
“So did you ask to stay with them that night James?”, Don asks pointedly.
James’ eyes widen in shock at the thought.
“Oh nothing like that, no, no…they were nice…but I wanted to…do you think I should have asked?  What if they said yes?  It could have been good.”
Lari glowers at the two of us as James continues relentlessly.
“..they were beautiful and I think they must have liked me, I could have been in there, but you know, what can I really say to them. ‘Hi, I’m James, let’s go to your place for rampant sex now’.”
The three Australians burst out laughing, much to James’ consternation.

“What? Why do you always laugh at me?  What’s funny? ..there’s nothing funny there, just these beautiful Russian women being nice to me and showing me the city.……What did you do there?” he demands.
We tell him about our experiences and he listens for a short while before drifting into thought again and suddenly asks,
“Should I have taken them to a club or something then? I’d do the dancing thing with them, but whenever I go to a club I jiggle around near a girl I might fancy, then at the end of the night she asks ‘Are you gay?’.”
“Maybe you should just ask her, find out the answer and then you know what she thinks.  Trying to second guess everything is really silly, you’ll never know that way.  You can just ask her”, Lari tries to help him.
“But how do I know when to ask and what to say?  These girls already liked me, so maybe I didn’t have to ask or maybe I do but what would I ask her?”
“You could always ask her for a blowjob?” Don suggests helpfully.
“Or a hummer, that can make a good blowjob better James”, I offer.
“What’s a hummer?” asks James, looking pointedly at Lari.
She puts on her best school teacher look and voice and explains slowly for him.
“It’s where a girl…..hums whilst giving you a blowjob.”
“Oh”.  James looks down and thoughtful for a while as Don pours us all some vodka.
We share a shot, toasting hummers, before he continues.
“Would you really want her blowing raspberries on the end of your JohnThomas?”, he pauses to make a long loud raspberry.
“Does that do it for you, does it?” he challenges.
We all burst out laughing, at least this time he’s actually intending to be funny.
“No James”, Lari begins again in her school teacher voice, “she just hums a tune so her lips and mouth are vibrating gently.”
Don and I on queue both begin staring lovingly out the window into space sighing to ourselves.
“Stop it!”, Lari cautions us.
“What?!” we both exclaim, hurt.
James looks slowly at each of us, knowing something is happening, but not sure what.
“But how would I know if I liked that?” he continues.
“You’ll just have to ask the next girl you meet really nicely”, I suggest as both Don and I look pointedly at Lari.
Sadly he’s not really listening.

“I suppose you could practise on yourself first”, he thinks aloud as Don pours another round.
“I think we’ve found the source of James’ concerns”, I proclaim.
“Indeed, any man that can test that on himself has no real need of women”, Don adds, raising a glass.
“To auto-eroticism!”, he toasts and Lari smirks while finishing the glass.
“So how would I know which girl to ask, I mean I’ve got to like her, but not every woman does it for me and the one’s who talk to me generally aren’t interested”, he continues unabated.
“How do you know if you haven’t asked them?” Lari points out.  
He looks thoughtful for a few moments then thinks aloud again,
“You’re supposed to wait until you’ve got a stiffy don’t you? That’s what I’m doing wrong isn’t it?”  
Don and I laugh like crazed hyenas as Lari tries to keep some kind of composure.
“Well, that would indicate you’re at least interested James”, she advises sagely.
“But…what do you like in a woman James, apart from yourself?” I venture curiously.
“I mean, do you prefer bunny boilers or you like them normal?” Don continues.
“Or maybe you’re a serial killer; you’re the right profile for it, white, middle class, above average intelligence and no idea with women.  Maybe that’s your angle, you just play innocent until she’s your captive and you throw her savagely onto the kitchen table”, I extemporise until Lari kicks me under the table.
“What? Maybe? Is a bunny boiler the crazy ones who ring you ten times every hour?” James wonders aloud.
“Yes, you mean you’ve never called a girl that often? It shows you really care!” I advise.
“It’s true, stalking is the ultimate way to say ‘I love you’”, Don confirms.  
James finally realises we may not be entirely serious and looks Lari up and down before announcing.
“You’re not the serial killer type shag. I don’t want to bend you over the sink or anything.”  
Lari recovers  from laughing just enough to thank him,
“I’m glad I’m not your type James, I think that makes me feel much happier on the train.”
“It’s not real you know!”, he says suddenly before trying to explain,
“the sleazy man in me is Slavic, the gentleman is English”.  

James learns about women as Lari learns about Japan


We decide some soup would go well with vodka and I find Georgian Kharcho on the menu and make James get one as well.
“I studied handwriting analysis at university, let me see what you’re writing”, announces James suddenly.  
Lari, curious, finishes the line she’s writing in our shared book and passes it to him.  He looks across and down it, tracing his finger across sections before announcing,
“You’re a creative type, but very controlled, you like boundaries and order as much as fun and parties.  Maybe more.”  
Lari turns her head to the side, considering it.
“Not bad, maybe it’s right.  What are you looking at exactly to say that?”  
James shows her the shape and angles of her lettering, where it crosses lines and where it follows them.
“What about you? Is there something from you in here?” James asks me, holding the book.
“Most of it is me, look at this one”, I take the book and turn to the St Petersburg story I’d written on the train during that long night trip to Moscow.  
He studies it for a while then announces,
“You’re intelligent and directed, but you have a strong dark side”.  
He looks at me with new eyes a few times while deciding this.  I agree with him and wonder how much he’s really getting from the writing and how much is coming from the time he spent with us on the train to Irkutsk.  I always bring some cynicism to anyone claiming to be able to tell personality from one information source.  I’ve always thought most people are more complex than that, but maybe I just want them to be.  James wants an example of Don’s writing, but we dont have any.  We finish the vodka and acquire another bottle to take with us.  James invites us back to his cabin to meet David, another English guy who’s currently travelling the Trans-Siberian in one long seven day journey.

He’s in his early twenties, with short dark hair and an average build.  He has an evil sense of humour and enjoys it every time Don and I prod James for some more madness.  We all sit down and just after introductions a woman pushing a trolley full of beer comes past.  I flag her down and we all acquire some freshly chilled beers to see out the early evening.  Don puts aside the bottle of vodka for later.  James then wanders off to try and find the Dutch girl he’s spoken of and we chat with David for a while.  We mostly sympathise with him having to spend three days around James.  He means well, but his one track mind makes for a monotopic conversation; unless you take our approach of leading him astray.  I decide to head back to our wagon to check on everything and grab the portable charger for my mobile phone.  I want to make sure the phone is always online in case Nataliya, our host in Vladivostok, needs to talk to us.  For most of the length of the Trans-Siberian line we have some signal, it would fade for ten minutes and spring back into life as we pass the next station or town.  On my way back, I notice James in a cabin sitting next to a beautiful woman.  I nod hello and remember where he is so I can go and watch him destroy himself in front of her later.  I think the word is ‘schadenfreude’.

I’m passing a cabin on the way back when a voice calls out.  It’s my train driver friend from the Samovar sitting next to a huge, intense looking man with eyes that seem ready and capable of hating the world.  Across from them in the cabin are a young couple in their early twenties looking a little nervous, but generally comfortable with this pair of imposing guys.  He holds up a bottle of vodka and waves for me to sit down.  I can never resist hospitality like this.  I sit next to the large, intense guy and settle in as the train driver pours a shot for me.  I look at the two of them as I take the glass and know what’s required of me.  I toast our future and down the glass without showing the slightest twitch of expression on my face.  I stay like that for a few seconds then smile and thank them for the vodka.  Both of them immediately nod approvingly at my stoic performance and offer me another shot.  I say it’s their turn, I can’t jump ahead of them and shots were then poured for everyone.  We all toast our health and down it.  The train driver hands me a container with some kind of sliced fish in it and offers a biscuit with it.  
“What is it?”, I ask, in Russian.  
He grins before saying,“Nerpa”.  
I laugh and happily grab some with a biscuit and proclaim,
“Nerpa is delicious”.  
He smiles broadly and hands me the packet and I read that it’s really smoked Omul.  He then has to go to the toilet, leaving me with the large crazy guy.  He looks at me, leans close with his eyes filled with the energy of anger and hate and tells me he’s a fascist.  He has swastika tattoos on his arm, some kind of military tattoo on his chest and on a necklace is a decorated swastika emblem.  He holds it out for me to see, I grab it and turn it over before he snatches it back and pushes my hand away.  I feel my spirits drop and wonder what polite thing I can possibly say to a Russian fascist.  This is another of those situations that guide books tend to neglect in preparing you for.  What I actually do is share one more shot with them after the driver returns, then I leave, explaining that my friends are waiting for me.

I find Don and Lari in the cabin with James and the Dutch girl.  The cabin is filled with people, those sitting along the top bunks are speaking Russian and those on the bottom, English.  We’re passing bottles of vodka in every direction and I waste no time in telling them about our fascist friend.  The look in his eyes is still bothering me, like he essentially hates the world and is quite happy to eliminate everyone and everything in it.  It’s a hate beyond reason, pure and simple.  
“I passed the same guy in the corridor and he sent chills down my spine”, Lari mentions. 
“I’m trying not to speak to them too much either”, Don agrees.  
“That young couple seem to have drawn the short straw in this deal”, I add.  
I know the train driver was largely joking, but the other guy didn’t seem to be in on it.  Lari decides she’s going to go to sleep and have a good day tomorrow on the train.
“I want to get off at one of the longer stops and try the meals the old women serve on the platform”, she explains.  
Don has finished the bottle of vodka now and wanders off soon afterwards to collapse for the evening.  The cabin begins to empty and I find myself a part of the Russian speaking group on the lower bunks as the guys from the upper bunks come down to join us.
One of them reaches into his bag and pulls out a bottle of vodka with an AK-47 branding.  He smiles and asks,
“You would like some? It strong and…..”, he mimes a gun blowing your head off.  
I laugh and reply,
“Da da da da da… Tochna”.  
He loves my Russian and I join the rounds of shots that follow.
Suddenly I’m being escorted down the passageway by a nervous James and two Russian guys wearing only tracksuit pants; one of them is the guy who’d produced the vodka.  I have no idea how I got here, but I know I’m transcendently drunk.  In the moment of clarity I realise I didn’t eat anything for dinner and will now suffer terribly for that poor decision.  We arrive at my cabin door and I lurch forward into the bed as Lari assures James I’ll be fine.  I reach for one of the 1.5 litre bottles of water next to the bed and drain it in one long draught before turning over to collapse into a messy coma.

Sunset over the Taiga

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