Irkutsk to Vladivostok: Anger and Flirtation


I wander outside and check the timetable to discover we have a longer stop coming up in half an hour, it will be for about ten minutes. I tell everyone and we agree to go and provision ourselves with cheap beer from a pavement shop at the stop. So we’re all waiting in the passageway with the four people who are leaving the train here. Don and I exit on the beer mission and Lari, David and James are looking for food. There are some women with tables full of produce and cooked meals right at our door, but Don and I have to walk about fifty metres down the platform to find the first shop. By this time it has a fair old queue, so we resign ourselves to a wait; constantly looking at the train and checking our watches. We have less than two minutes to go when we finally hit the front of the line and, as we order, most of the queue disappears from behind us. We exit with armfuls of beer cans and scuttle towards the train. We look despairingly up the platform, then recognise another provodnitsa we’ve said hello to, standing in the door of the wagon we’re next to. We make a beeline for her and she waves us onboard quickly before folding the stairs behind us. The train starts moving before we’re even halfway up the corridor of the wagon. The close call still gives us a light adrenaline rush and we happily make our way back to our wagon with our haul. We’re met at the end of the wagon by a very anxious looking Lari and James who sigh and smile to see the pair of us.
“We thought you’d missed it! We couldn’t see you anywhere when the train started moving and the provodnitsa can’t do anything to stop the train”. We look at each other with renewed relief and hand them some beers.
“That was a close one, but mission accomplished. How did you guys go?”
“Oh we did alright too”, Lari says with a smile.

On our return to David and James’ cabin we discover that they have acquired a new Russian inhabitant at this stop. His name’s Ravil and he’s an engineer who speaks slow but understandable English. He’s quick to show us the pictures of his wife and little baby that he’s now travelling to meet. He’ll only be on the train for a short time, until just before one o’clock in the morning, so about five hours. We share a beer with him along with the haul of home cooked dinners in trays (potato, chicken and a tomato sauce), cakes and piroghi that the other guys had acquired. Ravil stays with us for one beer, then disappears somewhere for a few hours. In the meantime we start prodding James about his new girlfriend. He’d actually managed to talk for a few minutes with Anna, who is the lovely twenty-two year old girl with her family in the next cabin. She speaks no English, but James has been using a phrasebook to try and communicate his deep, unchangeable and undying lust. We’d declared them a couple on his return, much to his consternation. In the meantime another young girl in the wagon, who’s seventeen, has caught David’s attention. He’s working with Don on the problem of whether there’s anything underneath the figure hugging sleeping shirt she’s wearing. Well, parading in, is probably a more accurate word as she’s thoroughly enjoying the attention of all the men in the wagon; something which is annoying her father a lot. He pokes his head out of his cabin every few minutes to check that no-one has abducted his baby girl and uses the moment to scowl a warning at every man in view.

It must have been around eleven thirty when Ravil returns more than a little drunk and with the same look in his eyes we’d found in his namesake on the train into Irkutsk. Without the largely calming influence of Dima the English professor, this Ravil is determined to get Lari alone into the cabin. We’re strung along the corridor watching the lights of towns, stations and crossings coming and going while Lari continues trying to bring some sensibility to James’ world. Ravil grabs Lari’s arm and pulls her violently towards him.
“I want to…talk with you in here…now”, he rasps in drunken, broken English.
“She doesn’t want to”, interjects James as Lari wrenches her wrist free. Don steps between her and Ravil.
“Hey, so what kind of engineer are you exactly?” he asks, looking for a distraction.
“I want to talk to her”, Ravil continues, “to you”, he concludes angrily, fixing his eyes on her with savage intent.
Lari points to the ring on his finger,
“What about her? She is meeting you soon, you can wait an hour for your wife”, she reminds him.
He surges forward, trying to get around Don who makes it very difficult for him. He slips past Don, who slips past him in return, making for a strange dance down the corridor. I step in front of Ravil then turn sideways in the corridor, placing my arms on the rail next to the window to block him completely. Don steps back to look at Alexei who has just come from our wagon.
“I think she’s happier talking out here, what do you want to say?” I ask Ravil, sounding as reasonable as I can.
“She will…I want to….her….talk her”, he manages, grabbing my wrists and trying to pull them from the rail, all the while staring at Lari. He soon realises I’m big enough and strong enough to stop him indefinitely and as I stare into his eyes I can feel him considering whether to start a real fight. He would probably beat the crap out of me, but the police on the train will return the favour at some length and then I’ll be pushing to have him charged with everything under the sun. He seems to make a decision and turns to point at Alexei,
“He’s the bastard, don’t trust him, he’s no good.”
Alexei has no idea what’s said about him in English, but knows the tone and is beginning to get angry as well. Don swarms down the corridor to lead him back into his cabin and away from Ravil.

Ravil then dives into his cabin and tells me to come with him. He sits near the window on one side as I sit near the door on the other. He then lurches forward to slam the door and lock it. I suddenly feel very threatened and nervous. He sits back near the window and tries to form a few sentences, none of which come out right. There’s something about a game and money and I later wonder if he’s been playing cards or something with Alexei and lost some money.
“I want talk Lari”, he repeats more and more desperately.
“It’s not going to happen. She is happy talking to James now. Are you ready to get off the train and meet your wife yet?” I ask. He waves dismissively and I can still feel him wanting to fight with someone.
“Lie down. Rest a while. You want to be ready for your wife”, I advise him as I stand up and unlock the door.
He looks at me opening the door then hangs his head and stares at the floor. I close the door behind me and stand in the passageway controlling his only pathway to Lari. Alexei has returned to his normal, affable self talking with Don, while James has switched straight back into talking to Lari about how enigmatic and mysterious women are. For the next hour we’re all stressed as Ravil returns every fifteen minutes to try again. I think he starts sobering up a little along the way as he becomes more and more reasonable. It’s with some relief that we watch him reunite with his family on the platform as our train rolls off into the Russian Far East.

Lari wants to sleep now, which leaves myself, Don and James wandering the length of the train in search of the provodnitsa in wagon seven. The nightlife on the train is quite a different creature to the day life, another element of the village atmosphere. At night the vodka and beers come out in abundance, the day is often used for sleep and the occasional beer, but at night the party is on and roaming. Our normal strategy is to acquire a bottle of vodka and then walk through wagons until we find a cabin with people awake, talking and drinking. One simple word, “Vodka?” accompanied by the bottle in someone’s hand was enough to guarantee a warm welcome and some seating. I don’t know how many groups of Russians we meet this way, sometimes we would only see them this one time, other times we would keep finding them and enjoy a few fine sessions. Right now we’re still searching for our next bottle, when we stumble on a lone, cute, blonde Russian girl; Tatiana. She turns out to speak pretty good English and the three of us share a cigarette and the obligatory introductory conversations. She informs us that we’re headed into wagon thirteen and perhaps need to consider another direction to find wagon seven. We thank her for her kind advice and disappear into the endless passageway back the way we’d come. The train pulls up for a stop soon afterwards, so we join the swarm of people leaving the train to stand on the platform drinking and smoking. This lets us move quickly up five wagons without having to go through the effort of opening and closing all the doors. I pass by our fascist friends on the way and wave hello as I race to keep up with the other two.

The reason this provodnitsa is so important is that we’ve discovered she has a cache of vodka bottles we can avail ourselves of pretty well twenty-four hours a day. They are not really allowed to do this and the black market price is high for Russia, but not so different from Australian prices. She’s mightily pleased to see us again and I’m sure we paid for all her luxuriues that year. Armed with the fresh bottle we begin the search for the first cabin party still continuing into the night. We’ve passed through a few wagons already during the hunt and we’re surprised at how unsuccessful the standard plan is working for us tonight. Normally we only get one wagon away from our own at almost any time of day to find the next cabin party. Imagine our surprise then, when we walk straight back into Tatiana. This time she’s joined by another guy from her wagon and they’re chatting in Russian when we arrive. By this stage of the night, James has been with us through a bottle of vodka and a few beers, which is about a share of a bottle of vodka and two beers more than he’s used to. So he’s feeling particularly warm and happy; which is probably why he hasn’t noticed that he’s forgotten to wear shoes on the metal floors of the train. The wagons have carpets, but these small smoking places are just bare, cold metal; which is especially cold at this time of night. Tatiana takes pity on the poor man and gives him her sequinned, flat shoes and dives into the wagon to fetch herself another pair. James looks off into the distance and then announces,
“My body feels like it’s floating.”
Naturally, this causes him to open the heavy inter-wagon door and dance with it. Tatiana is greeted with some astonishingly adept pole dancing moves along the edge of the door when her surprised face returns to the room. She laughs and poses with him for some photos.

So we ask if they have some glasses so we can share the vodka. The guy introduces himself as Valentin, finishes his cigarette and disappears into the wagon. Over the next few minutes we’re joined by another girl, an incredibly drunk Russian guy and his friend. Finally Valentin comes back with four glasses. It seems the smoker’s place has just become the next mobile train party. The incredibly drunk man turns out to be holding a Russian sausage, which he passes around as we take shots. The girl has some cucumber and that’s passed around too. We share vodka in true Russian style between us all and laugh and joke our way through a hundred kilometres of the Siberian tundra. We empty the bottle and Tatiana doesn’t want to drink more vodka, she wants beer. So it’s agreed that Tatiana and Don will go to find some more drinks. The other girl says she has to get off the train in a few hours and wants to try and sleep. She’s a nurse and is returning to work after her holiday and she has to be back at work at midday today. The intrepid duo return successfully in record time and just in time for another sausage, more cucumber and some dried fish retrieved by the others.

We stay and chat for a while and a few shots before we end up moving into their cabin in the train to continue the party. This means waking up the poor nurse, who joins us for another couple of rounds anyway. The noise of drunken revelry attracts an angry provodnika who tells everyone to shut up and go to sleep. We all shuffle back to the smoker’s place and continue. James and I find ourselves singing for a while, much to Tatiana’s amusement as she flirts outrageously with all the men.
“I could make good money off all of you to pay for my holiday”, she jokes.
James slowly produces a hundred rouble note,
“What do I get for this?” he asks hopefully.
She kisses him on the cheek and says,
“You will need a lot more than that”, before sighing coquettishly. I reach in my pocket and add another note to the ‘get James some action’ fund. Tatiana giggles and says,
“Maybe I will do you for free you cute English boy.”
James looks unconcerned either way and thrusts the two notes towards her. Don then drops his glass, smashing it into tiny shards on the metal floor. I bend over to help clean it up and manage to smash the glass that I put in my back pocket against the wall. To think I’d put that there for safekeeping. The two of us burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation as James starts poledancing with the door again,
“Your turn now baby…..c’mon Tatiana, show us your moves”, he implores her while grinding against the door.
“I think you are too good for me”, she says shaking her head, “maybe I will give you money instead.”
We’ve finished all the vodka again and Don and I decide we had better get James back to safety before he slashes his feet on the glass. We thank Tatiana for her shoes and tell James to take them off.
“Bring them back tomorrow my sweetie”, she tells him with another gentle kiss and ushers him through the door.
“You look after my English husband”, she advises us sternly, but with a smile.
“Of course we will”, I promise, “You just work on paying his dowry.”
“Isn’t it the woman who has a dowry?” she asks, confused.
“Yes” I reply emphatically and she bursts out laughing before kissing me goodbye.

We shuffle James down the corridor and to his room, advising him to drink a lot of water immediately. He frowns and starts looking for it as we return to sleep while the night is cooling our poor wagon. The air-conditioning in the wagon never recovers during our trip, which is one reason we spend so much time in James and David’s cabin. Don and I say our goodnights and as I shamble back to my cabin I wonder what the next day could possibly hold for us. This is already as long as we had ever spent on the train in a single leg and we’re all beginning to feel cabin fever. David was the worse, since he’s doing the whole week long trip in one run. The experience of being on the train had worn out for him a few thousand kilometres earlier. I find myself wishing I’d had time to make the stop in Khabarovsk. We will pass through there tomorrow afternoon and a stop would be a welcome relief from the train village life. I drink a litre of water before pulling the sheet over me and drift off into weird dreams of Russian prostitutes marrying eccentric English academics.


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