Irkutsk to Vladivostok: Love and the End of the Line

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I’m admiring the view of the forest rolling by in the late morning when Don lurches down the corridor,
“I can’t…do it…anymore…I’ve got to get out!” he slurs terribly.
It turns out his new cabin-mate is a young guy with a bag full of vodka bottles who is determined to drink his way through them between here and Vladivostok. Don has had vodka for breakfast and morning tea already. It’s now working towards lunchtime.
“He’s a gangster or mafia or something, that’s what he says, he just wants…more vodka….all the time”, Don explains, shaking his head slowly from side to side in incomprehension.
“But…the plant…little Nastya..it’s really important. This kind of plant is like symbolic of Russian families or something. It’s like it grows like a family.”
He falters to a stop, unclear exactly what to say.
“Come down and meet him.”
On meeting his new friend, we’re immediately required to join him for a couple of rounds of vodka. He does indeed happily tell us he’s in the mafia and that he’s a gangster. We don’t understand anything more about the plant when he tries to explain it to us. I think he just wants people to drink with and pass the time. We soon move to the next wagon and James and David’s cabin. James is off somewhere looking for his shoes, apparently they’ve disappeared overnight. David also reveals James has been trying to crack onto the Russian girl, Anna, in the next cabin. He’d been sitting in with the whole family for a while this morning trying to ingratiate himself. Later he spent some time reading pickup lines from a phrasebook that she largely didn’t seem to understand. We tell David about James’ session with Tatiana last night and he bursts out,
“I can’t believe he’s English. He’s English and he’s over here giving all of us a bad name.”
“He’s not that bad”, consoles Lari, “Really, he’s sweet and harmless, you’re just stressed from sitting in the train for this long and his madness is pushing you over the edge.”
David nods slowly and adds,
“I’ve told him where his shoes probably are already, I’m not going to tell him again.”
As if on cue James sticks his head in the door,
“Have you seen my shoes? They’re not here, they’re lost, I don’t have any shoes.”
“You mean those cute sequinned ones Tatiana gave you James?” I ask innocently.
“No no…I need my real shoes so I can take those back to her and I want to be able to get off the train and have a walk today”.
He walks off mumbling to himself as David buries his head in the book again.
“First long stop is in the next hour by the way”, David announces and we all bristle with enthusiasm at the thought of escaping the increasingly small train.

James and Anna

We chat and decide what we’re going to try and find on the platform so we can use the fifteen minutes to the greatest effect. James arrives back half an hour later saying he’s been searching the train for his beloved shoes.
“Have you Australians hidden them? I know you’d think that was funny, but it isn’t. I don’t have shoes. So if you have them, just put them where I can find them.”
He looks at the three of us suspiciously for a few moments.
“It is a good idea James, so when you find them, let us know and we’ll be sure to steal them off you and hide them”, I generously offer.
He frowns and considers that for a while,
“You do have them don’t you!”
I point next to him and call out pantomime style,
“They’re BEHIND YOU!”
He actually turns to check and we all giggle.
“I know you have them!”
“Where did you last see them on your feet?” Lari asks helpfully. He considers this conundrum deeply for a half a minute.
“This morning, when I went…for a walk…next door.”
“Is it possible they’re next door James?”, she asks gently.
“No..I had them after that”, he sputters.
“You know these guidebooks warn you about Russians trying to get you drunk and steal things. They should warn you about Australians instead!”
He glowers at us all for a long moment then walks off. David bursts out laughing as he offers around some beers.

A station stopover for food and fun

Long before the train arrives at the long stop, we’re all waiting eagerly in the exit passageway. It seems most of the people on the train are doing the same thing. We almost leap off before the provodnika puts the stairs down, but then stroll around happily in the sunlight. Don and Lari head for a table that appears to have cooked food on it and I head for a table with a few enormous cakes on it. I’m immediately reminded of Yana’s cake fetish and I wonder if I can send her one somehow. I stroll from one end to the other along the platform and notice our fireman and pharmacist promenading arm in arm. She’s holding a parasol and they look like landed gentry from another age. Everyone is starting to return with small containers of cooked food, meat, rice and potato in a tomato sauce of some kind. I’m not hungry yet and decide I’ll wait for one of the later ones. James comes hobbling along the platform barefoot, being scalded by the hot tarmac surface. His hair hangs curled and sweaty around his face and his glasses frame two increasingly desperate looking eyes. He is holding an ice-cream and is eating it determinedly as he joins the queue to reboard the train.

Station food

“So you haven’t found them yet?” Don asks nonchalantly as James steps awkwardly from foot to foot to stay comfortable. He doesn’t answer, just shakes his head and climbs the stairs.

 

We are sitting in the cabin with everyone just finishing eating the fresh food when James makes his grand discovery.
“There they are! They’re here!”, he proclaims ecstatically standing in the door way to the next cabin. David bangs his head with his book.
“I told him three hours ago they would be there.”
It’s also where Lari suggested they would be. David calmly folds the corner of the page, closes the trans-siberian book and disappears for a twenty minute walk from one end of the train to the other. I don’t think they tell you about these moments in those books either. James is standing talking into the next cabin,
“You stole my shoes!” He exclaims jokingly as Anna hands them to him. She looks shocked and shakes her head. She’s young enough to understand some English, but without the confidence to speak. He takes them back and comes back into his cabin to put them on. We sit and talk and joke for a few hours, David returns feeling much better after his walk, then manages to engage the 17 year old, little Yana, in conversation standing in the corridor. As I stroll back to my cabin to fetch my camera for one of the landmarks we’re about to pass, I notice that with the aid of his phrase book he’s trying out pickup lines; much to her amusement. I can’t believe he’s using the James method already on this sweet girl and appears to be making it work better than James can. I pass Don’s cabin and drop in for a drink with our lone gangster. I find him swaying gently from

Local produce

side to side and eating a sausage with two other Russians and we share a round or two together. On my return from my mission I pass David my beginner’s Russian dictionary with a wink, it has a lot more useful words and phrases and the two of them remain together while we keep James occupied in the cabin.

The train approaches a ten minute stop and I wander off the train to find some beer from one of the station shops. I’m thinking there must be some other beers out here in the Russian Far East that aren’t available anywhere else and I find them quickly. I pick a couple of bottles of Amur branded beers and another one called Three Bears. I find myself standing next to Alexei (little Dima’s Dad) who is acquiring more two litre bottles of ‘Three Bears’ beer.
“Is it good?”, I ask him in Russian.
“No. Cheap”, he replies with a broad smile. I make sure to get cold glass bottles from the fridge and pack them in a plastic bag I’ve brought along for the purpose. I finally started remembering to take bags with me to not have to buy them every time. I walk back to the platform where there is a guy who appears to be doing some kind of strange dance down the length of it. I haven’t seen him on my travels of the train before, so I assume he must be a local. After watching for a while I realise it isn’t a dance; he is so drunk he’s walking like a demented spider falling down a hill. It’s a miracle to watch him save himself time and time again from falling over by shifting his weight to his other leg or moving his foot to rescue the fall at the last moment. I retrieve my camera to try and catch the madness, but can’t get it onto video mode before he finally does lurch forward and collapse against a flag pole. He’s still sitting there as the train pulls away and I wonder if he was trying to get on it.

Russian produce

James is incredibly jealous after David keeps Yana talking and interested for so long. He wants to interrupt and we keep stopping him. He falls into deeper thinking and finally emerges with a new idea.
“I want to send Anna a note or something in Russian.”
“What do you want it to say?”, I ask.
“Ummm…something about stealing my shoes….”
“I think I can do that for you.”
James looks incredulous.
“You can write Russian?”
“Yes, well, I can write that much anyway. I’ll need to go get my dictionary though, you find some paper.”
I apologise to David and borrow my dictionary back and a few minutes later James hands me a pen and paper.
“I think it should say ‘First you steal my heart, then you steal my shoes’”, I suggest with a smile.
“Yes, I like that. How is it that you can write in Russian?”, James demands.
I explain about all the work I did before travelling as I’m searching the dictionary for the right Russian words and figuring out how to organise them. He sits back and looks amazed again. He seems consistently surprised that other people have minds of their own that may be different from his. I finish the note and hand it to him. He races next door like an excited schoolboy to hand it to the object of his affections. She takes it, reads it and smiles at him. He returns overflowing with enthusiasm and burbles to himself for a while. A few minutes later she passes back a new note and James hands it to me for translation. I puzzle over both the writing and the words, but can’t get past the opening sentence, ‘My heart beats in the next cabin for…’ Then the words are either not in my dictionary or I can’t understand the writing. I work at it for an hour without more success and then Anna announces that she is getting off at the next stop; Khabarovsk. We cross the Amur River and we all pop open the windows for a photograph session of the view, it is as beautiful as James is heartbroken. Anna’s family spend the next half hour preparing to leave and she gives him a hug and a kiss on the cheek in farewell.

The worst beer in Russia: 'Three Bears"

We get off the train in Khabarovsk to enjoy every moment of the twenty-five minute stop and wander around the station looking for a Bankomat. Since you can only use cash on trains, the last two and a half days haven taken their toll – especially when we keep spending four hundred roubles a pop on bottles of vodka. We still have enough money between the three of us, but some extra would be helpful. Either we’re blind or they have hidden them well, but nobody finds one – it must be the only train station without a series of Bankomats just inside the doors. We manage to console ourselves with the rather outstanding view of the city we are rewarded with outside the station. We are at the top of a hill and there is a large open square that frames the city sprawling below us and green hills rolling into the distance. There’s a small bakery stand setup in the square so we acquire some piroghi and from them and ice cream from women back on the platform. For the remainder of the stop we bask in the warm sunshine of another beautiful summer day in the Russian Far East. The time flies too quickly and we reboard the train for the final leg into Vladivostok. There will be one more fifteen minute stop around one thirty in the morning and we’re planning to get off the train then to celebrate before going to sleep.

Lari decides we had better start writing down some of James’ better sentences of the last couple of days to record them for posterity. He hovers around unsure what to think about it.
“I’m not sure you’re recording this correctly”, he ventures as we recall his particular style with words and ideas. As if on cue he suddenly turns and watches something.
“Do you see the pretty goblin streak past?” he exclaims confusedly.
“What? What drugs are you on James and can we all please have some!”, I manage to get out between bursts of giggling.
Lari is writing furiously,
“Got that one!” she confirms.
“Why is it only I can see the goblin?” James mumbles mournfully.
We are beyond laughter now and tears are streaming down my face in this crazy minute. We can’t believe he’s saved this moment to reveal his complete craziness. At that moment a young girl wearing a hooded lycra outfit races past the door and down the corridor.
“It’s not a baby, it’s a Russian imp”, advises James, following the child’s progress down the wagon.
The reality of the goblin only makes it funnier somehow and I have to sit down and get my breath back as Lari records his words of wisdom.

It’s late afternoon, two of our provodnitsas have run out of vodka and there are less and less groups of Russians drinking. Supplies have run short and we don’t arrive in Vladivostok until tomorrow morning. Don launches on a mission through a few wagons and I ask the provodnika of James’ wagon. He says he can get us a bottle and we hand over some cash and wait for him to return. We’re half expecting some new scam from him, but he returns ten minutes later with another bottle. We note what direction he walked, knowing there must be another provodnika with vodka still. He invites us into the cabin where he’s sitting with the day shift provodnitsa from the next wagon. We offer some shots around out of politeness and he produces some very fresh cucumber and some salt to go with it. Myself, Don and James sit down with the two Russians and we finish the bottle and a few cucumbers. James is looking shaky again, but we buy some more beers from the provodnika and head back to the cabin.

The cabin fever within the train village is growing and spreading. At each of the long stops today I think everyone on the train got off and walked around; including all the staff. We are feeling more unduly stressed after two and a half days crammed into cabins and passageways. We’ve distracted ourselves magnificently, written stories, drunk, spoken and partied with the Russians and even Lari has had her shine on for most of the journey; but the approaching end feels too far away. I can’t imagine how David is feeling after being here for a week and I regret continuously not making the stop at Khabarovsk. This goes some way to explaining how Don returns with two bottles of something described as cognac on the label, but tastes like paint stripper with a touch of arsenic. It’s all the provodnika had left, so he got it anyway. By this time we’re too far gone and accept anything, but this stuff is truly vile. Even smelling it makes you think twice. We decide to share it around with the Lone Gangster and Alexei who have both run dry.
“Samogon” Alexei announces, his face contorting in a foul grimace. That makes more sense to us and the taste reminds us of the one vile shot of ‘whisky’ we had in Novosibirsk at the dacha with Vortex Yulia. It’s like that, only worse; a lower quality version strictly for the inveterate drinkerss. After we finish the two small bottles, our taste for adventure is somewhat diminished as our stomachs rebel. We eat our last noodle bowls to try and take the edge off it and watch the sunset through the windows.

The three Australians celebrate...

Don, James and I go for a walk along the train to see if we can find Tatiana again and we take turns in filming the experience of walking through all the wagons and doorways. The constant clicking of the tracks under us, passing open cabins filled with Russian families sharing their time, passing provodnikas sitting alone in their cabins watching the world go by, drifting through the smoking places at the end of each carriage and exchanging a quick smile and hello with everyone, greeting people we’ve stopped to talk with before and smiling at everyone else. I think Tatiana must have got off the train already, because we hit the platzcart carriage without any sign of her or the people we spent that night with. It’s coming up to midnight now and we want another bottle of vodka to celebrate our last long stop before Vladivostok. Don heads off on the mission with the last of our money and I return with James to his cabin, picking up Lari along the way who grabbed a couple of hours of sleep.

Don and Dhugal celebrating the end

James looking suave and sophisicated

Don returns with three bottles of champagne. At first I’m a little disappointed, but then I realise we’re celebrating the end of the Trans-Siberian journey. We will not get on another train now and we’ve almost arrived at the end of our 10,000 kilometre trek across Russia. We open one bottle and pour it into glasses to toast the journey. The wait for the final stop seems to take no time at all as we’re all buoyed on a new wave of enthusiasm. We exit the train laughing together carrying two bottles and we open one, popping the cork straight over the roof of the train. Our provodnitsa smiles happily at our enthusiasm and I end up drinking straight from the bottle. This results in a nose full of champagne bubbles, but I don’t care. Lari jumps into the moment, knocking some back too and we all cavort around the platform. We feel like prisoners about to be released as much as travellers about to reach the end of a long and amazing journey.

We board the train again and return to the cabin to finish the champagne. James reveals he is only staying in Vladivostok for twelve hours before returning on the train leaving that night. He will then travel all the way back to Moscow. We can’t believe this plan and we think it will probably end with him being even crazier than he already is. David is actually happy to wander around the city with him during the day. He’s watched us with James for days now and seems much more able to see him as a walking mad experience you can immensely enjoy sharing a journey withs. He will only stay in town for a day himself before catching a ferry across to Japan. We tell James he’s a lunatic for doing the return trip without a break and ask if he knows some good psychiatric hospitals in England. We split up to sleep for a few hours before our early morning arrival. I think I’ve rarely felt so happy to sleep, but the realisation that the whole journey is almost finished is only just dawning on me. I also realise the growing feeling that I must return to Russia has become one of wanting to just stay here.

Lari celebrates sipping champagne from a glass

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