Moscow to Yekaterinburg by Train

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So we’re finally aboard our first true Trans-Siberian train out of Moscow.  Yekaterinburg is about thirty hours away and we sleep long after the sun comes up.  I should take a moment to describe the main inter-city trains that run on the Trans-Siberian line.  The wagons come in different types for different budgets.  First class has two beds in a room that’s about two and half metres wide, about two metres deep and about two and a half metres high.  Second class has four beds in the same sized room, two on each side bunk style and ‘platzkart’ is open slather with small bunk beds stacked to the ceiling everywhere and first in best dressed ‘seating’ allocations.  Typically the last option is used by people when they’re young and crazy, on sporting or army trips, or for people who just can’t afford the more expensive options.  The second class wagons are the most common, typically with Russian families and holidaymakers travelling around their own country.  First class wagons are normally used by foreigners and business travellers who don’t especially want to be a part of the train communities.

The trains that run the Trans-Siberian line are little villages in their own right.  They have policemen, caretakers, cleaners, janitors, open trading, shops, pubs, cafes and a culture that belongs to the people travelling on them.  Somehow almost all the above is performed in and around everyone’s cabin.  The formal commerce on the train is the single dining car, but the provodnitsas often branch into selling food and drinks from their room.    Every wagon has its own style and atmosphere that changes with the travellers present, but is also dominated by the provodnika (male) or provodnitsa (female).  There are typically two per wagon taking turns in being awake and responsible for everything and everyone on their wagon.  They look after the samovar, clean and provision the toilets, clean the corridor in the wagon, empty the bins and organise everyone.  When you board the train they check your tickets and passport and let you wrangle your bags into your cabin.  At some point soon after, normally once the train is moving, they will appear with your sheets and pillowcase for your bed – unless you are at the train’s origin point, in which case beds are normally already made.  They may well charge you for the privilege of handing you your bedclothes; and that part isn’t optional – you can’t just use your own.  Lucky it’s less than a hundred roubles (AUD$5), so not really worth worrying about.  Consider it a tip, because at any time of the day or night they are at your service for just about anything.  They will also come and find you about an hour before you arrive at your station and advise you to get ready.  This means you pack your life back into your bags and give all the bedclothes back to them and hope you’re going to find your way to the next place you will sleep.  They keep the toilets in good condition and you can always ask them for more if the paper runs low.  The toilet floor is always covered with rubber mesh matting that means you effectively stand a centimetre above the metal floor. This is particularly good when someone has used it to have a simple shower.  We only ever found one real shower fitting on a Trans-Siberian train and that wasn’t until the last leg of the journey heading into Vladivostok.  You can always use the tap and sink to have a simple wash down if you’re feeling dirty.

2nd class cabin, now with sleeping Don

2nd class cabin, now with sleeping Don

The samovar sits outside the provodnitsa’s room.  I’m going to say provodnitsa from here on in, because the vast majority are women of all ages and varieties.  From glamour girls (unusual) to middle aged babushkas in training (common) they always lend an extra atmosphere and style to their wagon.  In any case, the samovar is the hot water service used by everyone to make tea, soup, noodles and anything else that can be created with the aid of hot water.  It does become one of the congregation points on the wagon and I share many broken conversations across the country in my terrible Russian combined with their average English.  They generally follow this format and start with them asking me a simple question:
<in Russian> “Where are you from? I’m Russian.”
Normally this is repeated a couple of times while my incredibly slow comprehension deciphers what’s being asked.
<in Russian> “I’m from Australia”, or, “I’m an Australian man.”
This is met with the obligatory raised eyebrow, incredulous smile and exclamation,
<in Russian> “Australia!”
<in Russian> “Yes.  I live in Perth.”
That exchange is inevitably followed by a long and detailed explanation of where exactly Perth is in the country and that it is bigger than all but three Russian cities.  This normally gets a good reaction once I explain it.  It’s like I’m revealing the secret location of a vast new world they’ve never considered.  Which is probably not that far from the truth.  After meeting people from many countries on different continents it is clear that Australia exists as a strange, very distant and possibly imaginary place that may, or may not, contain people to balance out the magical wildlife like Kangaroos and Koalas.  Some of the time, this conversation leads to the Russians telling me about how amazing New Zealand is and I have to inform them that they’re really talking about Australia.  Generally, my conversations with Russians at the samovar would falter at that point.  Sometimes we figure out what our professions are, sometimes I’d get to meet the whole family soon afterwards; but always we finish our noodles in peace first.

There is a small room at each end of the wagon with a huge heavy door leading into the connecting platform for the next wagon.  Between the two heavy doors are two metal plates, one attached to each wagon, that move up and down independently and provide an amusing ride at two in the morning whilst navigating the train’s nightlife.  Either side of the actual connection point between the wagons, there is a room.  One of these rooms is a clear space; the other is the smokers place.  At any time of the day or night, there will be someone in this spot enjoying a quiet cigarette.  If there isn’t, you can just wait a few minutes; at least one will always mysteriously appear.  This was one of the other primary meeting places for people travelling the Trans-Siberian.  It seems the majority of Russians smoke and you can certainly smoke pretty well anywhere in the country except inside the wagons of these trains and on Metro platforms.

On many of the trains you can’t open the window in your cabin at all.  When the air-conditioning is operating, this works out fine and they’re very comfortable.  When approaching stations that we will stop at, they turn the air-conditioning off until we are moving away from them again.  For the two minute stops, this is fine, but for the half hour ones this turns the whole wagon into a sauna.  Thankfully you could open the top section of half of the windows in the corridor, each one giving enough space for three adults to stand in them and breathe the cool, sweet air outside.   This joy would last only until the provodnitsa arrived again to order that they all be shut so the air-conditioner could work its magic.  This was a great time to disappear into the spaces between the carriages and enjoy the airflow there, since you can always open those windows.  Your other option is to show a camera to the provodnitsa and claim to be taking a photo opportunity through the open window; that normally gets you another five minutes of fresh air.

Wagon corridor, the kids and tracksuit bottomed man are standard..

Wagon corridor, the kids and tracksuit bottomed man are standard..

So sometime late on Thursday morning I find myself sitting at the table between the two lower bunks munching my way through a curious meal that had been delivered by the provodnitsa.  It features some rice with some kind of meat, bread and salad.  A bottle of water completed the breakfast set.  I have no idea if this is normal, part of the ticket, or someone’s attempt to make a little extra money on the side.  Lari was sure it would trigger them to ask us for more money, but our Russian friend helps us understand that it is a part of our ticket price; this was one reason why the provodnitsa had taken our tickets into her room the night before and looked over them at some length.  He then refuses his meal when she tries to hand it to him.  Not knowing whether to follow his example or not, I opened it and enjoyed eating the simple food.  Not amazing, but filling and stodgy; something Russian food is good for.  The open countryside passing by the window forms the perfect backdrop for the calm morning meal.  Forests give way to the occasional river and village with farmland and plains inbetween.  We pass through larger towns from time to time and stop in about half of them.  The stops are often only for a few minutes; just enough time to load and unload passengers.

Lari watches me eating for a while, then starts picking at the salad as Don slowly wakes up.  We all confer on whether or not he should eat it,
“It’s too late for me and if I get sick I promise to share the love”, I volunteer.
“Do I get your music machine setup when you die?”, Don asks expectantly.
“No.  I’m giving everything to charity.  Except my collection of hats, which goes to Lari.”
“Thanks man”, Lari says with mock happiness, wondering what she’d done to deserve them.
“Bloody favouritism”, Don mutters, “It’s because she’s a chick isn’t it?”
“Well, you have to agree her breasts are much nicer than yours, actually her body is WAY better than yours all up, but you do have longer hair happening…Donnifer”.  He scowls, then smiles and raises his middle finger pretending to scratch his nose.
“Thanks again…I think”, Lari offers as Don shrugs and eats his meal nonchalantly.
Then Don starts talking about the photos he got of himself holding large cats in Mocow.  I had seen them while transferring everything to Alisha’s laptop, so he gives Lari his camera and says,
“They’re all on there, have a look.”
Don and I then start talking about their hosts in Yekaterinburg.  Don and Lari will be Couchsurfing with a couple who live in an apartment on the edge of the city.  They seem a happy couple who have hosted people before, so they’re all looking forward to the next experience.  Lari looks up and says,
“There are no pictures of you with cats here.”
Don and I look at each other confused and Don grabs the camera back from her.  He looks focussed and baffled as he searches for them and then looks up again to announce,
“None of my pictures from Moscow are here.”
I take my turn looking at the camera in incomprehension.  The pictures finish around the time I was copying them onto Alisha’s computer.  In a flash I realise I had told the computer to ‘Move’ them instead of ‘Copy’ them.  So it was that ten year’s of IT industry experience flew pointlessly out the window of the train into the Russian countryside.

We spend the afternoon catching up on each other’s lives.  As we make some more ham and salami rolls we notice that the salami stained our hands last night, when we’d cut it with don’s pocketknife.  We wonder what’s in it that is doing that and then wonder if we really want to be eating it.  We finish it anyway.  Don and Lari lie down for a while and I start to investigate the corridor of the train.  I find a strange document posted on the wall, written in Russian.  I examine it for a long time before understanding that it’s a timetable listing when we will stop at all the stations along the way.  I notice some stops are longer or shorter and try to make sense of the place names for a while.  I then return to the cabin to find Lari sitting up and writing in her notebook.
“I’m going to get off the train at the next stop and buy some beer”, I announce suddenly.
“Okay, are you sure?  Will there be enough time?”
“I hope so.  I think I’ve understood the timetable on the wall out there.”
I only have to wait another twenty minutes before we start slowing down for the station.  I’m waiting to exit when the provodnitsa says something I don’t understand.  I smile and nod anyway, focussing on the mission at hand.  After we stop, she folds down the stairs and helps another person disembark as I race onto the platform with my heart beating fast.  If the train leaves me behind I’m going to be in a fair bit of trouble…..and I’ve read that it will do exactly that if I’m late.  I would have to find another ticket, which is the thing that scares me most out here.   They wont speak English, I won’t be able to explain very much and maybe there won’t be mobile phone reception so I can’t beg for help from a Couchsurfer either.  I feel the pressure of the risk on me as I join the queue of other people from the train lining up at a pavement shop for supplies.  I feel happier to see the provodnitsa from the next wagon directly in front of me.  I won’t take long to serve and I’m sure it should be alright.  The line takes forever as we all enjoy a little more queuing and genuine Russian service.  To make it worse the provodnitsa is stocking up on one of everything in the shop and taking a long time.  I turn to check the train more and more often, starting to think I should just give up and make a dash for it.  No.  There’s people behind me still, at least five.  Oh no.  Two people from the back of the queue give up and head for the train.  I turn back to see its my turn.  I go into overdrive, ordering six cans of Nevskoe beer and I even check that they’re cold.  I grab them all with my change in my hand and make a forced power walk back to the train.  My provodnitsa greets me with a smile and waves me onboard before folding up the stairs.  I made it.  With just one minute to spare.

I realise that I have completely failed to understand the timetable and I decide I have to spend more time studying it later.  I thought it was a fifteen minute stop and it certainly wasn’t.  I proudly pass Lari a beer on my return as I feel the adrenaline buzz wash past me.  Don wakes up just in time to receive one and I tell them about my adventure in stress.  Neither of them are ready to risk it yet.  After finishing the beer we all head for the dining wagon to see what’s on the menu.  We’d read that the written menus often bear little resemblance to what’s actually available on the day; so curiosity gets the better of us.  I munch down a rather filling meal of a chicken schnitzel with a slice of ham in it with chips and salad.  It’s like a parmiagiana, only different.  The others have similar style food, all filling, but not amazing.  Naturally we wash that down with the odd beer and a bottle of vodka.  Lari normally shares the odd shot with us and makes sure we have some orange juice nearby to drink in-between.
“So even the locals say Moscow isn’t a Russian city, it belongs to this other country”, I begin, “but what country is that? The only borders this country has is when you enter one of these cities.”
“You mean cities like London and New York don’t you?”, queries Lari.
“Yes.  And Sydney, Los Angeles, Paris, Beijing.  It’s probably every city that passes the five million mark moves its real residence into this other country.”
“It’s an odd country then”, comments Don, “No religion, no state, just everyone hurrying through their lives, trying to live them faster.”
“I don’t know about no religion”, Lari adds, “I think money is the religion, the state and the philosophy of that country.”
We all pause to consider and realise that she’s captured the essence of this country.
“Yep.  I think that’s it.  The country of money.  It has no real physical borders, but lives in the minds of the people in these cities”, I add.
“But there’s plenty of poor people there, artists, creative types, musicians who have nothing”, Lari points out.
“True, but they’re all trying to make that one hit song, write that one book and paint that one picture that will give them a meal ticket for life”, I respond.
“Not all of them”, adds Don.
“Yes, some pretend to have artistic integrity of some kind.  I bet 99% of them would throw that to the dogs if they had a chance at earning millions of dollars from one of their creative endeavours”, I continue.
“Maybe, but there’s people who live in these cities who don’t worship money, who don’t live in that country”, Lari argues.
“I suppose that’s a fair point”, I concede, “so they’re living in another country, not the country the city is in and not the country of money.  What is it?”
We all start thinking about that, trying to find a good name for it, find a way to describe the other people.

I’m trying to put my finger on it when I remember talking to a Serbian Couchsurfer who had stayed with me.  She had a fascination with all things Finnish at the time, including learning the language.  She had told me the Finnish word meaning ‘I love’ is ‘Rakastan’.  I’d burst out laughing, thinking it sounded like a country in Central Asia somewhere near Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.  We then both realised that Rakastan would be the name of the country of love and over a few days started developing a picture of how that country would be run.  Rakastan is a state of mind, not a place.  And in this moment sitting on the Trans-Siberian train I knew the answer to my own question.
“Rakastan.  That’s where these people live.”
I explain what it means and their faces turn to huge smiles.
“So what’s the country of money called?”, Don poses.
“Dollarstan”, suggests Lari.
“Greedistan “, I pose.
“Dumbfuckistan”, adds Don.
“No, that’s already taken by the US”, I advise, “I mean they’re good ideas for it, but I don’t know we want to just be about a dollar…. it should be about the love of money for its own sake and above all else.  Not just the money itself.”
We all consider the question, but we can’t find an answer.
“How do you say ‘the love of money’ in Finnish?” Lari asks.
I shrug my shoulders and wonder myself.
“I think its real citizens are global corporate entities more than the actual individual residents”, Don proposes, “They cause the growth and style of these cities more than any individual person does.”
“So the country of money is run by psychopaths?”, Lari says wryly.
We had all seen the film ‘The Corporation’ that explores the idea, ‘If a corporation is legally a person, then what kind of person is it?’  The answer it arrives at, with plenty of good reasoning, is that corporations routinely display sociopathic and psychopathic behaviours. People who individually have these attributes often end up running them.
“Yes, yes yes…yeah…and the country of money has one primary resource that it mines; consumers”, I continue developing the idea, “they need people to buy things, so the people need to find money to buy them, so the pursuit of money can continue at the same reckless pace.”
The rest of the day passes with many easily flowing conversations and increasing warmth until we return to our cabin to sleep.  Our Russian friend bids us goodnight and turns over to sleep as we finish our first full day on the Trans-Siberian railway.

I wake up staring down at our Russian friend who looks somehow different in the early morning light.  I had swapped bunks with Don to take advantage of the better air-conditioning at the top of the cabin and am now puzzled as to what had changed.  He still has the same glasses on and the same coloured shirt and it wasn’t like he could have done much in the night.  I head to the toilet pondering what’s bothering me about him and can’t figure it out.  I wonder if the train has some ability to warp people who travel upon it, to change them so you know something is different, but it’s not obvious at first.  On my return, with my mind filled with pictures of shapeshifting Russian travellers, he shuffles out of the cabin and I ask Lari,
“What’s different about our friend this morning?”
She laughs and says,
“He got out at some time in the morning and this guy got in.”
I can’t quite believe I haven’t managed to realise that, but the new guy does have the same shirt and glasses as before.  My illusions of mystical trains sadly shattered, I end up staring at him a little too long to make sure and have to offer some orange juice to escape the uncomfortable moment.

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