The Train from Novosibirsk to Irkutsk


Hot mirror action! Lari with her Bodyguards

We wake up around ten and begin to explore our surroundings.  For this leg of the Trans-Siberian journey we’re travelling first class, which means Lari and I share a cabin and Don is in another one.  In the morning we discover that for some reason Don is in what they call ‘business class’.  This seems to mean that he gets a hot lunch and we don’t..  These cabins only have the two lower beds in them, so they feel a lot larger and more open than the second class cabins we normally travel in.  We had read that there are powerpoints in the cabins as well, but Lari and I can’t find one after searching in increasingly strange places.  The most striking difference in these cabins is that they have placed two, large oval mirrors on the walls directly opposite each other.  The walls lean in slightly, so when you sit on the bed looking into one, the reflections gently curve upwards to infinity.  Lari and I play around with it for a while, enjoying the novelty value and appreciating whatever member of the Russian train bureaucracy decided this was a cool idea.

We end up unpacking the ‘Big Lunch’ noodle meals and heading for the samovar for water.  We meet Don there engaged in exactly the same process and he invites us back to the glory of his cabin.  There’s nobody else in it with him, so he’s enjoying feeling like royalty for minute.  We ask Don if he’s found the powerpoint in his cabin and he starts looking as we return to ours and settle down to eat breakfast.  Don returns a few minutes later, glowing with self congratulation, saying that he’s found the mysterious enigma wrapped in brown paper that would give us electricity.  We congratulate him on his genius and poke him with forks until he reveals his dark secret.  He just points at the light on the wall above the mirror and strikes a pose reminiscent of a Buddhist monk on the point of enlightenment.
“So you’ve seen the light, now where’s the frickin powerpoint monkey boy”, I quip.
He nods slowly and sagely and only points at the light again.  I notice there’s a small plaque on the wall next to it with numbers on it as Lari’s face lights up.  The plaque tells us it’s a standard European powerpoint and the two holes are on the edge of the light itself.  Well, on Lari’s light they are, on my light the actual plug has been pushed back inside the casing so it’s unusable.  A minute later I have my four point powerpack connected and we’re happily charging everything in reach.

In the mid afternoon, we decide to head for the restaurant wagon to find something to eat.  We have been sitting there only a short time when we meet James, who sits on the table across from us trying to read a book, but mostly listening to us talk about how much we like the Russian people.  He is English, 35, and travelling by himself across Russia for the experience.  His hair has gentle curls and reaches almost to his neck, so combined with his glasses he looks like a more intelligent, but blonde,Doors lead singer Jim Morrison.  James suffers from a surfeit of brain cells and a deficit in comprehension of the female of the species.  In fact, almost every conversation with James will at some point become a conversation about women.  His ex-girlfriends, his current girlfriend in Slovenia, any woman on the train and any female he has ever spoken to during his life.  So we decide early on that vodka is required and order a bottle.  I also order some chicken that apparently comes with vegetables and I’m rewarded this time with the vegetable I’ve been craving; broccoli.
We enjoy the afternoon sun and the view passing by us as James describes a Russian professor of English who is sharing his wagon.
“Last night he had a phenomenal amount of beers with him and was passing them around to anyone who would join him.  That hasn’t stopped since then, I think he only slept for a few hours and started again.”
As he finishes he has an internal conversation about something before deciding to continue,
“He’s on leave from his job in Moscow teaching Russians the English language and he’s determined to celebrate every moment of his freedom.”
Another guy in the restaurant wagon, Ravil, introduces himself as an army officer on leave who wants the chance to practise his English with us.  He shows us pictures of his three year old daughter and his lovely wife.  The waitress, another middle aged trainee babushka, arrives and speaks to him in Russian.  He then apologises for disturbing us and says he hopes to catch us later in the wagons.  I do wonder a little what the waitress said, but I remember reading it is a common trick for Russians to try and join a table of foreigners to make them buy vodka.  It starts friendly but finishes with you sorting out an enormous bill without the aid of Eftpos or credit cards.  We’re quite aware of the size of the bill and we’ve catered for it.  I suppose the waitress is really looking out for us, which I do appreciate.  We move onto a second bottle of vodka as James begins telling us about his Slovenian girlfriend that he’s living with while spending his time teaching English to the locals.  Apparently her sister is so much cuter and he’s wondering how wrong it is of him to think that and whether he should chase her as well.  Between rolling her eyes and sighing, Lari tries to give him some guidance as Don and I encourage him to consider greater depths of evil.
“Why are you stopping with the sisters?  What about the rest of the family?  Aren’t there even more beautiful women where you live?”, Don asks impishly.
“Well, yes, there are some…and I wouldn’t know what to say, but they all know each other and you know women talk when you’re not there and they all know everything about everyone who’s talking to anyone when you do anything”, explains James.
He’s very good at expressing every thought as it occurs to him while speaking.  This makes for some amazing flow of consciousness sentences, which means we always try to provoke him to do more; just to see what will come out next time.
“The only important question is how you feel about your girlfriend and if you want to be with her for a long time or if she’s just temporary for you now”, advises Lari.
James looks confused and thoughtful at the same time.
“But how will I know that?”, he finally asks in an exasperated voice.
“If you don’t know that, then it sounds like she’s just filling in until the next one comes along”, Lari says in a voice filled with disbelief.
“But…how do you know that?”, James asks, raising her exasperation stakes another level.
“Because…because…look….me woman…..know things about women… man..…lift heavy things……know about cars”, Lari explains, taking on the patronising tone James seems to respond to best.
“But I don’t know anything about cars!  I’m a terrible man! I know about books and university and reading Hebrew and Jewish traditions…”
“Are you Jewish?” Lari asks, trying to get him away from talking about women for a moment to give us all relief.
“No.”  Our three hearts sink a little.
“I liked this Jewish girl”, James begins as our hearts all fall to the floor, looking for relief.
“So I learned about the faith and started learning to read Hebrew, then attended the synagogue to learn more.”
“So you read Hebrew now?”, I ask.
“Yes, well, I could, I can now, but not as well as then, but there’s these prayers that I really like, I really think the Jewish faith is so deep and real, much more real than these Muslims.  I don’t think they know what faith is.”
I’m startled for a moment, not really expecting a sentence like that from him.
“But Islam has Abraham as a prophet, you worship the same God….”, I begin to explain before being savagely interrupted.
“No they don’t, they don’t worship anything the same, the Jews have the real religion”, James begins again.
“Have you read the Koran?  Have you spoken with any Muslims? What makes you say that?”, I pressure him.
“Well, no, but I don’t have to.  Or maybe I should.  Maybe I should have, but I won’t.  I didn’t.  I don’t like Muslims, it’s Jews I like.”
“So you’ve read nothing and heard nothing, but you’ve decided you don’t like them”, I conclude pointedly.
“Well, yes. No. Yes. I should I suppose, but I won’t”, he concludes, confused.

Dhugal considers his next move...

I decide to try and take this somewhere else and approach the question more philosophically,
“Well, after spending some time to read and try to understand the Koran, the Old and New Testaments from the bible, Buddhist ideas, Hindu ideas, Australian aboriginal ideas and quite a few more animist and nature religions, the only thing I’m sure of is that none of them are absolutely right; but all are like fingers pointing to the same greater understanding.  To say that one is absolutely right and that all the others are not is to be the dog looking at the pointed finger instead of the thing to which it points.”
“Maybe, but the Jewish finger is the one I like”, James announces defiantly.

A dishevelled looking Russian guy with long hair and glasses wanders into the restaurant car.  It’s none other than James’ friend Dima, looking for more people to drink with.  It would be unaustralian to do anything other than invite him to join us for the next round of shots and he readily accepts.  He takes charge of the almost empty bottle and we finish it with the round.  We then ask for another bottle, or rather, Dima yells out in Russian for it and the waitress comes down to give him a long, cold stare.
“Do you want bottle?  This man…problem”, she advises us whilst maintaining her death stare.
We assure her we certainly do need some more liquid refreshment and that we have invited him to join us.  She gives him an even longer stare and speaks in Russian, I’m guessing the same sentence that had sent Ravil packing.  Dima looks very upset and stands up, apologises to us all and says he doesn’t want to cause trouble.  We tell him to sit down, shut up and wait for our new bottle to arrive.  Dima looks around then starts talking,
“I work at the university, now I will go to Vladivostok for my holidays.”
“And you’ll have a few drinks on the train then?”, James prompts him.
“I will be drinking with my Australian brothers until I arrive!”, Dima proclaims to the world as he puts his arm around Don.
“It’s a shame we’re getting off in Irkutsk then”, Lari interjects.
Dima looks genuinely disappointed at the thought.
“You will go to Lake Baikal then?  It’s very beautiful!”
His face lights up at the thought of the lake and we feel even happier about our next stop.
“We sure will, we have to swim in it”, I tell him.
“It’s too cold!”, he says, looking concerned for our welfare, “You must only be in the water for a short time or you will die!”
I look at Lari and Don thinking about this pessimistic Australian.  A pair of guys at the next table introduce themselves as border guards.  One is apparently a Major and both are staring intently at Lari.  They already have their own bottle of vodka; so they join in with some toasts.  Ravil also returns and sees the party has grown to two tables, so he joins the border guards.

As you might expect, the group is now starting to get quite loud and boisterous.  This is probably not the best moment, since more people are arriving for dinner.  It’s now about four bottles of vodka past three; or roughly seven o’clock in the old time.  Don and Dima have settled down to a steady pace of shots that no-one else is keeping up with.  Lari has got her shine on and stopped some time ago, I’m sharing about every second or third one.  Dima has his arm around Don and keeps calling him “My Australian brother”, Don is returning the favour for “My Russian brother”, as they both sway into sharing another shot.  In a moment of clumsiness, Dima knocks over the almost empty bottle, two glasses and sends the orange juice carton flying.
“Oh Dibosh!”  He cries out.
“Zapoi!”, yells Don.
“Zapoi!”, yells Dima.
He then pauses and asks,
“How do you know that word?”
Don explains the film he saw and then asks,
“What does ‘dibosh’ mean?”
“Oh it’s like when you get drunk and trash everything in sight”
“Like ‘debauch’?”, I offer.
“Yes.  I think so”, he replies while pouring another round of shots that I join in with.
“Zapoi!”  I propose and we all drink to it laughing.
The waitress doesn’t think it’s that funny.  Don then decides he has to leave to return to the cabin and lie down for a while; Dima has broken him!  The whole group is being told to quiet down every few minutes by the waitress and Dima chooses this moment to explain to anyone listening,
“You must understand….Russians are not animals.  My Australian brother, we are not animals.”
Lari also chooses the moment to make an exit and leaves with Don after handing me some money.  I remain to distract the other guys from this quick exit and finish paying the bill.  I make very sure the border guards have no idea where we will be, only James and Dima have some idea if they remember what we told them an hour earlier.  I slip out of the restaurant car and glide down the train to our wagon, wondering what has become of my erstwhile companions.
Don has passed out on Lari’s bed and she’s sitting on mine, staring out the window.  I remember there’s going to be a fifteen minute stop at a station soon and duck into the corridor to look it up.  I’m now very much at home with these timetables and….Yes! We’re a bit over an hour away from that stop, but there will be a five minute stop very soon; so I prepare to run a beer mission.

Broken Don

The problem on the trains is they frequently don’t have any good beers and often they aren’t that cold – the Russian refrigeration problem continues.  On the station platforms, however, there’s a wide choice and a fair chance they’ll be cold; and you can always check.  So when the train stops, I’m one of the first off and begin my search for the closest shop.  It doesn’t take long to find four cans of Baltika Seven that are suitably frigid.  I return to our cabin and Lari and I share a couple of beers and talk about the afternoon’s fun.  We place bets that James will come and find us pretty soon and speculate on who will be with him.  We decide Don needs to get back to his own bed to avoid further destruction of his liver and shuffle him down the corridor to relative safety.

James and Dima soon appear in the doorway together, followed closely by Ravil.  Dima’s eyes are even more drunken than before, but the way they still manage to fix on Lari tells me all I need to know.  I ask her to move against the window on my bed and make a point of sitting next to her, such that they will literally have to come through me.  It isn’t that Lari is in any way incapable of looking after herself, just having a big guy like me in the way means they have to think a little harder about it.  We invite them to join us and they have also found some beers, so we drink and chat happily for a while.  I’m not sure exactly when the change appears in Ravil.  At some point during the last hour or so he has gone from being a lovely, warm, chatty guy practising his English, to a Lari targeting missile.  Dima isn’t much better, but at least his English is still fine, in fact impressively good considering his current state of inebriation.

“I really want to sit next to Lari”, Dima appeals to me.
I look straight at him and give him a simple reply I’ve learned so well from the ticket window women,
Ravil watches with interest as Dima explains,
“Normally when a Russian man sees something he wants, he just goes and gets it.”
That was the moment I knew I had to reveal Lari’s terrible secret.
“Dima”, I say conspiratorially, waving to him to lean in closer.“You should know that Lari is a hermaphrodite.”
His face contorts through a series of horrific, sad, angry and heartbroken expressions that I will remember for as long as I live.  He focusses on my face, then on hers and leans over to her.
“Really? You are man as well?”
Lari puts on her best deep voice and says,
“I’m whatever you want me to be….baby.”
I still don’t know how neither of us broke out laughing through this, but it has the desired effect on Dima and he explains it to Ravil in Russian.  The upshot of all that is we’re almost at the fifteen minute train stop and we all prepare to go for a walk on the platform.

Myself, Dima and Ravil decide to try and find some vodka.  You really can’t find vodka on the platform at train stations, I knew this, but was vaguely hoping that this pair could do better than me.  I was wrong, but the mission was fun anyway.  There’s something about striding down a train platform arm in arm with two crazy, drunk Russians looking for vodka that made me feel once again how similar Russians and Australians really are; or at least of the universal bonding that alcohol produces.  We do find some more beers instead, so we buy a bunch of them and head back for the train.  Dima chooses this moment to explain to me again,
“You must remember my Australian brother, Russians are not animals.”

Lari is walking with James and buys a couple of slices of cake that some women are selling.  We all enjoy the break from the train village and the walk in the open air during the early evening light refreshes everyone.  We enter the cabin again and Dima suddenly remembers my revelation, because the first thing he does is take Lari’s hand and ask her if she’s a woman.
“I’m all woman”, she explains with a mischievous smile as I sit down next to her.
We calm down for a while then and chat about Dima’s job.  Apparently because of his role at the Moscow State University, it’s very hard for him to leave the country.  It seems the Russian government fears academics will stay away, so there is some policy that makes it very hard for them to cross the border.  Dima thinks he will never get to see most other countries because of this, unless he leaves and never comes back.  This is something he also won’t do; because he does still love his country despite the government.  Ravil disappears for a while, I think to sleep as well, he must get off the train at one o’clock in the morning.  I’m mostly glad after he leaves, the way he’s looking at Lari and acting generally makes me fear he’s going to become aggressive sometime soon.

Dima moves next to Lari while I’m having a toilet break.  My return becomes her cue to have a toilet break as well.  So I spend the next few minutes explaining the truth to Dima.

Dima and James share a moment

“You know Lari is actually very famous back home and I’m her bodyguard.”
He looks suitably confused again, so I continue.
“That’s why we’re in first class and I’m protecting her.”
The word ‘bodyguard’ escapes Dima for quite a while, he thinks I’m confusing him with the ‘border guards’.  Finally the word enters his increasingly sluggish mind and once again the revelation strikes him with a series of incredible expressions.  He looks at me differently again, weighing up his options, I’m certainly bigger, taller and crazier than him, so he decides something and leans over to ask,
“She is a star?”
“Yes”, I confirm, “She’s a singer and a dancer, very famous, that’s why I must look after her.”
He nods sagely.
“A star.”
He sits quietly for a while considering this before silently wandering out of the door and into the night.  James and I watch him leave and the two of us exchange a look of curious understanding.
“I told you he’s been drinking since last night”, he comments.
“True, but he’s still fun to talk to now, Ravil has turned to the dark side already.”
We both nod and I wonder if Dima will return at some point, or if he’s currently waiting in the corridor to catch Lari on her return.  I get up to check outside as James asks,
“So is Lari really a hermaphrodite?”
“You’ll have to check yourself, if you dare to James.”
“But does that mean she is?”, he asks again.
I smile enigmatically and step into the passageway to see Lari returning.  The carriage is otherwise empty and we both decide sleep is a good option.  James says goodnight as I close and lock the door securely before sinking into my bed.

Lari the Star Hermaphrodite having a rest


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