Riding the Rails
After 20 hours on the train, we arrived in Chelyabinsk without incident. Traveling by coupe, with four people sharing one cramped room, this is not always guaranteed.
So far we've been pretty lucky: no wildly drunken revelers and no kleptomaniacs. We have had our share of chatters, though -- people who want to talk and talk, especially after they find out we're Americans. Sometimes the conversation is interesting, and I've even gotten some good tips for stories. Sometimes, it's utterly inane and I am forced to feign sleep.
Overall, train travel doesn't seem to have changed much in the last 10 years. Here's how it works: You board the train and lug your bags to the coupe. You try to stuff them under one of the two bottom bunks, which never seem to have enough room for everyone's bags. You pay the wagon attendant 40 rubles -- about $1.40 -- for clean sheets and a towel if you plan to sleep.
Then, it's anyone's guess what happens next, depending on who's in the coupe, or even in the neighboring coupes. Russian trains are far friendlier than Russian streets, and people tend to wander up and down the narrow hallway, making conversation.
The most memorable train trip we've had so far was between Birobidzhan and Chita, a marathon 39-hour extravaganza in which two jolly salesmen spent the entire time -- morning to night -- drinking vodka and beer, and exhorting David and me to join them in their coupe. We put them off as long was we could, then finally joined them for what turned into a very long evening.
They were enormously concerned that David might not understand everything, so every sentence began and ended with a command for me to translate. Because they were drunk, they frequently repeated themselves, especially one named Sasha who was eager to give David a lesson in Russian grammar. "Lisa!" he would bark. "Translate!" And off he would go, waxing rhapsodic about the flexibility of word order in Russian, and the subtle differences in meaning it could imply. This went on for hours.
The train is also home to a whole catalogue of smells, starting with the smoking area at one end of the wagon. Smokers are plentiful, and they often leave their butts smoldering in the ashtrays, so the whole tiny area fills up with the pungent smell of cheap tobacco. Moving on, there's the toilet, which, no matter how diligent the attendant might be about cleaning it (usually not very), still always stinks.
The coupes themselves range from perfectly pleasant to absolutely fetid, depending on their occupants' personal hygiene and what they've brought to eat. There's a particular mix of pickles, sausage, stale tobacco, vodka and sweat that seems to permeate most train cars, to greater or lesser degrees. This smell, too, seems not to have changed over the last ten years.
For the most part, though, Russian trains are an agreeable way to travel -- they're reliable, cheaper than airplanes, and offer a great way to see the countryside. And if you can get used to the noise and the rocking, they provide an opportunity to catch up on lost sleep, too.
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