Thursday, March 8th, 2012
I am in Moscow. Stage I of my super-ultra-mega giga plan is complete. Or is it Stage II? I don’t know stages….
I feel, at this moment, exactly the way a super villain must feel when all the pieces of their dastardly plan are falling into place. I wish I had a cat to stroke, but since none is presenting itself I will content myself with one minute of leaning back in my computer chair in this hostel, tapping my finger tips together in front of my face while a chilling cackle escapes my lips….
Right, now that that is over with, let me fill you in on my train ride from Irkutsk. I must admit that the second leg of my journey was not nearly as enjoyable as the first one. There are several reasons for this that I am sure you will pick up on as I describe the journey. First of all, for this leg I was in a second class, 4 berth sleeper. The compartment wasn’t actually any bigger than my two bed first class compartment on the trans-mongolian train, and yet it contained 4 beds. Thankfully, I never had more than one roomate at a time over the entire 86 hour journey.
My first partner was a lovely old Russian woman named Ala. Some of you may know that I have a tendency to assign people I barely know with nicknames in my own mind. I privately nicknamed Ala ‘Golden Face’ because of the unusually large amount of gold teeth she was sporting up in her grill. She was polite and quiet and though she spoke no English (and I no Russian) we still became fast friends as I showed her pictures and video of my teaching days and she showed me pictures of her family and (repeatedly) her attractive grandaughter (whose E-mail address she gave me before getting off the train). I only had the pleasure of Golden Face’s company for one evening and part of the next morning as she was getting off in Krasnoyarsk (spelling?). I wasn’t entirely sad to see her go, I must admit because it left me with an empty compartment to myself.
For the rest of that day I contented myself with looking out the window, reading my book and quietly contemplating how much the contents of Golden Face’s mouth would fetch at market. The scenery for most of the journey was snowy winter wonderland, occasionally punctuated with a small town or village. Occasionally the landscape would change from flat to hilly or back again, but I really saw no spectacular sights such as those on the trans-mongolian trip. Sometimes I could look out the window and imagine myself crossing Canada, the two landscapes are so similar. Though, despite having many coniferous trees, like Canada, Siberia had a remarkably large amount of birch trees, which aren’t so common in the parts of Canada I have seen.
The monotonoy that was settling over me in Ala’s absence would soon be broken, however, by the arrival of Andre, a heavily built middle-aged Russian man. Andre’s English was very limited, but he did know a few words that occasionally came in handy. He was able to convey that he was on his way to Omsk and that he was an oil pipeline engineer. Andre boarded the train around 8pm (I was just finishing my instant noodle supper when he joined me) and he wasted no time in running off to the dining car to order some food and beers for the both of us. We were joined shortly by his boss, Jon. Jon was quite a character. I suspect that he may have been heavily involved in the Siberian mafia. He was a big man with possibly the largest hands I have ever seen. He was wearing a black turtle neck sweater under a black blazer with black pants. He brought with him a plastic bottle full of vodka infused by arctic cranberries.
I have to admit, it took Jon a few minutes to warm up to me. He eyed me suspiciously for a time, but I could tell he was warming as I showed him and Andre pictures of the cute little hellspawns I used to teach in Korea. His cold, appraising facade finally broke when, discovering I was from Canada, asked me if I like to fish. Like all great fishermen, I gave the ‘a little gesture’ with my hand coupled with a nodding of the head and the barest fraction of a wink that suggested I was actually quite talented at it, but only being modest. This did the trick and – his previously impassive face breaking into a wide grin – he shook my hand enthusiastically.
I would like to point out at this time that all of the above occurred without the use of verbal language. I was able to convey all of this information about myself using only simple words (like ‘Canada’ while pointing at myself and interpreting their miming of various questions). Jon’s miming of fishing looked alot more like firing a gun at the ground than casting a fishing line, but when I did the ‘reeling in’ motion with my hand and gave him a questioning look he confirmed that fishing is what he meant.
What followed is one of those great drinking nights that springs out at you when you least expect it. The three of us polished of all of the vodka and beers, and we were shaking hands and giving high fives like old friends, even though I could hardly understand them. The universal language of men took over when they asked if I had a girlfriend, to which I answered in the negative, and they both eagerly mimed that I should put off getting married for as long as possible. Later I found that Andre had fought in Afghanistan in 1983. This was towards the end of the night when we were all reaching the height of our comraderie (and the vodka bottle was at its lowest level, though I’m sure the two aren’t related).
As he reminisced about this the mood grew solemn and I found myself wishing that I could tell him that I am proud to shake the hand of any man who fights for his country, regardless of the political motivations of the people that sent him there. Unfortunately I was too drunk to work out how to convey this sentiment through mime (which, had I managed it, would have been some of my best work) so I opted to shake his hand and pat his shoulder instead.
The next morning Andre and Jon disembarked and I enjoyed a compartment to myself for the rest of the journey. I wish I could say the remaining day and a half were quiet and uninterrupted, but unfortunately that was not the case. On either side of my compartment was a Russian family that had been on the train since Irkutsk. They took up 3 compartments and I think there must have been 12 of them at least – including three children. The children were given free reign in the carriage, and after 3 days were sufficiently bored to start being interested in the quiet foreigner in compartment 5. There were three of them, one boy who I guessed was around 6, a girl of the same age and another girl who was probably 3. The girl of six did not annoy me, though she often would walk past my door a little slower than necessary while staring at me intently. The youngest girl, however, was annoying enough to earn a nickname. I called her ‘Screecher’. She earned this nickname because the only sounds I ever heard from her lips were blood curdling, infant waking up 3 times a night style screams which issued from her lips an average of 3 times a day.
Try as I might, I was never able to establish a pattern that her wailings followed, though it seemed to me that it was most common just when I was drifting off to sleep, at a particularly good point in my book, or otherwise enjoying a particularly poignant train of thought. She also took to standing in the doorway of my cabin and staring at me for anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes (I’m serious, while pretending not to notice her while reading my book one time I discreetly checked my watch to time how long she could stare at me while I lay on my bed, totally imobile and doing nothing more exciting than breathing quietly). 2 minutes.
By far the worst of the three, however, was the young boy, whom I took to calling ‘Corpse Face’. The reason for this nickname is because his bright blue eyes, with that vacant and dull stare common in young children, coupled with his pale skin, reminded me of the monstrous living dead creatures known as ‘The Others’ from a popular series of novels I have been reading. Corpse Face was bolder than his sister (or cousin, or whoever the other girl was) and he started saying things to me in Russian from the doorway of my compartment. Now, I know I am coming across as an asshole, but I know that if you give a kid that age an inch, they are going to cling like a sock to the top of the dryer. One smile, one attempt to play a simple game, and I knew that child would not leave me alone for the rest of the journey. I don’t want to sound like I hate kids – because I don’t – It’s just that I really did not fancy being interrupted hourly by a bored 6 year old who hadn’t bathed in days (not a slight on him – none of us had bathed since boarding the train) and with whom I could not communicate.
My solution was offer him unyielding indifference. After his first attempt at conversation I peered at him over the top of my e-reader (with what I hoped was a Ebenezer Scrooge-calibur scowl on my face) and told him I don’t speak Russian. After one or two more of these appearances, in which he paused at my door to say something in Russian (I can only assume that he had forgotten how unsuccessful his previous attempts were), he actually ventured into my compartment. I ignored him has he sat on the bed opposite me and said something else in Russian. Then he stood up and said something else and, able to ignore him no longer, I looked at him with an exasperated look and told him again that I do not understand him and I do not speak Russian. After another moment he left the compartment. I hastily stood up and closed the door after him, leaving only a crack open for ventilation.
Some time later I spotted one of Corpse Face’s creeping, vacant eyes gazing at me through the crack in the door. He pushed the door open (uninvited, I might add) and came back in and sat quietly next to me. Some of you might be hoping that this story will have a happy ended. That his adorable persistence would melt through my stoic defenses and we would become best of friends. Let me assure you right now that that did not happen. I mean, excuse me, but I was relaxing and enjoying a quiet train ride and a good book, so forgive me for assuming it is not my responsibility to provide entertainment for someone else’s child. I did, however, tolerate him sitting on the edge of my bed, but when – after several minutes – he attempted to tickle my feet I drew the line. Indicating through sign language that I was going to take a nap I made him leave my compartment before shutting the door in his face. Call me cruel if you want, but it would have taken a Santa Claus calibur love of children to undertake the task of entertaining 3 small children in a 7’x5′ train compartment for 42 hours.
I kept my door mostly shut after that, or would leave it open until I saw that the three nuisances (I mean, children) were loose in the hallway, at which point I would promptly shut it.
When the train finally pulled into Moscow at 4am this morning I was not sad to see the back of it, although the experience was not at all entirely unenjoyable. As with the trans-mongolian leg of the trip I emerged very relaxed and at peace, as anyone who just spent nearly 4 days totally detached from the chaos of the world would. I took refuge from the cold in the train station while waiting for the metro to open and, at 6am, made my way to my hostel. The hostel is in a good location but I haven’t spent much time wandering the city yet. I did hunt down a McDonalds this afternoon because I wanted to experience the world’s most expensive Big Mac (Moscow is a very expensive city and, last I heard, had the highest prices for a Big Mac sandwich of any city in the world). Today I am going to relax at the hostel and plan the European leg of my journey (booking flights/trains and hostels). Tomorrow I will explore Moscow – I’m intending to head to the Kremlin, which is nearby, and see some of the old churches and historical sites in the area.
Stay tuned for an update on Moscow in the coming days.
That’s all for now.