Trans-Sib Part One
Trip Start Oct 04, 2005
62Trip End Ongoing
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The first two days passed in a daze of eating, drinking, sleeping, and playing lots of cards. I was extraordinarily lucky in that I had my cabin to myself for those first two nights and could spread out a little. I got used to the toilet that flushed right on to the tracks and after a couple tries even figured out how to work the surprisingly complicated tap for water. I lived off of just add water meals - instant noodles, oatmeal (which I rediscovered I really can't stand), and ginger tea. As soon as the train started to move, the Chinese families made themselves comfortable by changing into pajamas for the women and long underwear for the men. So as I would make the trek through ten cars (opening and closing 40 doors) to meet up with my friends, I was forced to squeeze my way past old fat Chinese men in their underwear smoking cigarettes and staring me down. In the neighboring car, however, there was a group of kids that I at first thought was just a big school group, but turned out to be a troupe of acrobats. In the mornings they would practice their handstands in the corridor, swaying with amazing balance as the train lurched forward on its way across the steppe. Though it rained for most of the first two days, we did catch sights of the changing countryside through the rain drops. Cities gave way to farmlands and farmlands to long stretches of yellowing grasslands sometimes broken up by villages with houses that at first were made of brick and plaster but then gave way to wooden structures. When the rain broke, I would wave to the railroad workers that lined the tracks, waiting for the train to go by. But most of my time was not spent looking out the window, and I didn't even start 'War and Peace'.
On my first night, after getting settled, I set out to find Dave who ended up with a first class ticket because he waited until the last minute to book. Half way there I ran into him looking for my cabin and he informed me that he had met three Swedish guys, one of which was sharing his cabin and the other were right next door. So over Russian beer Dave, Christian, Ludwig, and I talked of our travels (Patrick, the third Swedish guy, was sleeping and I didn't meet him until the next day), compared stories, and stayed up way too late enjoying our first night on a journey I think we all felt would be epic. The four of them were going the whole way in one go, while I was getting off half way in Irkutsk. I felt that three days without a shower was quite enough, let alone six days! Avid card players, we all played endless games of asshole, taking breaks for noodles and tea. Dave and I, avid talkers, also put in quite a few hours talking. We went on in this way, losing track of time, sleeping and eating when we felt like it, taking a strange pleasure in our confinement. Then on the second morning I woke up, pulled on my now dirty and stretched out jeans, and was instantly bombarded by my new roommates, their massive amounts of luggages, and the neverending process of crossing the border into Russia.
Just as I'd buttoned up my pants, a woman stuck her head in the door of the cabin, said something in Russian, and disappeared. She came back with two friends, who I would later know as Yuliya and Ava, each carrying a massive bag bursting with who knows what. Pretty soon the entire cabin was stuffed full with their ten bags, their friends from other cabins, and Russian chatter. Ava knew a little bit of English and we managed to communicate our names, ages, and the fact that I was travelling alone. They loved that my grandfather is Russian, and passed me pictures of their kids. They were all very nice and talkative, but when we reached the border, everyone suddenly went tense. For hours we waited on the Chinese side for our passports to be inspected and stamped. Roasting in the now air-conditionless cabin, we watched the acrobats practicing their handstands in the station watched by guards, and managed some more broken conversation. Then we moved onto the Russian side. First we gave up our passports to a scary looking Russian woman. Then there was a customs search, then another, and another. Ava, Yuliya and their friends were stealthily passing packages back and forth between the cabins, trying to hide them, and energetically explaining to the customs guy that all they had in their millions of bags were sheets and souveniers for home. The first guy was convinced with a huge sigh of relief from the women, but then they got caught moving around a box and amid lots of shouting, we were finally let off the train. I don't know what happened with the box, but someone must have been paid off well because everything was all well later. After i was finally let off of the sweatbox, however, there were still eight more hours to be spent in the station. I found the guys who, being in first class and not bunked with smugglers, had disembarked hours before. We passed the time playing yet more asshole, entertaining a whole group of Chinese guys standing in a group around us and looking on. To ease our hunger and boredom, we ate pistacchios and drank vodka. Two different guards told us we were not allowed to drink in the station, but they never checked back and if felt kind of daring to be breaking rules in Russia.
Eventually, after a total of twelve hours, we were allowed back on the train and made our way into the Russian countryside. The weather immediately became much colder and the grasslands gave way to forests and mountains. We had entered Siberia. Getting tired of asshole, I tried to teach Dave how to play canassta. Not exactly a success, though I did actually win for once. A little boost to the ego. But even with the Dave Canasta Disaster, I was still determined to spread the canasta love and taught Christian, a true card player. That worked out a little better...though I still enjoyed my fabulous winning streak. My last day on the train went on in much the same way that the others had, talking and playing cards. The dining car had been changed from the white, sterile Chinese one to a red, gaudy Russian one that played bad Russian pop music. It was fabulous in all its tacky splendor, complete with the mean Russian girl who said 'Nyet!' to everything. But we finally made her happy by ordering goodbye train beer on the eve of my departure. Each of us decided to take on a 2.5 liter beer each, with Dave opting for a mini keg. It was a great little going away party. The guys were so sure that a huge group of 'hot babes' would be getting on when I got off, and I told them how they would miss their lone female representative. Once I left it would just be four guys sitting around drinking together. As our little party was just starting to take off, I happened to look out the window and in the dark saw lights, lots of lights. Irkutsk. I had gotten confused about the time of arrival and now was completely drunk and would have to find the hostel in the dark.
After a quick goodbye to the guys and grabbing my bags, I soon found myself standing at the exit of the station drunk and alone with an address and no knowledge of the Russian language. It was only a couple of seconds before I was approached by a big bear of a cab driver who looked like he was definitely a member of the mafia. This was Sergei. I tried my hardest to seem sober and tough, trying (unsuccessfully) to bargain down the price of the cab. And then we were off into the cold, rainy night in search of the Baikaler Hostel. Sergei promptly took my to the wrong place and then we drove around for half an hour looking for the right one. By the third of fourth dark alley way that he took me down, I was getting a little worried. Was all of Irkutsk just one big sketchy maze? Was Sergei really a member of the mafia? Was I really stupid enough to have drunk a liter of beer and then get into a cab with a guy wearing a leather jacket named Sergei? Finally we went back to the first hotel he took me to and started to call the hostel. Luckily, in the middle of an incredibly desperate and pathetic message I was leaving on the machine, a guest at the hostel picked up. I wasn't too far away and he would come get me. Sergei ended up being a really nice guy, probably not part of the mafia, and though he was probably happy to get rid of me, I felt a little stab of regret that it was time to say goodbye to my first Irkutsk acquaintance.
The Irish guy who came and picked me up led me, once again, down a sketchy little alley to an even sketchier back unmarked entrance, and up a nasty dark stairwell that smelled like pee. The hostel wasn't a real hostel, but a guy's flat who rented out three rooms filled with bunkbeds. Though a little disconcerting at first, I would soon come to learn that this was normal. As I sank into bed, now almost completely sober, I gave a little sigh of relief. Welcome to Russia, Lacey...