Life on the Train
I was mad about going third-class but quickly got over it. My five fellow travelers were great. We shared food and tea. If I wanted something more to eat, I could go down to the food car and try my skill with the lady who runs it.
My first breakfast cost me about $20. It was good but it wasn’t twenty dollars worth of good. I met a couple from England that were on a pre-paid tour. They spent close to fifty at their first meal. The worst part for them was that meals were included. The lady did deduct their food allowance but they had way more food than they could eat.
There are several other ways to eat if price is important to you. You can bring stuff as most Russians do. You can buy stuff at a stop. If you’re desperate, you can buy from the lady who runs your car. You can easily get some snacks from her and some noodle soup. You won’t starve. Noodle soup and tea will sustain you at a low price.
I used all the options over the four days I was on the train. I went back to the food car for coffee after a breakfast in my car one morning. That couldn’t cost much, right? I sat with my English train friends and ordered coffee.
The lady said, “Milk?”
I said, “Yes.”
She brought me black coffee and a full glass of milk. The milk cost more than the coffee. It’s no use fighting since she has the only game in town. I did finally get off cheap one evening when I ordered a beer. I repeated the price and she repeated it back. I felt some satisfaction drinking my three dollar bottle of beer. No overcharge. Ha!
The worst part and the best part came about the third night. This big quiet fellow sat and looked out the window all day but snored at night like lumberjacks with a two-man saw on a hardwood tree. I had a mp3 player but even with my earpieces in, it was still in the background.
Unable to sleep, I saw someone else awake sitting on the lower bunk and went down and sat next to them. She had got on the train after dark.
“My name is Lee,” I said.
“My name Veronika.”
That was it and all the English I was going to get out of her.
She had a phone so I brought up some pictures she had on it. There were pictures of many girls together. I realized it was a beauty contest. She pointed to a tiny picture of herself among the contestants. I don’t think she won the contest but some Russian girls are really beautiful. I loaned her my spare earplugs and went back to my bunk and music.
When I woke up, she was gone. I never got a good look at her in the dark. I wasn’t sure if it was a dream or not. My earplugs were on the table with a one-word note, ‘Thanks’.
The guy from England was on this trip he had wanted to do for 30 years. His wife and adult daughter bought him this tour for his birthday. He said after he opened the card which explained the gift, he went in his office and cried. We had some time to talk over the four days. His lovely wife asked me if the train had a window at the end car. She wanted to take a picture of where we had been, I guess. Yeah, we did. I was in the last car, so I knew.
On the last day, she came down from first-class to take her photo. I was wearing pajama bottoms, a T-shift and flip-flops. I hadn’t shaved or bathed for days. I was eating some noodle soup with a tiny, white fork. I had gone native.
She said, “Lee?”
I said, “Yes, these are my people.”
She took her picture and left. I wonder if she told her husband something should be done, like more humane treatment for third-class travelers.
The snoring Russian bear spoke his first word as he looked out the window on day four, “Baikal.” We had crossed into the Asian part of Russia at the Ural mountains. This was a big discussion in my car when we had been looking at my map of Russia.
Looking down on the frozen lake was amazing. And the mountains on the right were snow covered with a haze of a light snow. He had spoken but I was speechless. The train followed the edge of the lake, twisting around so you could see different views. It was a hypnotic experience. We were at the southern tip and nearing my destination of Ulan Ude.
The big Russian began to talk to his fellow passengers. I could tell that he was telling stories and several were listening closely. I asked someone who could speak a little English what he was talking about.
They say this is the most fresh water in one place on earth. More than any of the Great Lakes in Michigan, where I’m from. The Great Lakes look bigger on a satellite map but Baikal is really deep.
your intrepid reporter,