Train 81

The rain has changed from a lousy drizzle to a steady shower whose drops are hard to avoid. The tram stop is only a few blocks away, but the sidewalks are full of puddles and walking close to the street is a dangerous ordeal with passing vehicles spraying water on pedestrians. Despite all this I strap on my backpack, take my rucksack in front of me and pick up the plastic bag with provisions for the next two days. One deep breath later I exit the hostel annex apartment and expose myself to the wet outside. In a steady pace I reach the tram stop in five minutes and by hopping from shelter to shelter under trees and buildings I manage to stay relatively dry. When two older gentlemen struggle to get their luggage on the tram I help them out and realize how glad I am to travel now, when I am still young and vital. On the other hand I admire that they still travel at their age and I hope to be able to do the same when I am older.

My train, train number 81 from Ulan-Ude to Moscow, has not arrived at Irkutsk yet so I settle myself in the waiting room. Just when I get comfortable an army of cleaners and security guards walk in and herd everyone to the right half of the waiting room while they clean the left half. Once they finish, everyone has to move again so they can clean the other half. I try to focus on reading my book but after a few minutes one of the gentlemen from the tram shows up. “Do you speak English?” he asks and he thanks me for my help earlier with the tram. He and his friend live in Israel and he is on his way to Yekaterinburg where he was born and lived until he was five. Next to me four young Russians with huge backpacks and camping gear start to unpack and spread all their belongings across seats and the floor of the waiting room. Afterwards they start to pack everything again, in a process that is presumably meant to rearrange their luggage. When everything is finally packed again they don't seem to be happy with the result of their effort: they repeat the whole process of unpacking and packing again.

When the train arrives at Irkutsk and its arrival platform is announced I search for carriage number five, but I cannot find it. When I ask a provodnitsa she points to the carriages on another track and I understand that these will be added to this train, which would also explain why the train stops for 45 minutes in Irkutsk. The rain has gotten even worse so I look for shelter while the additional carriages are prepended to the train. When the provodnitsa checks my ticket she says something in Russian and I just say “Da” to get on the train quickly, away from the rain. The carriage has a new car smell to it and is very clean and bright. My sleeping place is number 48, an upper berth on the corridor. This is platzkart, or 3rd class, a dormitory style carriage with 54 beds. Platzkart is the cheapest sleeping class in Russian trains and it is a great way to meet people. Packages with sheets and a towel are handed out and soon everybody settles in their bed and falls asleep.

The next morning when I open my eyes I am greeted by beautiful Siberian scenery. We pass through green valleys and great forests and the best thing is that I didn't even had to get up for this, I enjoy the landscape straight from my bed. My breakfast today consists of bread with chocolate spread. Thick layers of chocolate spread.

Some stops later a Russian boards the train and asks me a question in Russian. “I'm sorry, pa rooskee” I respond. With gestures he is trying to make something clear, but we are getting nowhere until he asks “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” And indeed, being born near the German border and having learned German in school I can say that I speak German at some level at least. He wants me to switch berths with him so he and his sister could stay near each other but now he knows that I speak German he finds me far more interesting than his sister. His name is Andrei and he lives in Germany but was born in Russia, he is on his way home after a visit to his family in Siberia.

“Ausprobieren!” Andrei serves me buns filled with meat and potatoes, to be washed down with a glass of vodka-cola. His offer comes just in time as I started to worry I did not bring enough food with me. “Ausprobieren!” Andrei hands me a plastic cup with a shot of his self-distilled vodka, a piece of pickled cucumber and a slice of bread. After two shots I decline a third one because I prefer to stay sober until at lease after noon. Reluctantly Andrei accepts my refusal but only when I agree to his “Später!”, so I know that my vodka intake is covered for the rest of this trip.

Andrei's attention now shifts to another passenger who just unpacked a huge, bulky and kitsch-looking game of chess. Yuri, a though looking Russian with shaved head was just released from prison after serving a three year sentence. His eyes tinkle as he prepares the game and opens the built-in drawer with the black pieces. The pieces are carefully placed at their starting positions but when he wants to do the same with white the key doesn't fit. I seem to be the only one who sees the irony of the locked up pieces in an ex-prisoner's game of chess. After a while all spectators get bored by Yuri's efforts to free his silent comrades from their wooden prison. “Vodka! Ausprobieren!” Andrei knows the best answer to problems like these.

In Krasnoyarsk we stop thirty minutes, an opportunity to stretch my legs and buy a cold drink. When I enter the train again to go to the toilet I walk past a cat chilling on one of the bottom berths. One compartment further a pillow fort has been erected, sealed off at all sides by blankets and sheets. Welcome to platzkart!

In the evening I meet three young Russians on their way from Irkutsk to Moscow. One of them speaks English reasonably well, but very loud and very fast. When a woman starts complaining about her heart condition and needing some rest we move to the dining car where we are welcomed by a fat — excuse my language, but I cannot think of a more appropriate description of his physique — Russian who is not very willing to serve us anything. He beams with misery and probably hoped to be left alone in his kingdom, the dining car of train 81. I suspect he added zeroes to the price of every item
on the menu just to keep people from ordering, but we find a loophole in his efforts and order black tea, the cheapest item. So, while the sun sets on the Siberian horizon we drink tea, talk about music and eat dry biscuits. After tea we take a long walk opening and closing many doors from the dining car, carriage 7 to carriage 21, the end of the train to have a different view on the track we follow for miles and miles and miles. Back in carriage number 5 Andrei is ready again. “Ein bisschen? Ein bisschen?” So we have some more rounds of vodka before I climb into my berth.

The next morning I wake up to a different landscape with less forest, more grasslands and more lakes: the West-Siberian Plain. I brush my teeth and when I return Andrei is also awake “Ein bisschen?”. But I want to eat something first so I have some bread with chocolate spread and then I join Andrei and his gang at 9 am for a couple shots of vodka. Today I'll arrive in Omsk where I have six hours before I catch another train to Yekaterinburg. Traveling by train in Russia can be very confusing when it comes to time. A simple question of when I will arrive in Omsk is though on my brain as I still live in Irkutsk time, but Omsk is another timezone and to make matters even worse the Russian railway only uses Moscow time regardless of where in Russia you are. I change my phone to Moscow time and figure out that I will arrive in Omsk at 2:30 pm. Having solved this puzzle I eat my last lunch, spaghetti bolognese flavoured instant noodles, pack my stuff and change my clothes. Andrei wants to have one last round of vodka and on the platform in Omsk I say goodbye to all my new friends from carriage 5. Andrei warns me to stay away from gypsies and to be careful as the world is a dangerous place. I leave the platform using an overpass, drop my backpack at the left luggage office and I exit the station. Outside I am greeted by the warmth of the sun, thinking to myself that if an afterlife exists it should be an endless train journey across all the beautiful landscapes I have seen so far, and others that I still hope to see.

Omsk station

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