Russia to Mongolia by train, Part 1.
Moscow to Severobaikalsk
After few days in Moscow, where we met more creeps in one hostel than on the entire trip to South America (starting with a middle-aged energy healer from Spain, and ending with a Russian that with a beer in his hand at 10a.m. tells you how his girlfriend smashed a bottle on his head and flushed his Xanax down the toilet...)! We had mixed feelings about the trip ahead. What if going to Russia instead of breaking with stereotypes we will just find out it is all true? Moscow certainly had a strange vibe - some places felt obscenely rich (mafia level rich making Zurich-banker-richness look rather modest), while most of the city felt grumpy and unwelcoming. I was starting to worry that the train journey might feel like being locked in that hostel in Moscow, with no way out for 4 days.
Luckily, I was incredibly wrong! We met really nice people, with whom the time flew by even though they didn't speak English and we didn't speak Russian (if you don't count understanding some words that are simmilar to Polish). But with the help of a Russian phrase book, Google Translate and a lot of good will, we managed to communicate. The train journey passed so quickly, that before we knew it, it was time to pack up our stuff and get off the train. There was no need to put in motion the "what if I get bored" contingency plan, we have neither sat at the restaurant on the next carriafe, nor have I finished reading a book. Even though we travelled almost 6000km through 5 time zones, it went by quicker than we wanted it to go.
Since we took the train all the way from Moscow to Severobaikalsk, on the way people in the carriage came and went, and we stayed, always anxiously waiting who might show up next. Next door there was monstrously (confindently wearing no t-shirt) fat guy that could barely breathe and most of the time slept snoring so loud that the whole carriage could hear it - so we knew it can be pretty bad. Luckily, no such man appeared as our train mate.
To be fair, it was 29 degrees in the carridge!!!
Our first train comrades were 2 businessmen travelling for work from Tula (which according to them is THE place to be in Russia) to Yekaterinburg. The train barely has left the station before they laid out a table full of 'zakuski' (including home-cooked pork, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, pancakes, ham and eggs).
They leant over and locked the door, my moment of concern at this was instantly put to rest as he took out a bottle of 'samogon' - 60% of home brew alcohol. They offered us to join them, which we did. We wanted to share some of our snacks with them but nothing seemed good enough - to be fair, our snacks included only packed biscuits, chocolate and crackers from Auchan (which was not appreciated either). They only pointed at ingredients for us to read, and kept on saying they prefer "natural product". We basicly got food-shamed all the way - we tried to make excuses that normally we don't eat like this, but that didn't make them any less disappointed. Even the Soplica 'pigwowa' vodka we had, that was usually appreciated by our friends was not good enough, as it was only 32% - they reluctantly agreed to drink it after everything else ran out.
The businessment left the nesxt night in Yekaterinburg and the first person that got on was a guy who looked like a cliche Russian - missing front teeth, a bit chubby, with a sleeveless t-shirt, a small scar on his cheek and his age hard to estimate (turned out he was 28). Unsure of my first impression he introduced himself as Andrey and after explaining he works in the military, he gave Tadzik a Russian army t-shirt (actually two t-shirts, so that he can wear them both in cold and hot weather). A lesson learned not to judge people by their teeth, at least not here. He is in the russian army and was travelling to Krasnoyarsk for a friends sedding. He was the happiest, friendliest guy that wanted to talk and find out more about us! Often laughing with embarrasment when he didn't know how to say what he wanted to! After one short stop at a train station he bought some beers for us all from platform kiosk! When he was leaving in Krasnoyarsk, we gave him the second and last bottle of Soplica we had.
We had few more encounters.
There were two young 'oil men', as they called themselves, traveling almost a week from Volgograd (in the south of Russia, between Ukraine and Kazakhstan) to the Irkutsk region for work in the oil industry there, leaving their homes for 2 months at a time. They were very curious about England and Europe in general - what are the salaries, are there many jobs, is the life good, do you get a good pension. They seemed to have a very good opinion about England and belief that it is a better world somehow. Life in Europe is definitely easier than in Russia, but is it better? With all the warmness and interest we encountered, people sharing their food and trying to communicate every way they can, I am not really sure. It made me sad to think that those guys, if they ever came to England, being as nice as they were with all the faith in the better life in the west, all that they count on is somebody looking down on them and telling them to come back where they came from - "the bloody foreigners"!
We also met two railway workers, one aged 38, very surprised and disappointed that we are not married and have no children (this was actually what all our companions had in common). We tried to explain that in Europe people have children later, but he didn't buy it. He said that we are old, and you don't want to be raising children when you are old and you have no energy. It is a fair point, though it seems in Russia people age much faster and more brutally - average life expectancy in Russia is 73 years, and only 67 for men! For comparison, for Polish men it is 75, UK - 80, Switzerland - 82, Bangladesh - 72. With this kind of statistics it is not difficult their perspective on age.
The last encounter was with a middle aged lady, who just could not understand why we might want to go to Siberia in winter, and that we must be crazy. We tried to explain best we can, that to see SIBERIA, you need to go in winter - after all, you go there to experience the snowy, harsh remoteness that you associate with that place. She didn't seem to be convinced and laughed with amuzment of our 'holiday' in Siberia. She was as also appalled with our noodle soups as most people, and shaking her head she cut her fresh bread and sausage and pushed in our hands. ('Jesz, jesz, jesz' she kept on saying, meaning that one sandwich is not enough and we should continue eating).
Every time newly met people got off, it felt strangely sad. Even though we just met and had very little in common, everyone genuinely just wanted to talk and have a laugh, and then suddenly we arrive to the station - somebody gets on, somebody gets off.
After four days, our journey also ended. It feels very confusing to get off the train having spent such a long time on it. Suddenly you have to go places, do something. On the train it is just you, your comrades and the endless rows of snowy trees outside of the window.