TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY: TO THE CAPITAL OF SIBERIA
I crawl into lower bunk #13, and Mare climbs into #14 above, for a 48-hour train ride to Novosibirsk, the capital city of Siberia. Being “train savvy,” we change into a pair of shorts, before somebody inhabits the bunks across from us. The scent of stale cigarettes and body odor lingers. A Russian woman enters, carrying a terrier in a dog cage. We cannot converse, sitting there face to face. Her dog understands more Russian than we do. I perform my “Tarzan” routine, and point to my chest. “Me, Ron.” She nods and responds, “Meerron.” Good enough. I point to the dog. “Jos,” she says.
Thanks for that window, which provides an escape for our eyes. Forests zoom past, broken by country houses (Dachas) with gardens, and wild lilac bushes in bloom. We sleep soundly tonight, swaying with the cab as if in a cradle, keeping beat with the clunking rhythm of steel rolling on the rails below…Datdat da da…Datdat da da…
Each car has a vat of boiling water near the exit. Instead of tea, like everybody else, we make Nescafe, and eat salami, pesto cheese and bread – breakfast, lunch and dinner for two days. We avoid the notoriously nasty “dining” car, except for occasional beers.
The train cars have basic bathrooms at each end. The car matron locks the bathrooms twenty minutes before, and after stopping at a town’s station…on account of toilets flushing directly onto the tracks below.
Our nice Russian roommate, and “Jos” get off, and we have the cabin to ourselves until that night. A young Russian man enters. He is small, mannerly and silent, and watches videos on his tablet to break the boredom and avoid interaction. Perfect.
Four middle-aged guys from Berlin fill the cabin next to us. They are loud, pounding vodka day and night, as they are on a boy’s trip, away from their wives for one week. The bulk of their trip will be spent on this train (4 straight days) before getting off at Lake Baikal.
Soon we arrive in Novosibirsk, Siberia, the third largest city in Russia, with 1.5 million people. We have a connection here, through Mare’s sister, Sally. His name is Oleg, who sent his friend, also named Oleg, to pick us up at the train station and drive us to our hostel for the night. The woman in charge of “Hostel Province” says in broken English, almost with emotion, “You are the first foreigners I have ever had.” We are officially out of tourist territory.
I cannot sleep. My bunk squeaks like 10,000 mice while I toss and turn. In the morning, Mare asks, “What were you doing last night, masturbating?” I wonder what the Asian woman in the top bunk thought? The official answer is “No!”
The following day, Oleg and Oleg walk us around town. Actors, dressed like master Russian writers, perform in the park, with their version of “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Anton Chekov over.”
Oleg says, “I know that you watch your cholesterol, but how about lunch at KFC?” We opt for a Russian restaurant instead, and a platter of mixed grilled meats. Let’s at least have local cholesterol. Oleg is hospitable and charming. He shows us the few sights of Novosibirsk, including statues of Lenin and others, who welcome comers to the Opera and Ballet Theatre which is larger than Moscow’s Bolshoi.
The next day we do not wake until eleven o’clock, sleeping soundly in the basement room without windows of the comfortable “Hostel Zokol.” We sit at a café that evening and post a blog. Tomorrow, Oleg the driver will take us to the train station, for a two-night ride to Severobaikalsk, located in the boonies of Siberia on the northern shore of Lake Baikal, the deepest and largest freshwater in the world. Thank you Oleg, and Oleg! Ron Mitchell