Perils of Polly: All aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway

Posted: Friday, October 01, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Peril's of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Although she is now a teacher at Soldotna Middle School, the perils continue as she just returned from an around-the-world journey that started in Russia and ended in Tibet.

The Moscow train station was large and loud with echoing. It was crowded, but a quick glance revealed a couple of open seats. My sister and I settled in with our backpacks perched in front of us, and began people watching, trying to guess who were tourists and who were Russians just traveling across their own country. This was it. This was one of the highlights of our trip -- taking the Trans-Siberian Railway to Mongolia. We were done with the preliminaries -- required visitation of tourist attractions in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Now we were headed into the countryside. I could rest my blistered toe and aching legs from the last four days of non-stop walking from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

We took turns staying with our packs as the other wandered around the station because our packs were now filled with food in addition to our regular items. I had bought tea, bottled water, bread, cheese, and Nutella, and had brought instant flavored coffee from home. Sue had bought a case of box milk and cookies. She already had a small gym bag of survival food like Kitkats, M&Ms, Powerbars, and instant noodle soup. We felt like pack horses.

Finally the reader board said the train to Ulan Bator would be at turnstile 6. We grabbed our packs and headed out to the tracks. Our provodnitsa looked at our passports and let us on the train. It was so simple, we wondered if we were on the right train. We double checked, and an Ulan Bator sign was hanging in one of the windows.

We actually had two provodnitsas, a man and a woman, who took 12-hour shifts making sure we in car No. 3 had hot water, working toilets, locked toilets at stations, and didn't miss the train at the stops. The man was a short, plump, middle-aged gentleman who would occasionally crack his lips for a half-smile. The woman was totally stereotypical Russian: tall, large-boned, red-dyed hair, and never once in the five days did her lips part into a smile.

My backpack and I bounced off the walls of the narrow hallway until I found our berth -- two bunks in a room of four wood bunks with thin pallet mattresses and a small table adjoining the dirty window. We were supplied with clean sheets, a pillow, and a towel, so I made up my bed while I could, and Sue hoisted her pack to the top bunk. We watched through our doorway as others struggled down the hallway with large bags. We listened intently for English. We didn't hear any.

A young woman heaved a bag into our berth. She was Russian, with just a bit of English ability. At 9:35 p.m. sharp, the train began rolling out of the station. We tried to make small talk with our bunk mate, and watched the dirty Moscow tenement buildings dwindle with the light, and finally got ready for bed. That entailed finding the dreaded toilet. I was ecstatic to discover it was western style instead of squat, and I didn't even mind that when flushed, everything poured out on the tracks. I finally fell asleep, exhausted, despite the hard bed.

When we woke up in the morning, our bunkmate was gone. Sue and I smiled at each other. A quick survey of the train revealed that there were many empty berths. We spread out, welcoming the space, and began to meet our car mates. We found three who spoke English -- two young women from Sweden backpacking to Lake Baikal, and a student from Finland on her way to Mongolia. We had five days to get to know them.

About every four or five hours the train would stop at a station where women were selling whole fish, pirozhkis, and smoked chicken legs. I bought a pirozhki, eager to chomp into the unknown substance lurking between the layers of dough. Its total size was about 2 inches by 5 inches, and finally I bit into the miniscule teaspoon of some sort of jam in the middle. Quite a disappointment. The meat ones weren't any better.

At the stops, we western tourists stood out with our shorts and Capri pants, tank tops and t-shirts, and sandals, compared to the Russians with their heavy shoes or high heels and jackets. We sauntered past others wearing shorts and sandals, eavesdropping for English. We heard mostly German. We found no Americans.

By the second full day, we were in a groove: we played dice and cards with the girls, stared out the window at the panoramic view of extensive pine and birch forests littered with lupine and interspersed with gray, unpainted cottages with bright blue and white trim, grabbed scenic photos between dirt spots as the train chugged on at about 45 mph, and hopped out at the stops, getting the nod from the provodnitsas. We ate food when hungry and used the hot water from the car's samovar when we wanted tea or coffee. We even ventured through the five cars and 24 closed doors to get to the dining car for dinner and discovered the food there was not that bad or expensive. The menu had English and Russian writing. It was a good life. Relaxing.

Until we reached Omsk. We hopped out like always. It was the return that caught our breath. As I barreled down the hallway and turned into our berth, there, in the way, was a large camouflage-colored duffle bag. "Oh my gosh, we have a bunkmate," I yelled to my sister as I began grabbing personal items spread across the newcomer's bunk. She came in and hopped up to her own bunk. Neither of us could figure out why the powers that be would put someone in our berth when we had empty berths on either side of us. We sat and waited.

He was a Russian man about our own age, and his face showed as much shock as ours. Apparently he had never had older American women as bunkmates. He spoke absolutely no English. Through sign language and pointing, we discovered he would be with us until Ulan Ude, which was for most of the trip.

Language was soon to be revealed as a most important factor of social life!

Watch the Clarion Recreation page for the next installment of Polly's adventure.

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