Someone once told me there is a saying in Russia: “Whenever you wake up, it’s morning.”
I wasn’t so sure if they were talking about the long nights and short days of winter or the fact that there are large volumes of vodka consumed in Russia inducing a certain type of sleep.
One thing was for sure: I had several mornings on my four-day ride across central Russia. The long, slow ride seemed to hypnotize me into a nap in the middle of the day, often leaving me wide awake at 3 a.m. staring out my window to watch the moon illuminate the dark countryside.
At times my body would get fed up sitting for long periods of time, so I would walk the corridors of the train to see what I might find. It wasn’t unusual to see naked feet dangling in the walkway over the end of short beds or people playing chess. The preferred outfit for the long ride was polyester tracksuits and slippers of all makes and kinds. Each sleeping area was transformed into living quarters, as people filled tables with food snacks and books to occupy their idle time. When time allowed at stops, I would disembark and walk around the platform.
At one stop, I jumped off the train and walked up to a small store crammed full with everything imaginable and anything remotely needed for a long train ride. I pointed to a bag full of small packets of instant coffee, labeled American Style. The clerk handed me the bag, and I handed her the money. I promptly jumped back onto the train to escape the freezing bitter cold.
A few minutes later a stern looking policeman comes on the train searching for me. He instructed me to follow him.
I thought to myself, “Uh oh, now what did I do?”
Our path led back to the small shop.
The woman inside rambled something in Russian, smiled, and then handed me my unexpected change. Returning her smile, I said thank you, blew her a kiss and jumped back on the train to the sound of her laughter.
People in Russian are friendly, but they are hard to get to know. I have concluded a long ride across Russia, as a voluntary prisoner in a train compartment, is one of the best ways to break down barriers. Even the most reserved riding companions have the human quality called curiosity and eventually want to know who you are and why you’re here.
She was from western Russia and was on her way to visit her daughter who lived in Siberia. I smiled and said hello.
“Please sit down. I am babuchka.” (Russian for Grandmother).
Of course it was insisted I sit down and join the feast at the table.
“Aren’t you afraid to travel alone in Russia?” she asks.
“Should I be?” I respond.
“Yes, Russia is a dangerous place.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“Well, not really. It’s just dangerous.”
“I’ll be all right, as long as I keep meeting people like you,” I say.
“Here, you might need these.” She hands me over a pair of wool socks she knitted. “Russia is a cold place.”
“People like you make it a little warmer,” I tell her while saying thank you for the kind gift.
Time brings me to the train station of Irkutsk; I wave goodbye to my new friends through the window who are bound for different lands.
On the platform I see a beautiful young woman holding a sign with the name DEAN spelled in block blue capital letters.