Africa, Russia, Mongolia and China
Learning the Rules of a Foreign Land
A police officer dressed in a gray uniform and a blue fur hat holds up his index finger and waves it back and forth as I take a photo of my train.
Standing on the train platform in the Moscow, I was attempting to document my ride before setting off on a three-day ride.
“Sorry, I won’t do it again,” I say, as I shake his hand with a smile. He smiles back as I step onto the train.
It’s hard to know what you can or can’t do in Russia. Conflicting stories arise from travelers and past personal experiences. In St. Petersburg no one said anything as I snapped away at the train station. In Moscow, I find a different story. I decide to be more discrete, not wishing to push my luck. It doesn’t make sense; everyone walks around with cell phones that have cameras, making it virtually impossible to stop people from taking photos. I decide it must be a leftover from the Cold War days.
Unfazed by the brief encounter, I walk to my berth to meet my riding companion. Sitting across from me is a half-shaven, gruff-looking older Russian man. He’s wearing a sweater over a frayed blue plaid shirt. On top of both his hands are tattoos of designs unrecognizable to me. I say hello in Russian, he responds with a hello without a smile, and remains silent.
Great, I think to myself, this is going to be an interesting trip.
After showing him my photos of Nebraska, a time-tested way for breaking the ice, I finally am able to discover his name is Sasha.
Once the dam broke, the flood came.
For the next six hours, almost at a nonstop pace, Sasha proceeds to have a conversation with me in Russian. I constantly nod and smile, responding with: “no Russian.” It didn’t faze him for even an instant.
At one point it’s time to eat. I pull out some bread and cheese bought for the journey. Continuing in Russian, Sasha responds with a large sweeping wave of his hands to get rid of my food. From under the table he pulls out a white plastic bag filled with a whole roasted chicken. Next, a bag of tomatoes, boiled eggs and bread. A feast for kings, I say with a grin.
My berth is open, as is the case with the third class Platskartny ticket. There are no doors to shut. It is essentially a dorm carriage that sleeps 54 people. With four beds in each berth, and two beds in the corridor, the set up gives it a feeling of being on one big sleep over.
In the next berth is an older man named Victor. He was on his way home for his mother’s funeral. Sadness fills his face, a pain that he was attempting to numb with vodka.
Over and over Victor says my name in a long drawn out way, “Deannnnnn,” pauses for a moment, then says; “ma ma,” as he toasts his glass. I take an honorary shot of vodka for ma ma, and stop at one.
With the Russian winter countryside of log houses, snow and trees floating by my window, I drift off to sleep to the rhythm of the train wheels as my lullaby.
Early the next morning, I slowly crack open one eye, to spot Sasha picking up my blanket that had fallen to the floor. He spread his arms with the ends of the blanket in each hand and gently covers me back up before crawling back into his bed.