train to Irkutsk

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Another 2 day train ride…  in total I have spent about 10 days of the last month on a train…  I’ve learned that the more food, and the greater the variety, the easier the trip.  Making friends goes a long way too.  On this trip, I made friends with two Russian men; Alec and Zhenya.  Of course, their food was better than mine and I ate (again) like a king.  I was beginning to grow weary of all of the kind hospitality that has been plied on my by these Russian people.  They are such gracious hosts, they are so eager to treat you as an honored guest and invite you into their meal or party.

We had a 4 hour stopover in the town of Taiga.  Zhenya suggested we walk over the railroad tracks and go into town for some coffee or a beer.  There was a large contingent of Russian soldiers who agreed to pose for a photo when Zhenya told them I was from “Hollywood.”  The weather was quite cold as you can see (14 degrees F).

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Alex and Zhenya left early the next morning and were replaced by two men from China.  Specifically, they are from Manchuria in China’s far Pacific northeast.  They were very curious about me and asked to see my passport.  They compared the American passport to their Chinese passports and were very interested in my name, its spelling, my birthdate (age), the style of the passport, and they had all sorts of questions about where I had travelled and about my work.

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Both men spoke no English and little Russian, so we had a challenge communicating.  But, what Russian I did know went a long way in making the train ride much more enjoyable.  The man on the right wrote his name (in Chinese characters and in English; Ma Yun Kun – family name: Ma, first name Yun)  in my book and asked for my email.  He said that he had a Chinese/English translation program and wanted to stay in touch via email.

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Of course, these two guys brought a virtual restaurant and insisted on feeding me for the next 24 hours.  They had sausages, pickles, anchovies, noodles, and all sorts of other tasty foods.  The only thing that they had forgotten to bring was a knife.  They regularly asked me to use my knife to cut their bread and sausages and to open the different food wrappers.  When they tried to open a can with my knife, I stopped them and pulled out my Gerber (leatherman) and we used the can opener.  They were quite impressed with the leatherman and had not seen one before.  Yun opened all of the attachments and looked at each with great interest.  When I showed him the diamond blade saw and let him cut beer cans and bottle caps in half; he was quite pleased.

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The miles rolled on and on and I saw an endless sea of farm houses and barren fields covered in snow, endless little towns and train stations, and thousands of trees and farm animals.  The heat was working quite well, so much so that my drinks were all warm.  The two Chinese men and I tried to figure out a way to refrigerate my drinks and we finally settled on some 100mph tape and put the can outside the window.  Within 20 minutes, the Pepsi was 1/2 frozen.  The total time to chill a can to “cold” was about 12-15 minutes only.  The men had a look at my roll of 550 cord rolled up “Ranger” style.  They were very impressed with the green cord and were in disbelief when I told them that one strand could hold 220 kilos.  They tested this by stringing it between the bunks and standing on it.  I explained that if you looped the 550 cord 8 times, you could use it to pull a car.

Again, I felt so guilty with the generous hospitality that I was receiving.  These men did not know me at all yet they were sharing all of their food and drink with me.  I counted how many times I had been “invited” into the train feast of my fellow passengers.  It was at least a half dozen, maybe 7 or 8 times.  As I lay in my bed, I wished that there was something that I could do to show my gratitude.  Then, I remembered that my leatherman had its own blade; I had two knives and Yun had none.

I climbed up to Yun’s top bunk and presented my knife to him as a gift.  He tried to refuse but I insisted telling him that I had two knives and he had none.  He finally accepted and then became very happy.  He had a big grin and examined it very closely.  He opened it again and felt its razor-sharp blade.  I bought that knife at a US military PX (post exchange) some time ago.  I remember earlier this year Kevin was admiring it and tried to buy it from me.  Sorry Kevin, that knife should be in Manchuria by now.   I finally felt a little less guilty for all of the wonderful hospitality that I’ve received.

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In some of the stops we saw some “interesting” things that seemed worthy of taking the camera out of its case.  We saw a nice vintage train that was on display and I always enjoy watching the local vendors selling their food and wares to the train passengers.

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Later, I met Anja from Bavaria.  She was a few cars down and also travelling alone.  So, we decided to team up and travel together for the next 3 days until our paths would take us in different directions.  She was 2 months into a 12 month around the world trip.  Just like I did, she began in Odessa, Ukraine and studied Russian.  However, she had a few years of Russian studies at University and her skills were more advanced than mine.  She was able to communicate with most Russians (albeit in a quirky German/Russian accent) and it made my next 3 days of travel a lot easier.

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Yoshkar Ola, Mari El province

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A side trip along my trans-Siberian railroad adventure to visit a friend turned into an experience of a lifetime.  A friend that I have known for some time invited me to visit and to come to the University to speak to the English language students.  As I was passing only 2 hours away, I gladly agreed to make the detour.  When I inquired about some of the local hotels, I was surprised and pleased when I was invited to live with the family.  The offer to live with a family in Russia sounded like a unique and interesting opportunity.  I was very excited at the idea of this visit.  I was a bit reluctant at first, not because of a language or cultural difference, but because I was afraid that my visit might become a nuisance.  I was worried that the cliché, “Guests are like fish, they start to smell after 3 days,” would become a reality.

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I was pleasantly surprised by the family’s hospitality.  I expected them to be nice but I did not expect them to take me in and treat me as a member of their own family.  Even more, rather than a member of the family, I was treated as an honored guest.  Grandma cooked for me and worried over me that I was properly fed.  She seemed to want to fatten me up for my journey.  Grandpa was very inquisitive about me and we seemed to communicate despite my inability to speak Russian and his to speak English.  The mother of the house even gave me her bedroom so that I had a place to sleep and I felt so honored and humbled by her hospitality.

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Communicating with the family proved to be a fun and rewarding experience.  I had my nose buried in the dictionary the better part of each day trying to find Russian words – all written in Cyrillic – based on the sounds that Grandma and Grandpa made when they spoke to me.  Sometimes the word was easy, “Plohkah,” but sometimes, the word didn’t seem to spell the way it sounds (quite common in Russian as I have been learning).  Sometimes Grandma would get very animated, especially when I made her laugh and she would quickly speak 3 or 4 sentences before I could register one word.  I encouraged her and Grandpa to speak in two-word sentences and use a lot of hand gestures.  When they remembered, we seemed to communicate ok; albeit in a slow and methodical pace.  Grandpa used a lot of hand signals and gestures, I did the same.  He was very patient and didn’t mind explaining things to me over and over while I looked up words in the dictionary.  The situation was not as conventional as a traditional Russian language school setting, but it was fun and I got to eat well as Babushka tried to fatten me up.
I visited the Yoshkar Ola Art Museum and saw some beautiful water colors by Russian painters.   There was an exhibit of water colors by a Yoshkar Ola artist.  I found the local artist’s water colors and the oil paintings to be very beautiful.  I would have been happy to own many of them and hang them in my home.  Later, we toured another part of the museum that was displaying avant-garde art.  I am not sure that this type of art is my cup of tea, but it was interesting none the less.

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heading to Yoshkar Ola

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At the Kazan train station, I saw some gypsies begging for money.  I have seen them at nearly every city that I have visited.  Notably in Odessa, I saw an older woman and 3 younger women have a “strategy” meeting in the main walking street.  She pointed to 2 or 3 restaurants and to the McDonalds.  Each of the young women went to their “assigned” work area and began panhandling for change.  The girl who came to my restaurant appeared to be about 18 or 19 years old.  She carried her young baby as she went from table to table on the patio.  When she finished making her rounds, she tried to go inside the restaurant but was driven out by a waitress.  Outside the Kazan station, I realized that I did not have a photo of any gypsies so I shot one from a distance.


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Stories, posts, reports, photos, videos and all other content on this site is copyright protected © and is the property of Scott Traveler unless otherwise indicated, all rights reserved. Content on this site may not be reproduced without permission from Scott Traveler. My contact information can be found on the home page.

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