Ekaterinburg to Tomsk

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My train was not due to depart until 0240.  I took my time getting to the railway station and then set up shop in the waiting area sipping coffee and typing away on my “new” blog.  At 2am, I noticed that my train had not yet come in.  When I inquired, I was told that my departure time is “Moscow time,” and that my train would not arrive until 0440am.  Grrr….  Well, at least I’ll be tired to sleep on the train.  While killing 6 hours in the train station, I had occasion to use the toilet.  This became a royal pain in the neck as I had to strap on the ridiculously heavy back pack, the little computer bag/backpack, my sack of groceries for the train, my jacket, and now my gloves and hat.  After several rounds of dressing, heading to the toilet, and heading back to the waiting area, I decided to capture the moment and took a photo.

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This train ride was my first try at a 3rd class trip.  Previously, when I traveled west of here, I was only offered 1st or 2nd class tickets.  I tried both and found the people in 2nd class to be more friendly and open.  When I bought my ticket, there was no 2nd class ticket offered.  The price between 1st and 3rd class was about 350%  So, I thought I’d try 3rd to see how it would be.  The first difference that I noticed was that the beds were in an open bay arrangement instead of 4 beds per berthing room.  I wondered if it would be too bright or two loud.    Since it was already 5am and I had not yet made my bed, I didn’t think that sleeping in the open bay would be difficult.

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Immediately, I could see the difference in the attitudes of the people in the 3rd class carriage.  One young man who boarded the train just behind me walked to the bed just across from mine.  It looked like we would be neighboring bunk mates.  Before I could blink, he offered his hand for a hand shake and introduced himself as Russlan.  I was delightfully surprised at his friendliness.

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Russlan and Babushka Tamara

After the train departed, we waited for the train attendant to bring out linens.  The cue at the toilet was long as the recently boarded train travelers lined up to wash their faces and brush their teeth before going they went to bed.  As we waited, the travelers who were sleeping near me began inquiring about me.  They were curious what I was doing there, if I was working, etc.  In a very short time, I knew everyone’s names; Ludmilla, Nina, Tamara, and of course, Russlan.

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Babushkas (plural Babushki) Tamara and “crazy” Nina

We chatted a bit, no doubt disturbing the travelers who were on the train previously and who were already sleeping.  I tried my best to keep my voice down, but Nina seemed to spontaneously burst out talking loudly.  She was quite an animated woman.  Several times, I had to remind Grandma Nina to “shoosh” because she was talking so loudly and I could see other passengers waking up.  I estimated Ludmilla to be in her late 40’s, perhaps early 50’s.  Tamara and Nina were both in their 60’s or 70’s and identified themselves as Babushka (grandma).  Ludmilla then chimed in that she was also a grandma.  I asked about her family and learned that she had one child and one grandchild.

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Babushka Ludmilla

I finally got to bed sometime around 0630.  The bed was harder than the other trains and a bit shorter.  My long legs occasionally hung into the walkway and were politely tapped by fellow passengers trying to walk by.  This of course woke me up, but despite the slightly harder conditions, I slept well.  Unlike the 1st and 2nd class trains that were continually hot or cold, the 3rd class train had a constantly regulated temperature and remained constant at 24-25 degrees Celsius.  I slept in shorts and a t-shirt using only the sheet (no blanket) comfortably.  Another big difference was the bathroom.  Not only was it of a “new” design, it was fully stocked with paper towels, soap, and toilet paper.  The bathrooms were cleaned regularly and were surprisingly sanitary and modern.

As I began drinking my coffee I reached into the travel bag that was given to me by my adopted Babushka from Yoshkar Ola.  Before I departed the family I was living with, Grandma gave me a travel bag with all sorts of food; hard-boiled eggs, chicken, bread, cheese, sweet waffles, and a huge bag of apples that the family had grown on their summer farm.  I offered apples to my co-travelers and in proper Russian hospitality; Russlan trumped my offer by insisting that I try his grandmother’s special dish.  It looked like a hamburger patty but was thicker and had more “stuff” in it.  It had the consistency of perhaps meatloaf mixed with hamburger.  It was really good, well seasoned and tasty.  I asked him what it was made of.  He shrugged his shoulders and said “something Babushka.”  I looked it up in the dictionary and found that he had said, “We don’t know, its grandma’s secret recipe.”

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As the train ride continued, I continued to talk to my travel companions.  Primarily, I talked with Ludmilla.  She seemed very interested to talk and was genuinely curious.  The others mostly listened in, including many of the passengers not in our area but still within earshot.  Ludmilla helped me to write down new Russian words that I’d heard.  She narrated the sights along the way.  And when it started snowing, she taught me how to say, “The snow is falling.”  It is amazing the things you think of to talk about on a 2 day train ride.  But in 48 hours in a confined space and you can get to know someone pretty well.  These people were hospitable without a sense of pretension and they were comfortable to talk to.  They were salt of the earth Russian people and I really enjoyed getting to know them.

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One thing for sure is that the Russians in 3rd class liked me.  Many people from other compartments came to our area to sit and talk, listen, and to ask questions.  Like at the University, I felt a little like a movie star.  But, I think that being as humble as possible, offering to share food, trying my hardest to speak Russia.  I think these people appreciated my efforts.  Many times, some “visiting” travelers would sit at the foot of Nina or Tamara’s beds and usually around dinner time, there was a party atmosphere in our area.  Babushka Nina started talking in her (very) loud voice and the only word that I understood out of the whole conversation was “lublow,” which is “love.”  We went around and around with the translation, I tried to look up her question in the dictionary.  But Nina just talks too fast, so it took a lot longer.  Finally, I came to the realization that she was trying to set me up for a date.  I inquired if it was her daughter or her granddaughter that she wanted me to meet?  The WHOLE train got very silent and waited for her answer.  She looked at me quiet defiantly and said that it was she who wanted to match with me.  The train remained quiet waiting for my answer.  Clearly, she was teasing me and all of the Russians were waiting to see how I would respond.  I looked up a few words quickly from my dictionary.  Then I got up, walked over, and sat right next to her.  I put my arm around her and said, “Well mama, that sounds just fine to me.”  The train howled with laughter as Babushka Nina turned bright red.  She teasingly slapped my shoulder and hollered at me in rapid Russian.  I went back to my seat high fiving the other passengers on my way back.  I’m not sure what crazy means in Russian, but if it has no translation, the Russians surely know what it means in English because I called Nina “crazy Babushka” and it stuck, for the rest of the ride, everyone referred to her as crazy Babushka.

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Russlan and “crazy” Babushka Nina

The miles rolled by and rolled by.  An endless sea of land that continues and continues; I have been travelling for a week and I’m not even part way across Russia.  Towards sunset, we started noticing patches of white snow.  We stopped and so many small train stations that I can’t begin to remember all of their names…  The temperature continued to drop and by the time we reached Omsk, Ludmilla announced that we were now in Siberia.

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City of Omsk:  “… now we’re in Siberia…”

One of the “visiting” (drunk) travelers from the rear of the train came back after a bathroom break and announced that a man was writing English in a book towards the rear of the train.  We told the drunk traveler guy to fetch this English speaker.  A few moments later Tom, from Oxford, England came forward.  He was very excited to hear that there were English-speaking people on the train.  Apparently, he knows NO Russian and was a bit lonely on his trans-Siberian R/R journey.  He brought some gingerbread cakes and we snacked on them while Ludmilla made us cheese and salami sandwiches.

And even later, a group of 4 young men joined the train.  They all looked like white kids who were trying to be rappers.  One of them, dressed like a bumblebee was named Alex.  He had just spent 4 months on a student work visa in New York.  His English was excellent.  He and his friends sat with us, went outside for a cigarette break, came back, went out, etc, etc.  I am sure that every young man under the age of 22 has ADHD.  Wanna ride a bike?

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Tom (Oxford) & Alex (Russian, just back from New York)

Just before dinner, a new traveler joined us.  His name was also Alex.  He is an IT computer guy.  He spoke pretty good English and it afforded all of us a chance to speak a little faster than using the dictionary and to clear up a few of the earlier conversations; “Oh, that’s what you meant,” or, “Yeah, that’s what I thought you had said.”  Alex and I talked quite a bit about politics.  He was disappointed that capitalism had failed Russia.  Just as I had told the young man in the train station in St. Petersburg in 2002, “Capitalism has not failed Russia.  Russia has never experienced capitalism.”  To this statement, he and the other passengers argued that Russia was now a free and democratic nation and that its economic system was capitalism.  I explained that in capitalism, there is free and fair trade.  In Russia, trade is controlled and manipulated by a few who have power and money.  In essence, it is “gangster capitalism.”  Alex argued a bit.  To counter, I asked Tom how much he paid for grades at Oxford.  He laughed and said that it was not allowed.  I asked him how much he paid the policeman to get out of a ticket.  He again laughed.  I asked him how much he paid to get a job, an apartment, etc.  Alex said that he understood my point.  I also pointed out how Russia’s oil is pumped and billions in profit are siphoned off to secret Swiss bank accounts.  He expressed great dismay and was worried that Russia would fall into chaos if something wasn’t done, and soon, to fix the problem.

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drunk visitor (left), 2nd Alex, and Babushka Tamara (right)

The next morning, we awoke to a landscape covered in snow.  Yeah, we’re in Siberia now…

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2nd Alex and Babushka Ludmilla

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Train ride to Kazan

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I’m not sure that I was looking forward to the train ride to Kazan.  When I first boarded the train, the older woman in my train compartment was not friendly at all, despite my attempts to talk to her in Russian and my occasional jokes (shutka).  After a little while, two other men named Vladimir (Vlad) & Dennis joined us in the 4 person berthing compartment.  Both men were both on their way home to Ekaterinburg after some work in Volgograd.  Dennis spoke a small amount of English and for the next 24 hours we talked quite a bit with our noses glued to the dictionary.  I can say that I do learn quite a bit of Russian travelling without English-speaking companions, especially when everyone else on the train only speaks Russian.  As we were departing Volgograd, Dennis called me to the port side of the train where we could clearly see the Mamayev statue on the horizon.  The statue stood defiantly on the horizon as the sun hung low in the sky.  It really was a beautiful sight.

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The Rubik’s cube was a hit as it always is.  Vlad was able to solve about 80% of the puzzle; I was quite impressed at his ability to get that far into the solution.

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Dennis and Scott

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Grouchy babushka (grandma) and Vlad departed early the next morning and were replaced by a pair of brothers who live on adjoining farms.  The brother on the left was quite camera-shy and seemed very protective of his privacy.  For this reason I did not take their picture and will not use their names, we’ll just call them left and right brother.  Left brother has piercing blue eyes, a few scars, and many tattoos on his arms and hands that looked like he had gotten in the military.  Brother right immediately began drinking a LARGE beer as soon as he was settled into his seat.  The two brothers brought about a dozen bags full of food, produce, and large cans of beer.  Brother right spoke in a slow and smooth Russian style that was very easy for me to follow.  I was able to recognize many of the words he spoke making it easy to look them up in my dictionary and then quickly write them into my journal where I could practice them for later memory retention.

Brother left who sat by the window (off right edge of photo below, Dennis on left side in white t-shirt) did more listening than talking and he looked very skeptically at me.  He seemed to have a “no-nonsense” type of personality and didn’t seem to get my sense of humor.  His brother and Dennis did seem to get it and we laughed and joked through the whole train ride; always with our noses buried in the dictionary.  Conversation was slow at times, but, with each new word I learned, it made it easier and easier.

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I took out the food that I had brought with me; some bread, a sausage, a few bananas, and some orange juice.  Not wanting to be impolite, I offered to share my breakfast (zavtrak) with my train companions.  Brother left looked at me with a mixture of indignation and pride as he proceeded to produce bag after bag of some of the most succulent Russian treats I have ever tasted.  The next 4 hours became a smorgasbord of one Russian dish after another.  The brothers seemed to take great pride in impressing me with the dishes that they served me.  I believe that the chicken was the best I have ever tasted in my life.  It was seasoned like none I have ever tasted.  I thought hard to remember a better tasting piece of chicken and I cannot think of any.  The chickens were raised on the brothers’ farms and were seasoned and cooked by their wives.  They also served me 3 kinds of bread that were filled with vegetables, meat, and another with carrots and cabbage.  They brought a large bag of apples that they had plucked from their own trees.  The flavor of the apples was amazing.  They did not taste like the store-bought apples in the US, they had so much more flavor.  It was like eating an apple that had an amplified flavor.  I am not sure if it was because they were home-grown or because of the Russian soil, but they were the best apples I had ever eaten.  All of the dishes that the brothers served me were quite tasty and the variety of flavors was akin to eating at a 5 star restaurant.  They also served potatoes, cucumbers, and some deep-fried bread that was full of cheese and meat.  The food that they had was vastly superior to the store-bought fare that I was eating.  I was glad to accommodate their egos as they fed me hour after hour.  They explained how they raised the chickens on their farm, grew their own apples, made their own dough with their own eggs, and produced the tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and other vegetables in their gardens.  They told me with great pride how their wives had made each dish, how they raised the chickens and grew the vegetables.  I was so grateful that I had taken the train across Russia rather than take an organized tour or flown in an airplane.  I have had such a unique opportunity to meet the people of Russia.  I have had a chance to see them in their lives, to hear about their daily schedules, to know what they think about many different topics.

As the hours passed by, more and more food was eaten, brother right drank many more beers, and I watched hundreds of kilometers of Russian landscape turn into thousands of kilometers passed…

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The conversation rotated from topic to topic.  We talked about their work, we talked about mine.  There is no Russian translation for my job, so, I usually keep it as simple as possible.  Most Russians do not understand, or, if they do understand, cannot believe that I get paid to do what I do, and am allowed to take so much time to travel.  The two brothers work in the oil fields when they are not at home working on their farms.  The amount of vacation time they were allotted by their companies was liberal by any standard; Dennis was impressed (perhaps even a bit envious) when the brothers told of their work/vacation cycle.  Throughout the trip, brother right continued to drink beer and did not stop for the next 24 hours.

Eventually, the conversation turned to the Army.  Brother right announced that he had served in the Army.  He served during the time of the Afghanistan War and was worried that he would be sent there to die.  Fortunately, he was sent to other duties that included a short tour in East Germany.  I asked him how he found the German women and he said, rather disappointedly, that he was kept on base and not allowed to mix with the population.  I was asked if I had served in the Army and I said that I had.  They did not ask too many questions, which relieved me a bit as discussions on the topic of Iraq are usually a long and emotionally charged – for me at least.  Perhaps, in an attempt to change the subject, I asked brother left if he had served in the Army.  I had long suspected that he had as he had the “1,000 yard stare” of someone who had faced death and had survived.  He looked right at me and began talking in Russian.  After a short speech, he crossed his arms forming an “X” and stopped talking.  Dennis translated, “He says he was in the Special Forces and he does not talk about his Army time.”  The look in brother right’s eyes had a very serious look and I believed him.  The many tattoos on his arms and shoulders began to make sense…

As we neared Kazan, the style of the houses changed.  I began to notice more and more color on the houses.  Many were painted in green, blue, or red.  Dennis pointed out that many of the Muslims paint their houses green in deference to their religion as green symbolizes Islam.  He and I talk about religion.  He is Muslim and is married to a Christian woman and he is surprised to hear about the segregation of the religions in the Middle East.

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When the train finally reached Kazan at about 2130, Dennis pointed out my “intended” hotel as the train sped by.  When it was time to finally depart my new friends, I asked Dennis to translate and I told the brothers that it was my great pleasure to meet them, I thanked them for their food and hospitality, and I wished them well on their journey.  Brother left remained true to his nature and politely nodded.  Brother right jumped to his feet and walked me to the door.  He continued to follow me down the hall and outside to the train platform.  There, he shook my hand profusely and said over and over, “Das vidanya druk,” meaning, “Goodbye my friend.”  I was very happy to have met him and his brother.

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Seperator

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