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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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…
2nd Alex and Babushka Ludmilla
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