I wandered down the aisle of the 60-person common carriage of the Moscow - Severobaikalsk train. I was bording it at Krasnoyarsk, thirty hours before the end of its journey, but I wondered whether any of the mostly sleeping people around me were really doing the whole multi-day trip right from its beginning, 4000km west of here.
After swapping beds with a small, dark-skinned man who wanted to be nearer his friends I found my new place, stowed my stuff and unfurled my mattress. Once the train had set off the carriage attendant brought me sheets and a pillow case, I made my bed, clumsily climbed up onto it and somehow contorted myself into the gap between it and the overhead baggage shelf while trying desperately not to commit the heinous faux-pas of touching someone else's bed or the table with my feet.
Opposite me on the top bunk was a girl who did not wake up until just before her stop and below me were a babushka and her grandaughter who never stopped knitting. Gradually more and more people woke up and started moving around, going to the toilet, getting hot water for packet noodles or buying tea
and coffee from the carriage attendant. The most notable denizens of our wagon were a large group of girls in their late teens under the supervision of only one babushka. Without exception wearing nothing other than knickers or hotpants and a T-shirt and constantly wandering up and down the aisle and making prodigious amounts of noise, more than one or two pairs of eyes interestedly followed their movements, more than one or two attempts at friendly conversation were put forward.
After a couple of hours we made our first long stop at a station called Ilanskaya. A line of babushkas as long as long as the train itself had set up stall along the platform and was offering a mouth-wateringly greasy selection of home-made pies, salads, fish, packet noodles and of course alcoholic beverages. I picked up three pies, one filled with cabbage, one meat and one tvorog (sweet cottage cheese) and went back to the carriage to eat them. I sat down at the aisle end of the lower bunk but the babushka who was lying down under her sheets sat up and asked me if I would like to sit at the table.
"No, it's ok,
stay where you are," I replied.
"What on earth do you mean, you can't eat there," she answered, getting up, moving down the bunk towards the aisle and ushering me to sit where her head had been next to the table.
After two pies I got up and walked down to the other end of the aisle, past the toilet and into the smoking space between carriages. I smoked while listening to a shaven-headed, red-faced, middle-aged man complaining in a drunken slur: "The main thing is I've been on the train since Moscow, I've got one of the short beds and now they're even telling me they won't open the toilet for the next half hour..."
The day progressed, alternating between stints of reading in bed and stints of smoking and eavesdropping on conversations in the space between carriages.
Cigarette. A guy on the phone: "What, my darling little angel, you've got a cold? Drink hot tea and fifty grams of vodka... what? Yes with honey, if you want..."
Bed. At Tayshet we passed onto the BAM, a railway running parallel to the Trans-Siberian but around 500km further North and much less-used.
girl on the phone: "Don't worry, grandma, he's behaving himself... no, he's only had one small glass..."
Bed. The tracks passed along the top of the 1km long, 125m tall dam at Bratsk.
Cigarette. The guy I had swapped beds with was there smoking too. "How's it going?" he asked. His decision to ask me that question would drastically alter the course of the next three and a half days for me.
"Not bad," I replied, "You?"
"Yeah, not bad too. You're not Russian, right?"
"No, I'm English."
"English? What are you doing here?"
"I live in Moscow but I've got twelve days holiday so I decided to travel the BAM. After Severobaikalsk I'm going to Novy Urgal, Komsomolsk-na-Amure and Khabarovsk."
He nodded. "What do you do in Moscow? You study?"
"No, I'm an English teacher, I work there. What about you, what do you do?"
"I build tunnels, railway tunnels."
Just then the door opened and someone else joined us, a taller, fair-haired man in his mid-thirties.
"This is my friend, my co-worker," said the small, dark-skinned man I had swapped beds with, then, to his friend
and pointing at me, "He's an Englishman."
"Ah, English! How... are... you?" he said in heavily-accented English and with a sizeable pause in between each word.
"Fine," I said, grinning broadly. They roared with laughter.
"I... understand...a little... English," said the taller, fair-haired man. More roars of laughter, this time from all of us.
"What... is... your...name?"
"Ed," I replied. "And you?" It turned out the taller one was Zhenja and the shorter was Misha.
"Maybe... one hundred grams... Russian vodka?"
"Why not," I replied to the loudest peels of laughter yet.
We sat down at their table, they took out a bottle from under it and poured its remaining contents into a glass for me.
"Wait, that's loads," I said, "Let's share it out between us."
"No, no we've already drunk a lot, this is for you." I was pleased to see they were using the familiar form of the Russian word for "you" rather than the polite form. Being addressed with the polite form makes me a bit uncomfortable and around Moscow it seems to be much more strictly used with new acquaintances than in Siberia. Even the
carriage attendant had been using the familiar form with me right from the start, something that could even have caused serious offence on a train in the Moscow region.
"Well, thank you very much," I said, raising the glass. "Here's to you guys, to your hospitality and to Russia."
"Stop!" Zhenja almost yelled.
Crap, what the hell have I done wrong, I thought nervously.
"You can't drink it without eating! Here, get yourself some salami, bread and mayonnaise and have it ready to eat after you do the shot."
I did as told, grimacing as the overly generous measure went down my throat.
"Great," Misha said, bringing out a large brown plastic bottle from under the table. "Unfortunately now all we have is this beer. It's Russian. Shit."
He poured out a glass for each of us. A third guy in the upper bunk stirred from his slumber. "That's Sasha," Misha told me. Sasha and I exchanged greetings.
"You don't want a glass of beer?" I asked him.
"No, no, he can't, he mustn't," Zhenja said mysteriously and the matter was left at that.
"So where do you guys work?"
I asked them.
"We've worked all over the place. On the BAM, in Sochi, even in Moscow. Right now we're working at a small place in between Abakan and Krasnoyarsk. It's shit, we have to spend twenty days there then we have ten days off and it takes us about two days to get home."
"Where do you live?"
"Severomuysk. We have to wait all day at Severobaikalsk then get another train five hours further east."
"Where... do....you... live...in... Moscow?" Zhenja had switched back into his slow, simple but surprisingly accurate English.
"In the suburbs, a place called Khovrino," I replied in Russian.
"Ah...Khovrino...yes...I know!" Zhenja exclaimed, apparently almost ecstatic. He nodded for a couple of seconds then went on, "I...am...sorry...my...English..."
"Don't worry about it, it's great," I said, smiling.
"How do you say 'ya vso zabuil' in English?" he asked me.
"'I've forgotten everything,'" I replied.
"Yes, yes...I've... forgotten... everything."
"Yeh with a language you really need to practice it every day or that happens," I said.
"I know but who with? Nobody here speaks English," he said, semi-disdainfully waving his hand in the direction of the other occupants of the carriage.
Some time past midnight we ran out of beer. It was generally agreed that we should buy some vodka from a carriage attendant as they asked extremely steep prices for beer. We passed from carriage to carriage but every attendant denied having any to sell. Eventually we arrived at the restaurant in the final carriage where the train manager was drinking with a group of friends. "Don't say anything," Zhenja whispered to me.
"Excuse me, could we ask you for a bottle of vodka?" Misha addressed the train manager.
Without even looking at him she replied in a humourless voice that yes he could ask but that she would charge him eight times the usual price because the restaurant was already closed and it was not allowed to sell vodka any more. Misha and Zhenja pleaded but she remained adamant and gradually lost her probably almost non-existant patience for this sort of thing.
"Excuse me...please...my... friend ... is...," Zhenja said, breaking into English in desperation. At that she started pushing us towards the door.
We lit up cigarettes outside. "That bitch, so smug, and all her friends drinking - the red-faced drunk guy in the middle's clearly screwing her... You're lucky you met us Ed, we're normal, good, working people. There are lots of bad people around too, you have to be careful in Russia, people can try to mess you around, cheat you, rob you..."
We went back trying all the carriage attendants again, all of them vigorously denying that they had any vodka and saying that selling it to us could lose them their jobs. When we were nearly back at our carriage Zhenja and I lit up cigarettes in the smoking area. Misha was still in the aisle talking to the attendant.
"What's he doing?" I asked Zhenja.
"Wait, he's a specialist in this sort of affair," Zhenja answered. Sure enough on his return Misha informed us that he had managed to get her to admit that she had vodka but she wanted six times the normal price for it.
The decision was taken to try to get a taxi to a shop at the next station, where the train would be stopping for only 12 minutes. "You won't make it in time," Sasha mumbled from under his sheets on the top bunk.
We leaped off the train as soon as the door was open and the steps down, to a sharp "We can't wait if you're late" from the carriage attendant. We raced up a hill to where five taxis were waiting but they had all already been reserved by people on the train.
"OK, I'm going to run, it's just up that hill," Zhenja said pointing at a horrendously steep and tall slope with a set of wooden steps leading up it.
"You won't make it in time," Misha said, turning back.
"Yes we will," Zhenja replied, "come on, Ed."
We started leaping up the steps two at a time but he quickly got ahead of me. I realised he was a lot faster and that if there was any doubt about even him being able to do it on time then I certainly would not be able to.
"Zhenja!" I yelled amid gasps and splutters, "Take my money and go, I'll make sure they don't close the train doors before you come!"
He took my money and bounded off into the night.
When I arrived back at the train the carriage attendant was just lifting up the steps that allowed passengers to descend to the platform when the doors were open at a station.
"Wait!" I shouted, "My friend's just gone to a shop, he'll only be a minute!"
"OK, OK, we're not leaving quite yet," she told me, putting the steps back down. The minutes dragged despairingly by as I waited there on the dimly-lit platform. Good God, what have I got poor Zhenja into, I thought, he might not have been so keen to do this if I hadn't been there... But then he appeared out of the darkness, seemingly not even out of breath and with a suspicious bottle-shaped bulge under his jacket. The train left under a minute later.
"You see," Zhenja told me, "Russian people will do anything for the sake of vodka. And for the sake of people."
We ended up only having a few shots each that night. It was 3am, two hours since our last drink, and the impetus had worn off. The moment had been lost and it was past the time when the session could be continued with any vigour.
At 8am, however, I was shaken awake for a breakfast of biscuits, bread, sprats and vodka.
"Ed," said Zhenja, "I would like to invite you to stay at my house in Severomuysk. I wanted to say this before we drink so that you know it's a serious offer."
After that the toasts followed hot on the heels of one another with alarming speed.
"To our meeting!"
"To your kindness!"
"Eat more, Ed, or the vodka will finish you off!" Zhenja warned me.
"I'm OK, really, I'm not very hungry..."
"Ed," Zhenja said, looking at me seriously, "Their are no supermen where vodka's concerned. She always wins. Eat."
I tore of a hunk of bread from the loaf, put a sprat on top and popped it into my mouth.
"Look at all this snow," Zhenja said, pointing out of the window. "Polny pizdets!"
"What does 'polny pizdets' mean?" I asked, knowing both words, the second one rather rude, but not understanding the expression they made when placed together.
"It's like what you say when everywhere everything is wrong or bad. No one's got any money - polny pizdets. Snow everywhere - polny pizdets. No vodka on the train - polny pizdets." He pointed out of the window at the taiga forests hemming in the rail tracks. "Trees everywhere - polny pizdets." I sensed he was getting a little carried away now.
The one or two hours of that day that I actually remember are so blurry that I cannot say how long it took us to finish the one litre bottle but I am sure it was pretty quick. Afterwards Zhenja and I went for a walk through the carriages and found someone he had used to work with, a grey-haired, moustached man with a face that for some reason made me think of a cheeky but nice little dog. He pulled out a bottle of vodka from under his seat and told us to drink it, having only one glass himself because his wife was meeting him at the station.
I woke up in a room I did not recognise. It was just getting light the next morning. I had not a single memory from the last twenty hours.
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