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Published: August 6th 2007
Being just the 2 of us lasts, oh, about a minute. We find the platform, watch as our filthy dirty wagon is attached to the otherwise pristine train and pile into our 4 berth cabin to meet our travelling companions for the 24 hour journey to Novosibirsk. Rodzal is a tartarski soldier in his early twenties from Kazan, travelling alone back to work in Ulan Ude after holidays back home. He is blonde, tanned, shaven-headed, speaks a very few words of English and has undertaken the 4 day train journey without anything to read, any music, games, cards, drink or any distraction of any description. He sits on his bottom bunk and watches us or stares at the bunk above and that's him for the trip. I like him, he is very relaxed and polite and hopefully not a serial killer. It's always the quiet ones as they say. The other bunk is claimed by Mikhail. Mikhail loves to drink. He is a train driver on his way to Irkutsk with his posse of train driver mates. They all love to drink too. One by one they tumble into our cabin in a splendid state of loved-up drunkeness. Much hand-shaking, back-slapping
and heart-thumping ensues, beer is passed around, names and countries exchanged and we trundle through the dark forests of the Urals in a haze of vodka fumes and shouts of 'Churchill!'.
Next morning, Nico is introducing himself as Nikolai and has learned the Russian word for bear. Alledgedly one of our friendly train driver mates earned the deep scar across his face in a tussle with a not so friendly bear. The view out the window is trees, trees, trees. I curl myself up with Dr Zhivago and read, snooze, eat, snooze, read and listen to Nico chatting with the train drivers. The conversation lacks depth but is surprisingly full and cheerful given that their French/English is limited to European prime-minister names and the word 'Alright' and Nico can say 'bear' and 'beer' in Russian. Time passes easily, Rodzal stares and - am I imagining it? - starts to develop a twitchy mouth. We slip into Siberia and watch the sunset through the grimy windows of wagon 14.
Our midnight arrival at Novosibirsk station is a joyous affair. Sergei, Sasha, Mika and the rest of the boys escort us off the train in fine style with our various
bags juggled and balanced between them as they stumble, sing and shout their way down the wagon. We say our goodbyes and leave them laughing away on the platform - a good days drinking done and 2 more to go. I will miss them - they were very good-natured and friendly and made our journey a most memorable one. I hope we did the same for them.
We check in to the luxurious Novosibirsk station hotel and fall asleep to the Sound of Music in Russian on our tiny tv.
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