Wednesday, August 7, 2013

First Leg: Moscow to Yekaterinburg

Farewell at Kazansky Station
First of all, I should note that pictures will have to wait until I'm back in the States, unfortunately. I'm going to try and update my account at each stop, but no promises. The next entry should come from Novosibirsk, a couple days from now. To begin, I'll start at Kazansky Station in Moscow where, after several days getting over jetlag and skulking around Moscow with Cole Akeson, my old friend from Macalester, the real adventure began.
The care with which Cole and Inga, his Russian girlfriend tucked me into my cabin on the train at its very beginning drove home the scale of this journey. They probably understand the distance and conditions better than anyone else I've talked to since I hatched this plan last year, and they made sure I got exactly the right bunk and had my backpack safely stowed away beneath my cabin before taking their leave.
Settling in.
Traveling in a second-class kupe involves getting comfortable with tight space. As befits someone who likes apartments and reads Napoleonic era naval fiction, I generally enjoy this sort of thing, but it would be very difficult to stay cooped up in a compartment for a week, which is the length of the journey if you go straight across from Moscow to Bejing. There are four bunks to a cabin, two below and two up top, with about as much space in-between as the width of another bunk. Generally, I spent a good deal of time on the first leg of the trip considering the relative merits of sitting upright, lying down, or curling up in a three-quarters position. I read the guidebook and a travel book that I brought along, In Xanadu, practically cover to cover, and also wrote up four separate entries in my journal. This urge occurred not because I had particularly interesting things to jot down, but because writing provided a welcome break from reading. I noted minor triumphs, such as discovering that the toiled flushed via a foot pedal, or that you have to press the bottom of the tap in the bathroom for water rather than fiddling with the knobs on the wall. I am actually a little concerned that I may run out of things to read, but since I have not yet broached War and Peace, it probably won't be a problem.
Oleg and Ivan.
Gradually, over the course of the first afternoon, I made the acquaintance of the other guys in my cabin. Across from me was a silent fellow whose name I never did catch, though he did extend a helping hand when I needed to prop up my bunk to get at my backpack. He spent the ride watching American action movies on his laptop and listening to his iPod, and he disappeared during the night as I dozed off. On the top bunks were two chattier characters, especially Oleg, who, along with his buddy Ivan, was off to Lake Baikal for eight days of backpacking around the shores. When the stewardess came by to take our orders for meals, these two helped decide what I should have, and then took me along to the restaurant car when it was time to actually eat. This carriage was deserted except for the second morning when a couple of young policemen sat at the table across from us. They avoided any eye contact and sat staring miserably out the window, on the verge of tears or a temper tantrum, I couldn't tell which. Nearby, the stewardess and her friends were carving a deliciously fresh watermelon into generous slices, which I eyed greedily, to little avail. Our own two restaurant meals consisted of meat, a grain (pasta or barley), and some canned vegetable, all floating in a sea of grease. At least it was filling. 

Cabin meals, by contrast, were much more pleasant. The second morning, having slept deeply until 9:30, I woke to some shifting around in the bunk on top of me. Oleg's legs were soon snaking down from above; next, he was encouraging me to join him for breakfast and asking if I wanted some hot water for tea from the samovar at the end of the corridor. Thanks to Cole and Inga, I was prepared with some food of my own, so we shared bread, sausage, cucumber, tomato, and some nuts and dried fruit. Between Ivan's Kindle's Russian-English translation capabilities and some shared rudimentary German, we established some basics of background and interests. By the afternoon, when the train stopped for a half-hour at a deserted station to attach a new engine, Oleg was escorting me around the platform as if I was a younger, foolish cousin. Ivan even gave me an ice-cream, one of a sack that he had purchased at a kiosk on the platform. For some reason, Russian ice cream doesn't seem to melt.
An hour or two later, after passing by more of the rolling, green forest that seems to be a mix of deciduous and conifers, we came to the Yekaterinburg Station. 1500 kilometers complete - the first of five legs. In all, it took about 27 hours. For the time being, I'm cooling my heels in cafes and wandering around town, trying to stay fully hydrated and well-fed to make the next stage of the train as pleasant as possible. I head off for Novosibirsk tonight around 6 PM.

A brief stop near Yekaterinburg.
A last note: I have never before visited a country where postcards are so scarce (plenty of magnets and Soviet-era pins, however). So, unfortunately, those of you whose addresses I asked for before my departure may not get anything in the mail after all.

In front of the Yekaterinburg city hall.

No comments: