August 11, 2004
DAY 289: In the 19th century, America was on a conquest to expand its territory. Geographically, that meant head out to the old west, back in a time when it was the new west.
Meanwhile in Russia, a similar phenomenon was going on. While most European countries were scrambling for territories in Africa, Russia expanded east, consolidating its far east posts into a greater nation.
Both America and Russia linked their outer territories the same way: by laying down the tracks and constructing grand railways.
IN 1891, TSAR ALEXANDER II DECREED the creation of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would bring European Russians all the way to the Pacific. Between 1891 and 1916, the tracks were laid, but in 1900, even before completion of the railway, Russia showed off its big trans-continental train route -- the longest train route in the world -- to the world at the Paris Exhibition, promising travelers a way to the Pacific in a fast, luxurious style -- sort of like the Titanic on iron wheels. Like the Titanic, the railway failed to live up to its hype -- there were many delays and even dining car food shortages -- although there were no big incidents of mass deaths or a passenger to later be played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Nowadays the railway still exists, more of as a means for Russian citizens to get from city to city, or for non-Russian travelers holding Lonely Planet's Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook to go on the train ride of a lifetime from Europe to the Far East or vice versa. I expected the train ride to be a sort of international party on wheels filled with lots of chess and vodka, but to my chagrin, I was the only foreigner on the train -- and I knew very little Russian at all.
Body language came in handy when I climbed aboard the No. 118 train (picture above) at Moscow's Kazansky Station, going from Moscow to Novosibirsk with stops in cities along the way. My first leg on the Trans-Siberian Railway would take me about a quarter of the way to the city of Yekaterinburg on a 30-hour ride across two time zones. The standard accommodation for second-class coast was a four-person compartment with four beds in two bunks on each side. My three compartment mates were a family of three, a mother, father and daughter of about nine or ten years of age -- and none of them spoke English. Whenever they or the conductor would ask me anything, I'd just stammer, say, "Umm..." and smile. I figured that answering in English would be a waste of time, the way it would be for a Russian-only-speaking person to speak Russian on an Amtrak train. I could tell by the look of the Russian mother's face that she was saying, "Oh goodness, another damn tourist that can't speak our language..."
I did my best with body language and context, figuring out the customary train procedures by following example, from renting sheets, rolling out the mattresses to making the bed.
After the Russian father and I helped each other out with the linens, the family kept to themselves most of the time eating or sleeping for the first several hours. I didn't say much because I wanted to catch up on writing. I tended to my notebook as the train cruised by industrial areas and old train yards to the countryside of rivers and little villages.
With only a bottle of drinking water on me, I went over to the relatively fancy dining car, hoping to meet fellow English-speaking travelers in the same predicament as me -- but it was just me one-on-one with the Cyrillic alphabetic menu.
"[Something, something]," the humorless waitress said to me in Russian.
"[Something or something]," she said, pointing to two items on the first page of the menu. I replied by pointing to the top one.
"[Something?]" she said in indecipherable Russian.
"Um... da." ("Umm... yes.")
"[Something something something something something,]" she said in fast verbal Russian, so fast I didn't put any commas in there. "[Something?]"
"Um... da." I pointed to the item again.
"[Something, something?]" she asked.
"Um... " Smile. I looked through my Barron's Russian At A Glance pocket phrase book and she had a look to see if it could help her.
"[Something something, something,]" she said with two hand gestures, one like a plate and one like a bowl.
"Oh, no, no... I mean, nyet. Umm... " Smile, while making the plate gesture.
"[Something something?]" she asked. I figured she was asking if I wanted a drink with that, so I turned the page like I knew what she was talking about -- only to stare at another indecipherable page.
"[Something something,]" she said. In there I heard the words "pilva" (beer) and "Kola" (cola). "Kola?"
"No, I mean, nyet. Pilva."
In two minutes I had a beer and a plate of a dried shredded fish snack that I had no idea I ordered. It was okay, but I thought I ordered a substantial plate of food too. The waitress came back with the menu.
"[Something something,]" she said, pointing to the C, Y, upside-down rectangular U part of the menu. Like a beginner on Hooked On Phonics, I sounded out the word. S... oo... p... S... oop... Soop. Oh! SOUP! I am the smartest man alive!
I pointed and sounded out lupsha, chicken noodle soup from my phrasebook.
"Nyet lupsha," she said with a facial expression that said it wasn't available. "[Something] borscht."
"Oh, borscht is fine. I mean, da."
"Da. [Something] minyut," she said with five fingers up. Okay, in five minutes then.
In ten minutes I had a nice bowl of borscht and a plate of about six dinner rolls. I started eating it until the waitress brought over a thing of sour cream from the fridge, reminding me that borscht had sour cream in it. With all the bread the meal was quite filling -- and it better have been at the price of 400 roubles, about $13 USD, the price I paid for a three course meal at a restaurant in Moscow with Sam. It was no wonder everyone else brought their own food -- the only other people dining car but me were train staff and a dolled up Russian blonde sitting with two Russian guys.
"Um... " Smile. I pulled out my Russian phrasebook and she took it to find a phrase that would help her. I thought she would flip to the section on "Train Service" but she read and sounded out phonetically a phrase from the "Socializing" section.
"Are... you... free... this... evening?" she said, unsure of herself with a girlish giggle that made her about ten times hotter.
Am I free this evening? I thought. Really, is she serious? C'mon, I'm not exactly Brad Pitt here. Wait, stop staring down her shirt before she notices!
The conversation at the doorway woke up the half asleep Russian mother laying in the bottom bunk across the way. Russian Mom was diagonally facing from me, out of sight of the Russian blonde with the voluptuous body language, whose back was to her reading the phrasebook at my elevated bedside.
"Are... you... married?" asked the Beautiful Blonde Bombshell with the Body in the Black Bra.
The Russian mother saw what was going on there and flagged my eyes towards her with her concerned facial expression and index finger waving side to side.
"Would... you... like... a... drink?"
"Um... " Suddenly I saw the Russian mother was shaking her head No, with her finger violently swaying. Through body language, she was trying to tell me it was some sort of a scam or set-up. "...nyet."
"[Something something,]" the Blonde said.
"Cola? Mineral water?"
"Umm... " -- Damn, black bras are sexy -- "...nyet." Sigh.
She left after that, going onto the next car opposite of the way she came. The Russian mother gave me a smug smile and a thumbs up. I gave her the thumbs up back and she fell back asleep. Later on, I noticed the Beautiful Blonde Bombshell with the Body in the Black Bra going back towards the dining car with those two shady-looking Russian guys I noticed with her before.
To ask me if they could turn off the room light to sleep, the Russian father put his hands together to make a "pillow" and leaned his head into it.
The next morning, the Russian father told me what time I'd arrive in my destination by pointing at me and then "8" on his watch. The Russian family of three disembarked the train way before that time, but bid me farewell before stepping off.
"Goodbye," the Russian mother said with one of the few English phrases she knew.
"Da svidaniya," I reciprocated, reading from my phrasebook. It was totally unnecessary though; after all that we had been through, we could have just waved to each other.
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