Day 1 – Trans-Siberian Rail… Across Russia

22 Sep

Load’em up.

I’m sitting in the restaurant cart on the Trans-Siberian train, final destination is Beijing. Wow. I’m really at a loss for words. Wow.

I’m going to first describe where I am now at 11:25 am on Tuesday, September 14. Then, I’ll elaborate on how booth #3 became my trans-Siberian resting place.

The train is surprisingly nice. We’re in second class, meaning we have a door to our compartment and restrooms are in walking distance. Our car was “made in China,” an upgraded 1950s Russian model. Just don’t know how to describe it. I’ll take pictures. It’s a typical train.

The Russian restaurant car is another story. It’s old. Actually, it is more in line as to what I expected. Worn floors with patches of orange and blue spec terrazzo. (Go Gators…) Eight mini-booths – four on each side of the car – seating either two American contestants of the Biggest Looser or six Russian women.

As I look around, I’m not sure if it’s ever had a deep cleaning. Windows need a strong dousing of ammonia. The double pane windows are forced shut and the mold wanting to grow in the corners has turned to a lifeless brown. Russia appears dusty.

A Russian emblem rests at the windows base to give the room an air of elegance. The tables are wooden with a polyester gold and crimson fabric stretching over its top. (Go Seminoles…) When the sun hits the booth seats, it shines a winter, plastic green. There are two waitresses, showing off their magnificent cleavage under their tight, white button down shirts. The black tight skirts accent their grandma-looking underwear, and the nude Haynes hose conceal their narley feet in the black open toe sandal. Heavy black make-up line their eyes and it looks like they both are wearing the same crimson color lip stick. One is blond. She’s about 4’11 and round. The other wears the amber/red hair dye and is 5’5 in stature. Heaviness, bewilderment and annoyance are the three expressions they wear best.

Our waitresses don’t “look” Moscow or St. Petersburg-ish. They look like single moms, surviving the elements of their Siberian hometown. They landed this gig of riding the Russian rails to support their kids, father of their babies and consume “free” food. Speaking of free food, the cook just walked out. She is the first heavy woman I’ve seen in Russia. Hair slicked in a pony tail. No shoes. Full skirt. Olive green apron. If you sent back your food, she’ll more than likely let you starve.

Music is playing. It’s that damn Eminem song. It must be popular in the WWII countries. I hear it all the time. I sit in the restaurant car by myself sipping on coffee and nibbling on a chocolate muffin I did not order. I asked for milk and got a chocolate muffin with chocolate shavings. O’well. There is condensed milk somewhere inside the thing. Can’t and won’t send it back. I want to eat later.

It’s fall. Leaves are changing. We’re ambling by old Russian towns. Homes made out of wood and tin roofs. We’re passing by industrial plants and buildings. I’m thinking of cold winters.And, I can’t but think of Stalin’s campaign to kill and murder Russian traitors. How in the world was it possible for him to kill up to 30 million – some estimates say as high as 50 million – Russians pre and post WWII. I would have thought people living out in these providence would have killed his soldiers or his men. But, the civil war was so subversive you just never knew who was a traitor or not, so you just killed… friends, family…anyone who was against the Party. How could he inspire a national identity of Soviets in a country twice as large as America? Its unimaginable in these times – yet still happens today, all around the world.

Let me focus on the train ride and then I can devote time to another blog muddling through killing for the sake of security.

Did I tell you that I’m so happy that I’m here? That I’m having this surreal time. I keep pinching myself. Keep thinking…Is this me? Really?

Yesterday in Moscow was uneventful. The day prior, the Swedes, Canadian and I “did” Moscow. I will tell you more about the Kremlin, Gorky Park and Lenin’s tomb later. Our Moscow hotel is super-touristy. It’s a high rise among other high rises built for the Moscow Olympics in X. Now, fast forward X years, economic rival of this despondent area has not taken hold. We are near a metro stop and a grocery store. So, all is not lost.


One of my Moscow hotel highlights involved the all you can eat breakfast buffet. Let me back up for a minute….I’m traveling with a bunch of young bucks from all of the world who either just graduated from college or are in the their late 20’s taking a break from work. Love that…”taking a break from work at 26.” All of them have a tight, tight budget and freak when a meal costs more than $2.50.

No joke. I was there once. When I backpacked in Europe, we had zero cash. Allison, Katie and I resorted to begging for cookies at the Athens airport and serving as “whatever” girls in Greece – bars giving us free drinks if we hung out in their bars. More girls…means more boys…means more money for the bar… So, I get it when they say they are poor and on a budget.

When Young Bucks discussed plans for breakfast this AM, the majority voted to walk over a ½ mile to buy $.35 bread and $.75 cheese. I pulled the “mature” card and said, “Have fun! I’m going upstairs to the breakfast buffet for $11.00 and filling up for the day.” They gave me a puzzled look.

I walked into the restaurant and was in heaven. Two rows of breakfast options. I spotted…coffee stands. Cappuccino stands. Fruit stands. Bread stands. Cheese stands. Sliced meat stands. Salad stands. Pastry stands. Seriously, for $11 this was CHEAP. I must tell you how much I ate in 1 hour. Started with beans and barley. Moved to real omelet – watched her make it – with cheese, ham and chives. Moved on to three scoops of sweat porridge. Back to more barley and beans for the fiber. Four cups of coffee. Tried a Russian pancake with jam. Back to another scoop of porridge. Six slices of water melon. Yogurt and granola for the stomach. And, ended it with water and another cup of coffee. I declined the bread, cheeses, cut meats, salads and corn. It’s all about moderation. So, they hoofed it while I sat and inhaled it. I think I got a better end of the stick because for dinner, I had a lovely banana and yogurt and chased it with three shots of vodka.

Today, the young bucks set out to traverse the Moscow metro to photo all the ornate metro stations. I had zero interest. Though, I must say that the metro is exquisite and one of the most clean to date. For clarification, I don’t remember the Paris metro for I was the college backpacker with over 50 pounds of products and fashion accessories loaded on the back. I walked in a 45 degree angle as I navigated Europe. I don’t recall looking up. I heard Japan and Moscow are the two busiest metros in the world. I believe it.

So, the young bucks left and I spent the afternoon meandering around Moscow and planning my trip in China and Thailand.

We were told by our fearless leader, Mash – Mongolian who is NOT fluent in Russian – that we were to meet at the hotel lobby at 7 pm but must load up with food for the 4 day train ride. He said, “the train’s restaurant car is expensive and paying $2 for water or $3 for a hot meal is truly unacceptable.” Just say no to Russian train extortion. I got caught up in the cheap food and I’m going to starve hysteria as well.

It’s 5:15 pm. I’ve got over an hour to go to the grocery store and organize my bag for the 4 day/night train trip. Mash, our Mongolian fearless leader, pointed out earlier the location of the grocery store where humans can touch food and place them in the carts. You see, the mini-grocery stores store their food behind glass windows and some woman – possibly a former prison guard from Siberia – screams at you when you point to a food product or water.

I walked over to the tall building. Walked in. Can’t read any signs. Didn’t spot any food on the first floor, so I took the escalator up. Second floor is all clothes. Took the next escalator up. Third floor is all lingerie and kids’ toys. Shit. Here we go again. My eyes take in the shoppers’ bags. Do I see cans, boxes, green stuff hanging out of any bag? Nope. There is not a grocery store in this building. Don’t tell me I’m lost. I go back outside and look around.

I walk around the building. I took the bold move and opened a door with no sign and walked down a long hallway. At the end, there was a salon – yes, they’re using scissors – and the grocery store. YEA! It’s now 5:45 pm and I’m back on track. I shove my pack-back in a locker, grab a cart like I own the place and start shopping. I hit produce – bananas, apples, pears, oranges. Who cares if I have to carry this along with my two bags to the train. Next aisle are the nuts and dried fruit. Pricey, but that is fine. I can afford $3 raisins.

Next, I hit the soup and noodle aisle. People warned me about which ones to buy – “don’t buy the soups that say ‘boil’ water. You want instant.” Easy enough if it is in English. So, it was there in the noddle/soup aisle that I tried to translate Russian to English. I spent 10 min comparing Styrofoam cups of noodles. With 23% confidence, I picked a brand. Next was to figure out the flavor. I looked at the pictures, but they all look the same expect a red color here or a brown spot there. Red may mean “pepper” and brown may mean “meat or mushroom.” Time will tell. I’ve never been into the overly salty noodle thing. So, why not start now. In Moscow.

I smiled when my eyes located can foods with a lift open top. Hold the phone. I love can foods. I live off can foods. I jetted down the can food aisle and found what I was looking for – mini-kidney beans, corn and green beans. Perfecto! I will reduce my 12 Styrofoam cups of soup to 3 and substitute with some can food. I’m really happy. I love beans. Love corn. Love lift-off tops. Though, I can already see my fellow travelogue looking at me like I’m “whacked.” O’well. I’m playing the older, mature card right now. It’s fun. I’m finally the “strange one” where they will talk about my eating habits. Spending habits. Consuming canned food habits.

Commercial break. The Trans-Siberian waitresses just cranked up the music in the restaurant car. Loud. It’s sounds like a Russian Fifty-Cent. YO. They are mumbling the music as they pass by. Underneath every booth seat has storage room for food or dead bodies. Duly noted.

Back to the Russian grocery store. Next on the list. Mug. Vodka. Putin mugs were on sale for $2. Who knows what it says – “Death to America!” Or, “I heart Putin!” True bargain. Putin is in the basket.

Then, I hit the vodka aisle. I looked like a super nerd for I whipped out my calculator. Here’s the logic – not paying $4 to $9 for vodka. That equated to severe hangover, regardless of one sip or consuming the entire bottle. I was going for the $10 to $15 range. This assured me some sort of confidence that I would wake up the next day. I choose the vodka that had a lock on it. Looks premium. We’re talking about $12 here. No chasers. Buy that on the train or just drink it straight.

We all met at the hotel lobby. The young bucks were filling me in their metro-train tour details. I told them I spent the day meandering and working on a few client projects. The word “work” surprised them – I could see it in their eyes.

I seriously would love to hear their fabricated stories about me – the mature TallGirl. When you travel, the group becomes BFFers for a set amount of time. Like high school and the workplace, there’s the “cool” crowd and the “uncool” crowd. Uncool are your outcasts or just “damn crazies.” Late at night, after a couple of drinks, you sit around – drink, smoke, laugh – and talk about the uncools like you’ve known them for years. “What’s up with him…she made me buy a coffee for $2.75 today…did you see the size of his backpack…he doesn’t shut up…Typical Canadian….”

We had to take the metro (subway) to the main train station to catch the Trans-Siberian to Beijing. People were throwing their backpacks over their shoulder and I decided, split decision, that I would do the same. That is, carry my pack on my back, instead of rolling it. I had bought the roller suitcase with an option to wear.

I heaved the 40 or 50 lb bag up, over my shoulders and onto my back. My mini-pack was resting on my chest. One hand was carrying my can goods, noodles and fruit and the other hand is gripped to the mini-roll-on. Mash – our Mongolian leader – gave us instructions.

If we loose the group, then get off at stop four. Jump to the brown line. Get off stop 2. Then, walk to the train.

Got it – right. I was not going to loose the crowd so I didn’t pay much attention. Anyway, it was our Mash’s job to ensure he does not loose the group, not the other way around. We set off. After 5 minutes of walk, my breathing got thick and my shoulder joints were poised to snap in two. I focused. Walked. Did not want to hold up the group. I knew we had to buy tickets at the metro. If I made it to the metro, then I could use the rollers – like a normal person.

Hit the metro. Looks like everyone but Maria and me pre-bought their metro (subway) tickets. The group of young bucks walked through the security gates. I yelled at Maria to wait for me. She did. I tried to get the handle up to roll my backpack, but I had bent the metal frame while wearing it on my back. That’s right. Backpack is busted. In the Moscow metro. I busted my backpack. I told myself, I don’ t have many options. Just be calm. I asked God for help. I felt calm. Smiled. Even giggled. This is funny. Found the strength to carry two bags with my hands. Picked them up. And, Maria and I were off to catch up with the young bucks.

Took 56 marble stares down to the metro subway platform. Looked around. Our group is gone. Just us. Maria said she knew what stop. I put my faith in her and tended to my bag. We boarded the metro car and were off. Priority was fiddling and fixing my backpack so the metal arm extends and I can roll my bag. Cold Russian eyes were just staring. Not with curiosity. Not with amusement. Just with blank loathing. Well, I’ll give them this. We looked …like what you expect – crazy.

My guardian angle fixed my bag and the handle sprang up. Just in time. We hit the fourth stop and people were everywhere – pushing, pushing, pushing. It’s the mob mentality. Maria was frantic. I saw it in her eyes. I also saw the buddy system concept of sticking with friends was not in her vocabulary. She jetted off leaving me in the dust. She clamored and push like the rest of them – fighting her way up the escalator. I followed – way behind. My eyes were just focused on her red back pack. Up the escalator and out of the building we went. What? We are not suppose to be outside. This stop is where we transfer to the brown line, not our final destination. My bag is fixed. It’s time to focus – stop following and become assertive.

I walked over to the train’s “gate guard” – an older woman, with a big smile and a blue square hat. I pointed to the map. She told us where we were. Yep, I was right. We’re at the wrong place. Maria did not believe her. Maria raised her voice and started asking her questions. Gate lady looked confused. I thought to myself – calm down Maria… This is NOT a big deal. We will figure it out. We’re late and lost, not going to prison.

I said to Maria, “What this means, is we have to buy new tickets. Go back down the escalator, take the metro train to the next stop and transfer there. Tickets are 26 rubles, or less than a $1. I will pay for it…You get in line. I watch our stuff…” This set Maria off. “We are NOT buying new tickets. We should not have to buy new tickets..this is not our fault.” I repeated that I’m buying the tickets. Let’s keep moving. I stood off to the side, near our gate guard lady, and felt confident that Maria was going to have a melt-down buying not one, but two tickets. She angers easily and does not communicate well.

Well, the “wrong” station for us was the “right” station for ALL of Russia. Hundreds and hundreds of Russians were clamoring for tickets and entrance onto the escalator. I stood. And watched people of all ages, all backgrounds, all classes and all walks of life pass by. I asked God for help. For patience To protect us from thieves. And, to lead us to our final destination. I was calm. I watched. Then, I spotted the thieves. Once you stop, look around and you will see them before they see you.

Two men on the prowl. First, they tried to jump the gate. But, our fearless gate guard lady screamed at them. Busted. They crawled into line. I watch them scan the crowd. It took a matter of seconds. Their eyes landed on my bags. Then, on me. I looked right at them. My eyes were not deviating. “Don’t fuck with me…I see you …I’m ready for you…” Brown, hard eyes on mine. Neither one of us moved. They whispered. I did not move. I was ready for them. Bring it on.

Meanwhile, I see Maria at the corner of my eye holding up the line. She’s waving her hands. An older Russian male steps in the help. Again, I say “thank you God.” I just keep staring at the thieves, praying the line would go slow and by the time we were on the metro, they would be just at the ticket window.

Maria came back with a story about the tickets. We walked to gate guard lady let us through the gate for the disable. That we were.. She smiled. My angel. There’s only one escalator. About 50 to 75 people are vying for the opening. I’m have two roller bags, a back pack and can food. I was pretending that my bag was a child, deserving space on the escalator. I kept my head up. Pulled the Russian thing – looked angry and resolute. Maria is off – she’s dusted me again. I wanted to scream inside. We get to the metro platform. She rolls her eyes when she sees me. Can’t loose me, baby..

We squeeze our way onto a crammed car. This train car was an old Moscow, 1940’s train car. Old, slow and loud. Everyone was staring at us. Fine with me because they would be able to witness if I were to get jumped or robbed. Though, I don’t have the confidence they would do anything about it. We fall out onto the next stop. Maria is off and running. I asked her to stop. I asked for us to regroup and look at a map. We got into trouble next time by just walking. I saw some teenager boys ogling at us. I walked over – smiled and pointed to the map. The taller of the bunch, showed me where to go. I walked off, blew him a kiss. They all giggled. Ok. Flirt worked. Now, let’s get on with it.

We walk for half a mile underground to the next metro tunnel. Maria was 200 feet in front of me – trying to dust me again. Amazing. We hit stairs. It’s the mob mentality. Someone pushes me. I loose my balance. I see myself falling down stone stairs – An angel in the form of an older man reaches out for me, grabs my bags and helps me down the stairs – slowly. I thanked him. He smiled and rushed off. Maria is no where to be found. I go to the the platform and wait for the next train. I see Maria. I walk over and smile. There’s no need to say anything. Why. She looks stressed. Flexibility and calmness is not her DNA. Strange for a girl who loves to travel.

We get on the train. Not as many people. I breath. Finally relax. Next question is – will the group be waiting for us? Where is the large train station for China? I had 3 minutes to let that bother me. Meanwhile, I need to get rid of the frightening “what if” thoughts of falling down the stairs. And, going to a calm place of gratitude that God protected me. I mean – for real. I was a split second from busting a knee or my head. I needed to purge evil thoughts about Maria. I needed to forgive her selfishness and be grateful that she stayed behind. The doors flew open. Maria was gone. I got off the train. Regrouped. Found a woman with a large roller bag. She has be to going to the large train station. I walked over, asked if she spoke English and if she was going to the train station. She said, “Yes. I take you.” Once again, thank you God.

I see Maria’s red bag climbing the stairs. I now have a “new” friend. I look up at the top of the stars and spy Kiki from Norway and David from Belgium. They’re waiting for us. YEA! What a relief. In my heart, I knew that all would be fine. It was just another adventure. I believe Maria did not think so.

I gave Kiki and David our 13 second sound bite of our “wrong stop, bought a new ticket, crowded..” metro experience. They said that Pat – our 76 year old English woman – was trampled on at one of the metro stops. If it weren’t for Canadian Dave, then she could have been real hurt. Shit. Our little situation was just that – little bit of nothing. Pat, on the other hand, that was real scary. Frightening. How’s Pat? “She’s shaken up. A man walked in – pushing. She fell to her knees. People were pushing. They walked over Pat. Dave reached down and got her before anything worse could have happened.” Shit. Shit. Shit.

Ok. Many things run through my mind. First, Gap Adventures should have arranged a bus to pick us up at the hotel to take us to the train terminal. It would have cost us $4 per person. We have 16 people traveling and taking this size group through one of the busiest subway system in the world at rush hour, says “disaster.” Pat falling or me getting lost is bound to happen. As a business, you want to protect your assets – your travelers – and doing this means paying a few extra dollars for a mini-bus. Further, Mash- our fearless leader – should have made sure the entire group was together at all times. And, he should have been walking with Pat the entire time. Gap Adventures credibility was shot on this one. Truly unacceptable.

The air changed once we boarded to train to Siberia. We were all giddy. Trying to board the train, I had issues with balance and bags. I was holding up the line. So, this tall Russian young man, picked up my bags, actually SMILED and walked me to my compartment. Damsel in Distress! Very thankful. He understands English but can not speak a word. He looks like he can murder someone on the outside, but seems kind on the inside. It’s the Russian look…

There’s four of us to a compartment. Emily and Hannah from Sweden. Maria from Canada. Me. My hope was the beds were long enough. The overnight from St. Petersburg to Moscow, the bed was short and as people walked by, they knocked my feet and kept me awake. Mosh said it’s a newer train built in China. We have air condition – windows don’t open – and enough space for our bags. It’s fun.

We unpack. And, I go looking for the vodka. The cool crowd was a few compartments down. David – the Belgium – had the vodka out and was passing around shots. I joined in. We fit eight people in there. John and Franklin from Sweden. Kiki from Norway. David from Belgium. Lauren from New Jersey. Hannah from Sweden. Emily from Sweden. Anastasia from South Africa living in London. Collin from London. And, me. Some stood, but most of us squeezed in. We drank shots. Talked. They talked a lot about the differences between Norway and Sweden. I did not know that Norway was one of the most expensive countries in the world, next to Japan. No one eats out. They go to Sweden to shop and buy booze. Swedes go to Germany to buy booze. Germans go to Czech to buy booze. Czech goes to Ukraine. Love that… Also, I did not know that Absolute Vodka is a Swedish brand. Hmmm.. These were the type of intellectually stimulating conversations we were having.

We made bets on who will stick the most – the fastest. We have four days and four nights without a shower. We are bartering shots of vodka for baby wipes. We narrowed it down and believe John from Sweden will stink first since he was wearing his last clean shirt. Must agree. The New Jersey girl started talking about US health care. She doesn’t know shit. I had to keep my silence – well, a little. Can’t help it. So, Franklin from Sweden and I had an offline conversation. He said that he is a conservative Swed in that he thinks they are taxed to high. He used to work for an insurance company in Sweden. He says their system is broken too – it might be free – but you’re not talking about quality care.

I told him, that it is a complicated. I was talking with a gentleman from New Zea land who says that “we deserve health care from our government.” The word “deserve” is what I struggle with. That is not an American word. We work. We pay taxes. We work. We have freedom of choice. We don’t do nothing and deserve a lot. Franklin agreed – he says people milk their system too. They are having issues with immigration. Iranians and others are coming over for surgeries. The government is debating, “do we charge them?” My expression looked confused. “I mean, you would consider NOT charging foreigners who made the individual decision to pay for a flight to Sweden for a surgery…” After a couple more shots of vodka, we solved all the health care problems…right.

We stayed up until 1 AM or so. We had a 10 minute stop in Vladimir Pass, once a Russian capital. It’s foggy. Ominous. I envisioned the KGB appearing through the industrial complex to “seize us.” Snapped a few photos, crawled into my mini-bed made for tall, skinny Russians. And, slept well. The vodka must have helped.

At 9:15 AM our cabin of four woke, quickly dressed to jump off at our first “lay over” station. We had 15 minutes to stretch our legs. It’s now 1:23 pm and we’re slowing down to stop at Balezio, Russia. No clue where or what it is. It’s pretty ugly from the window. Old trail yard. Old cement, blown out buildings. Blue sky. It’s around 45 degrees. We’ve stopped. Let’s go and see what Balezio has to offer…







One Response to “Day 1 – Trans-Siberian Rail… Across Russia”

  1. MaryStuart (sister) 29/09/2010 at 10:23 pm #

    First, were you in the cool or uncool group? Like you care, but that is funny! Second….OMG….I would be crying at the metro and losing the group. You truly have given me a new aspect of life and what to think when I am lost and freaking out…..”it could be worse, I could be in jail.” Love it!

    Ok, you flirted for directions!!! see, there is a little of Mama in you afterall!

    You know, your amazing faith in God is simply that….amazing! You make we ask God for help on small and little things. You really have a ton of angels folowing you. Maria was not one of them on this metro adventure…but you managed to find a few other ones…old man, old lady, teenage boys…..

    The boys/men on your trip look very cute!!! how old are they? they look to be your age, right?

    ok this was a stressful blog…very intense. I like when you add photos IN the blog as you type. So cool. Too bad you can’t add a caption.

    Loved this one and glad it ended welll! Love you! MSDV