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Tales from the Trans-Siberian Railway: On the road to Kazan

A Real Russia traveller shares their experience of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Nizhny Novgorod to Kazan

Travelling is always a personal experience, from the places you go to the people you meet along the way. Today, we will share part of Oliver's story, a Real Russia traveller who embarked on a Trans-Siberian trip from Moscow to Vladivostok.

Oliver's story:

The following was on the way from Nizhny Novgorod to Kazan, Russia during my 2015 Trip:

My ticket was in Kupe class, Russian for second class. This level of service indicated a carriage with nine compartments comprised of four berths each. A window and common table divided the berths in two sets composed of an upper and lower berth. I had made sure to reserve the lower berths throughout my trip to save myself from the risk of embarrassment of climbing to the upper berth. Writer David Greene in chapter six of his book Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia describes the experience I sought to avoid:

Next challenge: avoiding slamming your head into the roof of the train in mid-thrust. Ducking your head can avoid a collision but ducking while thrusting can be more than the mind— and body— can handle, and often you lose focus and tumble to the floor, which amuses other passengers. Fear of this embarrassment can be consuming, worse than fear of hangovers and frostbite, which in Russia says a lot.

Upon finding my compartment down the narrow carriage aisle, I found two passengers already in the process of settling in. I introduced myself to gauge their English ability. To my disappointment, it was zero.

Soon, a fourth individual arrived. After letting him get settled, I made another introduction. Surprisingly he was conversational. It is not clear who grinned with excitement first; it may have been simultaneously. This was surreal; Russia ranks as “low proficiency” in the English Proficiency Index research (Education First). Finding someone not just on the same train, but in my compartment across from my lower berth speaking English was dreamlike.

My new comrade’s name was Yuri, a professor in the Physics department at a Russian University. As we began getting to know one another, Yuri placed a bottle of cognac and a box of chocolate-covered marshmallows on the communal table. I felt awkward not having anything to offer in return. Meanwhile, our cabin mates seemed disinterested and slowly ascended to their upper berths, each on their first attempt. Maybe it was not so difficult to get up there after all. I still had no interest in finding out.

Like a fish out of water, it must have been obvious to Yuri I was out of my element. On the train, consumption of your own alcohol is not allowed. Yuri explained not to worry, “just one drop.” He interrupted the conductor, who was passing by, requesting two mugs. Momentarily, I thought Yuri was crazy. The cognac was out in the open; it must have been obvious to the conductor why the mugs were needed. However, to my amazement, the conductor honoured the request. It was de facto approval as far as I was concerned. And so, aided by cognac, the evening progressed.

What Yuri had meant by one drop must have been a mistranslation. He began by pouring a generous amount into our mugs or as he might have said, “a few drops.” Our first shot was to our meeting, followed by chocolate covered marshmallows. Yuri had been in Nizhny Novgorod “for business.” He explained his research, which was varied but primarily seemed to involve improving existing methods of oil exploration and drilling.

Part of his role at the university included travel throughout Russia and abroad as a spokesperson to recruit students. Pulling out his tablet, he proudly gave his presentation. It astounded me that Russian universities were actually interested in recruiting foreign students; it just seemed so uncharacteristic of Russia. Somewhere in his speech, he poured another generous shot while saying “only a drop”, this time we drank “to women.” I had initially declined the marshmallow, however, his persistence required otherwise.

He had a deep curiosity about my travels, particularly in Russia. When I told him how smoothly my trip was going and how friendly I was finding Russians, we immediately had another “drop” of cognac and marshmallows, this time toasting “to love” with him adding, “may Russia continue to love you.” He was slightly embarrassed for our cabin mates, who were trying to sleep instead of partaking, indicating “they were not real Russians.” We laughed and engaged in another round of cognac and of course marshmallows, as Yuri insisted. I would later learn that the “drinking culture” in Russia demanded that every shot be chased by some sort of food. Doing otherwise is poor form.

We moved onto sharing family photos, requiring a repeat of cognac and marshmallows as we discussed our parents and toasted their memory or health. After a few hours of chatting, all the “drops” of cognac were depleted. Yuri was quite pleased as he pointed to me and then himself saying, “we, my friend, are non-linear people.” Followed by, “they are linear people” as he pointed to the upper berths. After more laughter than the observation likely called for, we finally broke for bed. I thought to myself, “if every train ride is like this then I’m not leaving Russia until my savings run out.”

Oliver Standing in Front of Russian Monument

 

Plan your Trans-Siberian adventure with Real Russia

We would like to thank Oliver for sharing his experience and we hope this has inspired many more travellers to take on this life-changing journey across Russia. With Real Russia, your own Trans-Siberian adventure is only ever a few clicks away!

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