Cautionary Tales From the Tracks

PART ONE PUBLISHED Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Transiberian, Russia

I recently began daydreaming about leaving home again. I decided that for my next trip I should take off for two months. Hopefully that will be enough time to traverse the northern coast of Africa, snake off into the Middle East, blunder my way over northern India into Nepal, and finally re-enter China. Unfortunately three minutes of consultation with the British ForeignCommonwealth Office websiteconveys that my idea would definitely result in permanent injury or death.

     ‘The FCO advises against all essential travel to parts of this country.’

     ‘The FCO advises against all but essential travel to this country.’

     ‘The FCO advises…’ yes, I get it, ‘fuck off and make a new wish’.

I wonder sometimes how legitimate the claim to danger is. I do not doubt that the FCO has the best information. I would hate to find myself caught in the middle of a political riot because I thought myself better than to consult an informed advisory service. Safety is of course a basic priority. My insurance only goes so far, and even £10,000,000 wouldn’t be quite enough to soothe the pain of death. The temptation, however, lingers. Not because I am a thrill seeker, rather the opposite. Someone had to hold my hands while I had my ears pierced at the age of twenty. But there is something about the unknown. Unknown distance, unknown people to meet. Even if you don’t speak with similar tongues, hospitality, kindness, a smile will be understood deeper than any half eschewed words.

Many people think of me as naïve because I trust strangers. But provided you give me no founded or unfounded reason to distrust then I believe you need not prove yourself. On occasion, a toothier than average grin can set off the alarm bells, but usually I find myself trusting most people. And generally, people are good.

Generally.

On the train from Irkutsk to Omsk there was very little I could do to alleviate the forty hour journey. Cigarette after cigarette was passed in the smoky end compartments between carriages. Feet ticked like clockwork up and down the length of the corridor. We had boarded in the wee hours of the morning on direction from a sweet old man, into the private compartment where we would be sleeping. We settled in, trying our best not to disquiet the sleeping lady and her father on the lower bunks. The provodnitsa eventually returned to take our tickets. I delivered him mine promptly. My oniisan patted around his coat pockets.

‘Eine minute,’ he said. Whilst many Russians do not speak English, a rather surprising proportion of the older, including the provodnitsa, in fact speak German. He patted his jeans. His eyes widened in frustration. Turning around, he ripped open the zip of his backpack. He tore through, pulling out all of the contents.

‘I think I’ve lost my pouch’ he finally committed.

‘What?’

‘The pouch, the black one, the one with all my money, my passport…’

He continued to frisk the tiny compartment. The lady underneath me sat up and straightened her sheets to check nothing had fallen. I left to check the corridor. No such luck.

‘I must have dropped it on the platform,’ he said frantically. My oniisan jumped off the bed. The provodnitsa switched on the compartment lights. The man below my friend pulled the blanket up over his head. In German, my friend started to explain that he thought his money, his passport, and along with them, his ticket, had been lost on the platform. The man, who until now had pretended to sleep, sat up. He pulled straight his sheets. The black pouch fell on the floor.

We hadn’t made the best first impression. I could feel the sizzle of temperance in the compartment. Coupled with the summer heat, the compartment was suffocating. Knowing my pigeon Russian would do no good, I decided to spend my time pacing the carriage, and chain smoking.

I was standing in the polluted smoking area when appeared a stocky older man with shoulders like a bull, and a boy, fresh from puberty. The stockier man asked me something. I shook my head.

     ‘Niet pa russki,’ I apologised. Recognising the abysmal accent, in English he asked where I was from. He was from Chechnya, and the boy was Russian. He kept winking at me and the Russian. The alarm bells began gently tolling in the background.

     ‘I have a boyfriend,’ I announced, quickly. The Chechen quickly finished his stub and re-entered the carriage. The boy took the opportunity to ask me if I could spoke German. Words, here and there, flickered to mind.

‘Piva?’ He asked me to join him for a beer.

Now that the sketchy older man had disappeared, the bells had begun to subside. I considered spending the next 24 hours on this train, sober, and possibly trapped with the corrosive couple in my compartment.

The beer washed down with perfect politeness. Unable to actually communicate, we spoke a stilted combination of Russian, English and German. Somehow, I garnered the boy was a twenty year old student of engineering. I told him I was an English teacher though I will never know what he understood. Eventually we stopped conversing, from little more than exhaustion of the overlapping languages between us. We silently sulked back to the smoking compartment. We were rejoined by the Chechen. He laughed when the Russian explained the language barrier.

     ‘Next, we drink vodka’ he exclaimed, ‘then, we understand everything!’

     ‘Uh… it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon,’ I scoffed.

     ‘We eat, we drink, we talk, it’s good!’ He insisted. Beer subdued the alarm bells. I supposed that with the Chechen somewhat translating, the train ride might pass quickly after all.

    ‘Just one.’

PART 2 PUBLISHED 13 JANUARY 2012

At the next stop, the pair hopped off the train. They speedily returned with a blue carrier bag filled with tangerines, gherkins, and two paper wrapped bottles. Coming from Olkhon Island, where I had been warned that vodka is evil, the sight of two bottles made me uneasy. The Chechen explained vodka drinking in Russia. First and foremost, no mixing. You pour two fingers in each glass. You make a toast, to something, and you each down your shot. Then you eat something. A segment of tangerine, for example. I cheated and snuck bits of tangerine whilst the others were occupied with pouring the next round. Lastly, you repeat until all the vodka is gone. I don’t recall many things beyond the first four shots. But I know that was where I lost my lens cap.
I was locked out of the compartment. The Russian evicted us. I think he was being sick out the window. I stood in the corridor. I checked the time. It was now 4 o’clock. I sat on the fold-down seat in the corridor. The Chechen arrived. He stood next to me. I continued to sit. He asked where I had been. I couldn’t remember. Suddenly, he said that he loved me. Feeling incredibly awkward, I blurted yet again that I have a boyfriend.
     ‘I know, but…’ He continued his dirty confession. He touched my arm.
     ‘You have a daughter, HALF MY AGE!’ I managed to retort. Coiling my arm back, I continued the verbal diarrhoea. Reasons spewed forth as to why he should leave me alone. None of them were particularly insulting or forceful. I didn’t want to be ‘UK Tourist Found Strangled On Transiberian’.
It was all a fairly stupid thing to do, agreed. But as a traveller, you run the risk of the company you keep. And, in the end, I escaped the situation unharmed aside from a cracking hangover I awoke to at 2am. But if I closed my shop for business, I’d never meet anyone except batty old ladies. Considering the distance I covered by train, it was to be expected that I would have at least one bad experience. But the majority do not follow that pattern.
Another occasion where my oniisan and I boarded a train in the middle of the night, we were heading west from Yekaterinburg. As a girl of very little stature, the process of making my bed on the upper bunk of a Russian train can be tricky. In fact, often resulting in head injury. The upper bunks are about level with my forehead and the headroom once you are up there isn’t quite enough to sit upright. I was dreading having to make the bed in twilight. We hopped onto the train carriage and began the search for our bunks. We passed through the open platszkart carriage, looking into each section for a pair of empty beds. We edged closer and closer to the end of the carriage; closer and closer to the beds too conveniently close to the toilets. We reached the last section. A Russian boy and a Tartar woman sat on the lower bunks. They each smirked the two perplexed and clearly foreign strangers with giant backpacks. The woman stood up, snatched a peek at our ticket and pointed at the two beds above. My oniisan kicked off his boots and began to ascend onto the bunk. The Tartar lady began to talk to me very quickly in hushed Russian. From the crumbs of Russian that I had picked up, I understood that she wanted him to come down, for fear of angering the infamously cranky provodnitsa. We sat down next to the Russian and the Tartar. The Tartar continued to talk to me as though I understood and I politely nodded my head in agreement. She asked to see my passport. I let her have it. She pulled a pair of spectacles from the inside of her jacket and squinted at the document.
‘Ah, so you’re from the UK,’ I imagine she said. ‘And your name is Jennifer’, she added. I smiled in agreement.
‘Can I see yours?’ I asked, one hand outstretched. She complied. That night we exchanged names and home towns, and somehow, bumbled through a conversation about where we were going. I could not quote the situation if I tried. But somewhere between the wild flailing arms and the slow repetition of words we formed mutual understanding. Meanwhile, the provodnitsa flew past, checked our tickets and threw our bedsheets at us. It was time to sleep. I stood up to tackle the bed. The main lights had been extinguished hours ago. Only the fluorescent glow of necessity strained to illuminate the train. I began to unroll the mattress when I was flanked by two stern looking women. The first was the Tartar from the bunk below and the second, also a Tartar, had been observing our disjointed communication from the side bunk. I was quickly squeezed out of the way. Without warning nor signal, the two women went to work. The mattress was unfurled, white cotton sheets flapped, the pillow fluffed. Wordlessly, the two women retired to their respective beds. I stood for a moment, bewildered.
Gracelessly, I bumbled into bed.
One of my favourite plays is A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. The main character, the dubious Blanche, says time and time again that ‘I have always relied upon the kindness of strangers’. I hope I do not fit in the same category as she was categorically delusional. However, there is some truth to her words. I don’t rely on strangers for much, except for their interaction. I love sitting on a train as it lolls forth through gorgeous scenes of natural beauty. But I don’t travel exclusively for that. I love to talk to people from everywhere, to challenge myself to be understood, to share stories, sunflower seeds, or just plain space. Since returning home I have found that a lot of people distrust the unknown or the uncertain. Yet I relish it. Perhaps it is naive, my unsolicited trust, but it’s still a choice. An informed choice I have made, based on what I know so far. That is, generally, people are good
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