Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Trans Siberian - Part 3 - Vladimir - Ekateringburg

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - St Petersburg - Moscow - Vladimir
Part 3 - Vladimir - Ekateringburg
Part 4 - Ekateringburg - Irkutsk - Ulan Ude
Part 5 - Ulan Ude - Ulaanbaatar
Part 6 - The Final Leg - Ulaanbaatar - Beijing

Vladimir to Ekateringburg

This journey was a whole different story altogether.  We boarded the train at about 7.30pm and we were thrilled that we had one upper and one lower bunk, our favourite combination!  This was going to be a long journey of just over 24 hours so we wanted to be comfortable, and also to be able to gaze out of the window.

When we boarded we were alone in our compartment for the time being but we didn’t expect this to be the case for the whole journey as there were numerous stops along the way. We made up our beds, had a bit of a nibble, a couple of beers and a few slugs of vodka, and after a couple of hours of so settled down on our bunks and went to sleep.

Settling in for our 24 hour journey
I should mention at this point that vodka was also becoming a common feature, as it is cheap and after drinking vodka you require fewer trips to the toilet than you would after drinking beer. A bottle of vodka was therefore an essential part of our food package, along with bread, cheese, salami, crisps, biscuits and beer.
We woke up when we stopped at Nizhny Novorogod station at about 12.30am, a large station where lots of people joined the train, including a young Russian man travelling alone who was booked into our compartment.  The train stopped for about 40 minutes and our new roommate spent that time saying goodbye to a man and woman who waved him off when the train eventually left.  We later found out they were his brother and his wife.

Having been awoken from our stupor we were a little groggy but Paul was nevertheless feeling a bit gregarious, and keen to get to know the locals, so when the Russian came in to sit down to start his journey, the first thing Paul did was invite him to join him in some vodka. He was a little shy and reluctant to accept anything from us at first but Paul persisted and managed to convince him.  As it turned out he only spoke a few words of English, but it was a good opportunity for us to try to out our Russian.  However, we didn’t factor in the vodka element.
Our new travelling companion was called Aleksei and after a little cajoling, he was persuaded to join us for a drink.  Paul poured what can only be described as about a ridiculous shot of vodka (about a quarter of a pint) into each of our Thermos mugs (which conveniently doubled up as coffee mugs, vodka mugs, and noodle mugs until we left them on the train at Ulan Ude!).

Paul and Aleksei the morning after
It was at this point that a clash of cultures occurred leading to the carnage that followed.
The polite custom in Russia is to down your shot of vodka in one gulp, as soon as it is set down in front of you, however large or small the shot.  It's just not considered polite to do otherwise.

The polite custom in England is, that as soon as your guest has an empty glass, to refill immediately.  It is considered terribly bad form if your guest has an empty glass.
Aleksei duly downed his vodka immediately (although I could see that even he, a hardened vodka drinker, struggled with the size of the shot), and Paul followed suit.

The mugs being empty, Paul (being an Englishman) felt duty bound to refill them immediately (with shots the same size as before).
Aleksei (being a Russian) felt duty bound to down the second shot without further ado, as did Paul, and a rather unfortunate cycle began, until the bottle ran dry. This all took place within an alarmingly short space of time.

I could see that this was not going to end pretty.   I had initially joined them both for a couple of shots myself but retired quite soon (making some feeble excuse) to observe proceedings from my top bunk while Paul and Aleksei did some loud male bonding through Russian and sign language and lots of laughter.
By about 1.30am, having slaughtered the litre of vodka between them in about 20 minutes flat, and happily so drunk that neither of them could speak their own language, never mind attempt to communicate in another, it was lights out and after 5 minutes it was all quiet in the compartment.

We discovered during the course of the journey that Aleksei was, we believed, a soldier or a policeman, off to Ekateringburg for some special training in the hills (the Urals probably). He was married with a 12 year old son, had a dacha (a country house) near his home in Nizhny Novogorod, and loved mushroom picking and growing vegetables.  He was going to be away from his family for a month and he was clearly going to miss them.
Aleksei was also a stickler for manners, and the next morning in fogs of hangovers (thankfully the boys’ hangovers were much worse than mine!), Paul and I inadvertently agreed that another bottle of vodka with breakfast was a fine idea.  I don’t believe Paul realised what he was agreeing to but I had my suspicions!

Lo and behold, at one of the station stops at about 9.00am Aleksei jumped off the train and disappeared.  This is fairly normal behaviour when you have a stop of more than 10 minutes or so. It gives you the opportunity to get some fresh air, pick up supplies from the platform shop or stalls, and stretch your legs.
Neither Paul or I had plucked up the courage to actually leave the train at one of these stops, gripped by a fear that the train would depart without us.  I headed down to the smoking area at the end of the carriage and watched as Aleksei walked past the window with a very dodgy looking woman, only to cross over the tracks and disappear behind a goods train plotted up on the other side.   I watched as, minutes later, they reappeared and as I couldn’t see any evidence of the business that had obviously taken place, I have to say that the goings on looked so dodgy that my first thought was drugs.

The was the view from the window for
the vast majority of the journey
I wandered back to the compartment and arrived at the same time as Aleksei who very proudly produced a bottle of vodka which had been cunningly concealed inside his jacket, plonked it on the compartment table, unscrewed the lid and despite the language barrier Paul and I both knew what was expected of us, that he meant to repay Paul’s hospitality from the night before by getting us both completely shitfaced before breakfast. We suspected that if we tried to refuse Aleksei would have been very offended.
Aleksei produced his mug from his rucksack, along with all his food, and a rather ominous looking knife. Paul started to pour the vodka but I stopped him, thinking it was best if Aleksei, the Russian, the owner of this particular bottle of vodka, and an expert in these matters, should choose the size of the shots.

This turned out to be a good move in a way, but the fact remained we were still having vodka for breakfast when we still had hangovers from the night before.
We all shared what food we had with each other – we had the requisite bread and cheese and Aleksei had some black bread and sausage, all to be washed down with the vodka. When the vodka ran out (which it quickly did) we all decided it would be a marvellous idea to move on to beer – some we had brought with us and when that ran out (which it quickly did) we resorted to the stash in the restaurant car. This all seemed like a good idea at the time. Although it wasn’t quite as manic as the night before, we just steadily drank all day, and spent the time in animated conversation trying, mostly in vain, to find more about each other, in the uncomfortable knowledge that our real hangovers would kick in later.

We exchanged telephone numbers with Aleksei who insisted that we visit him. He tried to make Paul a gift of his knife but it was very big and looked very expensive (and we didn't really like the idea of walking around Russia, China and south east Asia with a large hunting knife).  Paul managed to politely refuse his offer without offending.  

Paul had a bit of a kip in the afternoon, which was sensible of him, but I just drank my way through. There were some stiff Americans on the train who were casting disapproving looks our way every time we traipsed off to the restaurant car returning with beer. Funnily enough the other Russian passengers did not disapprove at all and the restaurant car staff were very friendly!
Towards the end of the journey we had a little disco using Paul’s iPod speakers in the corridor. I don’t think that went down very well with the Americans either, but it wasn't loud and we weren't the only people playing music and enjoying ourselves but unfortunately they weren't particularly sociable. Some people have no sense of humour!

We arrived in Ekateringburg, slightly drunk, even more hungover, and not a little dishevelled after our hectic journey. We said goodbye to our new friend amid earnest promises to keep in touch. Aleksei was such a breath of fresh air and really restored our faith in Russians generally, and we hoped he had enjoyed the trip as much as we had. 

After over 24 hours on the train we had finally reached Siberia and on our next journey we would be passing through this infamous bleak landscape and crossing over from Europe into Asia.

<<Prev Part 2 St Petersburg - Moscow - Vladimir

>>Next Part 4 Ekateringburg - Irkutsk - Ulan Ude


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