Notes From the Trans-Siberian Railroad

Russia Narrative
by mfb Aug 30, 2010

David, my Couchsurfing host in Moscow


At the fifteen-minute stop towards Omsk, I shuffled around the first non-Russians I’ve encountered en route through Siberia. Biting my tongue I approached them and asked, “Are you Americans?”

The older man in the group said, “No, we’re Chinese!”

Since the fall of the USSR, David, a general physician and pastor of a small church in Alabama, has led groups of parishioners to Russia to aid in the country’s religious revival. He and his wife have hosted summer youth camps throughout Siberia.

On this particular tour he and three of his staff are on their way to Novisibirsk. From there they fly to Beijing to connect with the underground Christian network.



I really wouldn’t have minded exchanging berths with the passenger’s son so that she would be closer to her child. But “Babushka,” as we called her, was adamant about my right to the assigned berth at the first spot on the carriage.

Lina (Babushka) yelled at me from below the carriage and made me swear that I wouldn’t be overly polite to give up my comfortable seat to anyone or “I’ll come to Novsibirsk and I’ll kill you!” So I kept my place.

My host sisters Alena and Lina accompanied me to the station to bid me farewell. My eighty-first day on the road and my twentieth day in Russia, all relying on Couchsurfing except for a night in Berlin, I am still amazed by the friendships I’ve forged in such short spans of time.

And the Russian sisters from Omsk were no exception. As the train pulled out, they ran alongside waving and hooting with their eyes welling up. Even the stolid-faced provodnitsa lightened up and grinned at my hosts’ antics.

Thirty hours before on the same platform #3, I arrived to Lina’s embrace. She took my book bag to lighten my load and we boarded a marshreutka or taxi-van, where I encountered my first dose of the Russian small town: an 11 or 12-year-old boy who sat opposite us.

According to Lina, the boy is a common character in her neighborhood. Lina crawled up to the driver to pay for three seats: one for her, for me, and one for my 90-L backpack. When she returned, she was surprised to find the boy and me in conversation.

He asked me in Russian if I spoke the language. I replied in Russian saying I didn’t. Doubtful, he asked how I understood. Instantly, I grew fond of his cleverness. Lina explained to the boy that I was from the States, from Chicago she specified.

He was amused and said, “We live in Chicago, too.” Old women call the district of Chkalovsky “Chicago” because of all the gangsters who run the streets.

The boy then asked if there were any rivers in my town.

Puzzled by the question at first, I looked at Lina for help. She shrugged her shoulders. I nodded yes, of course.

He seemed to like that.

Later, he pulled out a toy gun and Lina played along as he pointed the barrel in our direction.


Crazy and his dad

Crazy crawled onto his dad’s lap, picked up a hand of cards and joined our game with his parents and our fellow bunkmate Igor. Durak is a popular Russian pastime whose object is to get rid of all your cards. The last player with cards in his or her hand is a durak or fool. And round after round, I was happily the fool.

Crazy isn’t Ilie’s real name. It’s his dance name.

“Ilie loves to break dance,” his mom Katya tells me in accent-free English as Crazy attempts a headstand in our cramped setting.

Katya and her family are en route to visit relatives in Vladivostok. The journey from Tomsk to the Russian Pacific rim takes about four days.

Back in Tomsk, she works as an English teacher at the Polytechnic University. But surprisingly, Katya has never stepped foot into an English-speaking country.

Igor who is 18 and studying engineering in Tomsk plans to get a work visa for a year in the U.S. He asked me where he should travel in the States and what sort of jobs he could get.

The question reminded me of a visit to Magic Mountain when I was a teenager. There, the attendants behind the carnival booths at the theme park were from Russia and other post-Soviet nations.

Only now having traveled all this way through Eurasia, I can see why the States would seem so exotic and appealing. Realizing my lapse into homesickness, I tucked away my nostalgia and we continued playing durak until the train stopped in Krasnoyarsk.



Finding the platform where my train to Irkutsk parked, I met my first provodnik or male car attendant. He took my passport and mumbled something in Russian. My Couchsurfing host Fyodor translated, “He’s offering to upgrade your ticket to business class (kupe) for a couple hundred rubles.”

I was more concerned than surprised by the proposal. Besides, I was nearing the end of my Russian tour and I barely had 30 rubles on me. I verbalized my estrangement to my companions only to be unanimously negated: “It’s normal!”—bribery that is.

For a moment, I forgot that I was still in Russia.


At my final stop in Russia, Mischa and his family greeted me at their newly constructed prefab apartment. With a warm carpeted patch on their floor and a reliable WiFi connection, I had no other interest but to vedge the entire weekend in Irkutsk before transitioning onto the Mongolian steppe. But the city’s near proximity to Lake Baikal compelled me to hitch a last-minute marshreutka to what guidebooks call the Pearl of Siberia.

After sleeping through an hour bus ride, I strolled where vendors sold their wares of arrowheads, feathered figurines, and jewelry made in China— tchotchkes typical of a lakeside getaway. At the end of the beach, I came across a snack shack where fish local to Baikal hung and a large wok of plov sizzled in the open air. I opted out of a bowl of the greasy lamb and rice dish for smoked fish.

Plopped on the pebbled shore between army men and their mothers bathing in the sun, I chewed on my freshwater delight. While I was lunching, a man perched on a dock a few meters away watched curiously. Putting the gutted fish aside, I snapped a shot of his silhouette, an action that prompted his approach.


Blond and blue-eyed, Abdullah is not the typical image of a devout Muslim. But this didn’t faze me. He spoke no English but after he noticed the Jordanian and Yemeni flags sewn onto my backpack, we spoke with the little Arabic he knew and the little Russian I collected thus far.

He sat with me and shared religious music from his mobile phone. I found out that he is eighteen years old, a native of Baikal, and the only Muslim in his family. Eventually, his friend whom he called brat or brother in Russian came to check on him and handed him a few rubles for the ride home.

Abdullah walked with me that afternoon through Baikal village. At one point, we entered a cafe where he knew the attendant. He grabbed two bottles of soda and handed one to me without paying.

Confused, I asked him if he worked at the shop. He said no and pressed two fingers to his wrist and said brat. They were brothers in Islam he meant.

He handed me a taqiyah, a prayer hat, and a bottle of water. We performed ablution on a cliff at the clear end of the shore. There, while the waves crashed on the coast beneath us, he laid out his prayer rug and began to recite a sura. I closed my eyes and stood still.

A few moments later he cried out to me, “Brat!”

I opened my eyes and he led me to the rooftop of a hotel overlooking the lake before guiding me back to the bus station. He rode the bus with me for a couple miles out of Baikal. Before he stepped out, he handed me his microSD card from his phone with a gig of music files for my enjoyment. I declined the offering. But he insisted.

As he descended, I greeted him in Arabic, “God be with you.” He turned around, smiled, pointed his index finger towards the heavens, and waved goodbye. Driving away, I nodded off and slept the way back into town.

km 5902 NAUSHKI

Parisian woman

I left Irkutsk on a two-car train almost entirely exclusive to Western tourists: 5 Americans, 4 Frenchmen, 3 Dutch, 2 Belgians, 2 Austrians, 2 Brits, a Swiss and an Aussie to be exact. This is what I had expected all along the Trans-Siberian from having read the standard travel material on the historical railway.

And I’m glad this was the first and only instance I had.

Russia disappeared at an instant. It’s what usually happens at traveler waterholes like hostels and tourist centers. There’s something communal attached to the train ride. There’s a shared sense of camaraderie that we’re all here in Russia together.

Stories quickly passed.

There were two Mongolians on the train who hopped off at Naushki onto a marshreutka and went on to cross the border by road. They were smarter than us.

The Americans who were in their bunk are honeymooners from New York who spoke of the Mongolians’ odd mannerisms. They were silent in their berth.

A French woman from Paris was the social one who made her rounds profiling all of the passengers.

“Hey, California! Come smoke a cig with us!” a Belgian from the other end of the train whom I hadn’t met formally already knew what he had to know about me. I passed on the invitation.

Groups formed according to berth. There was no platskartny on this tour. Four by four out of our kupe compartments, we explored the last town before the crossing onto the Mongolian steppe.

The first two in my bunk were Petra and Johanna, best friends from Austria fulfilling a promise to do the Trans-Siberian together. The third was a Swissman named Christoph.

After getting our passports and visas stamped and luggage sniffed by hounds, we left our car and stepped on to our last bit of Russian terrain.

On crossing the park across the train station, a car swerved by our feet. “They don’t like tourists here,” Johanna commented.

We picked up a couple of beers and a bottle of chardonnay from a corner shop and toured the rest of the patch of a town. The sun was beating so hard that the asphalt beneath us sprung with every step.

“This was the end of my thirty days in Russia: cows and tanks.”

We circled the entire village within eight or ten minutes and ended up at the far end of the tracks. There, old Soviet tanks lay at bay where a lone soldier stood guard but had no reason or care as we freely took photos. Amid the tanks were desperate cows grazing for feed. This was the end of my thirty days in Russia: cows and tanks.

Reaching the train we landed on our rears on the platform with our arms and legs sprawled out to allow the slightest wisp of air to cool our joints. After taking in the shade cast by the dwarfed locomotive, we boarded at the provodnitsa’s order and quietly left Siberia.

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