We have been in Irkutsk for twenty minutes and already we have waited on two lines and Mister Chen has seen a lady with a mustache. The ladies in the windows at the end of the lines tell us they cannot sell international tickets. The lady at the end of the second line motions us upstairs. Upstairs at the end of a hallway is a room with blue wall to wall carpeting and eight windows. Two windows are open. A stout lady stands at the doorway, a blue work smock covering her clothes. Her job is to tell you to sit down and remember what order you arrived in. When it is your turn at the window she will motion you up from the blue couches.
There are two trains to Moscow today. One arrives in Moscow three days from now at five in the evening. The other arrives eleven hours later, at four in the morning. The first train is 7500 rubles a ticket and the second train is 5000 rubles. We take the second train.
Our tickets are in Cyrillic and the number of our assigned berth could be any one of a soup of numbers. We ask the man checking tickets at the train car door and he just motions us inside. We fumble through the train carrying backpacks slightly too large for the narrow corridor. Hostile stares bore through us. Tourists, mutters a Russian man. The word is universal. At the end of the corridor we walk into an occupant of the train’s final berth.
Mister Chen has never been so glad to see a Chinese man in his entire life. An unlit cigarette hangs out of the man’s mouth, he is lean and middle-aged and wearing tight fitting long johns with vertical stripes. Which number on the ticket is the berth? Why, of course.
We are rooming with the Chinese man and his business partner. The business partner is shorter and squatter, balding and smoking, wearing tight clean long johns with horizontal stripes. The two men are lumber merchants. They buy lumber in Siberia and sell it in China. They are drinking tea out of metal mugs and playing a board game with black and white disks. The horizontal man asks Mister Chen where he is from and Mister Chen, in his limited Mandarin, answers. The vertical man goes out for a smoke with his friend from next door. The horizontal man spends twenty minutes telling Mister Chen that Taiwan belongs to China.
The next morning a Russian official comes in to inspect our passports. In a scene that will repeat itself at least twice a day over the journey, my passport is not wanted. They just want to see papers from the lumber merchants and Mister Chen. The lumber merchants give the Russian official a small fist of cash and get off at the next stop.
We have the berth to ourselves for the rest of the journey. So: there is a padded bench with storage space underneath it. Above it, a second padded bench folds up to the wall. The benches are mirrored on the opposite wall, each one with a pillow and blankets. Between the beds at the outer wall of the train is a large, mottled window that leaks cold air in. A small table sits in front of it. Out of the berth and down the corridor to the left is the bathroom and the train car’s only accessible electrical outlet. At the other end of the corridor is the samovar, which is not what it sounds like (a pen and ink drawing of an antique barrel on persian carpets with a sword hanging above it ) but is a shiny metal kettle that dispenses hot water.
Once or twice a day a lady rolls a cart through the corridor to sell fried meat rolls. At the dining cart a surly man sells beer and snack food. The meat roll lady sometimes wheels a selection of packaged snacks and drinks through the corridor. The train is heated, but sporadically, and late at night when the heat is at a low ebb it can be extremely cold.
Three and a half days in a train, drinking hot tea and coffee and reading long books. Watching trees and snow go by, and the occasional sign of a very depressing civilization. Three and a half days spent really look forward to your next meat roll.
We arrive at Yaroslavlsky Station at 4am. Outside it is bitterly cold. The train station is warm and brightly lit. A piano sits by the large window, roped off. The sun does not rise until 9am.
ONE WAY TICKET KUPE (SECOND CLASS SLEEPER) 4478.00 RUBLES (ABOUT $167.39USD)
DEPARTS IRKUTSK DAILY 1:20PM
ARRIVES MOSCOW FOUR DAYS LATER 4:11AM
SUGGESTED SUPPLIES: Eveyone has said – bring rubles, at larger stations women with baskets sell fresh food for low prices. We do not find this to be the case. Bring food.