The Train, Day 3

I’m not sure when I woke up this morning – I think it was 10 local time, which at that point would have been 6 in Moscow – but time has definitely not slowed down. In fact, we just gained another hour, and Sergei has informed us that he will come by our cabin to wake us up a full hour before the train pulls into Irkutsk. That’s 12:16 am Moscow time. I haven’t walked more than a block in the past three days and I’ve eaten more ramen than I have in my entire life, but still – I can’t believe our train ride is almost over.

Today’s main event was taking a shower – who knew you could get so gross just from sitting? Sergei had told me to find him when I wanted to bathe, so I did so, tucking 150 rubles into my pocket to pay for the privilege. But no one asked for my money. Instead, Sergei exchanged quick words with the attendant from the car next to ours and led me to an unmarked door, which he unlocked with a compartment key (all the keys are the same – a triangular head that I hear is an exact replica of those used for British gas meter cupboards).

Inside was a rather spacious room, empty except for a small bench, a rag on the floor, and a shower tucked into the corner. A black garbage bag hung from the rod in place of a shower curtain, but except for the fact that the drain emptied directly onto the tracks (you could see them rushing by), it was just like the shower you might find at home.

Actually, there was one more difference: the faucet. I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on. There was a normal-looking faucet, but when I turned it on, nothing happened. A different spigot-like handle was affixed to a pipe at eye level, so I turned it as well, realizing after about four tries that it actually just raised the showerhead up and down. I stood there, naked and perplexed. Was the water off because we had just pulled into a station? That seemed unlikely; Sergei is very good about warning us about such things. I really didn’t want to put my clothes back on and disturb Sergei – who was sitting in his darkened compartment watching bootleg DVDs against a background of religious icons – so I decided to give it one more go. In so doing, I accidentally pushed a button beneath the main faucet – a button that looked like it should control the drain – and leapt back in surprise when water started to spurt from the handset.  Also, hot and cold were reversed – and, adding to the difficulty, the water only ran for five seconds at a time before the button reset, little dribbling pulses that made me think I’d never successfully get the soap out of my hair. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that you could get around this problem simply by holding down the button; instead, I washed and rinsed my hair in five-second increments, feeling around for the button with my eyes closed every time the water stopped.

The only other thing of note that happened today was a station stop in Ilanskaya (km 4375). There were no handmade scarves on offer, but the selection of products was the most eclectic we’ve seen. In addition to the usual snack foods, bottles of beer, smoked fish and ice cream cones, there was everything from peanuts and playing cards to sauerkraut and DVDs. Women sat in front of trays of homemade potato and meat dumplings, cooked chicken thighs, and large discs of bread – but there were also things I’ve never seen before, like tubes of caramel wrapped in waffle cones, and large baskets of pinecones. (After much thought, Peter and I realized that that’s where pine nuts come from. I should have bought one!) Peter asked a woman if he could take a photo of her display and, though she said yes, she seemed quite confused. What could be picture-worthy about a spread of two kielbasa, a smoked fish in a plastic bag, several pens, two razors, a garbage bag of black sunflower seeds, cigarettes, and a packet of instant coffee labeled “Golden Eagle” and decorated with the American flag?

One of the funniest things about train life is that everyone dresses in tracksuits or pajamas and doesn’t bother to change for the station stops – which results in a platform full of people who look like they were evacuated from a hotel in the middle of the night. (I’m wearing black capri pants, white ankle socks, and brown plastic sandals.) That’s how I discovered my favorite person on the train: a beefy, middle-aged Russian man who was standing on the platform this morning in a calf-length light purple bathrobe, smoking a cigarette. I’d have thought that perhaps this was just his evening attire, to be replaced by a track suit in the morning. But no. After finishing his cigarette and shaking the hands of some soldiers on the platform, he retreated to his compartment – which is several doors down from ours — where he and a very rotund friend passed the rest of the afternoon sprawled on their couches, drinking beers and eating smoked fish.That’s just how he rolls.

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