The Transsiberian Railway – Part XIV: The Other World Up There

If ever there was a sunset that looked like a sorbet, tonight’s was it.

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Pink and orange and pastel yellow skies lit up the Selenga River on the right-hand-side of our floating box as we rush northward through vast expanses of snow-covered plains. And migrations of cows? Don’t ask. I only write what I see. And I saw a lot of cows tonight.

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Bag Man is telling me about the river, and about Lake Baikal in Siberia. Turns out he can speak more English than he first let on. Also turns out he’s kind of a nice dude. He even gave me this pen, with which I’m now using to scrawl these notes.

Okay so according to the testimony of one very effective Sausage Smuggler, not only is Lake Baikal the world’s oldest and deepest lake (it’s been around for 30 million years and has an average depth of 744 meters, which sounds pretty old and deep to me), but it’s also home to the “Omul” – a white fish endemic to the lake.

It’s Baikal’s main commercial fish. And it spawns in this river rushing by on our right-hand-side. It also apparently emits a shrill cry when caught, and I don’t know about you, but I find that so frightening as to be borderline awesome. Know what I mean?

I have absolutely no idea what time it is. My phone says it’s just past 9pm, but it’s still running on Ulaanbaatar time. Irkutsk time is 22:09, according to my phone which I have now rendered useless for its time-telling nonsensities. The clock on the train reads 17:32. Which makes absolutely zero sense whatsoever, no matter how you look at it. It’s been at least 5 hours since the sun set.

I question successful Sausage Smuggler for information. He shakes his head, smiling.

“All trains Russia. Moscow. Time is.”

I blame the rotten piece of cabbage lodged between his front two teeth for causing me to take way longer than necessary to compute what this means: All trains in Russia run on Moscow time. And the fact that there are quite positively 11 time zones in this country is besides the point. We’re closer to Vladivostok than we are to Moscow, and though it’s well after midnight in Vladivostok, the clock in this train quite clearly states 5pm even though the sun set hours ago. I don’t know why this surprises me. It shouldn’t. Not after the complications with getting our visas or the madness of the border crossing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Russia really knows how to make things the opposite of easy.

Anyway it’s all very confusing and my brain hurts from thinking about it. The good news is I’m almost sure our stop is the last one this train makes, so we’ll get off when that’s our only option, regardless of what time it is. Which is supposed to be 7am – but who knows which of Russia’s 11 time-zones that’s supposed to be.

I give up. I stand up. I walk down the hall.
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Remember when the train moved and attached itself to other random carriages when we were at the border station? Well after our train latched onto others, it latched us onto a bunch of crazy Russians too. I’m talking vodka drinking, tobacco smoking, poker playing Russians. I discover them on my walk. They exist in the first two carriages of our train. It’s like a whole other world up there. And pretty certain I’ve lost ten years of life just breathing up there for 5 minutes.

I cough. They glare. I smile. They pour me vodka.

The sleeping berths are wide open. From what I can see through the thick smoke, they look more spacious. Less secure. And, to a degree, way more awesome. This feels like Russia. Like the Real Russia. Not the Russia of the Sausage Smugglers, but the Russia of the Smoker, the Gambler, and the Drinker. Call it totally bizarre, but I feel like I fit in up here. I kind of look more like them than I do a Sausage Smuggler, going by past experiences. All I need is to knock back a couple shots of vodka and dangle a smoke out of the corner of my mouth. Smoking is such a thing on this train. I’ve never been a smoker, and I’ve never wanted to be a smoker. Then I got on this transsiberian train, and I regret not caving to peer pressure years ago. I’d have totally fit in here if only I could manage to suck on a cigarette and not make it totally obvious that it was my first time doing it.

I walk through the two carriages of Real Russia and then hit a blocked door. Can’t walk any further. So I head back, stopping to indulge in more shots of vodka along the way.

By the time I exit that world and enter my home in the carriage of the sausage smugglers, my head is spinning. Call it too much vodka, if you like. I call it too much awesome. I just had my first taste of Real Russia.

And it was exhausting. Walking all the way up there. A whole three cars ahead of ours. I haven’t walked that far in like a week.

Time to retreat to my upper bunk while my head spins and the train continues operating in weird time zones. With any luck, I’ll wake up in Siberia.

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