It was 10:34pm when the train drew into the station at Yekaterinburg, wheezing as it crawled the last meters to platform’s end. Its final exhalation flung dozens of men and women from the high doors of each dust-encrusted carriage, clasping dearly sought cigarettes and bounding for the stalls that had opened in anticipation of their arrival only three minutes earlier.
The cabin was empty as I entered, abandoned in the tumult. Blankets had been drawn over three of the beds – the last, clad in tattered brown leather, was mine. The unmistakable fragrance of smoked herring, sold by the armful on stations hundreds of miles to the east, still clung to the sheets. The side table was strewn with fruit-skins and half-devoured cured meats; a large red sausage balanced on the askew lid of the inevitable jar of pickled cucumbers. I never met a Russian who travelled without pickled cucumbers.
A single bite had been taken from the flank of a tomato, and a pungent shot glass sidled up to an open carton of tropical juice. Seven minutes later, without so much as a demonstrative warning or a blaring horn, the train inhaled, filling its steel lungs once more with dozens of passengers clad in low-slung track pants. The locals are deft students of the railway’s unforgiving scheduling. Within a minute the great belly of the engine had began to churn, and we recommenced the westward crawl.
Three men tumbled into the cabin mid-chortle, to find me propped up against a laundry bag of fresh sheets in the corner of their cabin, buried beneath the browned pages of Pasternak. Reeking of hastily-stubbed smokes, they didn’t appear so inviting at first glance: a haggard, moon-faced old man with a crown of coiled grey hair and three gold teeth, a young man with a scratchy black bear and low-cut singlet bursting with chest hairs, and a third who wore his unwashed matted hair combed straight down over his forehead, just shy of a pair of dark eyes bulging out from a hollowed face.
“Drast-vuy-tye!” I offered in a well-rehearsed echo, setting down the book to throw in a broad wave of the hand and a toothy grin. Clad in coat and scarf, face swaddled in a poorly-kept ginger beard, I was easily marked as a foreigner whilst travelling in eastern Russia’s early autumn. Only belatedly did I find that fashions had progressed (largely by way of sweat pants) since Dostoevsky dipped his pen to describe the student haunts of nineteenth century St Petersburg. Perplexed but not perturbed, the three men stashing cigarettes and swinging into place on their respective bunks and had questions.
In the wide expanses east of Moscow, foreigners remain a novelty in regional trains and lower class carriages. Days earlier, setting out from Lake Baikal in the forty-strong platzkart compartment, an assembly of curious babushkas, Ukrainian nurses and soused old men fanned out to the adjoining carriages to find me a translator. We happened on a wannabe spiritualist who was interested foremost in discussing the creationist theories of American actor Ben Stein.
This night, four men to a compartment, we made do on our own. As the lights of Yekaterinburg faded from view behind the grime-caked windows, the first question was lobbed. It is always the easiest, safe to jump into without parsing the language to and fro. “Sydney. Australia,” I responded, forefinger directed at by chest. “A-vy?”
Any follow-up sentence heralds an impasse. Over-pronounced place names can only get one so far. The Russian phrases I had mastered, allowing me to apologise profusely, ask directions to the local Kremlin or order up to ten pieces of various foodstuff, were of little use. The trio similarly had half a dozen English words between them a best. We needed to find a better way to communicate.
Fortunately, my new companions were deft hands with props. From the rings on each man’s fourth finger on the right hand we discovered they were married – by my lack of band or gold, that I was not. From the crescents slung around their necks on silver chains we discovered they were Muslims – by my lack of iconography, that I had no god to speak of. Less easily adapted are notions of “it’s complicated” or agnosticism. Best to let them lie.
The men did not begrudge me my absences but powered on, to conjure children from the stale air with height estimates and phantom hugs. To evoke their work they had merely to flash and flex well-honed muscles, built heaving and hauling in the mines east of the Urals. My flexing of fingers and proffered notepads of scrawl in a foreign script did not translate quite so readily. I did not need to ask where the train was taking them, for the nostalgic smiles as they contemplated absent wives and a bevy of children promised enough – home. Continue reading