Taking the Trans-Siberian is like being in jail. But in a good way. Because you are on a train.
Each train car has a long corridor that runs the length of the carriage with cabins opening up like cells along one side. Glancing in, people sprawl out on narrow bunks, reading or sleeping or playing cards on the little table. They look up at you unsmiling as you pass on to your assigned bunk.
As the new kid, you step into your cabin with clean clothes and shiny hair and hope for an unintimidating roommate. The woman in the top bunk of cabin 9 doesn’t stir when you walk in. You’ve heard tell of models riding trains but this one is older, has short hair and is wearing a t-shirt, shorts and bare feet, with one leg stretched out and propped on the ceiling.
The four bunks of the blue and grey cabin are arranged two up, two down with a shoe-width three-rung ladder that pulls out from the wall for the top bunkers. You dump your day bag on the bottom, number 21, and quickly stow your luggage – a fat duffel or skinny suitcase – in the small open space under the bunk. The other half is taken up by a storage bin for your pillow and pallet, that you get to by raising the bench.
Your roomie has stored her bag in an upper crawl space over the door that is built out into the ceiling of the corridor. But she has also made herself at home with a mini-grocery of food on the central table: six eggs, a loaf of rye, a bottle of water, and some of those wafer cookies that taste like paper that your mom used to hand out at Halloween.
The sliding cell door is open, but the light is blocked by the female Russian attendant in full warden-style uniform. All the attendants are women on this and most trains. The idea of the male attendant is thought to be a myth. She tosses a set of sheet, pillow case, towel and cover on the bunk and moves on. Underneath those you find another pack with paper slippers, toothbrush and tube of toothpaste thinner than your pinkie.
An hour later, another attendant comes by and you grab your translation app. But she barks “Chicken? Meat?” at you and waits, tapping her foot. When you say “chicken?,” she responds with “Fore!” You say yes to everything, and keep silent when your bunkie gets her lunch at 2pm and you have to wait till 4pm.
Lunch is a TV dinner: short-grain white rice, 1oz of meat called chicken, a splash of sauce, and a stale bun that you eat anyway as this is your one free meal per trip, whether a 25hr leg as previously, or the 72hr stint you are in for now.
There is one shared toilet stall per 36-bunk carriage, seat- and lidless until you realize they are simply securely fastened in the up position. You wrestle them free with some difficulty, resulting in the need for a band aid and some desperate decontamination hand washing, plus a tube of Polysporin on standby. The toilet paper is industrial-grey one-ply. The water unpotable and cold. Your typical train bathroom.
The trip continues into the evening. Quiet, apart from the incoming-bomb sound just before a train rushes by in the opposite direction. Lights go out early and everyone settles in. The thick metal door clangs shut. The rocking is stronger than normal but sleep comes quickly if not deeply. Another person has joined your cabin during the afternoon and she gets woken up by the attendant in the middle of the night, then vanishes.
But in the morning, everything changes.
For one thing, I’ve joined a gang. My stoic roommate thaws with two new arrivals that show up mid-morning and we all introduce ourselves. Lyra and Natasha are smiley, with an impressive determination to chat even though we can’t understand each other. Natasha is missing an eye (literally) which you don’t notice at first since her hair covers that side of her face.
Maria comes down from the top bunk and the three of them pull out container after Ziploc bag after carton of food that they urge me to eat. We have a picnic, huddled hip to hip around our little table where they feed me tea, cheese, meat and cucumber sandwiches on dense black bread, and show me the technique of the hand salad – dry sprigs of arugula and cilantro that we munch like goats. They adamantly refuse my contribution of the box of chocolates my guide bought me on my birthday before I got on the train. I am the guest and not allowed to contribute. Besides, they have lots of chocolate that they press on me whenever I stop eating. We have a great confusing chat but I gather Natasha and Lyra are mother and daughter-in-law from Kazakhstan. Maria is from the Ukraine. They have various kids of indeterminate age and sex.
Now there is English-speaking in the corridors as other travelers from London, Australia, Minnesota and Denmark appear to get some air. A little Russian kid runs up and down squeaking and beeping like a reversing truck. He trips and falls flat on his face in front of our cabin repeatedly so we stop looking up.
I make my way to the dining car with my sole tour mates, an amiable Australian retired couple in their 60s. We trade funny travel stories seated on space-age vinyl seats while we study the 25-page menu with all the usual comic translation errors. Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You plays on a loop.
Back in my room, Natasha asks me a question about why I travel. I say, though translation, that I like to experience the different cultures. She smiles and says, “No, Mary, not the culture, it’s the people.” Lyra and Maria nod. I smile back at her. Maybe it’s not like jail after all.