East!

Thursday, 9th July: All good things must come to an end, and it was time for me to get on the train. Though I had successfully managed to pack everything non-essential into my new sailcloth bag, it was now extremely heavy and a bit of a struggle to keep the shoulder strap in place over my day bag. Maxim had kindly said he would be there at midday to see me off and I joked that it was probably the only way he could be sure I’d get on the right train. If so, he was very nearly right. I had over an hour till my departure, so went upstairs to the waiting area and bought a couple of bottles of water.

Right on cue, Maxim texted to say that he was ‘outside’. Assuming he had had difficulty parking, I thought he was aiming simply to say goodbye ‘outside’ the station and go and, knowing a little about Moscow traffic, I wouldn’t have blamed him. Oh well, how difficult could finding a platform possibly be? I lugged the bags back downstairs and out of the station entrance. Maxim was nowhere to be seen. “Where are you?” I texted. “Outside. By the trains.” Oh, flipping heck …

So I put the bags through the security scanner and hobbled quickly through to the platform entrance. In front of me were a row of platforms serving suburban trains. I looked around. Still Maxim was nowhere to be seen and, clearly, these were not the right platforms. Though John might tell you different, my panic mode is generally reserved for small stuff: lost keys, phones, handbags, etc., which almost always turn up exactly where I left them. Important stuff, over which I have little or no control, tends to engage my problem-solving mode instead. However, as I scoured the concourse for a panel showing my platform number, I was feeling distinctly rattled. I rang Maxim, “Where are you?” “Near Platform 4.”

Platform 4!? Why Platform 4 and, anyway, where the fuck was Platform 4? They seemed to end at 6 and I could see the street beyond. But logic dictated that, even in Moscow, the platforms would be arranged in numerical order, so all I had to do was keep walking … I was so visibly relieved when we did eventually see each other that Maxim laughed.

In fact, the platform number isn’t displayed until the train comes, in about 30 minutes before its advertised departure time. True to his good nature, Maxim waited with me until it arrived and – having given me a light-hearted ticking off for its weight – carried my bag the full length of the platform to Wagon 2 at the front of the train. He saw me into the correct compartment, and explained me to my new travelling companions, a young woman and her small daughter. He offered to arrange for someone to meet me in Omsk, and we agreed to keep in touch. Then, after a well-deserved hug, Maxim was gone and I was on my own.

Travelling East so fast, overground, is strangely disorienting. Seemingly minutes after leaving Moscow Yaroslavskaya station, we were racing into the twilight. Seasoned railway travellers know this and prepare their bedding as soon as they can. Certainly, my companion, Olga, wanted to get her daughter, Nika, off to sleep quickly. Unfortunately, Nika had already made friends with Mathias, a boy of about 10, travelling with his grandmother. He was a nice lad though, sharing his toy cars and playing peek-a-boo with her until ushered back into the next door compartment by the attendant.

The other thing seasoned travellers know is to pack a picnic. Though there was a restaurant car somewhere on the train, most people seemed to be unpacking fruit and cakes to see them through the night. I had water and a couple of Trail Bars, which I thought I had better save for the morning. While Olga mixed some puree for Nika, I settled down and reconciled myself to going to bed hungry.

The entire Russian railway network operates on Moscow time, so changing my watch would have been counter-productive as the timing and duration of all the stops en-route is posted in the passageway. It doesn’t matter anyway.  You simply rest or read until the light fades and then you go to sleep. You wake when it gets light and the routine starts again. The only problem is that it gets light at 2am.

The bedding was surprisingly comfortable. Each passenger is issued with a rolled mattress, a pillow and a duvet, a pack of crisply starched bed linen, and a towel. I settled down at about 8pm on Tuesday (Moscow time) with every expectation of a good night’s sleep, but it wasn’t to be. My companions were silent as mice but, as early as midnight, I found myself awake and gazing out of the window at the breaking dawn.

We pulled into a station and I could hear the sound of doors banging in other carriages. A freight train passed. Only after the first dozen or so wagons had gone by, did I start counting. 84; It was a long one.

By 4am it was fully light and my companions were awake; there was already a queue for the washroom … and I was hungry. I reached into my day bag for a Trail Bar and a bottle of water. Olga pointed to the other end of the carriage. I understood two magic words, “coffee, chai …” Sure enough, the friendly carriage attendant had a small selection of snacks and instant drinks for sale and (scalding) hot water was freely available from the slightly scary-looking boiler opposite her compartment. She even lent me a spoon for the teabag.

Needless to say, by 7am I was fast asleep. When I opened my eyes, an hour or so later, I found Olga playing quietly with Nika, having closed the door on Mathias. She smiled at me and I got the distinct feeling that I’d been snoring. I took out the ziplock freezer bag that contains my toiletries and went to see if the washroom was now free.

Now, Maxim had assured me that all trains provide charging points for mobile phones and laptops and, indeed, had pointed out a socket conveniently situated directly outside my compartment. I opened the cover of the elderly smartphone into which I had put the all-important Russian SIM; the battery symbol was now showing 10% remaining. Yikes! I realised that there would be no way that I would be able to connect to the Internet until I charged it. Lucky there was a socket handy, eh?.

Alas, the socket was not working. Mathias, eager to show off his few words of English, ran to find the attendant. To give her her due, she did seem to worry that the socket wasn’t working as it should. She pointed out the label showing low output and took me down to the 220V shaver socket outside the washroom. It worked. Intermittently. But I had to hold the plug in place. I asked if I could sit there. “Pashalsta!” And that, folks, is how I became the washroom attendant for two hours.

Anyway, two hours gave me enough charge to connect to the Internet at the next station; enough to receive a message from Maxim reminding me that I had forgotten to give him the money for the bike crate. I explained the problem with keeping the phone charged and apologised profusely for forgetting the money. I’d had to make an extra cash withdrawal the previous morning to pay for the motel, so had thought of nothing else on the way to the station. I had even separated out the amount I owed, but with all the bother finding the platform, it had completely slipped my mind. I offered to pay him next time I see him and he didn’t seem overly bothered about it.

Mathias and his grandmother got off in Yeterinburg. Predictably, he was immediately missed and, to both Olga’s and my consternation, Nika began to cry. Olga tried calming her with juice, sliced sausage and chunks of cucumber, but Nika wasn’t having any of it. Olga tried a DVD, but that didn’t work either. Mercifully, children of that age (I’m guessing 2 years) are fickle and it wasn’t long before she was once again playing happily with her Peppa Pig train. I must have dozed off.

As I came to, I became vaguely aware of a snuffling sound. Olga was looking down at her phone. She noticed that I was awake and rubbed her nose. Something didn’t seem right but, not wishing to intrude, I closed my eyes again. The snuffling continued.

What do you do at times like this? Olga’s life was none of my business, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her, trapped on a train with a tiny child and a mute foreigner. It would have been cruel to ignore her completely. “Narmalna?” I ventured. She nodded, wiping her eyes. “Ya hachoo peetz. Vuy hachietay chai … coffee?” She nodded. “Chai zeelorni. Spasiba.” It was the only friendly thing I could do and, after all, wherever you are in the world, tea and chocolate are an easy fix … for most things!

We arrived in Omsk at about 10.30am. I managed to negotiate the crowded platform without too much difficulty, ignoring some rather aggressive taxi touts. Reaching the security screen inside the station hall, I thought I was safe, but a large hand grabbed at the handle of my bag, “Taxi?” Luckily, the weight of the bag surprised him, but I got such a shock, I gave him a good poke in the chest with my walking stick for his trouble. Sensibly, he backed off before things escalated … as, to my eternal shame, things have been known to do in the past.

I reached the station entrance with no further drama and scanned the car park for a bus stop. I hadn’t heard anything further from Maxim and hadn’t a clue where I was going. The laptop battery was flat and I had forgotten the name of the hotel I had identified in my earlier planning. Suddenly, a woman’s voice called out, “Brigid!”

I was saved again.

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