The mammoth of a train rolls very slowly down the snowy tracks to the platform. I find my carriage and show the provodnitsa (carriage attendant) my ticket. She shrugs and pushes me toward the door, speaking aggressive, incomprehensible Russian.
I slip and slide on the icy platform. She jumps in front of me urging me on to the train, and shows me to a tiny compartment. I can hardly get my bag in the door, the room is so small. It’s stiflingly hot. There are a few people milling about in the corridor, but nobody is in my compartment. There are two beds inside. My heart sinks when I notice a coat and a woollen hat on a hook and two large bags under one of the beds. As I pull my coat off, a jolly, pot-bellied man, a little younger than me, enters the compartment.
Once he realizes that I don’t speak Russian, we exchange pleasantries in simple English. My roommate, Dmitry, speaks only 20 or so words of English (which is roughly 20 or so more words than I know of Russian). I manage to put my bags under the bed and we both sit pensively on our beds waiting for the train to begin its gargantuan journey.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is a massive 9,259 kilometres long, with 19 percent of the route in Europe and the remainder in Asia. It crosses seven time zones on its journey from Moscow to Vladivostok.
The provodnitsa asks Dmitry for his ticket and I give her mine, too. Dmitry then disappears out of the compartment behind her. I sit, alone, comfortably against the pillows on my bed. I don’t know what to think. The compartment is tiny; the whole room is as big as a king-sized bed. I can reach out over the tiny table between the beds and reach Dmitry’s mattress without getting up. I will be on this train for almost four whole days, stuck in this cramped space, until we arrive in Irkutsk. I have no clue where to put my things, how to get my clothes or my toothbrush in and out of my bag, or how to get to my food or anything else I might need. I can’t imagine what it must be like in second class, where there are four people in each compartment.
Dmitry returns and effortlessly delves into his bag beneath his bed. Out comes a snazzy Adidas tracksuit and, just as I think he’ll go to the bathroom at the end of the corridor to change, he closes the door and, right in front of me, undresses down to his off-white briefs. He slowly and methodically puts his tracksuit on.
This is going to be a very, very long journey, I think.
By mid-afternoon, Dmitry starts on beer and chips, slurping and chomping away nonchalantly. I considered skipping alcohol on this part of the trip, but there’s no chance of that happening now. It may, in fact, be the only thing that gets me through this.
I painstakingly establish that Dmitry is a Muscovite policeman travelling to Vladivostok (sadly, he is not getting off at the first stop) and then will go on to Peking (as he calls it) for some rest at a sanatorium. I attempt to explain my plan to circumnavigate the world, but he just looks confused, taking solace in his Russian equivalent of Lays Potato Chips.
Later, after sampling the restricted offerings in the dining car, I go back to Dmitry and our shared space. The temperature inside the train is getting hotter, an overheated 20 degrees Celsius that is completely opposite to the sub-zero conditions outside. I can understand why a few passengers are wearing shorts. I somehow manage to pluck some wine and cheese from my bag and reluctantly offer some of both to my new sleeping partner. Dmitry accepts, then shouts out loudly and heartily. The provodnista quickly attends with a plastic glass for his tipple.
We try to chat, but it is difficult. Nevertheless, Dmitry happily drinks my wine and uses his tablet to translate our stuttered interactions. He even offers me one of his chocolates.
Where’s the vodka, my friend? I think I need more than a chocolate to sleep with you. Can I do this for two more nights until I get to Irkutsk?
Na Zdorovie, Dmitry.
Illustration by Passion Passport intern Rachel Heckerman.