October 27, 2008

Trans-Siberian Railway, Moscow to Ekaterinburg, Russia

My next adventure in Russia was spent fulfilling a long held dream of riding on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which is a train line that starts in Moscow, ends in Beijing and connects local Russian cities and towns along the way in an Eastward direction through Ural and Siberia even heading Southbound toward Mongolia or through Manchuria if you choose. Booking these tickets without a travel agent, who will charge a hefty mark-up, is near impossible outside of Russia, but since it was off-season, I decided to try my luck and wait until I got to St. Petersburg to start organizing this leg of my journey. I kicked some beer money to one of the young kids working at the hostel who assisted me and half a day later, after some internet research and a minor excursion to the train station, I had four separate commission-free-local-priced tickets getting me through the remaining territory of Russia, with three scenic pit-stops along the way, and across the border into Mongolia.
In Moscow, I had paid special attention to equip myself with some very essential provisions for the two-day ride through the Ural region to Ekaterinburg; cheese and crackers, a bottle of water and, of course, two tasty bottles of Chilean red wine. I knew I ran the risk of being labeled a cabin snob for stocking the bar-in-my-bag with wine rather than the local staples of Vodka or Whisky, but others people’s opinions have never bothered me, and I figured, alcohol is alcohol: perhaps I would even get the chance of challenging a hearty Russian man to partake in drinking some fermented grapes in public.
As it turned out, there was no opportunity for this as my sole cabin roommate was a sprightly woman named Valentina, who offered up the biggest smile when I walked in and immediately started conducting energetic conversations with me in Russian. It’s true at that point I only had “hello”, “Thank You” and the handy, universally-understood “Super” in the repertoire, and that Valentina, somewhere in her 58 years, had picked up “I Love You” and “Happy Birthday to You” in English, but the difference of spoken and non-understood language only becomes a barrier if the people involved are not connecting, in which case you could speak in the same exact tongue and still not understand a damn thing the other person is saying. This was not the case with Valentina and I as we started an immediate bond that surpassed vocabulary.
Rolling through the region, watching as a continuous line of tall trees mixed with an occasional break of open landscape filled the window, Valentina and I involved ourselves in the most admirable game of charades while exchanging family photographs and elaborate drawings on my sketch notepad; within two hours we had developed a pretty decent snapshot of each other’s lives. Honestly, this activity was so much fun that I entertained going on a full spoken-word strike, using only crazy made-up hand movements as my primary mode of communication. Photographs and drawings weren’t the only items on display. In her excitement over the love-fest taking place in cabin IV, Valentina decided to show me, one by one, and with great fanfare, all the tchotchkes she had carefully stowed in her bag; a battery-operated-machine-gun-toting-floor-crawling-army-figure, a sparkly-plastic-magnetic-dolphin-shaped-bottle-opener, a fiberglass-molded-stiletto-shoe-cell-phone-holder, and quite endearingly, laminated placemats with a collage of photographs from her daughters wedding. When the local women, who board the trains to sell bag loads of these tchotchkes to passengers, would enter our cabin, Valentina would caress the items thoughtfully, picking them up, examining them closely, and then putting them down with great care, even purchasing a few coloring books in my presence. She then decided to teach me how to twirl a glass, without spilling any liquid, like a professional belly dancer, and this took up a good hour that afterwards had us both rolling around in laughter on our small cabin beds.
After all this activity we had both worked up quite an appetite, and even though she had been hazing me with an entire watermelon for the past four hours, we dug into our train-provided beefsteaks with vigor (mmm mmm good). I decided to see if it was time to share some wine and when I presented the bottle to Valentina with an inquisitive look on my face, she started to jump up and down in her seat repeating the word “Super” again and again; “Da, Da. Super, Super, Super.” I correctly took that to mean yes, or rather “Da” in Russian. Valentina was no drinking novice and she started right in with hefty sips that even I found to be at an accelerated speed, but when she would finish a nice sized gulp and look at me with a huge grin and a red wine moustache, I felt as though I was watching my newborn take it’s first steps.
We had created a harmonious energy and Valentina’s lighthearted spirit and warm smile reminded me of my Mother, so I gave her the title of Siberian Surrogate Mama- Tchotchke Queen of Ural, and even though she probably didn’t quite understand all of her new name, she understood enough and quickly started calling me the word for daughter in Russian. After a lovely evening, a good night’s sleep and another highly entertaining wine-soaked-glass-twirling-beefsteak-lunch, my destination had arrived and it was time to rip myself from the womb of cabin IV and say goodbye to my new Siberian Surrogate. On the platform outside we embraced each other, exchanged “I Love You” in English a few hundred times and made hand-signaled promises of letters no one would be able to read and telephone calls no one would understand, but as Valentina got back on the train and I stood watching as her waving hand slowly disappeared down the track, I knew the exchange of words and letters didn’t matter because we had already shared the most important thing – an open heart.


jess said...


sand said...

Oh what a lovely tribute Andriana. If only Valentina could see herself through your eyes! The red velvety wine mostache was the best.

xoxo Sand


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