Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

The Trans-Siberian Railway
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
April 7 2010 10:57 AM

Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

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The train itself has an elegant shabbiness to it. Our carpeted first-class cabin is paneled with dark, worn wood. There's a stately picture window and a small wooden table with a little white tablecloth. The two narrow bunks are made up with crisp sheets. This genteel mood is dampened by the bad Russian pop that plays through a speaker bolted into the ceiling. (There's a knob on the speaker that reduces the volume but—in a rather Orwellian detail—there is no way to turn the music all the way off.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

There are three classes of tickets on Russian trains. First class (called spalny vagon), which we're riding in now, has private cabins with two bunks each. Second class (called kupé) has four-bed cabins. Third class (called platskartny) stuffs fifty-four bunks into a single, open carriage.

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We're intimidated by platskartny. It's a lot of humanity in not a lot of space. When our train makes its first station stop, we watch the platskartny passengers piling out like escapees from a P.O.W. camp and at that moment basically rule out the idea of ever casting our lot with them. A pair of incidents at subsequent stops reinforces our feelings on this matter: 1) We watch a platskartny rider buy a whole fish—eyes intact, slimy gleam reflecting off its scales—from an old woman on a station platform, which he then brings back onto the train. (You could smell this thing from thirty yards away. I have no idea how he planned to cook or eat the fish, and I wept for the other people in his carriage.) 2) At another stop, we see a drunk, vomit-flecked man hauled out of a platskartny carriage by a pair of angry policemen. (If there's one thing that smells worse than a whole fish, it's a whole pool of vomit.)

There's also the issue that the fifty-odd platskartny passengers share a couple of painfully oversubscribed toilets at the end of the car. We're much better off in spalny vagon, sharing a toilet with only fifteen or so people. Though even in first class, the bathroom is bare-bones. It's all hard metal surfaces and constantly reeks of bleach, which I suppose is better than reeking of dead fish. There is no shower, so people take sponge baths using the sink.

On the floor next to the toilet is a flush pedal—which I'd assumed would trigger a rush of antiseptic blue liquid, ushering the toilet bowl's contents into a chemical tank. Instead, pressing the pedal just opens a flap at the bottom of the bowl. When this flap opens, it sends a shock of sunlight up into the bathroom, revealing the blur of the train tracks beneath the car and carpet-bombing the ground with human waste. We're not permitted to use the toilet while the train is stopped at a station, for obvious reasons.

No matter which class we ride in, we will be forced to deal with a provodnitsa. Perhaps the most iconic figure in Russian rail, the provodnitsa is the person (usually a woman—if he's a man he's called a provodnik) who is in charge of each car. She rules her fiefdom with an iron fist. You can find her vacuuming the hallways, restocking the bathroom with unnecessarily coarse toilet paper, and generally clucking at her subjects as they disappoint her with their behavior.

Our car has two provodnitsas. They work in shifts and are constantly bickering. Both sport dyed hair the color of maraschino cherries. At station stops, whichever one is off duty will stand on the platform in a tattered robe and slippers, puffing on a cigarette and scowling at all who pass. If you step outside to get some air, and are the least bit slow reboarding the train before it sets off again—perhaps because you are fascinated by a transaction involving a fish—she will wag her finger at you and bark angrily in Russian.

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A couple of hours and several stops outside Moscow, we move beyond the crowded city sprawl and into the countryside. We begin to pass a series of mournful-looking towns. People walk aimlessly along the train tracks, and feral animals roam about. The view out the window is sometimes patchy forest, sometimes clusters of small wooden houses, and sometimes crumbling, cement-block factories surrounded by barbed-wire fences and stagnant puddles of mud.

At each station stop, locals wait on the platform with baskets of food for sale. Sausages, cucumbers, blocks of cheese, potato chips. Many of the merchants are wrinkly babushkas, with thick ankles and deep-set, suspicious eyes. Often they wheel their goods around in baby strollers. Given the state of things in these towns, it would not surprise me if some of these women were selling actual babies.

That evening, as our train rolls through a moonlit Russian forest, Rebecca fiddles with her GPS to see where we are. She sits up straight in her bunk with a start. "Hey!" she says, still looking at the screen, wiggling her hand to get my attention. "We're about to be in Asia!"

The Ural mountain range marks the divide between the continents, with the official boundary falling at just about 60 degrees east longitude. We turn off the lights in our cabin and press our faces to the window, keeping our eyes peeled for some sort of marker. Rebecca glances down at her GPS to track our progress. "Should be any second now ..."

And there it is. A small white obelisk by the side of the tracks. The train rumbles by it at 50 mph, but I manage to make out Cyrillic letters spelling "Europe" and "Asia" etched into the stone, with corresponding arrows pointing in opposite directions. There's nothing else here but a quiet glade of birch trees.

Unexpectedly, a wave of accomplishment passes over me. We've conquered the Atlantic Ocean, and now Europe. An entire continent in our rearview mirror. To celebrate, Rebecca goes to the dining car and brings back a bottle of vodka. We drink it all, chasing it with a tube of Pringles we'd bought from a babushka on a station platform earlier in the day.

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The next morning, we arrive in the city of Irkutsk. You may remember this name as one of the territories on the Risk game board. I half expected to see ten-foot-tall, plastic Roman numerals wandering the streets.

The main attraction in Irkutsk, as far as Rebecca's concerned, is a small aquarium that features a pair of nerpas. Nerpas are the earth's only freshwater seals, and they are adorable. They have eyes as dark and deep as nearby Lake Baikal, where they live. (Lake Baikal is in fact the deepest lake in the world. It's more than a mile from its surface to its bottom—which at least one Russian minisubmarine has reached.)

The nerpas' "aquarium," when we find it, turns out to be three rooms in the basement of a strip mall, located beneath a retail store called Fashion House. The seals' aquatic habitat is essentially an oversized bathtub. The two nerpas—one male, one female—do a show here every half hour, ten shows a day.

The audience for the show we attend consists of me, Rebecca, and two small children accompanied by their grandmother. It kicks off with a trainer leading the nerpas through a set of tricks. These tricks include "singing" (making fart noises through their nostrils); "breakdancing" (turning around in a slow circle); "painting" (having a brush shoved in their mouths, which they then whack intermittently against a piece of paper); and "the lambada" (a sort of awkward flipper shimmy).

The promotional brochure at the aquarium claims that nerpas have the power to "hypnotize" people with their huge, black eyes, and that sometimes the trainer, under the spell of this hypnosis, will begin feeding the nerpas and then forget to stop. I have no doubt that this is true, as the male nerpa here is so grotesquely fat he can barely perform any of the tricks. He struggles just to haul his blubbery mass up onto his designated, floating platform. Mostly, he bobs upright in the water like an overinflated buoy. He has about eight chins, and his facial expression conveys at all times a childlike anticipation that he might be thrown a fish.

"Except for you," Rebecca says to me when the show has ended, "that is the most ridiculous animal I have ever seen. In its defense, it's much cuter than you."

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