Friday, January 18, 2008

The rolling Russian marketplace

Wanderlust interrupted

Express Staff Writer

A few thoughts typically run through your mind as you're sprinting down a station platform, Indiana Jones-style, after a departing train: An anxious comprehension of a late arrival at work. The annoyance of having to spend another minute in a place that smells like the restrooms at Fenway Park. How that unnecessary final happy-hour beer is threatening to make an untimely reappearance.

However, when the station happens to be in a small Russian village in the middle of Siberia, these thoughts are reduced to a simple two-word expletive that sounds remarkably similar to "Oh spit!"

Perhaps if I possessed the ability to slow time, I would have fully grasped the extent of my stupidity, which makes the infamous Miss Teen South Carolina look like John Nash by comparison.

Presenting the winner of the 2004 Michael Richards award for unheeded advice that's so obvious it should never be given in the first place: When stepping off the Trans-Siberian Railway to seek out a beverage that does not contain vodka, do not leave behind passport, funding for the next four months and a clean change of underwear.

Despite the fact that the Soviet Union crumbled over 15 years ago, certain stringent vestiges have survived the introduction of democracy, including the need for a visa that accounts for your whereabouts throughout the entirety of your trip. If a traveler is discovered by authorities without permission to be in that place on the assigned date, it's off to a gulag above the Arctic Circle to perform forced labor.

Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but needless to say, the ramifications would be at least as bad as being stranded at an Amtrak station in New Jersey.

Looking to avoid that fate, I sprinted down the platform, weaving through throngs of startled townsfolk, passing numerous cars before finally reaching an open door. Grasping at the handrail, I found I wasn't the only one surprised by the train's movement, and was soon engaged in another struggle to actually get inside the train.

As the train accelerated out into the vast emptiness of the Siberian Plain, I exchanged a relieved smile with a number of Mongolians who had also succeeded in not being left behind.

Three days earlier, the train, en route to Moscow from Beijing, had stopped in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, where the majority of the passengers boarded and effectively transformed it into a rolling bazaar.

At every stop during the next five days, the population of each small town would come out for the event of the week, surrounding the train for the chance to spend some hard-earned rubles on a T-shirt, seemingly made out of Kleenex, bearing the word "Prada."

Pulling into a station, the train would part the crowd, many of whom appeared completely unconcerned that they were facing imminent flattening by a massive locomotive.

In the midst of this haggling over jeans, blankets, clocks and handbags, Russian police patrolled, adorned with combat boots and heavy truncheons, forcing protesting merchants back onto the cars if they weren't forthcoming with bribes of cash or merchandise.

Separating this frenetic activity were long stretches of solitude, filled with beauty and loneliness.

As the sole English speaker on the train, my interaction was limited to attempts of communicating my need for sustenance to the dining car attendant, who doubled as an unofficial foreign exchange dealer and God knows what else. He also made a mean beef stroganoff.

The most difficult aspect of traveling without a companion was not the absence of conversation, but the validation of the grandeur that was passing by the windows. I needed to ensure that what was going on in my head wasn't simply romantic hyperbole or a Kurtz-like descent.

In June, the 2 feet of ice that ringed Lake Baikal, the world's largest body of fresh water, represented the primordial struggle to survive.

Or the more modern reminder, symbolized by the five-story, Soviet-era, concrete housing blocks in Yekaterinburg, home to much of the empire's defense industry.

But, alas, these thoughts just bounced around my mind like an echo in a narrow canyon.

Stepping off the train in Moscow, 5,000 miles and five time zones from where I started, these thoughts faded as I was swept up into the familiarity of a major European country, replete with buses, modern buildings and people in real Prada clothes.

Jon Duval is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express.

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