Strangers on a Train

Today’s slide show: Scenes from the Sibiryak.

Russian train window detritus

It wasn’t until later that I figured out why the guy in line behind me, in Moscow’s Yaroslavl train station, was missing half a leg. Or why the thug who cut in front of me, with buzz-cut hair and black overcoat, had one hand composed mainly of scar tissue; it looked as though he’d tried to catch a bayonet. Or why, when I finally reached the head of the line, the woman behind the Plexiglas refused to sell me a ticket under any circumstances, even though I’d waited two hours, and even though—as I explained in my monosyllabic Russian—I just wanted a ticket to Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian Railway. And by the way, I explained needlessly, I was an American who spoke “not Russian very well.”

Defeated, I slunk back to my hotel, knocked back a $4 beer, and filled several journal pages with a catalog of the wickedness of the Russian race, from their Hollywood-villain men to their femme-fatale women to their troglodytic ticket clerks, with some particularly choice remarks about the national odor-retention problem.

A random dictionary check later revealed that I’d been standing in the queue reserved for current and former military officers, grizzled warriors who’d battled Chechens and mujahideen.

I was, I realized, a complete jerk.

Almost as soon as the Trans-Siberian Railway opened, Western travel writers began scrambling aboard, their expectations stoked by the Paris Exhibition of 1900, where the Russian government had displayed its plushest carriages, complete with fine restaurants, luxurious compartments, a gymnasium, and even a bathtub that wouldn’t spill its contents when the train went around a curve. But the bathtubs quickly vanished, if they ever existed, and the restaurant cars fell far short of Gilded Age standards. Almost immediately, the dominant tone became one of complaint. “The stupidity of the Russian waiter,” fumed one early chronicler, “is unsurpassed.” The waiter probably felt similarly about Western tourists.

Such whinging lured countless other Westerners to pack up their steamer trunks of ignorance and climb aboard, enticed by the idea that they could get on a train in Moscow, and then get off 10 (or 14 or 16) days later in Vladivostok or Peking, having “seen Russia.” One by one, they ran smack into one of the shortest but most potent words in the Russian tongue, that all-purpose reply to requests large and small: nyet.

Is the restaurant open now? Nyet. Do you take American Express? Nyet. Please, I’d like a refund for my ticket, since the flight was canceled. Nyet, nyet, nyet.

In St. Petersburg, banners all over town saluted the city’s 300thlyet, or year. In Russian, the word lyet looks a lot like nyet, which made perfect sense: Sankt Peterbourg300 Nyet. Moscow seemed to be the town of 1,000 nyet, but I managed to persuade one ticket clerk to say da, and at 5 o’clock on a toasty July afternoon—after a preliminary lap around the Moscow metro’s circle line—I’d hauled my belongings aboard train number 026, the Sibiryak, bound for the Urals and points east.

The Sibiryak in all her green-and-gold glory

She was a thing of beauty, the Sibiryak. Modestly streamlined and emblazoned with her own green-and-gold logo, she awakened the dormant train buff or “foamer” in me. Inside, she lacked a bathtub or gymnasium, but she had white curtains, Oriental carpet in the corridor, a uniformed coach attendant, and comfy four-berth compartments, or kupey. I found mine, spread out my belongings, and began reading.

A few minutes later, the compartment door slid open, and three Russians charged in, a couple in their 50s and one younger man with a mustache, laden with suitcases, nylon bags, and the inevitable plastic shopping bags that locals use instead of purses or day-packs. Within moments, I had retreated to a small corner of a bottom berth, my bags stuffed ignominiously into the narrow and almost inaccessible compartment above the door. The older of the two men grabbed my ticket, then patted one of the upper berths with his hand, indicating that it was mine. Reluctantly, I climbed up there, not relishing the idea of a 26-hour journey in the top bunk.

As the train started rolling, the men stood up abruptly and moved out into the corridor. Unsure what to do, I pretended to be making myself “comfortable,” and stretched out on the bunk. There was some puzzled muttering in Russian, and then the door slid shut. To my horror, the woman began unbuttoning her blouse. There was a moment when I could have bolted from the compartment, but I’d missed it. Instead, I turned to the wall, sweat gushing from my mortified pores, trying not to listen to the feminine rustlings barely a foot away. Finally she was done, and it was the men’s turn to change into comfortable clothes for the trip.

I lay there motionless, faking a nap, for almost an hour before I ventured back down. They studied me for a while before the older man broke into a smile and said, “sleep-sleep?”

Da,” I nodded, and before long I was drinking warm Russian beer with them and trying to explain why I didn’t have any children.

Leonid and Svetlana were on their way back to Perm from a two-week vacation in Paris and the French Riviera for Svetlana’s 50th birthday. She was an economist, he an electrical engineer, and they earned enough to drive a Volkswagen Sora, which made them part of Russia’s emerging middle class. They talked about France nonstop; clearly, it was the trip of a lifetime. (Riba, the younger man, was a bit vaguer about things, and I didn’t press.)

On the other hand, they were certainly doing better than the Russians we glimpsed through the train window once we’d left Moscow’s gaudy orbit. Every few miles, the birch trees would break and we’d flash past a cluster of weathered log buildings, with children waving, dogs barking, and bent-over figures scything away at the grass—harvesting hay by hand and piling it into stacks with wooden rakes. The hazy evening light, the pale green of the northern summer, and the film of dirt on the train windows, made it seem as though we were traveling through a 19th-century landscape painting. But it was real, every bit as real as Moscow’s Mercedes limousines, its TGI Friday’s, and its women wielding the latest handbags and diamond-encrusted cell phones.

Rossiya,” Svetlana said, and we watched in silence as another weathered-wood village slipped quickly behind us.