Finding Nemo

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Endless Train to Madness

That's a lotta rail ties
Here is some ridiculousness: the trans-siberian railway spans 5,700 miles and 7 time zones. For comparison, New York to San Francisco is only a paltry 2900 miles. Taking the express straight from Vladivostok to Moscow without any stops takes ... 7 straight days. Of course, any sane person would never do the entire route without stopping. Most people these days take the Trans-Manchurian: Moscow-to-Beijing, passing through Mongolia. You depart and arrive in glorious imperial cities, with a few days in Ulaanbaatar pretending to be a Mongol cowboy.

Traveling from the east you pass through the endless taiga tunnel, days upon days without a change in the view. It is like a spell, both mesmerizing and claustrophobic. I can see why Paul Theroux in the Great Railway Bazaar finally lost it a bit here, lonely, and tired of traveling after 4 months on the road.

An all-time classic of travel writing, plus it's all on my favorite mode of transport!
The dining car on the Mongolian train is a riot. Mongolians are drinking beer and chain-smoking cigarettes at all hours of the day. The food is cheap and good enough. At night I found myself getting my shot glass filled by a neighbor's bottle, singing slurred songs in Mongolian and watching people drink until they tumbled out of their seats. I was a temporary member of the Mongolian Sigma-Chi Frat House.

The Russian dining car is so quiet that I when I first stumbled upon I wasn't sure it was even open. Instead of sticky beer floors and the smell of tasty strange noodles cooking in the air, there was only empty table after table. Each was anointed with a spotless red tablecloth, artfully folded napkins, ceramic salt and sugar cups, and even a little vase with a plastic flower. To top it off, there was real silverware laid out. I couldn't remember the last time I saw a fork, knife, and spoon on tablecloth. It all looked odd and neat and sterile and, well, sadly boring. And at that moment, I couldn't help but feel a little pang of nostalgia for chopsticks and spicy noisy Asian restaurants with their bizarre "who the hell knows what I'm about to eat or what animal it could be from" plates.

The Russian Dining car: spotless, overpriced, and sadly empty.
I sat down and a well-dressed man apparated from behind a cubbyhole with a red vest holding a menu. You can pretty much tell how far from the tourist trail you've strayed by how well the English translations are rendered, if there are even any. And this menu had pretty good English. There would be no more hilarious Chinglish or Monglish on the Trans-Siberian railway. After a quick scan I found something wonderful printed on the page. кофе 'экспресс' - Espresso.

Not too much time later, I was sitting down to a hot meal of soup, meat, bread, pickles, and of course, espresso. The food might not have been the best, but it had been so long since I'd had western food I nearly gobbled up my fingers as I stuffed it in. And the fresh espresso, with cold liquid cream.... wow. Delicious. There were some things that I was NOT going to miss about Asia. But why were things so empty? The answer soon came with the bill. My simple meal had cost over 600 rubles. About $20 US. A fortune in Asia. On the Mongol train, dinner cost $3-4 and a can of lukewarm beer was less than a buck. No wonder the Russians stayed in their cars and didn't mingle.

I thought back on Paul Theroux's writing, how the dining car on Europe's trains were generally full of well-heeled customers traveling to exotic locales. But that time had passed: the well-heeled were flying overhead in comfortable 747's. Yet this expensive dining car remained, frozen in time, waiting for a man in a 3-piece suit and pipe to sit down with his paper. It was a theme I would see later again in again in Eastern Europe: past glories of Soviet Russia, proudly displayed, slowly decaying.

I finished my meal in silence, alone. It would be a long train ride.

No comments:

Post a Comment