This is the third installment in the Great Siberian Adventure series. A co-Fulbrighter and I spent two weeks in the summer of 2012 teaching English at a kids’ camp in Kyzyl, Tuva.
My last three days on the train to Kyzyl, I and my fellow Fulbrighter A. were in coupé, a second-class compartment with four bunks and a lockable door. There are about ten compartments per car, and everyone shares a bathroom and a hot water tank for tea. [More on Russian trains.] We had the two bottom bunks, and various other passengers occupied the upper bunks throughout our trip to the end station of Abakan. On our last day, we ended up with some very interesting bunkmates. Here is an excerpt from my journal that day.
2 June 2012
What a day today has been!
I couldn’t sleep last night, between sleeping long the night before and not doing anything all day and napping. I listened to my “Siberia” playlist and stared into the blank darkness out the window, and watched orange flickering city lights in the distance slowly, slowly get closer.
In the morning, before 7 am, we were awoken by two new bunkmates joining. The first was a young man dressed like Mitya from Burnt by the Sun in a light beige suit, who put his things up on his bunk very rapidly and then went outside to smoke a cigarette, blowing the smoke out through his nose in long, unbroken streams. While he was gone, another young man, stouter, and dressed in a dark suit, came and unloaded his things. Going in and out, missing each other for several minutes, both changed into their train clothes quickly and quietly, while A. and I pretended to sleep.
Soon, though, we both gave up on sleeping anymore. A. went to the bathroom and I sat up to look out the window. The second man, in the dark suit, came back then and I asked him where we were — Novosibirsk.
We got to talking a bit, I told him where I was coming from, and then, extremely tactfully, he asked, “Does everyone in Arkhangelsk speak like you?” I laughed and began the routine explanation. But what a compliment!
Later, we got to talking with both men. Both are named Andrei. The stouter one is a lawyer, the slim one a doctor. Andrei the lawyer lives in Abakan and is returning from a business trip in Novosibirsk. Andrei the doctor lives in Novosibirsk and is on a business trip to Kyzyl, via Abakan. We talked about salaries in Russia and the U.S., and labor unions, and politics, and Eurovision, and Siberian dissatisfaction with the distribution of wealth in Russia, and about Andrei the doctor’s work with tuberculosis, and we asked him whether we should be worried about tick-borne encephalitis in Kyzyl. We talked about music and about which kind of car has the best safety ratings. Andrei the lawyer seems more interested in talking to us, though Andrei the doctor is also attentive and interested and polite to the point of gentility, saying at one point, “Если вы мне позвольте, я пойду курить– If you’ll permit me, I will go smoke.” He’s been talking with a woman colleague in another coupé — they had met before at a conference in April, and now, purely by chance, ended up on the same train to this conference in Kyzyl.
Andrei the lawyer has lots of questions – I heard that in English you only write in block letters, not in cursive. If you don’t have domestic passports, how do the police identify you if you get arrested? What is “Rebecca” in your passport? [My middle name] What kind of a last name is “Spurlock”?
Andrei the doctor is quiet, quiet, quiet. He speaks quietly, he lies in his bunk quietly reading from an e-reader of some sort, he quietly stands at the corridor window watching the scenery whip by. Even when chatting with his colleague from the next coupé, he never seems to actually speak. He has blue-green almond-shaped eyes and dark dusty-looking hair that lies over his head like tidy grass.
Andrei the lawyer, on the other hand, is tall but round, with hazel eyes and an easy smile and laugh.
The day ends perfectly with a summer shower at a station called Ужур – Uzhur.
Andrei the lawyer and I sit on my bunk in the post-sunset blue, talking about corruption and Russian mindsets and what he thinks is wrong with the country. Earlier, he called himself a chinovnik, a bureaucrat, when he explained what he does in the profsoyuz, the labor union. But now he tells me he’s not a chinovnik, and that he just said that because he’s a manager, so he pushes paper a lot. But he says he doesn’t like flatterers, he prefers people who are “straight-edged, honest,” not like his boss.
Speaking Russian with him is easy. He doesn’t interrupt, he listens when I talk, corrects my Russian unobtrusively, laughs at me only kindly.
I try to explain to him how I don’t have a profession—that even though I studied literature, I can apply for any job. It’s difficult for Russians to understand, and I’m not very good at explaining it, I guess because I still don’t really understand their system either.
Having the Andreis with us gives the coupé a domestic feeling, a sense of companionship. We share saltshakers and I tidy up everyone’s things on the tiny fold-out table. It’s not the same as when we had the other passengers in our compartment, or any of the times I was in third class. This is the Russian train experience people talk about.