Take Me Away
Another one of the great entries for ‘Best Written Piece’ in our Vodkatrain Traveller Awards that we have received so far. This account of The Budgeting Bolshevik is written by Rachel Songailo.
‘Take Me Away – The Budgeting Bolshevik’ by Rebecca Songailo
We gaze at each other nervously, trying not to stare, but attempting to imagine what life is going to be like to live in such close quarters with these strangers for the next twelve days. Judging from their accents, I’m guessing there are two Scots, one German and I’m not sure about the two blonde girls; they almost sound American, but I don’t think they are.
Our Honcho is talking us through the paperwork and making plans for the evening. I don’t quite understand, but nod as I try to navigate her thick Russian accent. She says she will meet us back at Godzilla’s hostel at five thirty pm to guide us through some of the sites of Moscow.
Walking to the Kremlin, my husband and I make small talk with the people on our tour. It turns out the two blondes are Swedes. Everyone seems nice. Our Honcho informs us that an English girl will join us later. It’s extremely cold and I can’t quite seem to get warm. The others don’t seem to notice, walking with a carefree swagger and matching smile. Being an Aussie, I am not accustomed to such bitter winds and I have a nagging dread it’s about to get a whole lot worse!
Red Square is buzzing with people, lights, excitement and over priced merchandise. Our Honcho takes us to Tchaikovsky’s theatre, where we watch some student recitals. Some are amazing. The buildings are also amazing, as is their history. I realise that I have missed so much walking through these streets in the past few days without a guide. I’m fascinated by the architecture. After flying direct from France, the buildings here seem so manly! Actually, everything about this city seems manly-oversized, big and strong- the people included.
We eat at a vegetarian restaurant to accommodate for our German friend who is a vegan. We would learn later that Russia is not a hospitable friend of vegans.
The next morning, we arise at six am full of nervous anticipation. We relish the quick shower, brushing of teeth and opportunity to look in a mirror, knowing this could well be the last time for the next five days. A quick dash to the supermarket to stock up on food; two minute noodles, tea, chocolate, bread and packet soup- nutrition plus! All of a sudden, we find ourselves navigating our way through busy train stations and trains; some of us carrying way too much luggage! Our Honcho leads the way to the ancient looking train. From the outside, it looks dirty and as if it shouldn’t work at all, but hey, maybe the inside is different? Right?
We climb aboard and are instantly hit with a wall of hot, stuffy air. Does anybody believe in fresh air in their country? We find our seats and are shocked to find that they double up as bunk beds. Each booth has four beds, but there is no door to shelter and provide privacy. We are horrified to discover that we are sharing our open carriage with fifty other Russians who are now staring at us. How the heck are we meant to survive five days non-stop in this thing? Whose idea was this anyway? The whole atmosphere of the train is gloomy. Everything is covered in grim and looks horribly outdated and prison like.
I’m allocated a top bunk and try to climb up without stepping on anyone or hitting my head on the roof that is far too close to my bed- an impossible task! ‘Does anyone regret this?’ I hear one of the Swedes half joke. No one answers.
As evening falls, the smell of two minute noodles fills the air; a smell that will linger for the next five days. The eight of us cram into a booth and do our best to distract ourselves from the ever present feeling of claustrophobia. We share stories and jokes and try not to notice the Russian men eying off the six females in our group. Although we have only known each other for one day, our group feels close. We are all so different and probably never would have hung out if we weren’t put on tour together; however we share a strange, unexplainable kind of bond. We climb into our beds, our feet overhanging the ends by a foot or so, and try to ignore the fact that the people walking up and down the aisle are brushing up against them. The rhythmic sounds and vibrations of the wheels on the tracks keep me awake for hours. It’s stinking hot and humid, although it’s below zero degrees Celsius outside. My mind panics as I fight with claustrophobic until eventually I fall asleep from exhaustion.
I wake up at six am to the sound of people in the booth next door cranking music like they are the only ones on the train. I hear the Scots and English girl complaining in the booth on the other side. Good morning Russia! Until now, I’ve avoided using the bathroom, but I can bear to put it off no longer. The stainless steel toilet and the tiny room surrounding it has its’ every surface covered in moisture. I squat; trying to balance without touching anything, but managing to pee on my feet somehow. I see the moving tracks below and decide that I will not brave anything more for the next few days. I contemplate washing my hands, but presume that touching the tap will give me more potential disease than missing a hand washing session.
We spend the day eating, talking and walking enviously through the other, much nicer, carriages to get to the food cart where the air is a little cleaner. We decide that $15 Aus is a good price to pay for a drink and cooler air. Outside, the desolate lands of Siberia pass by. It looks so cold and barren out there. I wonder how anyone can survive in such harsh conditions. The Swedes humour keeps me sane. They know how to laugh at anything and we all find solace in their crazy stories and giggling fits.
The days roll into each other and before we know it, we are saying goodbye to the crazy lady with her cat, the drunk stalker and the young man in the army returning home for the first time in a year. We step out of the train and into the fresh Irkutsk air. It’s snowing heavily and we breathe in the freezing air with gratitude. Our Honcho is waiting for us with a huge Russian smile. He takes us to our cozy cabin on the edge of the magnificent Lake Baikal and organises a breakfast of eggs, toast and coffee that has never tasted so good! Later on, we go dog sledding. Everyone is amused by the dogs; mostly Siberian Huskies with one Dalmatian. I somehow manage to fall out of the moving sled, but other than that, am enthralled in my first experience of dog sledding. My husband and I opt out of the Russian sauna invitation and realise we have made the right decision when the others come back with terrified expressions written on their faces.
We rest, tour Irkutsk, eat bizarre Russian food (sweet donuts with mince meat filling anyone?!) and are back on the train all too soon.
This time our carriage is a lot nicer. We have a small, private room to share with only three others. It feel so luxurious and I walk through the cattle class carriage once more to make sure I truly appreciate my new found comfort. We stop at the Russian/Mongolian border and get off the train; only to have Russian kids throw fire crackers at us. Not long after, we are standing on the Ulaanbaatar train platform at five am being welcomed by the most smiley Mongolian I’ve ever met. She takes us out to the ger camp site, where we are welcomed with a hot breakfast next to the fire. It feels so warm inside the tent, even though it’s minus fifteen degrees Celsius outside. We indulge in the most peaceful of sleeps and spend the afternoon riding Mongolian horses (or falling off in my husbands’ case), dressing up in traditional clothes and playing a highly competitive game involving goat bones. I take in the scenery; a strange combination of majestic and romantic mountains and valleys that have a way of making me feel so isolated, yet so at peace at the same time. The yaks top it off for me- strange, beautiful and mesmerising. This is Mongolia to me. I decide that I have fallen head over heels for this country.
The food is amazing. Mongolian lamb stir fry and home brewed beers. We spend the next day in the city of Ulaanbaatar. I catch an old lady with her hand in my pocket at the Black Markets and marvel at how much stuff there is to buy. Too bad I’ve only got my backpack and a tight budget.
The train to China is different once more. The train guards are cleaning- no way! I glance at the girl from Germany and see that she is delighted in this discovery. We pass through the Gobi Desert. The vast sands and strange creatures cement my love for this country. Over the border, I watch industrial sites, fruit orchards in blossom, huge mountains and crazy roads and tunnels pass by. I am so thankful for the opportunity to see these spectacular sites.
Our group sits together in a tiny room, no one wanting to state the obvious. It is our last day. We have become so fond of each other and have a strange love/hate relationship with the train. We feel protected in its walls. We have come to love the rhythmic sounds of its wheels. We love the places it has taken us and the adventures and stories it has provided. Even the stale air- we will breathe it longer if it means that the journey will continue. Alas, the train pulls into Beijing. My friends and I reluctantly carry our luggage off the train and say our goodbyes. ‘Come to Australia’, ‘Come to Scotland’. Maybe, perhaps, who knows? The only thing we know for sure is the time we have had, and it was good.