Before we left, my mum organised a 'Bring & Buy' sale to raise funds for the trip. The idea was to sell enough junk to pay for our Trans-Siberian railway tickets. Friends and family gave vast quantities of goods for sale at the event, displaying both the level of generosity they had and the amount of rubbish they kept.
That day, we filled out a church hall with books, CDs, games, clothes, cakes, and general junk ranging from garden gnomes to hairclips, crockery to a wheelchair. Unfortunately, what we were lacking were customers, so I took it upon myself to wander the streets of Esher, carrying cakes baked by mum in an attempt to draw customers. The greedy pedestrians soon devoured the first cake, and Thom and my brother joined me for a second round.
The goal was not just to sell cake but also to draw people into the hall so that they'd buy more goods. One of the few people that fell for our sales pitch was a guy called Paul who was wheeling his daughter down the road and agreed to have a look around (albeit only because we didn't have any change for his ten-pound note).
After we gave him the whole story (excitedly showing him the day's Guardian, whose pages we had graced with two sentences describing our project), he told us he had taken the Trans-Siberian himself and had a great time. He also gave us a little tip.
When he went on the train, he took a bottle of whiskey from home and gave it to the chef in the restaurant car as a gift. For the rest of the journey, he maintained, he received extra large portions and particularly attentive service. He recommended that we do the same, and we did.
From the duty-free store on our ferry across the Channel, Thom picked up a bottle of Scottish whiskey. I had envisioned a small, hip-flask-sized container, but Thom brought back a great big bottle containing the best part of a litre of spirits. He had to carry the thing in his backpack for over a week, but now that we were onboard the train, the time had come to deliver our present.
It had always seemed like a good idea: buy a bottle of whiskey, give it to the chef, get extra food. But the reality suddenly seemed different. Who was to say the chef would appreciate the whiskey? Who said he was a whiskey drinker? Who said he was a he? Who said he wasn’t a petite little Chinese women who made a mean chicken chow mein but wouldn't touch spirits with a barge pole? Naturally, we did some reconnaissance first.
"He's this big Russian guy with a big moustache and a funny leather waistcoat that looks like a gun holster," Thom said excitedly. "He looks like he'll appreciate the whiskey."
Now we still had to present him with it. It wasn't a normal social situation, walking up to a complete stranger and giving him a bottle of whiskey. What did we expect, that he'd welcome us with wide-open arms, thank us in perfect English, knock back some whiskey, then give us a mountainous portion of food for free? Well... yeah. But now that we were there, the likelihood of him giving us such a response seemed all too unlikely, and we were a bit hesitant as to how to proceed.
We figured we should introduce ourselves first, so we went down for some lunch, and whilst he was serving us, I looked up. "What is your name?" I asked in Russian. Kak-vaas za-voot is how I remember it and how I said it. To my surprise, it worked, and "Victor," came the response. "And you?" he asked with an upward nod of the head. Brilliant! We had broken the ice that would soon be filling our whiskey glasses. That was, of course, the other problem, as Thom pointed out: "You realise he's going to expect us to drink some of this with him."
So, armed with our Russian phrasebook and the translation of what our trip was all about, we marched into the restaurant car and handed Victor his prize. I feared a look of complete bewilderment—a look that said, "Why the hell are you guys giving me a litre of whiskey!?"—but instead, because he wasn't going to drink while serving, he told us to come back at six o'clock .
We had a date with a Russian guy and a bottle of whiskey.
...to be continued...