Now, I’d never admit to being a train fanatic, far from it, but the prospect of a ninety-hour train journey across Russia and in to the deepest darkest depths of Siberia is something that has made me quite moist for many a year now. As we walked to the train station in Moscow for the night time departure, I still couldn’t believe that I was finally getting the chance to ride on ’The Trans-Siberian Railway.’
Just as we were boarding the train, the words, "there’s a small problem with your train ticket," weren’t really what I was wanting to here. For a moment I thought I had somehow been given a ticket for a different train. It was worse. I’d been given a separate compartment from my wife and I would have to share with three local Russians instead. I’d like to think my wife was as dismayed about this as I was!
Looking at the positives, I hoped sharing with three Russians (an elderly babushka and a young couple well and truly in love) would be a blessing in disguise, giving me the chance to experience the journey like a local instead of a tourist. After a sleepless night in my stuffy, claustrophobic compartment, I was begging to differ. Maybe it was the fact I was apart from my wife. Maybe the constant bumps along the track that kept me awake. Or maybe it was the pungent aroma of the babushka’s cabbage farts, hurricane strength snoring, or the unmistakeable scratching sounds of hand on pubes that kept me awake.
It didn’t take long for morale to return. Shortly after breakfast and a spot of photo swapping with my new roomies, the first vodka was poured and I got to learn exactly what riding on the ‘Trans-Siberian Railway’ was all about; eating, sleeping and drinking. There really isn’t much else to do. With the train being kept in a time warp throughout the journey, always on Moscow time no matter what the time zone outside is, it’s always meal time somewhere. For the majority of the train journey my schedule was something along the lines of…………wake-up, eat, eat some more, nap, eat, drink, nap, eat, nap, eat, nap, drink, drink some more, nap, eat, drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, fall asleep/ pass out. It would have been rude not to imitate the locals!
Ever since I vomited down a friends arm at University attempting a single shot, myself and vodka have never been firm friends. I have improved slightly since then, but the fact that Russian shots are at least double that of English shots, I was always going to be boxing well above my weight. The borderline alcoholic 57 year old American lady set the standards high yet again for the first night of the journey. She ended the night dancing on the tables of the restaurant carriage with a highly intoxicated waitress. Unfortunately for some of the watching customers, the restaurant manager called a halt to events when they both started an impromptu strip. I knew I would have to put in the performance of my life if I was going to be able to compete with such heavyweights.
The following evening I decided it was my turn to throw my drunken menace of a body in to the ring and go punch for punch with my new American drinking friend. Any hopes though I had of cavorting and stripping on restaurant tables were quickly dashed (probably a relief to my wife!). After making our way down to the restaurant carriage mid-afternoon, we arrived just in time to see the waitress in question, already steaming drunk, stumble over in to a table. Unable to hold her balance, she then crashed head first in to a radiator, knocking out a front tooth in the process. After watching her being carried away and the drops of blood cleaned up off the floor with a table cloth, for some reason both my wife and I had lost our appetite.
Not eating was a schoolboy error of the highest order. Everyone knows you need to line your stomach before drinking, especially when drinking with Russians. With the waitress out of commission, I had to go in search of my own fun. Fun is something not too hard to find when travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway, thanks to the free-flowing vodka and beer throughout the train. After conversing with a Russian sergeant who had fought in Chechnya, a Russian artist who sells his work to top American politicians and a German man who was travelling to the spot where his captured father started his 6,000km walk back to Germany (and safety) during the Second World War, the night disintegrated pretty quickly.
I mean, I’ve hit rock bottom before, the most notable of which was French kissing a dwarf during my University heyday. But after the majority of my travelling group had gone to bed, rugby tackling a Russian rugby team one-by-one with the American lady before ballroom-dancing the early hours away with a ten year old down syndrome kid is certainly something I’m not proud of. Nor was his Dad. I kept a very low profile the following day.
As we disembarked the train at Irkutsk, in eastern Siberia, the fresh, icy air and lying snow was a rewarding sight. Even though the ninety hours had passed remarkably quickly, I doubt I could have lasted much longer. By now the smell inside the train had reached crisis point; a stagnant, pungent mix of cheesy feet, stale beer breath and chicken pot noodles meant the next gag was just around the corner.
The main attraction of Irkutsk is it’s proximity to Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the largest, deepest freshwater lake in the world. It also has the world‘s only freshwater seals (now there‘s an interesting fact for you!). It’s an impressive sight, but I was more concerned about having my first shower in four days than admiring it’s beauty.
If I had researched the lake ahead of time, I might have taken my shower in the lake. Local legend has it, that anyone that swims in the lake (with an average summer temperature of only six degrees Celsius) will add twenty five years to their life. Lake Baikal really didn’t look appealing but after a barrage of encouraging words from my wife and the girlfriend of a friend who was also thinking of taking a dip, we both buckled. With snow forecast for the following day and with the lake freezing over to ice with a depth of three metres within a month and a half, I don’t think there would be a better chance!
So, in the small village of Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal, with a watching market behind me, I stripped down to my boxers, exposing my man boobs in their full naked glory for all to see. I really do believe the gasps weren’t for such a ghastly sight, but were actually gasps of admiration for our proposed challenge. We both waded in for a quick swim. Within thirty seconds, we were already back on dry land, squealing like little girls (well I was anyway!), much to the amusement of those watching. The only way to save our face and dignity, was to return in to the lake for a second time. Although we lasted roughly the same amount of time, there were a few nods of approval and a couple of honking horns from passing cars this time around. If local legend is in fact true, that at least puts me up to seventy eight years of age before I have to start worrying. To celebrate the achievement we all went for a banya, which is basically bondage with branches in a sauna, followed by a jump in to a freezing cold pool. Delightful! I couldn’t think of a more masculine way to end the day.