Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Train Culture of Russia

I'm currently in the midst of a 40 hour trip from the very north of Russia, the town of Murmansk, to Moscow. After one night in Moscow, I'll hop on a 30 hour train to Uzhgorod, Ukraine.

I'm quite content to be back on a train for a few nights and love the train culture of Russia, which is quite different than that of America.

My experience of trains in America is of enough extent that I feel I have the authority to make some comparisons.

On the trains in America, community isn't much encouraged beyond the Observation Lounge (a car with a more open seating arrangement for conversation). If you're travelling, you'll be in one of two seats facing forward in a long row of seats all facing the same direction. These are the cheap seats.

The cheap seats in Russia are similar in price of that in America. The layout of the entire train, though, is remarkably different. The train is comprised of bunk beds. On one side of the train, the bunks run alongside, parallel to the route of the train. The bottom bunk has a centre that can flip and latch up to become a table and the other sides of the bed are merely ends of the mattress. There is a secondary bunk above that with storage even higher up above that. Each bunk comes with a rolled up mat, a fluffy pillow that has already been used by leagues of traveling-Russians, two flat, stiff sheets, a thick blanket, and a towel. By each bunk is a netted storage shelf that sits at a 45 degree angle from the wall of the car, a hook for coats, and a bar to hang the towel on. On the other side of the aisle is something like an open room with two sets of larger-in-width bunks on either side, facing each other and perpendicular to the path of the train. There is a decent sized table between them and storage for bags beneath the bottom bunk. I'm currently in what is considered to be the “worst seat” on the train – I'm in one of the small side bunks (the singular ones parallel to the train). To get out of your seat is to put yourself in the aisle where folks are walking. For me, if my bunkmate desires to lay down, I'm out of a table and must go elsewhere. On the other side, you have a good amount of space between you and traffic and can sit upright and lounge easier. I'm very content, though, in my little nook.

As the train clickity-clacks on, kids climb about the bunks in tights (kids in just tights is a norm), run up and down the aisle, and try to make friends with fellow travellers. The adults tend to keep to themselves until something happens that cracks them open. But, once they've been opened, you're set with a dear friend for the rest of the trip. It's worth the effort. My first experience was definitely tops. All of us in the row, on both sides of the aisle, conversed and other people joined us. You can make some golden connections here, but the Russians are also gold at avoiding eye contact for extended periods of time. I once sat across a young women for 2 hours and we never made eye contact – although she adjusted her eyebrows and checked her face every 7 minutes with her mirror for the entire trip.

A huge part of travelling is eating and few board the train without a plastic sack full of food. I've yet to see a pattern in the food they like to eat. Each person tends to, though, bring their own mug on board, in a plastic bag, from which they constantly have a supply of tea. Everyone has a plastic bag with a mug in it and, if you forgot yours, the train will provide you a glass cup within an elegant, intricate metal stand with a handle. Piping hot water is always provided. People spread out feasts on the table and snacking seems to be quite consistent. They put everyone on a towel, as I think they view the tables to be dirty.

There's a lot more movement going on than in the train and people maintain a beautiful set of patterns. In America, I find the trains to often be constricting – to get up means you have to bother your neighbour and there's no position to sit in but straight or reclined. Here, I can sit cross-legged, lean against a wall, lay on my side, back, sleep when I like in full comfort, or at a table – all with out leaving my assigned area.

Another thing every, every single person on the train has is slippers. Everyone brings a pair of slippers in a plastic bag and pulls them on as soon as possible after boarding. I think they believe the floor is inherently dirty and they avoid touching it at all costs. I frequently see people manoeuvre their slippers around so that their feet don't have to touch the floor. They will stand on the bunks to avoid contact and do lovely acrobats. They will not touch the ground with their bare or socked feet.  I grabbed a fuzzy pair of flannel slippers for 60 reubels ($2) at an underground store and have felt set so far. There are two frequent styles of slippers. One is the basic pad with a protected toe of fabric. The other are like sandles, thick plastic sandles with a band over the top. Pink, purple, and blue are the most common of colours. My slippers are a light pink.

Each train car is attend to by one human being – I forget what we call them. Mine looked like he was recently beat up and has bruises on his face. Later, when he was checking my ticket, I saw new scabs on his knuckles so I consider it likely. He does a good job at keeping the train clean. He just came by with a Russian broom (they don't have long handles, like in America, and force him to bend down as he sweeps) and then a mop that was made up of a metal pole with a bar at the end. A towel with a hole in it was threaded onto the pole and used to clean everything. The train smells very clean, now.

People change their pants in the middle of the train without a second thought. I do the same, but utilizing a skirt.

There are people that wander the trains, up and down, trying to sell you things – most are religious icons, pictures of Mary and beads of importance. They put the boxes in your area on the table, right in front of you, and then they move further down the train and watch you, hoping you'll consider making a purchase. I don't think they're associated with the train at all and wouldn't be surprised if they did this all day long. Some come prepared with reading material to sell. A woman walks up and down, pulling a rolling cart behind her, saying, “Pashalsta, chiiiips, semechkiiiiiii,” in the most monotone, downtrodden voice I think I've heard.

The bathrooms can get a bit scary – but are typical for train bathrooms. I always pull on my hiking boots when I want to visit them. My slippers would quickly soak through with who-knows-what. There are no paper-towels because they already gave you a towel which is rad. There is a hole in the floor that goes straight to the train tracks so you don't want to drop your small child through there.

I have yet to see any other Americans on a train nor hear English, French, German, Italian, or Spanish spoken between other people.

And that's what I've collected about the train so far.

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