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getting to gorky
By Dennis Batchelder 28 January 2005

I've wanted to visit Russia ever since Ms. Tomasian told us about her trip to Moscow. I remember her admonishing our eighth grade class "bring your own toilet paper or you'll be sorry".

I wanted to experience life in our cold war enemies' shoes. Not only to find out how they wiped themselves (was it bad paper, or did they have some other solution?), but thanks to all those Ludlum, DeMille, and Clancy books of spies getting chased from their dead drops by drop dead gorgeous KGB agents, I also wanted to run down the halls of Stalin's grandiose metro stations, into the streets, and onto Red Square, where I would dodge the KGB by slipping through the long lines of babushkas waiting to either buy bread or visit Lenin lying in his tomb.

Ms. Tomasian may have sparked my interest in Russia, and living vicariously through the agents in the spy novels kindled it, but meeting and marrying Irina got the fire burning so brightly that the only way to stop the heat was to buy the tickets, get the visas, and get ourselves to Russia. And voila: finally we are here, on a train, traveling from Moscow to Gorky. I'm typing this story on my Blackberry while lying on my itty bitty bed in this itty bitty sleeper cabin.

So far, we haven't seen any KGB agents (though you never know - there were some Bond girl look-alikes that got my attention). I checked, but I couldn't find any high tech bugs or cameras in the cabin. The stores had plenty of food, too. But I wish I had listened to Ms. Tomasian about the toilet paper (just think wax paper and you'll get the idea).

Anyway, I was going to write about the train. Russia's a big country: this train left Moscow Friday evening, and it will travel northwest until Monday morning, when it reaches the end of the line in Novei Urengoi - which is only a third of the way across Russia. But we're not heading that far: Gorky is the second stop, only 400 kilometers and 6 hours away. We're lucky that we get off soon, but the crew is not. They do this round trip 6 times (30 days) straight, then get five days off.

Because the train stops are infrequent, there are only sleeper cabins. They come in one size (tiny), and contain either two or four beds. We couldn't reserve a two person cabin (it was really tough to get through several lines in Moscow to even get a ticket), so we're sharing our little four person cabin with a Gorky businessman, returning home for the weekend. How small? The total room is the size of a queen sized mattress. There are bunk beds on either side, with drop table in between.

After an hour of sitting, shifting, lying down, standing up, and looking for bugs, we needed a break. So we asked our cell-mate to watch our luggage, and headed up to the restaurant car.

We sat at a table, and soon a waitress asked us if we would be eating or drinking. "Can we look at a menu?" we asked, and she said that she'd bring it to us when it was our turn to read it. Why "it"? Because the menu was hand written, bound in a leather folio, and there was only one for all of us to share.

We ended up ordering coffee. Boy, they drink it sweet over here - equal portions of coffee, milk, and sugar. And that's not all they drink - our waitress must have asked us five or six times when we'd be having our vodka. Apparently the meal's not done without spending some time with a bottle of "vodochka".

The restaurant also serves as the train's vodka store and warehouse. Each time she sold another bottle, the waitress asked different diners to stand up, right in the middle of their meals, so she could lift up their seats and retrieve the appropriate brands from underneath.

We headed back to our cabin, and I struck up a conversation with the businessman. Turns out he and Irina went to the same school, two years apart, and he remembers her. He could follow most of my English questions, and I could follow most of his Russian answers, and we had a nice chat with Irina playing referee, correcting and redirecting us when our understandings went astray.

Finally we arrived in Gorky. We extricated ourselves from the tiny cabin, and Irina's father and brother met us on the platform. We decided to buy our return tickets, and waited in a very long line. When we were finally at the counter, a guy from near the end of the line asked the lady behind us when her train was leaving. Zaftra - tomorrow. The guy said he was leaving tonight, and could she please let him go first? The lady said nyet: nobody let me go, and I waited a very long time too, so therefore I can't let you go.

It took us a while to get our tickets (again no two person cabins available - I'm beginning to think that they don't exist). Meanwhile, the guy starting telling the lady what a tragedy it would be if he missed his train. She wasn't buying his tale of woe. When we finished, he tried to butt his way to the window, but she stuck out her elbows to slow him down, and moved just fast enough to ward him off. This provoked the guy into giving her a big lecture, saying that a kind and good person would let him go first, because it would be the right thing to do, and any person in the world knows this truth that you need to yield to people who are in greater need. He was so busy lecturing that he lost his original place in line, and again had to go to the end.

Now we're at Irina's father's house, and we're ready to collapse. Gorky is the third largest city in Russia, but this little suburb is all cute one and two story log cabins - very quiet, peaceful, and picturesque. No spies, nobody chasing us, and plenty of food. Am I disappointed? No way - I am done with my need to experience, and besides, they have great toilet paper.

getting to gorky - russia