I have recently got back from India where trains were my main means of transport crossing the country from the most southern Kanyakumari up to the foot of the Himalayas. You have got to ride an Indian train to know what it feels like – no description could do it justice. Now I am boarding a Russian train that will take me and my sister to Kazan’- the capital of Tatarstan Republic and I am willing to take a risk of trying to picture a ride on a Russian train.
Russian trains…That’s an entire institution so to say, not simply the means of transport.
It all starts with the boarding of a train: a coach attendant who also acts as a ticket collector checks your ID and ticket on the platform next to your coach and only after that you are allowed to enter the train. Once you are in, the task is to shrewdly find your seat so that to make sure you are the first in your compartment and thus you can choose where to place the luggage. Then you wait for the departure of the train. Meanwhile there are numerous relatives entering the coach to bid farewell to their loved ones. They usually align on the bottom berth, up to 4 persons at a time, and sit there until the coach attendant passes in the aisle reminding that the train is ready to depart. This sitting is quite ceremonial – it roots in the superstitious tradition of sitting down before a journey- posidet’ na dorozhku – to ensure safe travels. Once that step is successfully accomplished and the train slowly pulls out of the station, there is a quiet sentimental moment of looking through the window at the disappearing platform.
Then the carriage habitants suddenly spring to life going through their bags and reaching for a comfy set of clothes specifically set aside for a train ride. Thus, the next target is clear – queue for the washroom to change your clothes. It might take awhile, and going down the aisle on your way back from the WC you already spot a few passengers here and there unpacking their neatly prepared lunch boxes. And simultaneously the carriage is filled with the smell of food, which is due to its speciality can rightfully be called something like train fragrance. You feel it for the first time when you are a child and since then you will never forget it or mix it up with some other odor. This particular smell encompasses the following ingredients- grilled chicken, some sausage, freshly cut cucumber, instant maggie noodles / soup and the master of the fragrance – hard-boiled eggs. Once you inhale this scent, it is never to be forgotten and, in fact, will be longed for as soon as you board your next Russian train. To be fair, one should mention that some refer to that food scent as stench.
If you joyfully survive through all that, you might soon find yourself, whether you want it or not, listening to your neighbor unwinding their life story. Your task is simple that time- listen. Some refer to this kind of chatting as healing talk, the one that Westerners usually go and see a shrink for. If you are lucky, then you will witness and will surely be invited to partake in some drinking, which can vary greatly in style depending on the people themselves, the train destination and the duration of the journey. That tradition, however, requires a whole new chapter and shall be recited in further posts once the author has a recent hands-on experience, and survives it;)