Sunday, July 18, 2010

Taishet!

Since my last post, I wound things up in Novosibirsk and headed for the railway station. On the way I had an expensive meal of microwaved chips for dinner (just like central) and stuck my head inside the foyer of the Hotel Novosibirsk, which confirmed plenty of Kitsch, and not much else.

The train was platzcart and I nailed berth no 35, the shortest in the train (about 5 feet), and next to the toilet. No matter, I slept well. In the morning, I arrived to a sunny 30 degrees in Krasnoyarsk, a city I last saw about 3 and a half years ago in the middle of winter. I ran around trying to get a ticket on a train to Bratsk (engaging in the unique soviet art of strategic queueing) in the marble palace that is the Krasnoyarsk Train Station (Vokzal). Assertaining that there were no places on train no 78 to Neryungri, I caught a bus into the city center (bag and all), and made a quick circuit of the hotel (no devoid of adopting americans), the opera theatre, the bridge, the Egyptian Revival Architecture state museum, and even snuck into a church in my shorts and thongs, before being unceremoniously asked to leave. The river (the Yenisey) is, as I remembered, enormous, possibly 1km across or more even thousands of kms from the sea, and naturally fully navigable!

Soon enough time was up and I took a bus back to the station, then, after finding no spoons in the various souveneir shops, made my way to the appropriate platform, located the head provodnitsa, and taxed my Russian to the limit to find a berth on the train to Taishet. I had since discovered that this train goes to Neryungri (a big coal mine where I'll be in a week or so) via the little BAM, not the big BAM, and Bratsk is on the big BAM. (If you don't understand BAM, google it. Possibly Baikal Amurskaya Magistral might get less porn). Luckily the provodnitsa said 'da' and I was found a place in Kupe (four share compartments) for the 8 hour trip to Taishet. In my compartment was the obligatory corpulent middle aged woman, an old man who was shirtless (displaying 3 or 4 nipples amongst other possibly benign melanomas) and smelt worse than me (woohoo, I'm in the clear), and an overweight middle-aged man with one of the first cold sores I've seen so far on this trip. Last time (in winter) about 1 in 4 people had them.

For lunch I attempted to make rice two-minute-noodle-style, with limited success. I ate about half a bowl of rather crunchy rice (like little teeth, or micro biscuits, I tried to imagine), then washed it down with a bowl of tea, and finally, a packet of biscuits in nutella (now that's a winner). It turned out the old guy (shirtless) was a maths lecturer from Irkutsk university (so the unwashed-ness fits), supposedly in the area of complex functional analysis. He seemed baffled, however, by my loving rendition of the Reimann-Zeta Function, and even an integration of a Gaussian. In the 60s the Russians were inventing solitons... Later, the two men in the compartment got into a heated discussion about politics, but my language skills precluded understanding or participation, so I walked to the end of the compartment and stuck my head out the window for about 10km. The landscape was rolling hills, regrowth forest, and dual electrified track (all 9000km of it). The smell was vernal, just lovely. A huge contrast from the last trip. The train rolled on, occasionally passed by freight trains carrying wood, coal, oil, or containers, sometimes more than 200 carriages. I lost count.

Eventually the train rolled into Taishet, I said my goodbyes, and set about finding the timetable and ticket office. The timetable was on an antiquated (red and black) digital display board in abbreviated Russian, so it took a few minutes to decypher. About 3 trains a day leave the station going in the direction I want, and the next one was in 9 hours. Or so I thought. I went to the ticket office, remembered the Russian word for next (byudyushchiy) and got a ticket on the train for the next morning. I even nailed berth number 35 again. w00t! (The upper berths are a little longer as one can stick one's head into the window recess for two extra inches.) As the office was not busy I had a quick chat with the girls in the window, using my passport as a prop to demonstrate Australian animals (best foreign policy decision ever - to print the passport like that).

Following that I threw my bagpack on and walked into town. Taishet was built on the transiberian railroad, and now is the junction with the BAM, so is relatively trafficked. It seems populated entirely with gopniks, so on average they're quite nice. I watched a pretty good volleyball match for a while, swatted mosquitos, and walked further from the setting sun. The town's two traffic lights blinked orange perpetually, and nothing seemed to have been built for at least 10 years. All towns on the transsiberian were built at about the same time, and almost all peaked at some point in the distant past. Thus, decay aside, a trip along the railroad is a timewarp to the time that economic development (driven largely by rail construction) ceased.

As I attempted to cajole my dying camera into capturing yet another spectacular siberian sunset (which, no doubt, I will upload by 2015), I was immediately set upon by three adolescents, who spoke vernacular russian with incredible speed, and seemed determined to talk, despite my understanding at most 4% of what they said. We established early on I was dirt poor (my phone is held together with tape), so I wasn't robbed. Nevertheless, there were obvious signs of FAS and siphilitic retardation in all three boys, who looked about 12 despite being 16 or 17. This is West Side Story territory! I had enough and walked away, but was followed. One boy spotted my passport pouch (under my shirt), but was put off by my implications of it being a firearm for long enough for me to get within dashing distance of a restaurant. I walked in and thankfully was left behind. Business was not booming, but the waitress soon appeared and struck up a lively conversation. I didn't comprehend much of the menu, so asked for something good and wrote my journal for a bit. While swatting mosquitos, 4 courses appeared in quick succession (salad of tomato, radish, dill, cucumber, onion, and chives, bread, mashed potato and fried egg, and barbequed meat), together with tea. The teaspoon was spectacular, and again taxing my Russian to the utmost I asked if I could buy it for my sister's friend's mother who collects such rare things. I have no idea if she understood but when I left she gave it to me, so awesome! The dinner, needless to say, was my token good meal for the day, from here it's back to biscuits and nutella, for as long as my nutella supply holds out.

I walked back to the station, at about 11pm (it was still twilight) and did not feel in any particular danger of being robbed. There were single women wandering around, most looked pretty scared of me. Tomorrow I will arrive in Bratsk, hopefully meet a couchsurfer there, and thence to Severobaikalsk.

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