Thursday, March 5, 2009

Murmansk: The Beginning

I can now claim to have visited the arctic circle.

Granted, I could have claimed that at any time I wanted to, but now I can do it without lying.

Early in January I, along with four other English teachers, one of whom speaks competent Russian, traveled by train to the military/port city of Myurmansk, the largest city inside the Arctic Circle. (The Arctic Circle, incidentally, is defined as the furthest latitude from the North Pole at which there is a 24-hours of sunlight at the summer solstice, and is currently 66° 33′39″ north. Fact of the day).

I could begin by writing about Myurmansk, but I won't. I'll get to the topic in good time, naturally, but, of equal interest is the trip itself. We took the train; and the experience -- everything about it -- was so different from any traveling that I have ever experienced before that it reminded me, as firmly as anything else that has happened to me here, that I am, most certainly, in Russia.

To begin the trip, I arrived at the inter-city train station in, what I thought was, good time. However, good time runs quite a lot slower as a foreigner, as I am learning.

Wandering back and forth along the intercity train platform in Moscow, I was beginning to feel a little concerned that there appeared to be only odd numbered platforms at this station. I looked down at my ticket once again, and it still read platform 6. With my train scheduled to leave at precisely 20:44, and the time being 20:42, I decided that I couldn't reliably expect to find my train in time without some measure of help. Presenting my ticket to a woman standing in the rear-most carriage of the nearest train, I presented myself as the bewildered foreigner that I can't seem to help being. She looked at my ticket, and began pointing along the length of the train, speaking in full speed Russian. Then she looked at her watch, and decided to change what she was saying. Her colleague, standing behind her, chose to offer her insight into the situation; and thus I found myself confronted by two Russian women explaining the situation to me loudly, and far beyond any speed I could hope to understand. I wish I knew the Russian for "What do you expect from me?!"

At 20:43, the first woman used her whole arm to beckon me onto the train, to which I obliged. At this point, a young man happened to walk past me, leaving the train. The second woman turned to him, and said something like "we have a stupid American here!"

The man, turned to me, smiled, and said "you speak English?"

"Yes." I said. I do so without expception, I might add.
"She say that you must to be on car six."

And there lay the root of my problem. While perfectly capable of discerning numbers written on a Russian ticket, I don't have such a knack for deciphering what the numbers mean. As this conformation of my monolinguistic capacity dawned on me, the train pulled away from the station. The first woman pointed along the length of the train, and I began to make my way towards my carriage as quickly as the narrow corridors would allow.

After walking through, perhaps, four carriages, I noticed that I was still dressed for being outside: merino undershirt, merino overshirt, woolen hat, woolen socks, my new boots that I got for when I go to Murmansk, polypropylene leggings and a down jacket. Coupled with the back-pack I was wearing, and having nowhere to shed layers, my back was increasingly adhering to my layers of clothing, to the extent that it took no small measure of effort to peel my shirt from my back, when the opportunity at last arose.

Periodically, I would show my ticket to someone dressed as though in a position of authority, and say "kuda?". They would typically respond by pointing towards the front of the train, and thus I would continue the trek. Nearing my goal, I made the mistake of showing one of the train staff my return ticket -- which resulted in my being pointed back the way I had come. It was only after two carridges of backtracking that I realised the inconsistency of the directions that I had received, double-checked which ticket I had out, and uttered a refelxive obsenity.

I did finally reach my bunk. Naturally, I suppose, but it didn't seem quite so inevitable at the time.

The platskart carriage (cheap seats), a relic of Soviet long-distance travel, is an interesting set-up; my first impression was one of a WWII refugee train. It is crammed full of beds, clustered into groups of six. The central aisle of the carriage separates, to the left, a pair of bunk beds, lying parallel with the length of the train, and, to the right, a cluster of four beds, all perpendicular to the train, arranged in two pairs of bunks. On the left, the bottom bed folds and re-arranges to form a small, square table and two seats for use during the day, and on the right, the two lower bunks double as seats around a larger, rectangular table. Regarding storage: the bottom beds fold up, to create a coffin-sized storage space for the lower bunk-renters, and each upper bunk is laid out beneath a flat board, creating a similarly sized storage area between it and the ceiling. There were, perhaps, eight or nine of these clusters along the length of the carrige, and personal space was, to inadequately describe the situation, limited.

At each end of the carriage was a small, air-lock-like area. It lacked measurable insulation, and had windows that were visually impenetrable due to a thick coating of depositional ice. There were ridged strings of air penetrating the room, and anyone with damp hands adhered to the door handles. Without seeking to convey a lack of faith in your deductive capicities, o faithful reader, I can most succintly describe the area thus: it was fucking freezing. It was also the only place where smokers were permitted to indulge their godless habit.

It was upon his return from one of these life-shortening disappearances that Redim, one of my traveling companions, introduced us to another smoker. Vanya was a volunteer soldier (in contrast to a young man performing compulsory military service), which entails an almost monomaniacal sense of patriotism. He couldn't speak a word of English, and told us via Redim that we were the first foreigners that he had ever met. This instilled in me a strange sense of -- what, exactly? -- pride and intrigue, in equal measures. In a world such as ours is, I wasn't sure how to interpret a man who seemed to live in one of the last remaining corners of society that was still untouched by globalism.

I would be surprised to hear that you are surprised to hear that the toilets on the train were: less than inviting. It was in a small, (preemptively lockable) room at the end of the carriage, and served 54 people with admirable success; a fact I attributed to the fact that passengers would visit the facilities in their own, liberal time -- a natural extension of the fact that there wasn't so much else to do. The uninviting nature of the room couldn't be attributed to efficient Soviet decor, nor the perplexing sliding-puzzle tap at the hand basin, nearly as much as it could be to the floor of the room: it illustrated the insurmountable challenge of urinating on in a moving WC. (I got the feeling that even some of the female passengers were having trouble.)

The toilet itself was made of bed-pan steel, and seemed to flush by simply opening a hatch at the bottom of the bowl, rinsing the contents out on to the track below. From this, it made sense that the toilet cubicle would be made inaccessible while the train was stopped at a station along the way; imagine a world where avoiding creating large piles of human excrement on the ground was not a priority. Yes, splattering it along the train-tracks is certainly preferable.

To return to my mention of the limitations of free space onboard the train: while sitting around the table between out bunks, chatting, playing cards and drinking vodka (god, how much vodka we drank on that train), we caught sight of a young man, leading a comparably young woman by the hand away from the toilet cubicle. His face betrayed little, but, contrastivly, she had a sheepish expression, aimed at the floor in front of her feet. We all knew what they had been doing, or, rather, all lept to the same conclusion, since, naturally, it is much less fun to assume that people have been behaving innocently. The appeals of sins of the flesh are so intoxicating that they can make even sloshing around in congealed urine romantic.

It took only slightly less time to travel to Myrmansk, in the far north of Russia, as we spent in the city itself; I never before imagined that I would, or could, spend 36 hours on a train, let alone twice in one week.

And thus, I have discussed the train. Next episode: Murmansk. This installment story is set to be the next Pacific Peso Adventure.


Daria said...


My first experience of using a squat toilet in India was on a train. You learn fast. Oddly, the squat toilets on the train are invariably much cleaner than the Western style toilets.

I love trains.

Can't wait to read about Myrmansk! Photos too?

O Graeme Burns said...

Naturally. I should get around to working out how to post photos on Blogger. Yes, I have been neglecting photos on the grounds that I'm a pretty lousy photographer.

Daria said...

I think you could upload them to Photobucket or Flickr and then link them in here using html tags.

Gemma said...

We think this is your fault.