Hello all! By the time this is posted, I will have arrived safely in Ulan Ude, but for now I am somewhere in southeastern Siberia between Khabarovsk and Chita. It is Hour #46 of our train ride.
(Note: I am indeed in Ulan Ude now, and having just found a computer with a USB port, I am posting this and am getting excited about showing you pictures sometime in the near future!)
The first 23 hours and 23 minutes of the train ride were spent in very loud, drunk company, as the other two people in Judith's and my four-person compartment were railway workers traveling from Vladivostok to Belogorsk on a work trip. Two guys in the next compartment were doing the same, and the two women they shared the compartment with were apparently not that hospitable to drunk middle-aged men, because they (the men, not the women) spent most of the ride in our compartment. I would like to say it was enjoyable, but it really wasn't, after the first night. The first night was enjoyable because, even though six people is definitely two people too many for a compartment on a Russian train, they had brought a lot of food, vodka, and самогон/samogon (which one of them kept calling "HOME VISKEY," combining – in a very loud, drunk voice – two of the few English words he knew), which they shared with us. We were, naturally, very interesting to them, I more than Judith because her Russian is limited to basic words and phrases, and by 10 o’clock the next morning it was apparent that the only polite way to escape long, slow-moving conversations with them was to sleep. This became even truer throughout the day as they became drunker and drunker. They were nice enough guys, but about the fifth time Gena asked me where we were traveling to and informed me that he has acquaintances in Ulan Ude but they'll be no use to me because they're in prison, I gave up and rudely holed up in my corner of the compartment with my book of Chekhov stories. Which they then teased me about because the volume is called "О любви" – "On Love."
But anyway, enough about that. The burning question I’m sure you all have on your minds is “What's Siberia like?” Well, Judith says it reminds her of Idaho, which makes sense to me because to me it looks like a set from Brokeback Mountain. I had in my head the idea of "vast stretches of trackless taiga," but I found that, while they probably exist somewhere, that somewhere is not here in southern Siberia. There's a lot of forest (not all coniferous, like I thought it would be), but also a lot of plains, and rolling hills and rivers. It's very green and vastly empty, although if you look carefully you can start to see signs of life even in the empty parts – a kettle hanging from a branch, a bunch of empty water bottles piled up by the side of the tracks, a clean-cut tree stump. The roads, when there are roads, are all dirt, and we often ride for hours without seeing any villages.
The villages that we stop in are really interesting. Early in our trip, Judith mournfully intoned (she can be a little dramatic sometimes), "Without the railroad these places wouldn't survive," to which I countered that without the railroad, these places wouldn't exist. They're small, a cluster of fifty or so wooden huts and a few bigger brick or concrete buildings – inhabited mostly with railway workers, one would assume – and in each one, a line of babushki wait for us as we roll in, each manning a card table piled with the fruits of her labor – homemade pickles, boiled eggs from her hens, beet and cabbage salads, dried fish, and homemade pelmeni, vareniki (both types of Russian dumplings), pirozhki (sweet and savory pastries), and pryanniki (spice cookies). I usually can't resist buying something. By the time we roll back out after a half-hour stop, they're already folding up the tables and hauling back whatever they didn't sell. Do they do this every day? How many times? How often do trains come through? Is this their entire livelihood?