Wednesday, August 29, 2007


In the four days since I crossed the Russian border, I've peed in a cup, missed a train, hurtled across Siberia in a taxi to catch the aforementioned train, hung out with a bunch of drunk Russian teenagers, swam in the world's deepest lake and been stalked by a man named Vladimir.

It all started when the train left Mongolia and arrived at the Russian border for a two-hour stop. Once again, the toilets were locked while we waited for our passports to be stamped. Every time the train stops at a station, the attendants lock the toilets to avoid dumping waste all over the tracks. Unfortunately,I had a full bladder by the time we reached the border and it was close to bursting an hour later.

Some of the men on the train were peeing into a bucket between compartments but there wasn't much privacy because people were constantly walking in between the cars. It's one thing to be a guy and discretely pee into a bucket in a corner. It's quite another thing to be a girl. There's no such thing as discretely peeing into a bucket in a corner.

I was in so much pain from holding it in that I had tears in my eyes and I couldn't stand up. So I did the only thing I could do. I kicked my cabin mates out of our room, closed the blind and squatted over a cup of instant noodles. It was an inauspicious start to my time in Russia.

An hour later, the attendants finally let us off the train. They told us we had an hour and forty minutes before the train left the station. So Tanya, Graham, Rebecca (my Australian friends and cabin mates) and I decided to wander into town and buy some food. We returned 45 minutes later, with lots of time to catch the train. Or so we thought.

We were shocked to find the platform completely empty. Our train, which was sitting on the tracks when we left, had suddenly disappeared. The train had actually left without us! We were stranded in Siberia and not one of us could speak a word of Russian.

Luckily we found a girl at the station who spoke Russian and English and she ran inside to find out what happened to our train. It turned out the attendant had mixed up the train schedule and it had left an hour early. None of the other passengers had left the station so they were able to jump back on the train.

Our only option was to catch a taxi and try to beat the train to the next stop almost 200 kilometres away. So we ran outside and jumped into a cab. The Russian girl told him where we were going and we were off. Our driver didn't speak a word of English. We crossed our fingers and hoped he knew where he was going and that he would get us there ahead of the train.

Our driver drove like a madman. It was a white-knuckle ride the whole way. I was too scared to look at the dashboard because I didn't want to see how fast we were going. It felt like we were driving 150 km an hour. The road was narrow and in horrible disrepair. The cab driver would drive on the left side of the road to avoid the potholes on the right but he would do this on blind corners and up hills. I kept saying "nyet, nyet, nyet!" whenever he drove on the left or overtook another vehicle on a dangerous stretch of the road but it didn't seem to do much good. I'm not sure he heard me over the loud Russian dance music pumping out of the car's speakers.

Two hours later, we pulled up at a train station in the middle of nowhere. We paid $20 each and hoped that we had made it in time. The train pulled into the station half an hour later and the attendants wagged their fingers and shook their heads at us, which was ironic considering they were the ones who mixed up the schedule at the last stop. I didn't even mind being lectured at in Russian. I was just happy to be back on the train and reunited with my luggage. It was a wild welcome into Russia and not one I'd ever want to repeat.

The next day, we got off the train in Irkutsk and took a bus to Listvyanka, a village on the shore of Lake Baikal. I was hoping we could just relax and enjoy the lake, especially after the previous day's out-of-control cab ride through the wilds of Siberia. But that's when we met Vladimir.

Tanya, Graham, Rebecca and I had gone down to the lake for a swim. Because Lake Baikal is freezing cold, there was a lot of screaming after we jumped into the lake. This attracted the attention of a huge Russian guy who decided to plunge in after us. Eager to impress us with his English, he started chatting us up. Vladimir was in his early 40s, balding and had a beer gut so big, he looked like he had swallowed a yoga ball.

Vladimir kept talking to us while we were swimming, after we got out and when we were lying in the sun to dry off. After Tanya and Graham left, Vladimir asked Rebecca and I where we were staying and what we were doing later that night. We remained vague and eventually got dressed and started walking down the road to our B&B. A few minutes later, we noticed Vladimir slowly following us in a white car. Once he realized his cover was blown, he started honking and waving at us before speeding up and driving away.

Later that night, we decided to hike up a hill to watch the sunset over Lake Baikal. The only other people up there were a bunch of teenaged boys drinking beer and listening to dance music on a laptop. Eventually, one of the braver kids approached us and started speaking English with us. We learned that they were all university students and had come home for the summer. The youngest of the group was 17 and the oldest was 23. They seemed to warm up to us pretty quickly and the next thing we knew they were sharing their beer and impressing us with the English they had learned from watching Hollywood movies (mostly things like, "motherfucker" and "fuck you"). They were absolutely adorable and reminded me of my Japanese students.

Halfway through the night, Vladimir showed up. I have no idea how he knew where we were but he found us. It turned out he was friends with the kids. Or at least they all seemed to know him. Our impromptu party got a little rowdy because a security guard from a nearby hotel showed up. But when Vladimir handed him a beer, he joined in the fun. I love Russia.

Yesterday, we left Lake Baikal and returned to Irkutsk. Today, we're hopping back on the train for four days until we get off again in (ironically) Vladimir and catch a bus to Suzdal. Until then . . .

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