For today’s post, Aaron from Aaron Teoh shares his story when he made friends with locals on the Trans-Siberian Railway, a week long train trip across Russia. Despite the language barrier and differences in almost every aspect, he managed to find topics to talk about to connect with the locals that shared the same train with him. Getting crazy and accepting endless shots of vodka, it was too hard to say goodbye.
The Trans-Siberian Railway, connecting Europe and Asia via over 9,000km (almost 6,000 miles) of tracks through China, Mongolia, and Russia, is the longest railway line in the world.
To put that in perspective, that distance is almost a quarter of the circumference of Earth, and almost the circumference of the moon!
I had the opportunity to ride on the Trans-Siberian to get from Beijing to Moscow in 2015, and discovered that beyond crossing many geographical boundaries and a mind-boggling eight time zones, the Trans-Siberian experience was a great way to cross cultural boundaries!
I had split my trip into multiple legs, first from Beijing to Irkutsk, next to Yekaterinburg, and finally to Moscow. Each leg was a vastly different experience, partly due to the different train classes I tried, but mostly because of the different people I met at different stages.
The most memorable part of the trip for me?
It was the segment from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg. For this leg, I opted for the platskartny class, with open bunks.
To be honest:
It was a little intimidating as I boarded; being the only foreigner in the entire open carriage with about 50 other Russians traveling in the same direction. Men, women, young and old. They were probably as curious about me as I was about them.
It was my first experience on an open berth train like this and I wasn’t sure what the right etiquette was. The train rolled out of the station as I sat rooted pondering about how I should deal with this awkwardness for the next few days.
A young man from a few berths down made eye contact and sat next to me.
Wild thoughts started to flood in my head. What did he want? Is this how a Russian fight is started?
He seemed to be thinking hard before mustering a haltering ‘Hii…’ And the ice was broken.
The thing is:
We tried to converse a little and it became apparent that this would not be easy, as I did not know any Russian (although he knew a little English). That did not deter him, and I was more than happy to have someone to talk to (or try to talk to). Two other men nearby joined in, as did a lady and her daughter.
The sad, yet exciting reality was:
We were communicating mostly through gestures until I remembered I had access to the internet and could use Google Translate. Somehow though, that didn’t help much, and they decided that basic English with gestures worked better. I was grateful for the effort and deeply felt the warmth and friendliness of the locals.
It turned out the first few to approach, though with limited English, had the best command of our common language in the carriage, and the rest, despite not knowing a word in English, came over eager to join in the conversation, asking the first guys who came over as translators.
Honestly, I felt a little bad not learning at least some basic Russian before coming.
With the awkwardness cleared, the rest of my time on the train was much more enjoyable.
We ate, laughed, and snacked like one big family in the carriage. A guy who looked about the same age as me gave me his Russian storybook after he finished reading it, writing a message for me on it (I have yet to figure out the message). Another teenager traveling with friends asked if he could borrow an adaptor to use with the power plugs on the train (to charge his phone) and I gladly passed it to him. Everyone on the carriage was suddenly friends.
Beyond the carriage, I made friends too!
I met 2 other foreigners, an Australian and a Mexican, before boarding the train at Irkutsk. Hardly anyone speaks English at that far end of Russia, so it became easy to make friends with anyone who did.
We met up occasionally throughout the time we were all on the train. The train was long and corridors narrow so that was not always convenient. On the last day, just hours before the Australian and I were due to get off at Yekaterinburg, we decided to have some drinks in the restaurant car. Also in the restaurant car, at another table, were a group of boisterous, big, Russian men. They were obviously a little under the influence (of alcohol) and we were a little scared, speaking in hushed tones.
Suddenly, one of them, the biggest of them all, called out over to us. We were terrified, but as it turned out, he just wanted to welcome us to his homeland. He called for the manager of the restaurant car to get some vodka, and soon we were passing shot after shot around.
Russian Man: ‘One last one, we need to get off at the next stop!’
Me: ‘Okay, okay.’
Russian Man: ‘Cheers! (and whatever it was in Russian)’
Then, more foreigners entered the restaurant car.
Russian Man: ‘More friends! More vodka!’
And then went another round.
We were glad that our initial fears were unfounded but now we started to get scared of getting knocked out. Finally, we took some photos together and were sent off as warmly as we were received.
At last, all fun times had to end, and the train rolled into Yekaterinburg.
A father with his ballerina daughter going to another city to further training in ballet; servicemen returning home; good friends heading to another city for work; a solo hiker returning home after a trek through the mountains; a family having some quality time together. These are just a few of the people whom I had spent a few days and nights in the same carriage with, starting as strangers, leaving as friends, an experience I would never forget.
Outside the station, families of servicemen waited anxiously for their boys to get home. Some reunions were loud, some were tearful. I was a little tipsy by then, but fortunately still knew where I needed to go, and staggered off to the subway.