Trapped Inside a Russian Existential Play
Days 38 to 39: The Trans-Mongolian Railway is not a train journey. It is a Russian existential play, and the fact that it commences in Ulaan Bataar and finishes in Moscow is what's known as audience participation.
The curtain lifts on the dining car, which is so filled with smoke that it's difficult to read the No Smoking sign hanging above the doorway. A table at the far end is occupied by three men who listen to Russian pop on a portable stereo made by Hyundai. These three men are smoking at all times. Occasionally they break into a game of dominoes, but nothing interrupts the smoking.
The first man looks like Vladimir Putin and is well dressed. We will call him Vladimir. Vladimir will occasionally get up to do something, but this is very rare and almost all of his time is spent sitting at the table with the second man. This second man smokes even more than the others and does not wear a shirt. We will call him Shirtless Igor. When one of his friends gets up to do something, Shirtless Igor beckons him to sit back down by gesturing with his hands in a way that says "be reasonable," all the while blowing smoke out of his nostrils. Very occasionally, Shirtless Igor will roust himself out of the booth and walk down into the next carriage to use the bathroom, a trip that takes him past The Travel Writer's Room. As he walks, he issues wet, gurgling coughs. The Travel Writer wonders who Shirtless Igor is and how it is that he knows the staff on the train so well. The Travel Writer figures that he must make the journey often, perhaps for work reasons, and that the staff have, over time, all become his friends.
The third man at the table is The Waiter. The Waiter is the only employee on the train who is in any way friendly. When the Travel Writer enters the dining car, The Waiter smiles at him. When the Travel Writer orders soup, the Waiter says, "Soup?" then walks towards the kitchen saying, "Soup...soup...soup." The Waiter charges Westerners like the Travel Writer more than he should for food. At one point, The Waiter becomes lost in a game of dominoes and a young Australian man on his way to London picks up a Russian menu instead of the menu in English, French and German. He opens it and sees that the Russian prices are about half. The Waiter notices this and rushes over and exchanges the menus and looks embarrassed. He possesses the character trait known as "internal conflict."
The dining car. The scence of the crime to the Travel Writer's wallet.
There are two secondary characters in the dining car. The first is a fat woman who sits at a table next to the men. She gazes dreamily into her mobile phone but never presses any buttons. The second is a conductor from the next carriage up, a leggy Russian brunette who wears a tight fitting uniform with a high-cut skirt and is in the habit of sashaying her hips back and forth in a very accentuated manner as she walks. The Leggy Conductor enters the dining car every hour, appearing at the far end and commencing her sashay, her hips drawing a sign wave down the aisle as she walks. On her face, she wears the look of idiotic self-seriousness practiced by runway models. It is evident that she believes she is leaving behind her a wake of awakened male desire, but this is not the case. On the third day, the Leggy Conductor sashays into the dining car wearing a bright orange top, black lycra cycling shorts and dark high-heeled shoes with no socks. That evening, when she changes back into her tight-fitting uniform, there is much relief.
Using the Sony Reader
The Travel Writer lives one carriage down from the dining car. He sits in his room reading his Sony Reader, surfing between four different books: Coming Into the Country, by John McPhee; The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman; and Blood Money and Other Stories, by Elmore Leonard; Caviar, by Inga Saffron. The Travel Writer was worried that his Sony Reader would run out of power, but it displays Herculean battery life. As he reads, he wonders why so many people publicly worry that electronic books are a threat to literature. He would not read nearly this much were it not for the Sony Reader.
There are two conductors in the Travel Writer's carriage, and they work in shifts. The first is blond and skittish. The second has brown curly hair and is very angry at the Travel Writer, and the Travel Writer does not know why. He stands in the hallway looking out the filthy window and the Angry Conductor waves at him from down the carriage, motioning for him to get back into his cabin immediately. He complies, and she walks by moments later and flashes him an angry look, saying something sharp to him in Russian that he does not understand. Occasionally, the Travel Writer's apparent buffoonery causes the Angry Conductor to look at him and laugh. It is not a friendly laugh but a mocking laugh. The Travel Writer sits in his cabin and wonders how his behavior, which seems both innocuous and normal to the Travel Writer, can be so misinterpreted. Occasionally, he pauses and marvels over the fact that he is in the first-class carriage.
Much of Siberia is covered in scrubby, unimpressive second-growth forest and the Travel Writer imagines what it must have looked like before it was logged. But there is beauty, too. On the second day, the train enters an area of marvelous birch forest. The birches grow in great, tall stands over gently undulating terrain and have boulevards of tall grass that wend in and around the birches. The Travel Writer gazes out the window at the birch forest and imagines what it would be like to walk or mountain bike over the grassy boulevards in the summertime. He is mid reverie when the Angry Conductor walks past him and scowls. The Travel Writer retreats back into his cabin.
The heating pipes are the only things that look new around here
Is this a fire? A mini-play unfolds along the tracks.
Human habitation is dismal. The smaller towns are comprised of little wooden houses that lean to one side or another in a way that suggests a total absence of building code. Their roofs are heavily and coarsely patched so that the houses have the look of vagrants sleeping together. The larger settlements feature row upon row of bleak apartment blocks in disrepair. The only thing uglier than an ugly apartment block, the Travel Writer remarks to himself, is an ugly apartment block that's falling into ruin. The heating pipes are alone in that they look new. They are large, silver and carry steam from central heating facilities to people's homes. They crawl along the roadways, turning abruptly and arching in big right angles to climb over buildings or roadways.
On the third day, the Travel Writer spots Shirtless Igor wearing a blue shirt. It is unbuttoned all the way, but it is a shirt nonetheless. The train stops in a small town and passengers stand on the platform and breath in fresh air. Vladimir walks into the station and emerges several minutes later with a telescoping fishing rod. A bright spring sun is shining and The Waiter stands on the platform with Vladimir and they admire the fishing rod. They both light cigarettes and smoke.
A moment later, The Travel Writer is flabbergasted. Shirtless Igor has stepped off the train and he is wearing not only the blue shirt, but dark blue pants and a matching blazer with a crest and decorative markings on the shoulders. On his head sits a navy blue cap, of a similar style to those worn by airline pilots. Shirtless Igor, the Travel Writer realizes, has been on the job all this time. A very important job, by the looks of it. Shirtless Igor stands there looking important in his uniform and smokes. When the cigarette is finished, he eats sunflower seeds. He walks over and flirts with the Angry Conductor, who is standing in front of the entrance to her carriage as though to bar passengers from entry. When the flirting concludes, Shirtless Igor lights another cigarette.
The next morning, the Travel Writer goes to the dining car for breakfast. All has returned to normal. Shirtless Igor is shirtless again and he and Vladimir and The Waiter are all smoking. The Travel Writer orders an omelet with ham. The Waiter says, "With ham?" and the Travel Writer says, "With ham." The omelet arrives with no ham. The day before, the Travel Writer ordered a beefsteak with no egg, but it arrived with egg. He did not mind. As the Travel Writer begins eating the omelet, the Club Med song begins playing on the Hyundai stereo. As he listens to the lyrics, "Hands up, baby hands up, gimme gimme your heart gimme gimme Hands up..." he looks out the window and sees snow on the branches.
Vladimir gets up to do something and Shirtless Igor beckons him to sit down again. The two light up another cigarette, and the Travel Writer is struck by a thought: As a form of transportation, the Trans-Mongolian Express is adequate. As an exercise in hospitality, it is quite terrible. And as a piece of experiential performance art, it is without equal.
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