Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ridin' the Rails: Yekaterinburg to Novosibirsk


As we pulled out of the Yekaterinburg station, it dawned on me that we were really, truly, finally, amazingly on the actual Trans-Siberian Railway, an express train across Russia. A long-time dream come true and a major Bucket List item about to be checked off. How cool is that!

The Trans-Siberian Experience: Finally!

After The Kazan Deviation, which was actually worth the side trip, we were finally traveling on the legendary Trans-Siberian Express. And to mark our unique travel experience, we even got an upgrade in our compartment, with newer and better beds, chemical toilets, great air conditioning and a real Trans-Siberian restaurant/bar car, that looked just as it should.

We unpacked as much as we needed to and settled in for the long 24-hour train ride. Dean had to put in some work time on his computer; he does editing for several Taiwanese businessmen and always had new requests coming in for his English skills. In fact, during this trip, he had to spend quite a bit of time working, which was actually OK as we were on the train so much of the time and it could have been boring otherwise.

We did have one rather interesting occurrence as we waited for our train to leave the station at Yekaterinburg. I looked out our compartment’s window and saw our guide Zita talking with two official-looking people, while another of our group, Zsuzsa, stood nearby. The two officials left with Zsuzsa and Zita came back on board. As she passed our compartment, I asked her if everything was OK. She told me that the two officials were agents from Interpol and had tracked Zsuzsa down due to an unexplained discrepancy in her passport(s).

It turned out that several months prior to our trip, Zsuzsa had reported her passport lost and had received a new one from the Hungarian state. Soon thereafter, she found her original passport and, instead of destroying it or stashing it away under her unmentionables, she used it when applying for her Russian visa. A big no-no! Luckily, she had both passports with her and was able to straighten out her situation satisfactorily. The Interpol agents brought her back to us in Novosibirsk. Whew! A close call!

Tony also decided to spend some time with the other group members, while I headed off to see what our Pectopah (Restaurant) car looked like. Well, you know all those photos you’ve seen of what the carriages on the TSR look like? That’s exactly what this one looked like! It was old-fashioned beauty, tasseled curtains on the windows, dark wood tables and sidings, patterned fabric on the seats and backs with gold-colored trim, lots of brass fixtures, a small bar area, a kitchen, metal highlights and a transparent plastic ceiling. It was like walking into the 19th Century. I felt immediately at home.
And there in the bar car, at one of the booths, were Zsuzsa and Zoli, two of our fellow travelers, at 9 o’clock in the morning, quaffing a beer and eating peanuts and Lay’s potato chips. How continental! Naturally, I joined them for a morning beer, something I hadn’t done in a while. Our waitress Tatiana came by and showed me the dinner menu; dinner was included in the price of our upgraded carriage and compartment, so I ordered straightaway and told her we’d be back around 6 or 7 PM for our evening meal. Tatiana smiled mightily at me with her mouth full of gold teeth; she was a tall, large woman with a ready smile and seemed excited to have people who appeared to be fun riding her car. Of course, people who drink beer at 9 AM are usually bound to be fun (unless they’re hard-core dipsomaniacs).

We chatted for a while and drank our beers and munched our snacks. All during this journey, time seemed to stop whenever we needed it to, so having a beer at 9 AM didn’t seem out of the ordinary, nor did breakfast at midnight. And the time was flying by. I finally excused myself and returned to our carriage for some book time and maybe a little nap, as it was nearly noon! Even though we were now in the upgraded carriage, it was nearly empty save for a few other travelers; I guess the upgraded comfort also came with an upgraded price.

We whiled away the afternoon with books and window-staring and chatting with our neighbors. I decided to return to the bar car around 5 PM or so, leaving Dean and Tony to pop down when they were ready for dinner. The car was empty when I went in, so I sat by a window and ordered an afternoon beer and some crisps.

As I sat in that ornate bar car, sipping my Russian beer and staring out the window at the lush Siberian countryside rushing past, it was only natural that the first line of the old Kenny Rogers’ song, The Gambler, should pop into my head.

“On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for…” and the final word just sort of slipped in there; instead of “nowhere,” it turned out to be “Irkutsk,” our final train stop.

“On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for Irkutsk…”

And the rest just naturally followed. I wrote it out on a napkin in the bar car of the Trans-Siberian Express, rolling through Siberia on a lazy summer evening. So here you go, a special treat, sung to the tune of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler:


A Ballad of the Trans-Siberian Express
or
THE CHESS MASTER



On a warm summer evening, on a train bound for Irkutsk,
I met up with a Russian, he’d had a lot to drink.
But he pulled out his chessboard and set up all the pieces,
And said, “Amerikanski, we play chess!” then he gave me a big wink.

Well, I hadn’t played in years, but I remembered how the men move,
What they’re called and where they went, so I moved a pawn real nice.
Then quicker than my eye could see he had me in a Fool’s Mate,
He said, “Amerikanski, you no good,” I give you some advice.

(Chorus)

You must to know when to go forward, know when to go back,
Know when to hide your king from the other side’s attack.
You never fondle your chess pieces while you’re sitting at the table;
Just watch and learn and move real fast, or we’ll stab you in the back


He said every Russian knows the way to win a chess match,
To win it every time is to attack, attack, attack.
Get your Knights out quickly with your Queen right there behind them,
Keep on moving forward and don’t give any slack.

Then the Russian he grew weary as he finished off his vodka,
He slapped me on my back and then kissed me on both cheeks.
He said, “Good night my newest friend, we are Tovarisch to the end!”
Then he gave a big gigantic sigh and slumped down in his seat.

And as he lay there passed out with his face turned toward the window,
Just a’snorin’ and a’twitchin’ in his own dream-filled sleep,
I looked at that damn chess board, with my King so neatly captured
And I vowed that now and evermore I’d never again be beat.


(Chorus)

You must to know when to go forward, know when to go back,
Know when to hide your king from the other side’s attack.
You never fondle your chess pieces while you’re sitting at the table;
Just watch and learn and move real fast, or we’ll stab you in the back.



My Muse smiled prettily at me as I scribbled the last line and then she ordered her own glass of white wine and headed for the next carriage up the line, probably looking for the next great Russian novelist to inspire.

Tony and Dean finally showed up and we had dinner (I had the roast pork and pasta, surprisingly good for preparation on a train). We toasted each other and our adventure to the wee hours. A few more group members showed up for more toasts and the night quickly blurred into a soft hazy glow as we sped through the semi-darkness of a Siberian white night.

We made a couple of long stops during which we could get off the train and stretch our legs and so Dean and Tony could smoke. Since such stops were few and rather far between, both addicts were cut off from their drug of choice for long hours at a time, so they took the opportunity to suck down that good old cigarette smoke whenever they could. No smoking was allowed on the trains, but sometimes a receptive Provodnitsa could be sweet-talked (I dare not say ‘bribed’) into letting the guys puff away between cars, where the rushing wind took the smoke away. No hard-core American rules for the Russians, no, sirree!
One late-night stop was at Omsk, and I also alighted to breathe in the night air and to be able to say I had touched down in Omsk, Siberia. What a great way to travel.

After a good night’s sleep in our upgraded, air-conditioned compartment, we arose early and had a leisurely morning before arriving in Novosibirsk at 9:34 AM local time on Wednesday, June 14. As usual by now, we packed up our gear and hustled ourselves and our suitcases off the train and onto our waiting tour bus.
Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest city, is the capital of the Siberian region and also the largest city in Siberia, an industrial, scientific, cultural and educational center. Our first stop was the memorial to the man who oversaw the construction of the railroad bridge we’d just crossed over the River Ob. Next we did Lenin Square and the Opera House, after which we did the Museum of Siberia, where we learned much more than we ever wanted or needed to know about life in that cold, cold region in ancient times.

Finally, we found our hotel, the Azimut Sibir, and the eagerly-anticipated showers. Sigh! The times in between showers were not especially onerous, but we did manage to sweat quite a bit on our day tours and even in the carriages, so feeling that cool water cascade down our hot, smelly, sweaty bods was always a treat.

The night’s entertainment on offer for the group was the opera Spartacus, performed, naturally enough, at the opera house. I had found what looked like a great restaurant in our travel guide, Expeditsiya, a place specializing in game. Tony opted to have dinner elsewhere and to rest up, but would meet us after dinner. Dean decided to join me, so we took a taxi (always amazingly cheap in the hinterlands) to the restaurant. It was a smallish place, decorated in hunting décor, apparatus, furs and other big game accessories. Drinks came first and I decided to splurge on an appetizer of “pee wee pies” and a mains of the Wild Fowl Mix, a large platter containing tasting dishes of young horse meat, reindeer, reindeer tongue, elk and wild duck, with a side of steak fries. Yum. I could hardly wait.
The platter, when it arrived, was presented beautifully, but its arrival had to be seen to be believed. Instead of our waitress bringing it out, a young male waiter arrived dressed in a camo hat and ghillie suit, carrying the meat tray. One of the most unique and creative meal deliveries ever. I also polished off a bottle of lovely red Spanish wine along with the meal. I dug in and managed to finish about 75% of the meats offered. I asked for a doggie bag to take back to the hotel and keep in the fridge for a late-night snack or breakfast. I waddled out of there, fully sated and happy. Dean also seemed pleased with his meat choice and beers, so dinner could be counted a success.

We returned to the hotel and picked up Tony, after which we caught a taxi to find the Jazz Club Truba; turned out it was an easily walkable few blocks from the hotel. Naturally, when we got there, we found they were having a private party and were closed to the general public. We were not amused. But we found a small German bar across the street and had a beer or two there, after which we decided to walk back to the hotel, maybe 10-15 minutes away. Easy-peezy.

Fortunately, Thursday, June 15, was a late start, so we could sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast before starting off on our tour for the day. I used the time to walk to Lenin Ploschad (Square) after a nice Continental breakfast. The morning was hot already, but with a nice breeze in the shade of the sidewalk’s trees. I looked for souvenirs but couldn’t find any likely shops, so headed back to the hotel around noon. Our tour that day would include the well-known Akademik Town, a huge complex of buildings and laboratories and scientific centers devoted to the study and advance of the sciences – naturally. We wandered through the complex with a local guide, a Hungarian who had come there to study 54 years ago and never left. We then checked out the market, which I’d hoped would give me a chance at some souvenirs for friends and family, but it was mainly food and discount standard clothing. We had a photo op of the city and then hit the Railway Museum, which was really interesting. Lots of old trains in immaculate condition, painted and restored and kept shining. Most of them were from the heyday of the Trans- Siberian Express and had seen service all throughout Siberia for many years. A fun side trip.

We boarded our train for Krasnoyarsk, our next stop, around 7 PM, just in time for cocktails and dinner. Our compartment was back among the hoi polloi, although the carriage was better air conditioned this time. Plus, the train still boasted a bar car to keep us occupied. As we pulled out of the station, at least one large, rough-looking Russian guy from each compartment in our carriage stood looking out of the windows in the hallway. Hmmm, tough crew. But our Provodnitsa this time was a part-Greek beauty, long black hair and olive skin, a real sweetie. Finally got lucky – she spoke English.

This time our compartments had locks on them which required the Provodnitsa’s key to lock and unlock. So, when we left for, say, dinner, we had to ask the Provodnitsa to lock our compartment and when we returned we had to ask her to unlock it. Cumbersome, but presumably safer than any other method of securing the compartment. But at least the air conditioning worked reasonably well this time, since there were no windows in the carriage.

We all had dinner in our compartment, even though there was a bar car. I chose a chicken burrito from a platform kiosk while Tony made up sandwiches for himself and Dean: salami, cheese, onions, bread and a few other things. A cozy atmosphere of food and drink.

And then it was time for a party. We hadn’t really had one yet on this journey, as most of our group kept to themselves and chose not to patronize the bar car. This night would be different.

I wandered into the bar car after dinner, and found several of my group already there, including Zsuzsa (another Zsuzsa), a 40s statuesque Hungarian woman who was, shall we say, spectacularly well-endowed. Zsuzsa, Zita and Sandor had taken a booth across from me, while in another booth behind them was a single large Russian male (Damn, are they all such big guys?), eating what looked like red caviar out of a plastic container and occasionally sipping something in a white teacup. We didn’t pay him too much attention, as he was minding his own business – for a while, anyway.
Tony and Judit, a retired Hungarian judge, joined me in my booth, across from the others. At some point, as the liquor flowed and the atmosphere loosened, someone brought Maxim, our large Russian caviar-eating bear, into the conversation (Zita also spoke Russian, and Zsusa just a touch). Maxim then decided to share his goodies with us, so passed around his container of red caviar. It seemed he actually owned a caviar farm so could get all he wanted. Some of us took advantage and scarfed down the really good caviar; Zita estimate his little container probably held around $300 of red caviar. Dean had joined us by now and even he was impressed, although he had never formerly been a big caviar eater. Maxim also shared the contents of his teacup with us – which was definitely not tea! So we were mixing beer and vodka and caviar and the party was escalating. Maxim’s smile grew wider and wider, revealing his very own set of gold teeth. Flashy, that was our Maxim.

When Maxim stood to pass his caviar and vodka around, he also joined Zsuzsa in her side of the booth. Zsuzsa, an earthy Hungarian woman, was showing quite a bit of cleavage that night – and she had quite a bit to show. Somehow, Maxim’s arm found itself around Zsuzsa’s shoulder. She responded in a playful and innocently flirtatious way by exclaiming over her bounty, lifting them for all to admire and loudly proclaiming, “Oh my GAAAHHD!” The party was well under way.

More beer, more caviar (the real Russian stuff, not that cheap import), more vodka, more hugging and squeezing of Zsuzsa by Maxim, more “Oh my GAAAHHD!” in a loud party voice by Zsusa, and we were off and running. Despite his size, it only took Maxim about another 20 minutes of eating and squeezing and attempted fondling and vodka to reach the terminal stage. The last we saw of him, he was passed out in the carriage’s foyer, where the entry doors were located. It was definitely a memorable gathering.

I seem to recall eventually finding my compartment and remembering it was a good thing that one of my roomies had asked our Provodnitsa to unlock the door, as I doubt I could have done even that. I dove headlong into the arms of Morpheus.

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