It’s Not the Culture

By Mary Conibear

Taking the Trans-Siberian is like being in jail. But in a good way. Because you are on a train.

Each train car has a long corridor with cabins opening up like cells along one side. Glancing in, people sprawl out on narrow bunks, reading or sleeping or playing cards on the little table. They look up at you unsmiling as you head to your assigned bunk.

As the new kid, you step into your cabin with clean clothes and shiny hair and hope for a congenial roommate. The woman in the top bunk of cabin 9 doesn’t stir when you walk in. She is older, with short hair and wearing a t-shirt, shorts and bare feet, with one leg stretched out and propped on the ceiling.

The four bunks of the blue and grey cabin are arranged two up, two down with a shoe-width three-rung ladder that pulls out from the wall for the top bunkers. You dump your day bag on the bottom, number 21, and quickly stow your fat duffel in the cramped area under the bunk, beside the storage bin holding your pillow and pallet.

Your roomie has made herself at home with a pantry of food on the single formica table: six eggs, a loaf of rye, a bottle of water, and some of those wafer cookies that taste like paper that your mom used to hand out at Halloween.

The light through the open cell door is blocked by the female Russian attendant in full warden-style uniform. She tosses a plastic-wrapped set of sheet, pillowcase, towel and cover on your bunk and moves on. Underneath those you find another pack with paper slippers, toothbrush and tube of toothpaste thinner than your pinkie.

An hour later, another attendant comes by and barks “Chicken? Meat?” at you, tapping her foot. When you say “Chicken?,” she responds with “Fore!” which turns out to be the time you’ll receive your meal. Lunch is a TV dinner: glutinous rice, 1oz of grey meat, a puddle of sauce, and a sawdust bun that you eat anyway as this is your one free allotted meal for the 72hr stint you are in for.

There is one shared toilet stall per 36-bunk carriage, seat- and lidless until you realize they are simply securely fastened in the up position. You wrestle them free with some difficulty, resulting in the need for a band-aid, vigorous hand washing, and a tube of Polysporin. The toilet paper is industrial-grey one-ply. The water unpotable and cold. Your typical train bathroom.

The trip continues into the evening. Quiet, apart from the incoming-bomb whistle before a train rushes by in the opposite direction. Lights go out early and everyone settles in. The thick metal door clangs shut. The rocking is stronger than normal but sleep comes quickly if not deeply. Another person has joined your cabin during the afternoon and she gets woken up by the attendant in the middle of the night, and vanishes.

But in the morning, everything changes.


For one thing, I’ve joined a gang. My stoic roommate thaws with two new arrivals that show up mid-morning and we introduce ourselves. Lyra and Natasha are smiley, with an impressive determination to chat even though we can’t understand each other. Natasha is missing an eye, which you don’t notice at first since her hair covers that side of her face.

Maria comes down from the top bunk and the three of them pull out container after Ziploc bag after carton of food that they urge on me. We have a picnic, huddled hip to hip around our little table where they feed me tea, cheese, meat and cucumber sandwiches on dense black bread, followed by hand salad – dry sprigs of arugula and cilantro that we munch like goats. They adamantly refuse my box of chocolates. I am the guest and not allowed to contribute. Besides, they have lots of chocolate that they press on me whenever I stop eating. We have a great confusing chat but I gather Natasha and Lyra are mother and daughter-in-law from Kazakhstan. Maria is from the Ukraine. They have various kids of indeterminate age and sex.

Now there is English-speaking in the corridors as other travelers from London, Australia, Minnesota and Denmark appear to get some air. A little Russian kid runs up and down squeaking and beeping like a reversing truck. He trips and falls flat on his face in front of our cabin repeatedly so we stop looking up.

I make my way to the dining car with an amiable Australian retired couple. We trade funny travel stories seated on space-age vinyl seats while we study the 25-page menu with all the usual comic translation errors. Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You plays on a loop.

Back in my room, with the help of a translation app, Natasha asks me a question about why I travel. I say that I like to experience the different cultures. She smiles and says, “No, Mary, it’s not the culture, it’s the people.” Lyra and Maria nod. I smile back at them. Maybe it’s not like jail after all.

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