Say what you like about empire, it makes things simpler for the tourist. On four days and change on the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Chita, I had interesting conversation with, on my count:
two Russian Russians (one with a Buryat grandfather)
two Kazakhstan Russians (one of whom had, I think, some Kazakh ancestry)
and we can count the one Moldovan who drove my taxi to the train station.
And, speaking of imperial remnants, the Azeri spoke his Turkic language to one of the Kyrgyz and was understood, and he his to him, for several decently long intervals, though they preferred to speak Russian with each other, both being fluent. After such a long separation, and over such a distance, still retaining mutual comprehensibility, well, I was even wondered whether they really understood each other as well as they said. But they both howled along convincingly to Sezen Aksu’s choruses when I played her for them, and agreed with me she’s at least as good as Tarkan, when she’s good.
The Azeri never tried to speak anything but Russian to the Tatar, a girl who said she was twenty but looked pretty young, and who he spent a good deal of energy working on. And he claimed that Yakuts and Tuvans wouldn’t have the same degree of mutual comprehensibility he had with Turks and Kyrgyz. He was even a little offended when I suggested it. And then he claimed that if there were any words in common, they would be as coincidental as if Turkish had a word in common with English, and it would signify nothing. Though he didn’t seem that well-educated – he was careful to have me write both my address for him and his for me before I got off the train, and puzzled for a few minutes, examining my passport, over what my visa actually said. He seemed to have no idea of calculating money: he was visibly surprised both times I questioned why he would buy food or beer on the train when he could cut his expenses in half by buying at the station, and then both times he went and demanded to know why the prices were so high. He complained, revealingly if you want, about written Russian, that “A word means one thing in conversation and then mathematically, grammatically I mean, it’s something totally different.” He was very proud of the fact that Azerbaijan had switched to the Roman alphabet, and that fact was what he seemed to think would attract me most, as a tourist to Azerbaijan. “You won’t have to ask directions or anything, you just look and everywhere it’ll be written, on the buses and on the streets, and you can just read it,” regardless that I was sitting there reading Gogol in Russian in front of him. He was traveling from Bratsk to Blagoveschensk on business, he said, and the business turned out to be illegal logging, which needed to be arranged with the Armenian and the Tajik only there. Sometimes it seems half the people I meet in trains or shared taxis are working in logging, and half of them are doing it illegally.
The three Kyrgyz, on the other hand, were traveling with several bags of goods from Ulan-Ude to Blagoveschensk, where they hoped to sell them. The Azeri told them that the flow of trade was going the other way – everyone buys Chinese goods in Blagoveschensk and takes them back east to sell. The Kyrgyz he spoke with was a little disappointed by this, since he?d been hoping to set up a semi-permanent shop there with the help of his sister and cousin, who were traveling with him. He was trained as a doctor and works in Bishkek in a hospital, where he only gets about $26 a month, which he supplements by working half the year as a merchant in Siberia. His wife is a college professor, and gets even less, near $20 a month. But, he told me, “It’s really nice for foreigners in Bishkek.” Though it’s a pretty small town, it’s nevertheless a national capitol, so lots of international organizations have outposts there, and they’re up to their neck in foreigners. And the countryside is marvelous, I’ve seen pictures. But as for the doctor, he says his cousin tells him: “You studied all these years, in Moscow, in Almata and Bishkek, and at the end what’s in your head and in mine is the same,” only she’s got more money because she’s been working longer at selling things.
Between the Azeri and the Kyrgyz, I didn’t have to buy any food or drink after Irkutsk, which was good, since I’d nearly run out of the $10 I’d budgeted for the trip, and I could save $2 for the taxi in Chita. Tovarisch, it seems, isn’t just a word, and though people don’t use say it as much as it seems they used, they still behave comeradely to one another. Once somebody’s made up their mind whether they like you, you can count on them to help you out as far as they can. The first day out of Moscow, we left in the early afternoon, and my lower-bunk neighbor, a former tank officer originally from Angarsk, was pretty well-marinated. He thought I was a deaf Polack at first, and then he took me for a proud Finn, and I take both those assessments as compliments to my command of spoken Russian. But my upper-bunk neighbors, the Russians from Kazakhstan, though they loudly complained him being drunk and mocked him pretty well, nonetheless they patiently made his bed for him and searched for his bags all over the car, since he’d stuck them in some wrong place after getting on, and he didn’t remember where. I complained about my throat, and instantly they’d unpacked their bags and searched out some Turkish powder they dissolved in hot water for me to drink. I don’t know whether it helped, but I felt better the next day (we all four slept all afternoon, night, and most of the next morning), though I’m worse again now.
After we all woke up, though, I had my first strong impression of returning to Siberia when the tank-officer gave me his salo to eat. Salo is well-salted raw pig fat, and you eat it with bread and it’s marvelously good. I don’t know if they have it in rural America, but I didn’t realize how much I missed it, or how much was associated with it in my memory, until that first chunk. At least an hour after we pulled into Novosibirsk, though it was midnight and nearly the whole wagon was asleep, the Angarsk man sat by the window and looked out with his chin in his hand, which he didn’t usually do, preferring to drink with me or doze. After we’d been in the station for a couple minutes, his son came on board with him, and he was clearly quite proud of him. He sat straighter, looked me in the eye more, and said his son “shoots rockets into space”, which his son quietly corrected to “I do satellite links”. After his son left, he wept quietly for at least half an hour, and the next day told me that his son was too good for him, his daughter too, and his wife was sick, but he was the only one in the family who’d fallen apart himself. Though I know he was a drunkard, he still seemed dignified then. After finishing his term in the army, it seems he’d worked on Sakhalin island for a few years, then traveled all over Siberia as a forest surveyor, and now he’d moved to Samara because of his wife’s health, which, naturally, got worse as soon as their move was completed.
Our cross-corridor neighbors were two older Ukrainians, who told me such awful things about Ukraine that I never want to go there. You often hear people from former Soviet countries (except the Baltic states) complaining about how good things were in Soviet times and how awful they are now, but between capital flight, unemployment, corruption on all levels, youth crime and suicide, and inflation, I have real difficulty understanding how they manage at all. I couldn’t get as good idea as I wanted of the details, since they also had some difficulty with math, and couldn’t keep straight which was Russian and which Ukrainian currency in the first place, which made conversion difficult. But it was clear that they’d be in big trouble if they didn’t have their plot of land in the country to grow their food on, and if their pensions weren’t as big as they are. And even so, the husband has to supplement their pensions working as a security guard, though he hears quite poorly and is nearly blind, and of course unable to afford glasses. And for the youth, they say, there’s nothing in the way of work more skilled than security, and all the factories get sold and closed, and the money taken abroad where somebody spends it on high living.
So after long enough, I made it back to Chita, where you can buy 44 Akvarium albums on MP3 for $8, and where it was a brisk minus seven Celsius as I got off the train. This was a week and change ago, and now winter’s getting serious. Anyhow, I made it to a friend’s in Chita, rested there for a couple days, and headed on to familiar Aginsk.