We returned to Irkutsk as happy travellers. Relaxed from our time on the beach at Lake Baikal, and beginning to feel that we were getting the hang of this Trans-Siberian thing.
Naturally we were wrong. The world had lulled us into a false sense of security, and we were about to be flung into the most terrifying two days of the entire trip.
It all started well enough. We took the bus back to Irkutsk, had a Siberian pizza then went back to the station to get our train. We were venturing off the main Trans-Siberian route, heading north towards Tomsk, and you could tell the difference straight away – absolutely no one spoke a word of English.
To my absolute delight, one of our compartment-mates was a small cat called Lyusha. She was very self-composed and spent most of the time asleep on her bunk, although she did allow me to pat her in between naps. Her human companion was on her way to visit her Mum for an extended stay, so she had packed the cat.
Sadly they left a few hours after we boarded. Things began to deteriorate rapidly after that. The man in the bunk above them moved down into the lower bunk and started chatting in a friendly enough way, but then he drank quite a few cans of Baltika beer. Baltika beers are numbered, seemingly in order of strength, and his was a relatively high number. He got very glassy-eyed and drunk very quickly, and kept trying to make conversation, though his slurring drunk Russian was well beyond my understanding.
The trouble started when Victor arrived, very late, just as we getting ready for bed. Victor, a young man around the same age as me, had booked himself the lower bunk, the one recently vacated by the lady and her cat. However, the drunk man decided he wanted to sleep there. At first the drunk man yielded, but then he changed his mind and sat back down on Victor’s bunk.
It was around midnight. We all just wanted to get to sleep. The drunk man, slurring and staggering about, began to shove at Victor to shift him off the bunk. Victor defended himself. A fight broke out, and they ended up rolling around on the floor between the bunks, kicking and battering at each other.
Victor definitely had the upper hand in all sorts of ways. Firstly, he had a ticket which entitled him to the disputed bunk. Secondly, he was strong and well built, and clearly not afraid of a fight. Thirdly, he wasn’t blind drunk. Unfortunately the other man was so far gone he wouldn’t have either noticed or cared about these points. Even though Victor kept subduing him, pressing him to the floor with his arm twisted behind his back, the drunk man would just start up again as soon as Victor let him go. I was shouting at them both, but they completely ignored me. The drunk man went for Victor again and they both burst out of the compartment together, tripping over, and the drunk’s head fell with a horrible crunch against the wall of the corridor outside.
Up until then I had effectively been trapped in the compartment with two wrestling men between me and the door. Chris was likewise trapped in the bunk above me. Now I jumped over the men and into the corridor.
Never in my life have I more wanted to be able to speak Russian. I didn’t even know what the word for help was, let alone “Help, my compartment mates are beating the living daylights out of each other”; instead the only Russian I could bellow was “Provodnitsa! (carriage attendant) There’s a problem!”
Still, this had an amazing effect. People began to pour out of every compartment in our carriage. A heavily-tattooed, wiry little man from the next door compartment waded in and separated Victor and the drunk. They both went back into the compartment and sat down, and the tattooed man grinned at me. “Eta Russiya,” he told me – this is Russia. He wasn’t the only one to say that to me over the next hour or so.
As soon as we had returned to our compartment an enormous, blonde, terrifying force of nature swept in. This was the provodnitsa. She started laying into both men with such verbal violence it put their scrap on the floor to shame. Everyone was cowed. Then she turned to me.
“And you!” she said, and something else I didn’t understand. I held up my hands in abject surrender.
She wheeled back to Victor and the drunk. “And you do this in front of the foreigners! Shame on you!” She launched another few minutes of verbal water cannon at them, then swept out. We were all stunned.
The drunk man packed up his things. I thought he was going to be moved to a different compartment, but then we pulled into a tiny little station in the middle of nowhere and two policemen got on to talk to us. They spoke to the provodnitsa, then I gave the world’s worst witness statement: “This man- (pointing to Victor) – good man. No problem. This man – (pointing to the drunk) – lots of beer.” Even the terrifying provodnitsa snorted with laughter at this and relayed it to audience of fellow travellers in the corridor.
They ripped Victor and the drunk’s side of the compartment apart, searching it thoroughly, but didn’t touch anything of ours – they didn’t even ask to see our passports. Then they escorted the drunk off the train, and we set off again.
I lay down on my bunk, trembling. Victor got into his bunk opposite, and we started talking – both of us were far too wired to sleep. Somehow the adrenaline unlocked a load of Russian vocabulary I’d forgotten I had, and we managed to have quite a long conversation about all sorts of things, politics, Putin, the lack of jobs in Siberia. Victor spoke very slowly and clearly, finishing sentences for me when I got lost in them and correcting my grammar and pronunciation in a very kind, encouraging way. Eventually I nodded off, feeling safe and rather proud of my linguistic efforts.
It was now at least two in the morning. I thought our troubles were over. Yet, around twenty hours later, Chris and I would find ourselves speeding through the forests of Siberia in a taxi driven by an angry man with a very large knife. But I’ll save that story for my next post.