When we woke up the next morning Victor was gone. After a while we were joined by a young mother and her two children, a ten year old girl and an extremely lively five year old boy who ended up entertaining himself by playing Slap The Englishman with Chris. They were good fun, though quite demanding.
Everything was going quite smoothly until the train ground to a halt in the middle of a field for an hour and a half. This was the only journey we had that involved a remotely tight connection, so of course it was the only train that was significantly late. After a while it became apparent that we were going to miss our train.
Once we had sat there long enough to ensure that we were beyond all hope of catching the Tomsk train, we started moving again. Outside the train, the usual landscape of birch trees and wooden houses was gradually obscured by a thick yellowish pall of smoke. A massive forest fire was burning somewhere in the region. When we arrived in Taiga the air smelt of burning wood; you couldn’t see from one end of the platform to the other. We got off the train and began to investigate our options.
By now it was getting on for ten at night. Was there another train to Tomsk? Not until the next day. Was there a bus? Nope. Anywhere to stay? Not visibly, but then we couldn’t see much within the smoke, and we didn’t want to venture too far from the station in case we got lost. A taxi driver began to follow us around, asking where we were going, and we negotiated a price with him. As I can only count up to the early teens in Russian these negotiations were done with fingers, scribbles on paper and speaking individual digits, but we settled on “two-nul-nul-nul” or 2000 rubles for the ride.
We got into the taxi and drove to a nearby petrol station. Suddenly our driver said the price was three-nul-nul-nul, around £60. I objected to this, which was hard, because I could only speak in the present tense.
“You say two-nul-nul-nul in station. Why now THREE-nul-nul-nul?”
He said stuff about the price of petrol. We had a bit of a row about it until Chris pointed out we had very little option but to pay him the extra grand, and that it was still well worth it. He was right, but even so, I was angry at the man for being so underhanded about it. Chris said he needed to go to the cashpoint to get the extra money, and began to grope at his passenger door. It wouldn’t open. I was still half-heartedly arguing with the driver. He argued back, and suddenly pulled out an enormous knife.
“Jesus, that’s a great big knife!” I hissed. We had both become very quiet and compliant all of a sudden. Still muttering about the cost of the fare, the driver leaned over and used the knife to jimmy open Chris’s door. I stopped arguing, and Chris and the driver disappeared into the petrol station.
Chris came back with a bundle of money, and gave some of it to the driver – he wanted the whole fare up front, but we said we would give him the rest in Tomsk. This rather meaningless concession made us feel marginally better. Our driver used his advance to buy petrol and some toxic-looking cans of the Russian equivalent of Red Bull, because the best thing to introduce into a tense situation involving a knife is a load of caffeine. He tuned the radio into Russian pop songs, cranked up the volume and we sped off into the dark, smoke-covered Siberian forests.
“He could kill us both and bury us in the forest and no one would ever know what happened,” Chris said. Somehow we both found this thought quite funny. Still, I was gripping hold of the handle of the door so hard I found that after a while I couldn’t unclench my fist. Chris started worrying that we were driving in the wrong direction, but I didn’t have enough fuel left in my brain’s anxiety tank to think about that – it was all taken up by the knife. We drove really fast, often over 100 kph, the car rattling with the effort and sometimes nearly taking off over some of the road’s more severe bumps.
Eventually, in the middle of the night, we arrived in Tomsk. We found the right road quite easily, but finding our hostel itself proved far harder. Our knife-wielding taxi driver grew increasingly impatient, flagging down drunk passers-by to ask them where it was. After a while, to our intense relief, he found it. We paid him the rest of his well-earned three-nul-nul-nul and said goodbye. To be fair to the driver, it was a long way. He could have kicked us out in Tomsk on the right road, leaving us to find the hostel by ourselves. But he saw us right to the door, carrying my backpack, and stayed long enough to give our host a bollocking about how difficult the hostel was to find.
We were the only people staying in the hostel that night, so we had a room to ourselves. We made up our beds and turned in, thankful to be in Tomsk after all we had encountered on the way.