19:53 Kazan -> Yekaterinburg
It was still raining when we reached Kazan station and headed to Coach 4, where a small crowd of potential “berth buddies” were already preparing to board the sleeper. We scanned their faces, second guessing which we’d be spending the night with and what sort of person they might be.
In the end it was Vasilli, 44 years old, married with two kids and the passenger we had both agreed looked most like a part time hitman. He spoke just two words of English: “Fish” and “London” and after some initial grunting between the three of us, we resigned ourselves to another evening in the restaurant car.
Only this time there wasn’t one. Our carriage attendant, Andrea, who an hour into the journey swapped her smart regulation uniform for a Team Russia Olympics tracksuit, gestured she had limited “provisions” under a pillow in her closet at the end of the corridor, which we could to purchase from her (and only her) on the understanding any evidence was hidden away when the railway police began doing their rounds.
“Feesh? Hey, Feeeeesh?” We looked up. It was Vasilli offering us a strip of flesh torn from one of three raw fish he’d pulled out of a plastic bag. I politely declined but Elliot, remembering the guidebook’s warning about appearing rude if your refuse food from a Russian, bravely dug in.
From the noises that ensued, you’d think Elliot was sampling a platter of Michelin Starred sushi but when he convinced me to try a bit, it became clear this just wasn’t our thing. The language barrier, however, had been broken and with no further encouragement needed, Elliot pulled out three plastic cups and a bottle of Kalashnikov vodka – the universal sign for “let’s drink?”.
We were a few sips in when Vasilli pointed his index finger in the air (another universal sign for “ah ha, I know what would be good right now”) and delved into his luggage, only to pull out a huge flick knife – Vasilli reassured us that in Russian terms, it really wasn’t that big. It was no machete but to a couple of Londoners who’d be cautious about riding the Underground with a metallic nail file, it was somewhat disturbing. This was it, we silently agreed, squeezing each other’s hands for comfort under the table. Luckily, the knife was followed up by an orange which Vasilli carefully sliced into segments and handed out. He was right, the vodka definitely tasted better with orange.
When we’d exhausted all the Russian phrases in our guidebook (What time is it? I’d like some potatoes, please), we turned to our Google Translate app and with just a mobile phone and some frantic gesturing, the conversation ran late into the night, covering everything from Vasilli’s new country house, to the crisis in Ukraine, whether they eat Marmot in Mongolia, why Russians holiday in Thailand, how safe the trains were and Elliot’s wisdom teeth removal (of course).
The chat took a slightly bizarre turn when, emboldened by vodka, we attempted to discuss the demise of Tsar Nicholas and his entire family, who’d been killed by the Bolsheviks in Yekatrinburg in 1918 and thrown down a quarry – including his wife’s puppy who was slung down still barking. “Live dog thrown down mineshaft?” doesn’t translate on Google.
When we ran out of vodka, the lads headed to Andrea’s closet and returned triumphant with a warm bottle of Cognac that definitely wasn’t Cognac and the three-man party continued until we finally retired to our berths, Elliot subtly sliding the knife under a piece of orange peel.
We arrived in Yekatrinburg at 10am with sore heads and a new friend. Despite this not being his stop, Vasilli insisted on carrying my backpack all the way to the station entrance, at one point making comedy gesture that he was going to throw my bag on the train tracks. Although in reality he wasn’t going to do that. He was going to cross the railway lines.
I had little choice but to follow, he had my luggage after all. And so, too hungover to argue we darted across the Tran-Siberian Railway, screeching in fear until we reached the safety of the opposite platform.
We had arrived in Yekaterinburg. Just about safe and sound.
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