The experience I went for began far before I reached the dining cart.
31.12.13 - 6.1.14
On the way to Birobidzhan, January 2nd 2014
Refreshed by a good night's sleep, I rolled to the side to get my toiletry bag, and then slipped down from my upper bunk. Before stepping down the little foot step, I pulled my camera bag down. Being on such an upper bunk with super limited headroom, some creativity is required. First, as I slip down, I have to pull my camera bag halfway. And then when one feet reach the step, I pull my camera bag for the next halfway. If I leave my camera bag at the head-side, I won't be able to grab it once I'm off the bed. Because of the ceiling so short, I won't be able to just stand on the step and bow my body over the bunk to reach out to the head-side.
The toilet wasn't as worse as I had prepared myself for. But, it wasn't to be said clean either, according to my standards. Interestingly, under the closet's seat lid there's something like foot grip on the surface. So if you prefer to squat, you can lift up the lid, climb, and squat there. If you prefer to sit, you put the lid down, and sit on it as you usually do. The thing is that if you opt for the first, high accuracy is required -- especially when the train is shaking. For a man, the inconvenience of course can be cut into half, because a man can pee while standing, right? Then if you opt for the later, uhmmm... I think... you'd better bring toilet seat paper, and then place two layers the minimum. Here's why I have always said that the primitive toilet system -- like in China -- is the most hygienic method. In that primitive system, the only contact surface is the sole of your shoes, nothing more.
Speaking of train toilet, I prefer China's train way more. In Chinese trains, the washing room and the lavatory are separated. Moreover, the washing room is very spacious even for 2 persons, even for the hard-sleeper's cart. As I've mentioned in previous post, I took the Platskartny or third class. The toilets might be better in Kupé or second class.
The bread I brought from Vladivostok 2 days ago was already not smelling good. Thinking that I still had plenty of time before arriving in Birobidzhan, I decided to experience the dining cart, regardless of my Russian friend telling me: "Unless for an experience, meals on a dining cart isn't worth." I thought that was common thing. Meals on board, anywhere, are more expensive.
Nevertheless, the experience I went for began far before I reached the dining cart.
By full energy I pushed the door of the cart opened. And then.... wooooshhhh!! The wind of that minus something hit me. Once again I was forced to acknowledge that I'm no train expert. I have been on several other trains, in several other countries besides China. However, my experience of riding on a train in winter had only been in China. In China, even on ordinary trains, the space between carts (coaches) are closed tight that it feels like being inside a long moving aquarium. Hence, even though running through the snowy desert mountains, it's always summer inside the train.
Being exposed to the icy wind, the door handles became as cold as ice, literally. Jiayou! Gambare! I encouraged myself. One cart after another I passed. Yet, no dining cart. My shoulders were cold, my hand was hurting. I didn't wear on a coat nor hand gloves. At times, the door's handle was too heavy for me to unlock, and the men smoking at the doorway helped me open the door. At times, the door was too heavy for me to shut back, I just left it half opened.
A train attendant showed up from behind the door. Before she pulled the handle shut close, she looked me in my face, and "Houskvousk rousk vousk!" I interpreted for myself: "Don't forget to shut the door!" Yeah... who wants the unwanted natural aircon blow through the cart?
For a second I contemplated on whether to proceed or retreat. On the account of not to waste my effort going this far, and by the hope that the dining cart is just the next cart, I choose to proceed. Congratulations! The dining cart was right at the end of the train before the locomotive, whilst my Platskartny cart was at the other end of the train!!
It was a cozy dining cart. As my fingers went through the menu with English text, my fingers got their senses back. Andrey was correct. It's pricey. I opted for the cheapest: Steam rice with vegetable oil.
It was my first light of nature on the train. The window screens in my cart were still closed went I got up from bed just now. From my upper bunk it was difficult to push aside the screen and see through the window. Too bad, I had my cellphone off and left my 7D on my bunk under my pillow. When my cellphone, my Nokia, was on, the round shape of morning sun had rolled off to the other side of my train. It was indeed for me an experience, watching the sun rise over the snow covered prairie. I have already experience a hundred sunrise watching, a ten twenty snowy moments, even sunrise on snow covered desert. But sunrise on snow while rolling on a train, it was my first.
Somehow I felt like checking my train ticket. What?? The train is arriving in Birobidzhan within 20 minutes?? I thought I still had 40 minutes! Would I make it back to the very other end of this train? It seemed for me like a century waiting for my order to come. I was about to just walk out the dining cart, when the waiter signaled me to stay. Then there came my plate.
Forget picture taking. "Steam rice" turned out to be "between rice and porridge". Indeed it was mixed with oil and had some cut chives on top. I ate like I hadn't eaten for a week. Rush! Then I prepared the exact money as written on the menu so that I wouldn't have to wait for the change. However, the waiter signaled me to stay again. Now what?? I was impatient but tried to hold myself, because this waiter had welcomed me warmly in the cart. It was all my own fault to be careless about the arrival time. You know what, I had brought Seven Years in Tibet along and planned to linger in the dining cabin with a cup of coffee. No such experience.
The waiter returned with a handful of coins. As usual, he laid the coins on the table one by one as he counted. So? The price was actually lower than listed on the menu? I was once again touched by this Russian honesty, happy with the money I got back, but terribly worried I wouldn't make it back to my bunk. I have to go back there, because my backpack is still there. But if I don't get back there before the train arrives in Birobidzhan Station, I would be carried away over Birobidzhan, and that's something I dreaded thinking about.
My newly calorie intake from the steam rice and vegetable oil burnt out immediately -- I assumed. One steel door after another I pushed opened. I didn't bother of closing it back tight. My palm started smarting again.
When eventually I arrived at my bunk, the train crew who kindly ushered me yesterday, was standing there. As if she had changed role, "Houskvousk rousk vousk!!! Birobidzhan! Houskvousk rousk vousk!!!" She pointed on her watch. Then she snatched away my bed sheet and towel from the wall. "Houskvousk rousk vousk!!!" she repeated. It seemed like everyone was watching me. Was she waiting for me to return in order to take away my bed sheet and towel? Why didn't she just take it?
"I'm sorry. I don't understand."
To that, in an instant, she stopped her "Houskvousk rousk vousk!!!" Silently she walked away with the bed sheet and towel in her hands. It was like I had pressed the "Stop" button on a CD player playing rock music.
The train crew covered the door handle with a piece of thick cloth, and then pulled it open. I trembled at my own thought remembering how many steel handles I had touched and pulled with bare hands. She, a local, applies a cover for pulling just one handle. Phew! Here I am in Birobidzhan, just in time.
I gasped at the thick pile of snow. Khabarovsk, let alone Vladivostok, doesn't compare to this.
Welcome to Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. On the middle left there is the name in Russian, and next to it is Yiddish.
From this post on, I know I'm going to lose a few readers. I have already had on Facebook, when I uploaded my first photo from Birobidzhan. However, knowing from where I come from, the resentment should be expected. It's just such a pity -- for a nation's sake.