When I set off on my Russian trip in the spring of 2003 I had zero expectations, and was totally unprepared. I knew more about some tiny ancestral village in the Ukraine, my final destination, than the thousands of miles of railway journey between there and Vladivostok. I did zero research on the language, people, or customs.
The flight from Niigata, Japan on Vladivostok Air set the tone for the whole trip. Broken tray tables, flight attendants with horrible fashion sense, and a runway disembark that featured soldiers with AK’s – all so charming. My only comfort came from the fact that I had paid MIR Corp a hefty sum to hold my hand after I cleared immigration.
Waiting in the arrival lobby with my name on a placard, was Ivan, my driver. I soon learned that Ivan spoke no English, listened to one Moby song on a loop, and that the road from the airport needs work.
Luckily my guide was waiting for me at the hotel, and she spoke English wonderfully. We set a morning pickup time for my one day in Vladivostok, and I got situated for the night.
Aside from some random phone calls to my room by local hookers working in conjunction with the hotel (a regular occurrence throughout my time in Russia), my short stay went well. I caught some excellent views of the navy’s sub pens in the harbor, was escorted to the bank for a cash exchange, and saw some stuffed Siberian tigers at the natural history museum.
My guide got me on the overnight train to Ulan Ude in the late afternoon, and all was right with the world. I had a nice 2nd class cabin all to myself (or so it seemed). But I was getting hungry. I would have to leave my protective bubble and venture towards the dining car.
I wandered a few cars down and luckily came across what appeared to be a restaurant. Now came the real challenge, ordering. Let’s just say that the proprietor/cook wasn’t exactly pleased with my presence.
Realizing that this Americanski spoke no Russian, he gruffly belched “You sit – now!” and gestured toward a booth with two other youngish Russian men. This despite the fact that there was quite a few empty seats, and this joint wasn’t going to be jumpin’ any time soon (or ever). But I wasn’t about to argue with the guy.
I looked at the Cyrillic menu like I had a clue, and tried just pointing to a few of the items.
“What you want?!”
I pointed again in fear.
“Borscht, you want borscht?!”
I nodded. I suppose I did. My other dinner companions were just as confused. They were handled just as curtly despite sharing the same mother tongue.
Of course our order took a painfully long time. We sat in uncomfortable silence for at least 30 minutes. When the food did arrive we all ate it quickly and got the hell out of there. Not my proudest international travel moment.
Fortunately, there were numerous other uncomfortable moments throughout my journey like: Doing vodka shots with the Russian soldier meant to be patrolling the train’s corridors, having my 2nd class cabin bunk mate change three times in the course of a night from hot redhead to shriveled babushka to sour construction worker, and having both the Russian and Ukrainian Authorities forget to stamp my passport at the border.
All of these and more can be experienced on the Trans-Siberian Railway!