Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Meet Andre, Vasily and Sergei. My new Russian boyfriends. I spent three nights and four days on the Trans-Siberian Railway with these guys. By the end of the trip, I had drank half my weight in vodka, fended off two marriage proposals and been stalked (yet again) by a man named Vladimir (what is it with me and men named Vladimir anyway?).

I knew I was in for a fun ride when dozens of loud Russian men boarded the train hauling beer, vodka, televisions, DVD players and trophies. They were all railway workers and were on their way home after competing in the "Railway Olympics" (a massive sporting event for railway workers from all across Russia). The guys in my car were the stars of the games, having swept five events -- soccer, arm wrestling, volleyball, darts and table tennis.

Most of them were big, burly men and they had a habit of walking around with their shirts off. A few of them could speak basic English and they introduced themselves as "sportsmen." They were extremely friendly and a lot of fun. I spent most of the four-day train ride in their cabins drinking vodka with them.

My anxiety over the whole toilet situation on the train (the general rule seemed to be that the toilets were always locked when you needed them most) evaporated when Vasily produced a key and told me I could go to the bathroom any time I liked. I asked him how he got a key and he just winked and said, "I am a railway worker."

The sportsmen also helped me fight off unwanted attention from a man named Vladimir. Barely two hours into the four-day train trip, I was taking pictures out the window when an older man decided to strike up a conversation with me. He said he was a computer programmer on his way back home to Moscow. He was 50 years old with thick gold chains around his neck, a massive beer belly, greasy hair and huge glasses that took up half his face.

His eyes kept drifting down to my chest when he spoke to me. There was something very sleazy about Vladimir. I made an excuse to go back to my cabin but he blocked me and tried to convince me to go to his room for some vodka. I told him that I didn't hang out with married men. He said his wife was nice "but when I look at you, I have different feelings."

I asked if his wife was on the train and he said she wasn't.

"I am freedom!" he said.

I kept shaking my head and saying, "Nyet! Nyet!"

He eventually got the hint and left me alone (for a few minutes anyway). I went back to my cabin and Vladimir suddenly appeared at the door and stood there staring at me. He asked if I wanted to join him for dinner in the dining car. I said no thank you. But instead of leaving, he just stood there staring at me until I closed the door.

But he kept reappearing at my door, sticking his head in and whispering, "Sarah. Sarah" and staring at me. I pretended I didn't hear him. When I wasn't in my room, he'd walk around to everyone else's rooms asking where I was. My cabin mates nicknamed him "Mr. Creepy."

An older Australian man in the cabin next door looked up the Russian word for "daughter" and Vladimir scuttled away. Vladimir eventually noticed that I was spending most of my time on the train with the sportsmen and decided to step up his game.

As I was walking down the hallway, I saw Vladimir heading towards me with a huge box of chocolates in his hand.

"Sarah, for you," he said.

I tried to refuse but he thrust them into my hands. I ran into Vasily, Andre, Sergei and Alexei's cabin and told them that Vladimir was annoying me and could they please say something to him in Russian because he wasn't listening to me.

"I will kill him," said Vasily in all seriousness.

"No, no. Don't kill him," I said.

"Okay. I will injure him a little," he relented.

I asked him to tell Vladimir he was my boyfriend and to maybe just threaten him with violence instead. I have no idea what Vasily said to Vladimir but he steered clear of me for the rest of the trip.

However, Vasily took his new role as my pretend boyfriend a little too seriously. He always slung his arm around me or held my hand. Not to be outdone by Vladimir, he bought me an ice cream at the next stop. He wrapped blankets around me when I was cold. He placed pillows behind my back when I was stiff from sitting. He told all of the other sportsmen on the train that he was moving to Canada to marry me.

After walking me back to my cabin and tucking me into bed on the second night on the train, Vasily motioned for me to lean forward and whispered, "Tomorrow I will kiss you."

Vasily had protected me from Vladimir but who was going to protect me from Vasily?

The next morning, I joined my Russian friends for tea and cookies in their cabin, which disintegrated into beer and vodka by noon. Vasily kept asking me how much flights to Canada cost and if I could help him get a job working on the railway in B.C. He was intent on keeping his promise from the night before and tried to charm me into kissing him.

"I have never kissed Canada girl," he said. "You could be first!"

The testosterone in my car was a little overpowering so I escaped to the next car to hang out with John Carlo, a Brazilian I had met the day before. He had a whole cabin to himself and I sought refuge there. I really enjoyed spending time with John Carlo, especially because I thought he was gay.

We were chatting away in his cabin when he told me he was planning on going to Whistler in February. He asked if I wanted to join him.

I told him it would be fun, especially since a lot of my friends would be up at Whistler at the same time for Gay Ski Week. I winked and said I could introduce him to some cute, single guys.

"I'm not gay," he said. "I'd like to spend time in Whistler with you."

Good lord. My brain was short circuiting from all of the male attention. How is it that I spent an entire year in Japan completely ignored by the opposite sex and then all of a sudden I'm trapped on a train with men throwing themselves at me everywhere I turn?

Not that I'm complaining. It was a great train ride. The four days I spent on the Trans Siberian Railway was a highlight of the trip so far. I got choked up when I got off the train in Vladimir and said goodbye to my new Russian friends who were continuing on to Moscow. They carried my bags off the train for me and stood on the platform to wave goodbye. I didn't want to leave. But more adventures await in the rest of Russia . . .

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