For the first half-hour of the ride we were still in Moscow, cutting through the industrial corridor that follows the metro line into the Elektrozavodsk region. It's a landscape of garages, car skeletons, working-class high-rises and collapsing factories, half of them abandoned. I finally understood why Muscovites talk about Yugo-Zapadnaya as "ecologically clean"; even though looks like a Yonkers on hormones, there really aren't too many factories belching out smoke -- they're all shut down.
As we reached the edge of the city, there were even some of the collapsing shanties Russians call "chastnyi sektor," or private sector houses. Thousands of these plumbing-free houses line the road to Siberia, but it was news to me that you can find them inside Moscow City limits. Graffiti lines the route, the most popular being "slava Rossii," or Glory to Russia, and the initials of a neo-Nazi group RNE with its swastika rip-off logo. I didn't notice any graffiti for Limonov's National-Bolshevik Party until much later, especially around Krasnoyarsk.
It got dark around five, halfway to the first stop, Vladimir. Nobody was particularly talkative. Sergei was reading I Want to Be a Street Cleaner by an M. Veller. Sveta was doing crosswords and being cutesy with Andrei, who was sucking on a beer and reading MK. I'd started East of Eden, not for the banal allegory but because I figured the train would be a good place to catch up on some unread classics.
When we pulled up to Vladimir, there was already snow on the ground. Everybody piled out of the train. Up on the hill behind the boxy Brezhnev-era station, two of Russia's most beautiful Byzantine churches -- Vladimir's only attractions -- were lit up. I bought a beer and a pack of Marlboro Lights. My pack was the display model. Judging by their stale taste, it'd been a while since anyone'd been so extravagant. I've only seen Marlboro Lights a few times since.
Smoking my first cigarette of the journey I realized how goofy I must look, wearing a navy and light blue down coat I picked up last year at a Gap outlet or Old Navy for $59, glasses, sideburns and Carhartts. Everybody else was pancake-faced, in long, dark coats made of animals, Boris hats and cheap rynok Turkish clothes. I wouldn't've been any more conspicuous in the gorilla suit.
Only a couple of hours outside of Moscow and I was starting to wonder if Tynda was really the answer.
My koupe-mate Sergei and I spent most of the second day in the dining car drinking just enough Baltika to maintain a lively conversation. He was my first clue that most Russians live entirely independent of Moscow. Not a single person I met on the train had any connection to Moscow beyond its position as a railway hub or relatives in podmoskovya. Maybe the ones who have connections can afford to fly; maybe Muscovites have no real need to go anywhere else in Russia.
Whatever the reason, there are people all over the CIS living entirely independently of the capital.
Sergei is a good example, a Krasnoyarsk native whose favorite memory was his three years in the early 90s working as a surgeon in the Far North. The town he and his wife lived in was accessible only by air. It was a failed experiment in domesticating some local nomads; Sergei said they drank prodigious amounts, never really learned Russian and were wasting away, just like our Indians.
"They never needed civilization," he said, "and now that they've got it, they're caught in between."
He had great memories from his time up there. One of his stories was weirdly like the DeathPorn scene I witnessed in Tynda. On Sergei's second day at work, a guy stumbled up holding his guts in his hands. He was a a patient in the hospital who'd gotten into a drunken argument with another patient. The other patient had stabbed him.
Sergei's stories were full of senseless violence and pioneer hardship. He missed it. The fishing couldn't be beat, and he would get to helicopter into virgin territory just to shoot reindeer. Now he was settled, with two daughters, and working at a local hospital for next to nothing. He was heading home after six weeks learning plastic surgery at a budget school in Petersburg. Apparently that's all it takes to get certified.