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Feature Story November 13, 2002
Way East of Tynda: 116 Hours in A Small Room
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 3 of 9
Sergei was also in his 30s, a chubby Russian approaching middle age. Both men struck me as temperate sorts, Sergei because he was a doctor and Andrei because he was traveling with his wife. I didn't know just how temperate Sergei was until the morning of the fourth day, when a tipsy, soon-to-be-liberated Andrei confided in me that he invited Sergei to drink vodka on Day 1, only to be rebuffed.

I am eternally grateful to Sergei. Drinking on an overnight ride can be fun, but a hangover in a chamber with no exits while exposed to the repetitive thumps of Russia's unwelded track could drive a man to the hair of the dog. And that could result in a five-day drinking binge.

Time works weirdly on the train. The schedule was Moscow time throughout, even though Tynda is six hours ahead, so nobody reset their watches. It would get dark earlier and earlier. With their biological clocks screwed up, people would nod off for half-hours at a time throughout the day. Steady nighttime sleep was impossible. On the last night, an Imovane usually good for well over 7 hours only put me out for about three hours. All the people on long hauls were affected. It's not jet lag, because you are acclimated when you arrive, but time files down your mind on the train, so that by the time you approach your arrival time, you can't read, write or even communicate. Andrei, bored with his yellow press and Za Rulyem auto magazine, started spending hours staring out the window on Day 3. It didn't even matter whether it was day or night. He would simply stare out into the darkness, seeing nothing and presumably thinking the same, while his scars turned red and puffy.

Andrei and Sveta were determined not to read anything more literary than Moskovsky Komsomolets for the entire trip, and suffered for it when they finished the issue and had nothing to look at. While I was burning through East of Eden and the first part of Don Quixote - more than 1500 pages- they sat and stewed and napped. When I found John Dolan's frozen mammoth with fresh meat, not in Solzhenitsyn but in Steinbeck, Andrei was glancing over the Kriminal section of MK yet again.

By the third day, Andrei really seemed on the verge of losing it. His only relief was when he would buy two local beers at every station and judiciously compare the equally shitty indigenous brews. Out of curiosity, I tried one on his recommendation once.
A typical train station building

Nothing: A common site on Rudnitsky's five day trip through BAM hell

On his last day, Day 4, I treated him to a few Baltikas. For the first time he seemed to get slightly buzzed. With a few beers in him, he got almost chatty. He told me that he and Sveta had met in Kamchatka while he was serving in the navy as a mechanic. He'd been an officer, and had seen a lot of the world for a Ryazan peasant, serving all around the USSR in the border patrol, guarding the Amur, the Pacific coast and the Black Sea. During officer exchanges in the 90s, he'd met American and Japanese officers and boarded their vessels. Finally, in '98, sick of the decay of the Soviet fleet, he retired and moved to his home village, where he fixes cars.

But even drunk, even with all those experiences, Andrei's conversation was limited to cars, military affairs and the occasional lament for Russia. All he remembered about the Chinese was chasing them away in a PT boat while they fished in shirts and nothing else in the Amur in winter. One Japanese boat, he said, could patrol as much coastline as five Russian ones, thanks to satellites.

Sveta was less interesting. She grew most of the family's food. They didn't have much money. She was on her way to see her mother for the first time in 4 years -- ever since Andrei quit the service -- in Severno-Baikalsk, for her aunt's jubilee. The last time she was in Severno-Baikalsk, it had been a tent city, back when the BAM was just a glimmer in Brezhnev's eye. She talked a lot about Kamchatka's beauty and invited me to visit Ryazan sometime.

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