Some of his lines seemed like third-rate Clancy dialogue, like when he described killing two Chechens with a knife in a basement: "Cutting a throat is just like going through sala [pork fat]," he said. "Killing with your hands is terrible, I spent two weeks drunk after that." Killing someone from a distance, however, was simple, he said. He hinted that he had done a lot of it.
Misha's view on solving the Chechen problem was simple: either pull a Stalin and deport them all, or wall off the entire republic. He said the Chechens were too sick and vicious to ever be conquered. He insisted they fought the Russians out of envy. It seemed a little weird to think of the Chechens, or anybody else envying the wasteland we were crossing. The wildest thing about my conversations with Misha, though, was that even as Misha got more violent, drunken and vulgar, Vanya's daughter continued to bounce around happily and her mother didn't seem worried about her daughter hearing Misha's throat-slitting stories.
They all got off in the middle of the night at Novaya Chara, 12 hours from Tynda.
I had a thousand other conversations on the endless journey, on topics ranging from Russia's unbelievable decay to the familiar "how does America differ?" gambit. At first most people stuck to their koupes, but by the middle of the journey all us long-haulers knew each other. There was the Surzhik-speaking Ukrainian babushka who had come all the way from Venitsa with her daughter. She gave me a pear and wanted me to marry her granddaughter. The daughter told me I should stay up to see the Bratsk hydroelectric plant, which was "really beautiful, even at night."
I chatted up one of the few hot girls on the train, who got on at Sverdlovsk (as the station is still called, over a decade after the city reverted back to Ekaterinburg) and winked at me an hour before she got off at Novosibirsk, heading home for the holidays. She was a third-year law student, and despite her ill-fitting carpet/towel dress, she managed to charm me. Maybe it was because she was the first person I could imagine associating with outside of the train, or maybe because it was the first and last time I heard English after leaving Moscow.
Then there was the 17-year-old dart champion of Russia, who had just competed in an Ekaterinburg competition and was heading home to Bratsk. He had a catchphrase, "bez bazara," ("forget about it), and had not discovered deodorant.
Lots of the travelers were in the armed forces, because they travel for free. One of them actually traveled 4 days to Moscow to visit for two days and was on his way home. About one-fifth of the car went all the way from Moscow to Tynda, including an ancient babushka who handled the journey better than most (kids also seemed not to mind) and a couple of BAM veterans. Plenty of people pitched their cities to me as great places to visit; Novaya Chara, for example, is near the site of the first Soviet atomic explosion, which turned a huge chunk of taiga into sand. Other people told me China, only 18 hours away, was a must.
Tynda: It's a great place to raise a family!
At Novaya Chara, when I was still slightly drunk from my encounter with Misha and highly dazed from the ineffective Imovane, a drunken man and two slightly over-the-hill women got in my koupe. I don't think I said a word to any of them the entire way to Tynda.
Severno-Baikalsk, four days out of Moscow, is a critical stop. That's where passengers stock up on omul' for 10 rubles a fish, and the car takes on the sweet, clinging smell of smoked fish.
Up until that point, the car had a slowly intensified, relatively bearable acidic smell of unwashed bodies. I only noticed it when I'd been outside. Each wagon had a distinct smell and I learned to appreciate our own. I doubt it was better or worse than any of the others, but after so many hours it had grown familiar, almost homey. They say even tanners stop noticing the smell after a while. The important thing was to avoid close quarters with any of the serious offenders, none of whom, thankfully, were bunking with me. Other cars' musk would burn my nostrils, make me breathe in short gasps for the length of the corridor.