But the fish changed all that. Omul is a golden-scaled fish about 9 inches long, found only in Baikal and considered by Russians a great delicacy. I thought it tasted like a herring. And, even though it only costs a couple of rubles more in Tynda than Severno-Baikalsk, everyone on the train bought bundles of it. It's impossible to describe just how powerful the smell was. Even coming out of the smoking chamber, where I regularly tried to anesthetize my cilia, the odor of rotting fish would slam my nose. Nobody in my koupe had bought any, and yet the smell found its way even in there, taunting me for the last 24 hours.
Our two provodniki looked like they were from the Caucasus. The woman had once been cute, maybe even beautiful, but she was too thick now. They seemed to keep the train relatively clean and heated, but by the end of the trip, when ice had already invaded the inside of the car via the window seams, everyone resented them anyways. We were just transferring our hatred of the train onto them.
Their duties were relatively light: distribute sheets, sweep daily, dump the trash on the tracks when it was full and clean the bathrooms. If it weren't for the perpetual motion, it would be a fine job. As is, it must be the most excruciating one in the world.
Once we were on the BAM, it became clear why they put up with it. It was those two-minute vodka-selling stops at insignificant little villages. Stout women with sleds pay the provodniki inflated prices for vodka and beer, to keep the locals warm until the next train arrives two days later. Judging by the quantity of booze exchanged and the inflated prices people pay out here, I'm sure the provodniki make a killing.
When I arrived in Tynda, 115 hours and 40 minutes after starting my journey to my promised land, I checked into the hotel immediately and went to go eat my first real meal in five days. I was still too dazed to search for anything decent to eat; even provincial restaurant food would be an improvement.
The very first restaurant I saw was a Chinese place called Bonzai. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was the favorite haunt of Tynda's New Russians, and the most expensive restaurant in town. My spicy beef dish (extra spicy), fries (they didn't have any rice) and a couple beers ran me 300 rubles (including 50 they tacked on for entertainment) and was one of the most memorable meals of my life. It was basic Chinese food, but after five days of sensory deprivation I was in bliss.
In Bonzai, I started talking and drinking vodka with two tremendously fat women and a gay guy who were in town with "My," a Blagodansk dance troop of 10- to 16-year-old girls. We covered all sorts of topics, from China to trains to the age of consent. They were leaving tomorrow and insisted that I come down for their Christmas concert. We polished off two half-liters and then headed out to meet the little dancing girls, who were chilling at a local club.
By now the trauma of the train was beginning to recede. It all seemed too good to be true -- Tynda, dancers, good food -- which is why fate intervened. We took the only wrong turn we could and had to ask directions.
The man we asked, Igor, happened to be the deputy director of the Ministry of Culture in Tynda. Somehow he corralled us into some Cafe Arbat, while shamelessly hitting on the larger of the two women. He bought us another bottle of vodka and my hopes of meeting the dancing girls began to fade.
But by now I was drunk enough not to care - Arbat was happening in its own way, with about thirty militsia men and women in formal attire to celebrate den militsii a day early. Everyone was getting completely sloppy. All the hot girls seemed to be spoken for, and I only managed to attract an obese woman and a few who were way past their childbearing prime.
But what the Hell; I was making connections. And I probably couldn't've snuck an underage girl into my hotel anyways.
And then it happened: my new pal Zhenya stumbling past me with blood bubbling out of his mouth. And his ex-friend spraying the men's room with arterial blood, after slicing open his own arm for legal reasons. It was perfect.