I boarded my platzkart wagon heading out of Izhevsk feeling like I could die. And that was BEFORE entering platzkart--the infamous Russian third-class railway carriage. The train car, packed to the brim with foul-smelling Izhevsk hicks, was like one giant sweaty armpit. Everything stank from the moist vapors of BO, mouth rot and peregar hanging in the air.
I was about to start a17-hour Platzkart Hell journey back to Moscow, and this was the kicker: I was suffering from brutal food poisoning that I'd picked up in platzkart on the way out to Izhevsk. I was shivering, every muscle in my body ached, and my guts were cramping with unbearable pain. If the diarrhea started up again, I'd be fucked. You don't want to have unstoppable diarrhea attacks in a platzkart toilet, trust me.
If you've never traveled platzkart, and chances are if you're reading this that you haven't, then you don't know what long distance transportation hell really means. It makes a 14-hour economy flight look like a weekend in the presidential suite of a Four Seasons resort. Russians fear and despise platzkart. They avoid it like the plague if they can. But for most Russians, struggling to get by in an increasingly expensive country, platzkart is the only feasible way to travel, especially over long distances. And if Russia is anything, it's long distances. The reason they choose platzkart, of course, is because it's cheap. A $50 ticket can get you all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok. That's $50 for a week of travel...
Welcome to the platzkart jungle, baby. You're gonna diiieeeee! This is the narrow corridor view. Now just imagine the odors.
I got into the platzkart carriage a few minutes before the train departed and all the passengers were already shedding their Izhevsk "city clothes" for more comfy platzkart wear: shitty track suits, sweat pants, and tapochki. Privacy isn't a virtue on platzkart. In fact, "keeping to yourself" is a sin there. Platzkart wagons have a maximum transport capacity of 54, not including 2 conductors, and house 18 more bodies than the standard 2nd class kupe wagons that everyone uses. With a 66.7% increased efficiency, platzkart has no room for walls or barriers. This space-saving design is achieved by shortening the length of each sleeping berth, getting rid of doors and narrowing the walkway to house 18 more beds. The basic layout is essentially a copy of the old slave ships, or perhaps the GULAG camps.
I was the last to enter the train, so by the time I got on, everyone was already donning their tapochki. Fat women were stripping down to their kalgoti, or the thick-knit wool version of Russian thermal underwear. The dudes were breaking out their wife beaters and trenerovki.
When I got to my spot, I found that my neighbors didn't waste any time settling in for the ride. They seemed to be happy! Ten people had already started partying in my compartment. It turned out this whole group of Izhevskians were going to that favorite provincial Russian destination--Egypt--and they wanted to celebrate starting NOW. So while a wiry, harmless-looking dude named Andrei was stripping to his undies and putting on a tracksuit, his wife was setting up the table for a train-style zastolye. Meanwhile his friends were pouring a round of vodka shots.
Usually, platzkart etiquette says that people in the top bunk can use the lower bunks directly underneath as seating areas, essentially benches, until the lower bunk occupant goes to sleep. At which point, the top bunk occupant has to a) move to his own shelf or b) find another place to hang out. But because the Egypt crew crammed themselves into my compartment, four per bench, I had no place to sit. I didn't bitch, I didn't want to. Not with my ass ready to explode like a Kamchatka volcano. I was getting lightheaded and needed to get out of visual range of the fish and pickles that were being laid out on the table. Fish--that's where I got this stomach virus in the first place. Without a word, I climbed up to my shelf and attempted to pass out. Yeah, right.
This kid on the upper right's head was right where Yasha's ass was. And, uh, Yasha's ass was not where you wanted your mouth or nose.
Lying there holding my stomach, I got to reminiscing about my last platzkart ride, two years ago, going from some zhopa in Belarus to St. Petersburg. What's funny is I thought that one was hell. I was wrong. It had cockroaches crawling on its ratty curtains and caked vomit covering its walkway carpet... but all those negatives faded away as soon as I closed my eyes. It was summer then and even the smell of fermented urine and feces which was wafting into the general sleeping area through a hole in the bathroom wall wasn't a bother. The cool countryside breeze took care of that.
The Izhevsk platzkart, by contrast, was cleanish and even stocked paper towels and European soap dispensers in the bathrooms. But all that didn't matter, with subzero temperatures outside, all its windows were bolted shut. That meant I was stuck with every odor. And so, as the train took off, the fun began...
Around 7PM: The train had barely left the platform, but already there was no air to breathe. I tried to sleep but the odor was getting worse. The piped-in heat was multiplying the BO, vodka and food smell. I was sweating profusely and needed to buy another bottle of water. I had no choice but to come down.
The party in my compartment was still raging. It must have started long before they got on the train because they were already completely fucked up drunk. A 10-year-old kid was the only person who could stand up. Everyone else was slumped over each other. A young tattooed guy with open acne sores on his face went looking for a guitar, leaning and falling on people as he walked around the wagon. He didn't find his sought-after guitar, but it didn't matter cuz the whole lot of them of them started singing songs by Vysotksi and Rosembaum anyway.
Around 7:30PM: I couldn't take it anymore. I decided there was no way I could survive it sober, the smell was still sickening. Poisoning or not, I broke down and decided to join the party. I downed two shots of vodka. They say it's supposed to heal stomach ailments.
Around 10PM: The woman sleeping below me wasn't in on the party and wanted to sleep. But as soon as she set up her sheets and lay down, two dudes sat down on her bed. She bitched, but no one cared. There was nothing she could do; similar parties were raging in three other cubbies right next to us. When in platzkart, baby, do as platzkarters...
Around 10:30PM: She attempted to appeal to the elder of the group, a bald guy with huge rolls of fat protruding from under his t-shirt. But he told her off: "Listen, woman. Why don't you convince all those people over there to quiet down first...when they stop, we'll stop. Agreed?" He went back to telling anti-American jokes.
Around 11PM: The lights were turned off in the wagon and the conductor came around and asked everyone to be quiet. She didn't demand, she asked nicely. She expressed her worry outright to everyone: that someone would lodge a formal complaint against her. It seemed ridiculous, but according to a Dagestani with whom I shared a compartment on the way to Izhevsk, that's the way Russia's railway system is these days. According to a cousin of his that works as a conductor, the railroad has been implementing a "no tolerance" policy with their workers. A serious complaint or one major infraction -- like selling booze under-the-counter to passengers -- gets them fired automatically, no questions asked. For about six months now, conductors have been scared shitless. They're all afraid of losing their cake 12,000 ruble a month salary. Could Putin really be changing this sacred institution for the better?
Everyone else from the Egypt-Or-Bust crew was already passed out, but two were still going strong. Andrei, a harmless wiry-looking dude with a wife and kid, and Alex, a 120-kilo bald guy that claimed he used to work for the FSB, moved to the 6X6 ft space adjoining the toilet to continue drinking. They realized they ran out of vodka, so I gave them a bottle of Moskovsky cognac I'd picked up in Izhevsk. If I didn't do that, my life might be in danger. You don't deny booze to a pack of drunken platzkarters.
Around 12AM: A guy from the Egypt crew caused a commotion by slumping down into the bed of a woman sleeping below him. They were strangers, but he was too drunk to climb up onto his shelf. The conductor couldn't wake him, so the woman passenger had no choice but to climb up and take his bed.
Andrei almost came to blows with an Armenian guy. The Armenian came up to him to say hello. Apparently they'd traveled together on this same train a few months back. Andrei had been repeating, "Blin, I'm so happy to be hanging out here right now" over and over for the past hour. He was too drunk to understand what the Armenian wanted.
Making up is hard to do: Yasha's compartment mate Andrei (right) skeptically makes peace with the Armenian guy (left).
"Ti cho! What the fuck you do you want from me! You got problems? Let's solve them right now," Andrei slurred too much to muster a yell. They started pushing each other around until Alex explained that the Armenian only wanted to say hello. Andrei was skeptical, but still gulped the cognac to "druzhba."
Andrei's wife got out of bed and demanded that he stop drinking and go to sleep. "Idi nakhuy!" he yelled at her as he pushed her back into the general sleeping area.
Around 1AM: A 6ft dude came up to Alex with beef. Two wretched-looking women in the mid-thirties -- one Caucasian looking, the other a fat Slav with huge breasts -- complained to him that Alex was making passes at them. "These tolki are with me, understand? One more time, and I'm going to come out and there are going to be problems," the 6ft dude told Alex.
Alex didn't answer, he just met the dude's gaze. At this point, 6 people were crammed into six square feet of space. Tensions were high, but unexpectedly Alex took the high ground. He apologized and they swigged cognac together.
"Did you see how I handled that guy?" he said to Andrei. "I made him feel like he's in charge, but in reality I was controlling the situation. Tomorrow, he's going to be as quiet as a mouse."
Andrei agreed. They finished the cognac.
Andrei went to pass out.
Around 1:30AM: The train made a 20-minute stop at an unspecified station. The two women that complained about Alex to their "two meter-tall man" came out and asked if he and I would accompany them outside for a beer. They didn't have money, so I paid for them. Fat Slav woman with udder-like breasts warmed me up under her rabbit skin shuba.
One of those late-night middle-of-nowhere shitholes you only remember as "that place I bought beer and vobly."
Around 2AM: The two women invited Alex and me to hang out in their nook. The train started moving and the girls told us to come on and join them in their nook to drink beer. Inside, the 6ft guy was passed out on one of the lower berths. While the Caucasian woman read my aura, the Slav (the 6ft guy's girlfriend) nudged her foot deep in my crotch.
Around 2:30AM: On my way to the bathroom, I bumped my head against some guy's foot that was sticking out halfway into the walkway. I bumped my head on it again on my way back. Other than Alex and the two chicks, the entire wagon was out asleep.
Around 4AM: My stomach cramps were getting worse and I began sweating again. The air duct right above my head didn't seem to seem to work and I was constantly passing toxic fumes that hovered around me. But I didn't care. It was the first time in my life I wasn't embarrassed to be singled out for farting.
Around 7AM: The air duct still hadn't come alive and as the conductor told me as we pulled into Moscow, she rarely turns it on to keep the wagon warm. The only source of fresh air was her own window, which she kept cracked the entire time.
Around 8:30AM: I woke up and got down from my berth. The air seemed fresher and cooler and the entire cabin was awake. Andrei's wife was preparing a breakfast of Ramen noodles, but no one in the wagon spoke to each other. I made my way over to the conductor to get a cup of coffee.
Around 10AM: The train arrived. I survived. Checked into a hospital to get hydrated. Then off to write this article...