Standing on the platform at Moscow's Kazansky train station, I waited patiently with the wind blowing freezing air into my face. The actual temperature is never the worst thing, it's the wind chill that gets through your clothing. It will find any gap no matter how small and how hard you've tried to cover up and seals those holes.
With me there were other people waiting to board the train, either heading to Yekaterinburg or any city in between, as there are many. My journey was going to take me roughly 34 hours. I just waited in anticipation, hoping that the people I would be sharing my four berth compartment would be friendly and hospitable.
The moment arrived when the Providnitsas started to open their doors to their patient cold passengers. I passed the provodnitsa my ticket along with my passport. After a few seconds checking the details on my ticket and confirming that it was my ticket, she said something to me and waved me on board. I had no idea what she said, nor did I know what berth was mine, so I cautiously entered the carriage and hoped to find someone to ask. I was followed on by a youngish guy who was dressed in a black Adidas track suit. The provodnitsa outside obviously asked him to help me find my bed as he quickly pointed me into a compartment and patted the upper berth on the left hand side. This guy then placed his bag in the luggage compartment under the lower left birth and I then became aware that he was my first "compartment mate".
My first impression of the train was that it wasn't to such a high standard as the St Petersburg to Moscow train, which was luxurious. This train had hard brown seats a tiny table and ever window had been filled with expandable filler. It felt as if my friend Luke Later had been here. A few years ago three friends and I travelled round Europe in a motorhome and Luke wielding a can of expandable filler filled in every single hole that was visible. However, it made quite a mess and we didn't know until afterward that it was impossible to get the stuff off your hands!!
I soon introduced myself to my new Russian friend, called Eric, and asked him in Russian whether he understood any English, to which obviously, he responded "Niet!". So I just hoped that the other two people yet to arrive would speak at least some English so I could have a conversation over the next day. Unfortunately Dimitri arrived and he did not understand either. So I climbed up to my bunk and retrieved my handy phrase book which was given to me by a work colleague as a parting gift (cheers John!).
After many tries to ascertain what they did for a living and why they were going to Yekaterinburg, I found out that Eric was a sniper for the Russian Army and travelling home to his family, and Dimitri was a high ranking Police Officer working in Moscow and travelling back home to Kirov. I joked with them and pointed to "We need a translator" in my phrase book, they laughed and said "Vodka!". A little later they disappeared for a cigarette and appeared in the doorway a few minutes later with a big bottle of vodka. Dimitri searched deep into his bag and found what he was looking for, three plastic shot glasses. Food also started appearing on the table from their bags, such as sausages, bread and chocolate. Seconds later, the vodka bottle was opened with the help of Eric's massive flick knife and the first of many rounds was poured.
After every round a suasage was thrust my way by Dimitri. I could tell Eric didn't much like his vodka as he also took so long building up the courage to take the shot and preparing some water to drink directly afterwards. I was surprised at my tollerance for vodka, I am not a spirit drinker and could actually quite easily drink. I always had a belief that I was going to die on a train after hearing stories of gallons of vodka being consumed on such journeys. Dimitri was also surprised and kept calling me "Russian Boy, Russian Boy!".
The way Russian's drink is quite respectable; you toast, you drink and you eat. You always eat, they say to drink without eating is foolish and only for drunkards, although I'm not sure how you classify a drunkard here. Multiple toasts were given to me and one of my toasts was, "Strashnoy Tarakan!" which was taught to me by Ann, a former colleague, and it means "Terrifying Cockroach!". This caused great ammusement.
After a few hours of drinking and talking with my new Russian friends, the exhaustion I had been trying to surpress since I got on board finally became too much, so I made my bed and crashed out.
A few hours after falling asleep, I woke up with a deep cough, headache and felt really hot. Dimitri and Eric had also crashed out by this point. I did not feel well at all and quickly fell back into broken sleep.
At 2am the train pulled into Kirov, I heard Dimitri gather his things together so I got up to say goodbye. Soon after he left a group of other people arrived. There was two young guys and an older guy. They had obviously been drinking before hand and were quite loud. My head was pounding and the fever had set in. I was hoping that they'd just find their beds and I could meet them the next day. This did not happen, I was poked by one of the younger men, talking at me in Russian. I felt as if I should be polite and respond, so I just said "Good evening" and they asked me where I lived and I answered. They then carried on talking at me and I had no idea what they were saying. Russian's have the tendency not to use any gesticulations when trying to communicate with non-Russian speakers. They just repeat themselves over and over. It really is exhausting trying to figure out what someone is trying to say to you and I had no energy left, so I just said, in English "I have no idea what you're talking about and I'm going to sleep" and rolled over. Minutes later I was awoken again by "Andre, beer?" to which I responded no to. If I had not been feeling unwell, I would have participated.
The next day, I climbed down from my bed and started to talk with these unknown people who arrived in the middle of the night. One man was a Kazakhstani man who claimed to be in the militia and kept making punching gentures and saying, "you OK, you friend!". I still couldn't help but still be a little apprehensive of him. The other young guy was a Russian driver of some sort. Is he a gettaway driver, a lorry driver, taxi driver... I had no idea. They then offered me vodka, to which I initially declined but the Kazakh man played the guilt trip and said "Russian tradition, friends...", so I gave in and said a Malyanka (small one). Small portions of vodka don't exist. As soon as I had gulped one down, another was poored and offered to me, I said no again but failed. I told them that this was going to be my last one and that I was only doing it for them and their traditions.
The last few hours of my trip to Yekateringburg were spent talking and the Kazakh sharing photos of family. As we pulled into Yekaterinburg station where Eric and I were leaving, they all got off the train to give us huge handshakes and bid us farewell. Having left the train, I was immediately shocked by the sheer difference in temperature between there and Moscow. There were huge piles of snow where workers tirelessly try to clear the paths and roads.
Eric very kindly offered me a place to stay with his family for the evening, which I would have loved to accept but I had already booked a hostel and the owner, Katia, was waiting for me. The Russian generosity never fails to amaze me. People have a very tainted view of Russia and I can honestly say it's all wrong. I had never felt safer in a capital city than in Moscow.
So after a long trek to a tram stop through the unbroken snow with Eric leading the way, I said my goodbyes, got on and headed to the hostel.