I was wearing thermal underwear, 2 shirts and a ski jacket, but I was still freezing my balls off. The dining carriage was supposed to have central heating but there’d been no sign of it since we’d left Moscow, and instead we were forced to find solace in the copious amounts of cheap, good quality vodka available. That’s if there is such a thing as good quality vodka; they all taste like paint-thinner to me. A week earlier my friend and I had started our journey on the Trans-Siberian railway with the intention to ride the whole 9,000 kilometres to Vladivostok, and after a week’s uneventful travelling we seemed to be running forever parallel with the foothills of the Ural mountains.
It had become our tradition to take an early lunch on the travel days between stops, and in what had also become a tradition, my friend returned to our table with what was likely to be the first of many, many beers. When the train wasn’t due to stop for hundreds of kilometres there just wasn’t anything else to do.
Still, you couldn’t fault the scenery. Once you found it within yourself to ignore the ice forming in your bones and the mind numbing stretches of day-long travel you started to appreciate how beautiful it all was. A great, white sheet of snow stretched from the tracks for miles, interrupted only by the occasional scattered tree until it reached the base of the mountains sat high above like a barrier between the rest of the world. I could have sworn it was impossible to live there, but every few hours we would stop at a beat-up old station that serviced a handful of houses defying the cold and insisting that this was where they were going to stay.
My friend and I were the only ones in the dining cart that day which was unusual, so when the wooden doors that separated the carriages slid open and two giant, uniformed Russians entered our heads were bound to turn. They gave us a cursory nod as they took up seats across the room, and a moment later the sole waitress on shift brought an unopened bottle of vodka and 2 faded glasses to their table. They hadn’t even said a word to her. We did our best to be non-chalant about their entry, and other than a couple of raised eyebrows we pushed on with our lazy conversation and sipped our beers in the cold. We didn’t stay inconspicuous for long though.
“Hello!” one of them called out, “drink with us!”
We looked at the two mountains of men sat across from us and shrugged. Like I said, there was nothing else to do. We shook their hands and took up seats as they told us names I couldn’t pronounce and forgot straight away, but the fact we were from Australia seemed to impress them and they called over the waitress with 2 extra glasses. The shots were like fire. I’d been in Russia for 2 weeks and drank at least a little vodka every day, but I still wasn’t used to it. Our new friends didn’t quite understand this though and poured us shots like they were water. Somewhere in between the burning stomachs and the scattered English we discovered they were soldiers heading home for a holiday after a long 6 months service with the Russian army. One of them had a half-decent grasp on English and translated for his friend, but it didn’t seem to matter; the language of choice was vodka, and they were insisting we become fluent.
We finished the bottle but our table had come alive with some kind of crazed energy that insisted we continue. The soldiers had shared their bottle with us so it was only fair we paid the next round, but when I got to the bar I noticed a clock hung on the wall behind that read 1:30 in the afternoon. It cut through the haze for a moment and bought me back to my senses, so I decided to order us a round of beers instead of another bottle of vodka. I finished the grand act of charades that was ordering a round of beers on a Russian train, but just as I was about to return to our table another giant of a man saddled up beside me at the bar, looking distressed and speaking in a hushed whisper. I hadn’t even seen him come in.
“Do not drink with Russians my friend. Especially soldiers. This our tradition. This Russian tradition”, he said.
I looked over at my friend laughing and doing his best to communicate with a combination of mime and simple English and decided it would be OK. I still thanked the stranger for his advice but I thought nothing of it as I headed back to our table with the beers. After all, it’s not like the morals and behaviour of soldiers have ever come into question.
We sipped our drinks and attempted to make small talk about who we were and what we were doing on a train through central Russia, and although I couldn’t be sure our answers were understood they were met with slaps on the shoulder that felt like sledgehammer blows so I took it as a good sign. Our Russian friends seemed to be on a mission though, and having not even finished ¼ of our bottles they challenged us to a sculling competition. I looked at my friend and sighed. It would have been rude to say no, so we raised our glasses and after a toast to Australian-Russian relations we turned the bottle on their heads.
Now, my friend and I had spent 4 years at university and prided ourselves on our ability to finish a beer, and although we drained our bottle in only a few seconds, we were met with 2 smiling soldiers wiping the froth from their mouths when our drinks finally reached their end. They laughed and slapped us on the shoulders again before inviting us outside to smoke. We declined, taking instead a well-earned break from alcohol. I was enjoying the brief respite and sat swaying in my chair trying to come to terms with the significant buzz I had going on when the guy who’d accosted me at the bar earlier took up one of the officer’s seats.
“My friends you cannot drink with Russian soldiers”, he said again.
I couldn’t understand his angle and I had to resist the urge to tell him he was freaking me out more than the soldiers. Sure they seemed a little insistent with the drinking but they’d never shown us any kind of malice, and I insisted to the well meaning stranger that everything was OK.
“No, you don’t understand. 8 beers happy, 12 beers fight, 20 beers sleep”, he replied.
I’d be lying if I said that didn’t put me on edge a bit. The prospect of fighting the equivalent of 2 Mack trucks didn’t really appeal to me, but my instinct told me they were OK and once again I insisted everything was fine.
“OK, I stay with you. For protect guests in my country”
He was quite sweet really.
The soldiers came back blue in the face from their smoke and eyed our new friend with suspicion, but after some reassurance and a quick conversation in Russian they re-joined us at the table. There was another short conversation between the 3 and the new guy got up to buy us all a bottle. While he was up, one of the soldiers explained that as the new member to our table it was only fair, although I was just happy we had a 5th to split it with.
He returned with a fresh bottle and 5 new glasses, and then our table proceeded to drink like our lives depended on it. The new guy threw back shot after shot like he had something to prove and the soldiers insisted on keeping pace. Every few minutes we raised our glasses to more and more ridiculous concepts, and what had started as toasts to our respective countries turned into shots of vodka for the train, for the mountains, and even for vodka itself. Somehow I managed to take my phone from my pocket and see that it was 2:30 in the afternoon. I knew it had to be early, but my head was swimming and it felt more like 2:30 on a Sunday morning.
Our table was in good spirits and the animosity between the Russians seemed to fade away with each new shout poured, and in an attempt to keep the momentum going I decided to explain one of my favourite drinking games. You know the one where you have to guess the number of fingers remaining on the glass after a 3-count? It took a little explaining but we got there in the end, and the Russians enjoyed way too much their counting with English numbers.
I’d just started to relax into what I thought was a safe and friendly drunk among new friends when one of the soldiers asked the new guy why he had come to our table in the first place. At first it was an innocent enough question now that all the tension was behind us, but they were struggling to keep the conversation in English and fell back to Russian in an attempt to better understand one another. They had been talking for less than 30 seconds when their tone of voice started to change, and 30 seconds later all 3 were out of their seats pointing and shouting with drunken rage written across their faces.
My friend and I remained in our seats too afraid to move. We couldn’t believe the change of events and decided to stay quiet for fear of being crushed by one of the giant Russians. They seemed even bigger standing while we were sitting down. The arguing continued until one of the soldiers pointed to the door. The other 2 nodded in agreement and started to make their way from the carriage, until as an afterthought the English-speaking soldier turned and addressed us back at the table.
“My friends, he says we are bad men. He is disrespecting us in front of you. We will fight now”.
“No, they are the bad men. I was trying to protect you”, countered the other guy.
Neither of us could believe what we were hearing, and it took until they were almost out the door for us to voice our objections, but they fell on deaf ears and the 3 of them left through the wooden doors to resolve their differences. The silence in the room was final, and although I found it strange the waitress hadn’t said a word during all of this, my head was spinning out of control, so my friend and I staggered back to our cabin for a mid-afternoon nap and to try and figure out what the fuck had just happened.