Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Trans-Siberian Railway

Train 016E
MOSCOW, RUSSIA My train 016E for Yekaterinburg creaks out of Moscow's Kazanskiy station on time at 16:50. The train for the most part is empty. There seem to be more staff members than passengers. I'm surprised, since I had such a difficult time booking a first-class seat. Now I have my two-passenger first-class compartment to myself. None of the train's staff speaks English, not one word, nor are any of the signs or public announcements in English. To make matters worse, the staff members are a decidedly grumpy bunch of people. With the exception of one or two, they don't smile, and look at me with haughty contempt. Their patience runs very thin. I don't want to waste their time with stupid questions.

As I settle into my compartment, a stern looking attendant stops by and motions to see if I want dinner, which supposedly is included in my first class ticket. On a napkin, I write, 19:00. Meantime, I motion that I would like a beer. She understands the word beer and brings me a Lowenbrau. At 7 sharp, my dinner arrives, a small dried up piece of salmon, some boiled potatoes, two small slices of dark bread, and a small salad. I ask if I can get a glass of wine. Nyet! The only wine she can offer me is a bottle of Merlot for 1,400 Rubles or about $50. I pass. No desert is offered or comes with the meal. Although the trip will continue for another 24 hours, there will be no other complimentary services.

My cabin is clean and so is the shared bathroom at the end of the car, better than what I often experienced in Europe. The seats though don't recline, but you can pull them out and turn them into beds. Sheets and pillows are provided, although one of my pillow cases has blood stains on it. Each cabin comes equipped with an electrical outlet. The cell phone coverage though is random at best. Playing on the TV monitor in my cabin are a couple of Russian movies, which the couple in the cabin, next to me, to my annoyance, keep turned up. The windows don't open, which is okay, better to keep the mosquitos out, although I'm still getting bitten. The air conditioning works and maintains the cabin at a comfortable temperature.

A Scene from the Train
The train's speed varies, sometimes only crawling along, others times reaching speeds of up to 50 mph. A Russian, two cabins down, speaking a word or two of English, shows me a schedule near the exit of where the train stops. It appears we make five stops on the way to Yekaterinburg, but it's unclear as to when those stops occur. When the train does stop, it's supposedly for about 20 minutes and passengers are allowed to get off and smoke or buy something from the few peasants hawking their wares and foods. But business at these stops is not nearly as brisk as I was led to believe it would be.

I sleep well through the night, the clitter clatter and the rocking of the train acts like a cradle lulling me into a deep sleep. In the morning, I awake refreshed, the sun shining brightly. I open the cabin door and a staff member sees me and offers me a cup of instant coffee for 80 Rubles or about $3.00. The prices on the train, I've already learned, are outrageous and the quality sub-standard. Nevertheless, I buy the coffee, but, in turn, resolve not to buy anything else from the train, instead, I hope to get something from one of those hawking their foods on the platform. To my delight, we soon stop and from a grizzly-faced toothless old woman, I buy a pirozhki, a deep fried bun stuffed with something, in this case potato. Will I get sick? 

Outside, the land lies mostly farel. A lot of woods and land that hasn't been tended to in years. The homes are wooded shacks, heated with firewood stacked or piled outside. It's not clear how they obtain their water or dispose of their sewage. In the little villages, there are no paved roads or sidewalks, just trails and rutted dirt or gravel roads. There are no signs of churches or schools. A couple cemeteries I saw were overgrown by weeds. Only occasionally do you see a satellite dish. Nearing the bigger towns, we encounter rusted out and crumbling factories and warehouses. On one of those crumbling buildings, someone has scrawled, FUCK OFF NATO. Signs of progress appear near the city centers, where a factory or a few modern looking buildings emerge from the urban-scape.

The trip has been marked by boredom. There's been no one to talk to. The Russians themselves don't talk to each other. The dining car is like a morgue, no laughter or singing, no tipping of vodka, as I was led to expect. The only people in the dining car are the help, who listlessly sit at tables staring blankly out the windows. If not, but for the sake of a conversation, I want to ask them if I can get something to eat, but I know that would be futile, as they don't speak English, and all they'd probably do is point to the selection of terribly over-priced tastelessly bland looking seran-wrapped sandwiches that sit in a large basket on one of the tables. I wonder how long they've been there?

About nineteen hours into the trip, we start to move through the foothills of the Urals, marking the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia. It's September 1st, and 75 degrees outside, the leaves of the birch, maple, and poplar have started to change. There are few, if any signs, of civilization. At any moment, I expect to see a moose or a bear. But not long and we are again in a more civilized area, where we encounter towns with dilapidated Khrushchevski style apartment buildings, with rusted and broken windows, and lines of clothes hanging out to dry. Around these buildings or anywhere else, as far as that goes, no apparent effort has been made to mow the lawns, pull the weeds, or repair the crumbling sidewalks. No pride of ownership is anywhere to be seen.

Friends at Last
As we approach Yekaterinburg, the staff seems more relaxed. The women from the diner are smiling now, even occasionally laughing. The steward responsible for our car, who has been particularly grumpy, allows me to have my picture taken with him and offers to take a picture of me with one of the other passengers. It's as though we've slowly become family. Maybe these folks are not so crusty and thick skinned after all, but just need a little time to warm up. Perhaps, if I continued on the train, the diner would be hopping, the vodka flowing, and friendships flowering. Perhaps, this is something I can look forward to in the next leg of my trip from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk. I leave the train with a feeling of optimism.

Looking for the Tannery

1 Picture 200 Dirham
MARRAKECH, MOROCCO It's only one o'clock and I'm glad to be off the streets and back in my riad (a small hotel, something akin to a B&B). Out there, everyone is grabbing at you, the poor and handicapped asking for alms, the street vendors selling their wares, snake charmers saying, "Go ahead, take a picture," and then saying, "You owe me 200 Dirhams ($25) and acting terribly indignant when you give them only ten Dirhams. But maybe the worst of the scoundrels are those offering directions, the one service none of us foreigners, even with maps in hand, in the maze of crooked streets and blind alleys, can do with out. I wanted to see the outdoor tannery, a disgustingly smelly place I heard, where sheep, camel, and goat  hides are prepared, died, and auctioned off to the artisans, who make the leather goods that are sold in the market place. I thought, with the help of a map, I could find it on my own, having already developed a distrust for those hanging around quick to offer directions only to ask for something in return. But even with the map, I became hopelessly lost.

 Tannery Guide?
Seeing me studying my map, a large man, yelled out, "You looking for the tannery? I show you." "No, it's okay." I responded. "Thank you. I'm sure I can find it." "You just go to the next street and turn right," he persisted, in good English. I turned away and headed in the direction he pointed. But at the intersection, there were two alleys that veered off to the right. Confused, I took the one that looked the most promising. From behind the man raced up to me and told me you must take the other alley. I thanked him and told him I could manage now. He continued to follow me from a few feet behind and when another man appeared from a side alley, he quickly jumped ahead and introduced me to the man, as someone who just happened to be going in the right direction. This man too spoke good English and said he worked at the tannery. Skeptical, I told him I could manage alone. The first man, appearing satisfied, that I was now in good hands, disappeared, giving me some degree of assurance. Should I follow this new man? After all, he was going in what I thought was the direction of the tannery.

"You just follow me. I have to go to the tannery anyway. It's safe here. Moroccans just like to be helpful. I have family. You have family?" I let him walk ahead. We passed through some empty alleys. "Don't be afraid. Moroccans are not criminals," he shouted over his shoulder. We made several turns, and suddenly we were at the gate of the outdoor tannery. A young man greeted me and the man that led me to the tannery said, "Good bye." For a moment, I actually thought I had been overly paranoid and these guys really just wanted to help me. The young man took about twenty minutes to show me the tannery - indeed, an incredibly smelly and disgusting, but interesting, place - and then took me to an upstairs shop, where one of the artisans, using the newly tanned skins explained their process and tried to sell me a purse, a foot cushion, or whatever. I told him I had no room in my suitcase. He told me, "No problem. I just want to show you how the process works." I turned and walked down the stairs and outside, thinking that I had an unusual, but an okay experience, my paranoia, obviously unwarranted.

I started down the street when suddenly the young man from the tannery caught up with me. "Pay me 200 Dirhams for the tour." I couldn't believe his aggressiveness. He had been so friendly before. "No, I'm not paying you 200 Dirhams," I responded, but he persisted, grabbing my arm. The other man, who brought me to the tannery "miraculously" appeared. He said something to the young man in Arabic. They argued for a little while. Finally, the man turned to me, "Give him 100 Dirhams and he'll go away." Reluctantly, I handed him 100 Dirhams, thinking, after all, he did take me on a personal tour. I then proceeded to walk back the way I had come, while the man, who acted as my mediator, followed after me. We walked through a small alley without any shops or people. Again, I became paranoid and rightly so for from behind, the man came up to me and said, "Pay me for helping you." I said, "No." He persisted, and became increasingly belligerent. Suddenly, out of a dark corner, the first man, the big man, appeared. At first, he too seemed willing to help, but then it became clear his intention was to block my way.

The other man shouted at me, "Give me money." I said, "No." He said, "You Jew?" I said, "What are you?" He said, "Muslim," and grabbed me. I thought I was done. Ahead, there was an intersection with another alley. A man sauntered through the intersection. I shouted as loud as I could, "Let me go! Let me go!" The man in the intersection, stopped and looked. The man holding me let me go and the big man stepped aside. I quickly walked to the intersection. The two followed directly behind me. As I turned the corner, there were two shop owners, standing there talking. I turned to the two men following me and said, "Don't follow me!" The shop owners looked at me and then at the two men. The two men dropped their gazes and pretended to be preoccupied with something else. I returned to my riad without asking for directions from anyone.