The atmosphere on each train ride varies enormously according to one's companions. Occasionally one simply pays for the sheets, makes up the beds and off everyone goes to lie down without so much as a pot of noodles. Other times sleeping is more of a challenge. One evening the carriage was full of excitable school kids heading for a swimming competition. It was the first expedition to a big city for many of them and they whispered and giggled all night - somehow much more disturbing than the gruff trainload of muttering soldiers on a different night. On one ride I was treated next morning to a breakfast of vodka and sala (salted pork fat) - hardly the ideal aid for that afternoon's concentration. Then there was the night with Yuri Gagarin. No, not THE Yuri Gagarin, of course - the great cosmonaut has long since mutated from living human to heroic icon. This fresh-faced young Yuri, nonetheless, had some pretty astonishing talents of his own when it came to "rocket fuel": he managed to consume around 10 litres of quite unpalatable beer in a single evening while wowing many impressionable young ladies with a flash of his id card. Other passengers like the track-suited lizard-man two nights ago, are content to work away hour after hour at books full of crosswords, in this case while being almost crushed by the obsessive hugs of an ever nibbling wife about twice his size.
Last night I enjoyed a particularly comical evening thanks to a carriage full of young student teachers. They were returning in high spirits from a course in Krasnoyarsk to their small-town homes in Tatarsk. Mostly boisterous females, several quickly sensed the presence of a foreigner and, without initially addressing me directly, entertained one-another for half an hour with jokes made by adding garbled 'English' words into Russian phrases, rolling around with collective laughter. Eventually a gaggle of them fluttered into my area of the carriage, surrounding me. One girl with the physique of a trainee sumo-wrestler squeezed lovingly together on a corner of seat with a lanky, long-nosed ex-'blonde' whose hair-roots were reverting to their former incarnation of dark brown. Three or more faces stacked on neighbours' shoulders turned my way and finally a plain-featured, lively minded girl called Olga couldn't resist introducing herself.
"So is Tatarsk beautiful?" I asked.
"Oh Tatarsk!", she swooned. "Tatarsk is as beautiful as me". Much hilarity. She had no illusions as to her looks. And by common assent it seemed Tatarsk was not an aesthetic experience that I would regret missing.
Olga was an irrepressible raconteur. Originally from a village that made Tatarsk look like a metropolis. It became clear that she had never previously met any foreigner whatever. She was ludicrously over-excited, an act she obviously exaggerated to great comic effect. "He's a real one, a real one. What should I ask him? Quick while he's still here!"
She spoke in a hard-to-follow Russian which, despite my frequent appeals for her to slow down, accelerated towards freefall-speed at the end of every sentence. Even fellow passengers found her hard to understand and before long I found her words being "translated" into slower Russian by one of her thoughtful colleagues (also Olga). The Russian to Russian translation only served to magnify the comic genius of her monologues and spoof 'interview'. But eventually I really wanted to sleep. "Why? Wait till 3am and see lovely Tatarsk by night". But they let me sleep. And next morning when I awoke they were gone.