Best of 2019: Russia
It’s our first day out on the Trans-Siberian rail and we share a cabin with two young, Russian businessmen. I haven’t picked up much of their conversation yet, but they are either finishing work in Petersburg and headed home, or they live in the city and are on their way to a job. My language skills are weak at best and communication is poor. It is so poor, in fact, that no one here knows we speak English; they think it is Spanish. When we tell them it’s English they assume we are from England, and I let them for now. If I can break through to deeper conversation with anyone perhaps then I’ll give them more details of where we’re from and where we’re going.
It seems no one we’ve met travels very far on the Siberian railroad. A few stops mostly in third class, or if they are in a cabin, one or two nights and certainly not all the way to Vladivostok. When we first boarded, the conductor asked where our final destination was and I said “Vladivostok” to which he recoiled. This isn’t a tourist route; for that people head south to Moscow and cross Russia into Mongolia and China, ending up in Beijing. Besides, St Petersburg to Vladivostok is roughly the same distance by train as traveling from New York to Guam. We are an anomaly.
We started heading east out of St. Petersburg and will travel roughly three weeks with stops and wandering, but the first leg to Yekaterinburg is about two days. We opted for the north route to the city, which used to be the playground of the Czars. Of course, it was just one hundred years ago Nicholas the Second and his son Alexi took this train on this route to that city for what would be the last ride of their lives. I suppose the train is accustomed to fathers and sons. It appears to be a “man’s” journey as I have seen very few women on board except for an attendant in each car and several in the dining car. When Nicholas and Alexei rode this rail from St. Petersburg to Yekaterinburg, they didn’t fare so well. They, along with Alexandra and her four daughters, including Anastasia, were all slaughtered in the basement of a palace at our next stop. It is a shrine now. Tomorrow we will visit.
This is nothing like the Long Island Rail Road, Dad. How many years did you ride that from the outreaches of Suffolk County to Wall Street? I remember going with you when the five of us went to the city for dinner. We made it to midtown and I wanted to light a candle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. You were tired, and it was out of our way, but we went. It is odd how the Siberian rail feels safer and less shaky. Still I wish you were here. That was so long ago, wasn’t it? I would love to ride trains with you again, talk about baseball, and have a drink in the bar car; you’d read the paper and I’d look out the window until we went underground. If you were here you’d order the burger and fries and have a Baltika 7, their best beer, and of course we would have some caviar just to be able to go back home and say we had caviar.
Funny how you just never know when the last ride will be. I wonder if Nicholas looked out at the same birch forests I’m staring at and had some sort of premonition akin to the doom Rasputin warned him about, his own family’s death, the fall of his empire. Did his son stand nearby like Michael stands near me now? Did his young heart still hold hope that the hard days were past, and they’d now settle into some routine far from the war-torn city they always knew as home? Did he smile and think with simplicity about being able to spend more time with his parents? He was with his Dad for God’s sake; what could possibly go wrong? When I was young, and we traveled to the city, I always felt safe and knew that somehow you’d figure it out. I assume Alexei felt the same around his exiled father. I suppose Michael too, waits for my cue to disembark, to head to the dining car, to settle in for the night. I’ve come to understand finally that you were as nervous as I am, wanting your son to have the time of his life yet protect him in a world of strangers.
It helps to imagine our two strange young Russian cabin mates are as apprehensive as us, wondering who these two Spaniards or Englishmen (or whoever the hell we are to them) are. Well at the least we have each other to secure our comfort zone. Traveling alone would be the true adventure. But I wasn’t raised that way, was I? Safety first. Funny how many times I ignored that rule. Now, here I am hoping Michael wanders away, meets people and manages conversation. He’ll play his harmonica; people will listen. He’ll bring his chess set to the dining car and people will want to play. Music and chess are universal. Communication is easy; only language is burdensome.
Tomorrow we will be at the Church of the Spilled Blood, one of two Cathedrals with that moniker in this vast nation. Last week we went to the one where Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg. Tomorrow we will see this one, built on the spot where his grandson, Czar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, his son Alexei, and the boy’s four sisters were shot to death in the middle of the night. I’ll light a candle for you.
BIO: Bob Kunzinger has published eight volumes of essays, including the critically acclaimed Penance and Out of Nowhere. He does his non-traveling in Virginia.
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