August 17, 2017

Zenly Down the Road

Zenly Down the Road
The Oka River in Tarusa {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

As soon as you have crossed your doorstep or the county line, into that place where the structures, laws, and conventions of your upbringing no longer apply, where the support and approval of your family and neighbors (but also the disapproval and repression) are not to be had: then you have entered into an adventure, a place of sorrows, marvels, and regret.

– Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road


For all the romanticism commonly associated with world travel, the brutal reality is that it is often a very un-romantic undertaking to move the meat that is our bodies around in the world: to schlep ungainly bags through ramp-free train stations; to climb five flights of an elevator-free khrushchovka in order to enter a stuffy, overheated apartment; to bounce off the walls of an undersized train washroom, only to have the empty soap dispenser fall off the wall into your hands.

As I type this post, so bumpy is the rail line between Samara and Ufa, that my hands struggle to stay grounded to the keyboard. And I can’t look at the screen very long, because the skippity-hippity motion makes me ill.

And yet, there surely is a romanticism to travel; there are always marvels (and sorrows and regret) to be found on the open road. As we rattle and sway down these ancient rails (in an air conditioned car, it is worth noting) wide vistas of empty steppe alternate with dense stands of birch trees, and shimmering yellow fields of sunflowers. We are slowly moving from the Volga basin into Bashkiria, an independent republic that pushes up against the foothills of the Urals.

I like to tell my family (who mostly don’t believe me) that when I travel I transform into the Zen Traveler. In fact, I must. Because if I were the person on the road that I am at home, I would perish from stress on day one of my journey.

Successful, enjoyable travel can only be had when you go with the flow and roll with the innumerable punches. When one is in a zen place, it helps make unexpected misfortunes take on a rosier cast. And helps one learn humility.

zen * zen * zen

We rose at five on Saturday morning to escape Moscow in front of the teeming crowds that would be heading to their dacha and ordered an Uber to drive us the 160 kilometers to Tarusa – an unexpected bargain at R1800 ($30).

No sooner had the driver arrived when the complaints began. While the price and timing looked great on our end of the app, the driver didn’t even know our destination until he arrived and we had loaded our bags into his car. 

“I don’t have enough gas to get 160 km,” he whined.

“What, you can’t buy gas?” Misha replied.

“I don’t have any money.”

“Don’t you have cash? A credit card?”

“No, nothing.”

“Then refuse our Uber order.”

“I can’t, the app is not loading on my tablet. No gas, no money. What am I going to do, drive you to Tarusa and then just live there?”

The driver had three phones and a tablet affixed to the air vents on his dash, but no money, no credit cards, and, it turned out, the luxurious sedan was not even his car (and the brakes screeched like banshees). He was renting it on a daily basis. Then, about halfway to Tarusa, after he had made all the calculations (with lots of dramatic sighing),  he figured that after four hours of driving (two out and two back) he would take home about 400 rubles ($7).

The team makes it to Tarusa, their first stop outside Moscow, despite their driver having no gas or money. {Photo: Some passing stranger}

Misha ended up buying him a tank of gas on the promise of repayment via Paypal (since received). And then, upon arrival in Tarusa, we discovered that Uber double-charged us for the ride.

But that is another story entirely.

zen * zen * zen

Before us loomed an overnight train ride on a double-decker train, the leading edge of Russian Railways services. The sleek, nicely outfitted car was almost air conditioned and we three had a four-bed cabin all to ourselves. What more could we ask for?

A shower of course, to freshen up after a long day of interviews in hot apartments (see khrushchovka, above).

“Sometimes these trains have showers,” Misha assured me. He went off to question the provodnitsa (conductress).

A few minutes later he returned with a proud smile, as erect as the second story cabin allowed a 6’ 4” Russian to stand (not very).

“There are showers! They are in car number seven,” Misha proclaimed.

And so we began the long trek from car 2 to car 7, armed only with our bath kits and the napkin-sized towels that Russian Railways leaves on passengers’ cots – well meaning, I am sure, but also sort of taunting.

As we passed hurriedly through car after car, we weathered the piercing, accusatory glares of passengers cosily nested in their stuffy cabins. It is a unique glower, surely the same one that native tribes of the southern steppes cast upon the Rus’ the first time they floated down their rivers in search of treasure, pelts, and the medieval equivalent of a hot shower.

“Are the showers in car 7?” Misha asked a scowling provodnitsa enjoying her meal in car 5.

“What showers?” the provodnitsa replied in a mocking tone.

We continued on. Clearly this Russian Railways employee was not as well informed as we were.

As we triumphantly passed from car 6 into car 7, we discovered that… it was the dining car.

“Oh, they must suspend the numbering of the cars for the dining car,” said the rationalist American.

We continued on. Sure enough, it was car 7, but no sign of showers. And the car 7 provodnitsa clearly had no idea that her car was supposed to have showers. In fact she seemed a bit offended that we were even visiting her car.

“Who told you there were showers in car 7?” she asked.

 “The provodnitsa in car 2.”

“Oh, that explains it,” she replied. Which of course it did not.

Walking back through the dining car, we asked the attendant there what they had done with the showers.

“Showers?” said an elephantine passenger squeezing past us to the food counter. “This is the Soviet Union, we don’t have showers on trains. Just smelly toilets.”

And so we began our reverse trek, humbled and even more sweaty and smelly than when we had begun. By car 4 we had reached the conclusion that our provodnitsa was punking us in a manner worthy of Ivan Susanin. But, keeping our zen heads about us, we nonetheless undertook our evening ablutions in toilets not nearly as bad as our jolly guest had intimated, but certainly lacking shower heads or counter space larger than a matchbook.

Then, as it turned out, as Misha was entering his bathroom (there are three on each double-decker car), our provodnitsa exited, and Misha cornered her about the phantom showers.

“Why did you tell us there were showers, when there were none?”

“I did not know we had none,” she replied, her breath reeking of recently imbibed cigarette smoke and not the least bit innocent sounding.

Needless to say, smoking anywhere on train cars in Russia is strictly forbidden, and Misha felt duty bound to report the incident to her superior (who happened to be the provodnitsa from car 7). I, looking on rationally from the side, wondered if perhaps there was not just a tiny measure of revenge in his move, and hoped that she would get off better than poor Ivan Susanin.

zen * zen * zen

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