The Trials and Travails of Travel by Rails

So, I accept that the title may be grammatically illogical/incomprehensible, but I stand by it as a nice little rhyme.

I’m sitting at Vagzlis Moedani in the train station itself using their oh-so-reliable WiFi on my oh-so-reliable laptop.  It merits noting that I am currently typing this into a Word Document for upload later due to the oh-so-reliable nature of both Georgian WiFi and my aging laptop.  It’s a nice laptop, don’t get me wrong, but you know how you measure things in “dog years” where one dog year is 1/7 of a person year?  One person year is like 50 computer years.  I just read earlier that iPhone 5 is gonna be developed soon!?  Did I misread or are we really already getting five generations of iPhone deep??  I’ve still got an LG Razor that does a pretty decent job.  Maybe it’s because my siblings keep stealing my upgrades or maybe it’s because I never pay attention to such things, but I’ve found my phone to be perfectly adequate for the job of phoning and texting, or SMSing, as Georgians are wont to say.

But I digress (Tough to do before you even start, right?  Wrong.), I’m sitting at the train station waiting as all my friends flock to the capital for an extravagant weekend of penny pinching and DIYing.  I mentioned last time how much snow America got, well parts of Georgia got a healthy dumping of snow this week as well.  Some places got upwards of a meter of snow (That’s about three feet, my American Cousin [Bonus points for Lincoln Assassination reference?]).  That translates into lots of delayed marshrutkas across the country.  Pauli and Joanne have been on the road since ~9 am and neither seems to have arrived yet.  It’s quarter to six pm now.  Marissa and Tom may be faring a tad better as they’re only 117 km from Tbilisi after a scant three or four hours.  Rick and Damon may be hopelessly trapped outside Kutaisi.  The world may never hear from them again, those ingrates.

As I rode the metro into town this morning, I saw a train going by as we passed above ground at Didube (pronounced: dee-DOO-bay).  It was a oil train and it was covered with snow.  Maybe only a few inches, but it had clearly been somewhere that the snow was falling thickly.  By the time it got to Tbilisi, it still hadn’t shaken off all the snow.  I got to thinking, wouldn’t taking a train be a much safer, easier proposition in snowy weather?  (I didn’t get to thinking that, but I figured it would make a nice narrative transition—an effect I’ve just spoiled with this parenthetical aside.)

Let me tell you some Former Soviet Union train stories.  Cast your memories back to early 2008.  Bush was president and the Giants had just won the SuperBowl (Or were about to, depending how early in 2008 you cast your memories back.  Spoiler Alert!).  The Russians were riding high on the petrol dollar, and I was riding high on Russian trains.  (Disclaimer, not high on drugs, just high on idiomatic expressions.)

At the time I was living in St. Petersburg, Russia, studying abroad.  I lived with a host family way out by the Gulf of Finland.  For those of you super familiar with St. Petersburg’s geography, I was on the Western edge of Vassilievsky Ostrov.  For those of you not at all familiar with St. Petersburg, I was way the hell off the beaten path—about a thirty minute walk to the closest metro.  My first Former Soviet metro experience came on the first or second day of school.  My good friend Chelsea Paige and I lived right next door to each other, a lucky and convenient coincidence.  Being the naïve, inexperienced new kids on the block, we found ourselves taking several forms of transportation that morning.

First we hopped a marshrutka to the metro station.  Then we went in to the station and headed down to the platform.  The St. Petersburg Metro system is extremely taxed by the population that utilizes it.  At rush hour it’s packed literally more tightly than I would’ve thought possible.

Okay, so this is the best I could do with two minutes' worth of google imaging. It gets worse than that though, swear to God!

We stood shoulder to shoulder with a thousand Russians, waiting for our train.  When it arrived, the doors sprang open and the crowd surged towards the subway cars.  As Chelsea and I approached the open doors, politely queuing like good Westerners have been raised to do, a babushka half my size suddenly body slammed me out of her way and shoved her hunched body onto the train.  I crashed into Chelsea, who nearly fell.  The doors shut and the train zoomed off without us.

Such is the life of a Russian commuter.  Everyone does the penguin shuffle to and from the extraordinarily deep escalators (If you think the Tbilisi metro is deep, you should check out St. Petersburg.  Now there’s an escalator!) before elbowing and jostling for position at the platform. Politesse dictates that one should always give up one’s seat to the pregnant, infirm, or elderly.  After my first day riding the St. Petersburg metro, that last group had lost my sympathy.  I learned that the frail-looking, teeny-tiny babushki could throw their weight around with the best of them.  When I would catch a babushka glaring at me from across the train I would smugly remain in my seat and think of the time a three foot tall eighty year old knocked me on my ass.  Cruel?  Maybe.  Justified?  I think so.

The United States is a big country.  Basically when we want to get someplace in America, we fly.  If you don’t have your own car, you fly even relatively short distances.  Boston-DC is not an enormous journey—by car it probably takes only 8-10 hours, traffic and weather depending—but it’s a journey that most fly.  In Europe, the countries are, as a rule, much smaller than the United States.  Places like France, Britain, Germany, and the others all have come to rely on fast, efficient high-speed trains.  Understandably so!  Why fly when the longest domestic flight would take you an hour or two, maximum?

Russia is ostensibly a part of Europe.  I accept that’s a debatable point, Jay Troop, but I stand by it.  Being enormous, it shares much in common with the United States in terms of transportation needs, but being European it shares much in common with Europe in terms of transportation options.  Travel through Russia is mostly by rail, not plane.  When my study abroad group went to Moscow for the weekend, we took the night train.  It was largely uneventful, but I’ll tell you about a different night train trip to give you a sense for how awesome night trains are.

Going from Moscow to Kiev takes about 12-13 hours on the train.  I think that was it, maybe it was closer to nine.  Either way, we were on the train for a long time.  We stayed up talking for several hours then finally drifted to sleep only to be rudely awoken by a banging on our feet.  “Passport,” a gruff woman’s voice called out in the night.  We groggily dug out our passports and handed them over.  She looked at Brian’s photo and shook his hand.  She looked at mine and saluted.  She looked at Dan’s and scoffed, tossing his passport back to him.  Apparently we were at the Russo-Ukrainian border-town of Bryansk and Dan wasn’t pretty enough to cross.

Just kidding we made it.

Now, let’s fast forward about eighteen months.  It’s now Fall of 2009 and Obama’s been president for eight months.  We only have about three years before the apocalypse, and I’m wasting them getting my masters at Stanford.  Seeking advice from older and wiser PhD students in a class of mine, I had arrived at a birthday party per Lindsey’s invitation.  I had emailed her and several other PhD students, asking, “Can you give me advice?” and Lindsey responded by saying “Yeah!  Come to Maki’s party and we can chat then!” I showed up at the party and Lindsey shouted out a joyous greeting, “Wes!  You made it!”  I had no idea what she was talking about but I went over and said hi.  I drifted around the party of people I mostly didn’t know, getting in to a conversation about Azerbaijan with Alexi and having some classy snacks and wine.

Google tells me that these are classy snacks. I don't think I've eaten them, but imagine me doing so and that should work just fine.

Lindsey bounced her way over and joined the conversation.  She was…let’s just say that she had been enjoying the party for a good long while.  She wanted to do some ice breakers with us all.  She interrupted whatever Alexi was saying, “Let’s all tell our raunchiest, nastiest poop story!  I’ll go first.”

Lindsey’s eagerness and delight persuaded us all to share disgusting stories.  I’ll paraphrase Lindsey’s for you below.  You will shortly understand its relevance to the overall story.

“I was riding on a night train to Sochi with my boyfriend.  It took like two days and at the rest stop in some city in Southern Russia, I ate something that gave me food poisoning.  I painted the walls of that train toilet that night.”  She won the raunchiest story contest by a landslide (pun/mental image fully intended)

Well, that story came back to bite me in the ass/inspire me about six months later.  I found myself riding a night train with the one and only Jay Troop from Batumi to Tbilisi as we took our Epic Pan-Georgian Spring Break Trip.

What a champion! When I asked Jay if he would come to Georgia with me his response was, "How many opportunities do you get to travel to the republic of Georgia with a close friend who speaks Russian? I say, Hell Yes!" Or something to that effect....

I woke up several hours into our train ride.  My stomach felt awful.  I put my iPod back on and tried to rock myself back to sleep with the motion of the train.  I felt worse and worse with each passing minute.  I had no idea how much longer we would be on the train before arriving in Tbilisi, but I knew that it would kill me to wait.  Just then, out of the night, a ghostly apparition came to me.  It was Lindsey.

That's me dying in the snow and Lindsey's ghost appearing to save me.

I knew that Lindsey would be extremely disappointed in me if I failed to take advantage of my predicament to use a night-train’s toilet.  After she had eagerly regaled me with her own story, how could I let her down by meekly lying in bed and groaning when such a golden opportunity lay before me to match her Caucasian train toilet adventures? I got up and found the carriage conductor.  He was grumpily awake yelling at some person.  I asked him “tualeti” in terrible Georgian.  I only knew about ten words/phrases at the time.  He responded with an angry wave and a burst of Georgian.  Then he fell asleep, leaving me helpless to contend with my GI problems.  (Note: Not the G.I. Bill)

I stood in the hall for a few more minutes until it became unbearable and I woke him again, asking in Russian, “Where is the toilet!??”  “This one’s broken!  I told you that already, go to the other car!” and he rolled over, ignoring me again. I dashed down the length of the car and across the connection to the next train car.  I opened the door and looked with horror at the turd that the previous occupant had so generously left on the back of the seat for me.  Somehow I would have to navigate my way around the sticky mess without creating too much of a mess myself.

Train toilets are mostly terrifying.  It’s really just a hole that leads down to the tracks so you can look down and see the trestles rushing by beneath you.  It’s also pretty effing cold in March and the air gets you where it counts. I managed my troubles successfully enough and left without causing any further damage to the train.  Lindsey would have been proud–a little bittersweetly (I think she loves the destructive part of her story), but proud nonetheless.

Thursday night, Pauli set out to take a night train.  I’ll link to his story once he writes it himself, but suffice it to say that due to a series of flat tires and a too-slow clock, he missed his train.  Pauli has a history of missing trains.  Last November in Tbilisi, after returning from Ilia’s play, our terrible cab driver got lost throughout Tbilisi and wound up causing Pauli to miss his train.  Pauli crashed with me that night as I explained to my host family that he missed the night train and would take a day-marshrutka. My host moms concluded in private conversation with me later that, “Pauli must be in love.  No one misses trains without being distracted by love!”  They’re probably still convinced of that.

Pauli missed his train Thursday and the buses and marshrutkas were largely canceled.  He caught a 7:30 marshrutka and arrived hours later than intended.  Like twelve hours later.  Turns out, the night train got stuck in the snow.  Fate–and Pauli’s obvious lovesickness–had intervened to save Pauli from getting stuck for days in rural Georgia.  Now wouldn’t that have been an adventure worth writing home about?

Georgians never line up for anything.  That makes purchasing train tickets a tricky ordeal.  As I mentioned two thousand words ago, Rick and Damon were late coming in on the marshrutka.  They would not be able to buy their own night train tickets and so they called ahead to ask me to do it for them.  Ugh.  I hate getting in line for things in Georgia.  People always cut ahead of you and you have to be extremely bold and elbow-y to get what you want.

In this case, one poor girl was selling train tickets to about twenty of us.  Whoever got close enough would preemptively start to pass their money through the window just to stake their claim to being served next.  When I finally got my hands into the pot, I asked the girl, “Ori bileti zudidshi khval ghames, tu sheidzleba.”  She understood me!  She asked a few clarifying questions and then a flurry of questions I didn’t understand.  I said yes to all of them until she got to “Passport?”

Oh shit!  I had a brief Bryansk flashback and realized that I didn’t have my passport on me.  I made a big show of searching and not finding it as the people clustered behind me tittered in Georgian, “Amerikeli?” “Inglisuri mastsavlobeli?” “Magram is itsis kartuli!” “Magram tsota, da tsudad!”

I pulled out my Stanford University photo ID and proffered it, unconfidently.  The girl smiled and accepted it as a passport, thank goodness.  More questions followed and I said yes until she hit one I understood, “Pirveli klassi?”  “Ara!  Meore?”  “Ar maqkhvs.”  Rick and Damon–those lucky bastards.  I bought them two first-class tickets to Zugdidi on a night train entirely in Georgian.  And it only cost thirty lari!  What a steal!

And so I am brought up to the present.  And here I am finishing my post.  And now I shall depart for greener pastures–most notably a afternoon date with Pauli at the Elvis Cafe.  Oh life is good to me!  Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

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