Dispatches from the Kremlin, Dispatch Three: Happiness Does Not Lie Behind the Mountains

June 30, 2015

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My first trip to Russia was ages ago, but since then, people always ask me about the Trans-Siberian Railroad and whether I’ve “done” it yet. Until recently, I had never met anyone who took the infamous route from Moscow to Vladivostok, as it has the reputation for being an especially grueling trip. Now I know several people who have made the journey, and I know them better than I would have ever expected.

The train covers approximately 5,200 miles between Moscow in the west and Vladivostok in the east, and my travel companions and I spent a grand total of seven days on the train. Luckily, we had planned various stops along the way to get out, stretch our legs, and of course, grab a tasty beverage or two. Many of my Muscovite friends were incredulous when I told them what we were planning to do. They called us “crazy Americans,” and implied that there was a small chance we wouldn’t make it back from the wild “Far East.” The way my friends made it sound, I got the impression that ferocious, barbarous, tribes who eat fresh American for breakfast inhabited the region. They were wrong about that, but they were right when they told me that there is literally nothing else to do on the train but drink. When I told them I hoped to work on my dissertation on the train, I was greeted with howls of laughter, seemingly assuring me that I would not. I can now say with assurance that in this regard, my friends were absolutely correct. My liver and I are still not on speaking terms.

In general, my choice of adult beverage is simple: crisp, slightly hoppy ale. I have returned from Siberia and the Far East a changed man — one that has finally come to appreciate vodka (for better or for worse). The classic Russian pastime of imbibing played a crucial role on our trip: It served to assuage tempers and made it so we didn’t remember planning the brutal murders of our cabin mates while they slept. We mostly rode in “coupe” cars, which consist of small one-room compartments with four bunks and very little room to move. I think the close proximity is the main reason why people drink so much on the trains; otherwise you might really get homicidal. In fact, drinking vodka was the first thing we did as our train began its slow roll out of Moscow.

We were on our way to a little town called Perm, located about 878 miles east of Moscow, when we popped open our first bottle. My preferred method of vodka consumption involves using what we Westerners call a “chaser” and Russians call “necessary.” Of course, our chasers are usually soft drinks like juice or soda, but many Russians, while also opting for soft drinks, like to follow their vodka shots with solids. The most popular of these solid chasers are pickled cucumbers, brown bread, meats, raw vegetables, croutons, nuts, and many other wholesome foods. Basically, if it can distract your nose and palate from the slight burn of the vodka (it’s not chilled on the train, so you can actually taste it), it’s a chaser. It turned out that we grossly underestimated how many pickles we needed, and two bottles of vodka were woefully insufficient for six people over the span of twenty hours. However, running out of supplies was a blessing in disguise, as we were scheduled to arrive in Perm around 7 AM the next day and planned to spend about twelve hours walking around the city before our next train. At least, that’s what I thought we were going to do. It turns out that the fates had other plans.…

After a pleasant but long day in Perm, we settled into a recommended restaurant to eat pelmeni — small, delicious, dumplings usually served with a side of butter or sour cream. According to folks from Perm, their little city is where pelmeni originated, so we figured despite having eaten them many times before, we needed to see if these “Permians” could put their money where our mouths were. I got mine served with a somewhat spicy horseradish sauce, which I washed down with a light beer. I have to say, these were indeed the best pelmeni I’ve ever had. We were shocked when several shots of vodka (which we had not ordered) arrived at our table during the meal, and when shortly thereafter small pours of “medovukha” (a honey-based alcoholic drink, much like mead) arrived as a digestif. Up until that point, I thought I could get used to this provincial hospitality, and was very pleased with how our trip had begun. It was then that Murphy’s Law decided to pay a visit to the little city of Perm.

Long story short, one among my companions had lost a passport, along with all monetary devices and other travel documents.

If you’ve ever been to Russia or another country with strict travel regulations, you will no doubt know that losing your passport might be the worst thing that can possibly happen. In Russia, it essentially prevents you from traveling anywhere, except by car or taxi, meaning our friend was looking at a very long, and very expensive cab ride. We decided to stay the night in Perm so as to not leave our friend alone, and see if the passport might somehow show up the next day. Unfortunately, the passport did not magically reappear, and we embarked on the next leg of the trip, taking a flight to Yekaterinburg where our next train was waiting, and leaving our poor friend behind in Perm. Luckily for all, our friend was only two and a half hours into the five-hour cab ride to Yekaterinburg (where the nearest American consulate is) when a good Samaritan in Perm used the wonders of social networking to let our friend know that passport, money, travel documents, and cards had all been found. We found out as we were playing cards and having a few beers on the train, and I have never felt so much second-hand relief in my life. We drank a few extra brews not only to celebrate the fact that everything was back on track (it’s a train pun, get it?), but that we would not have to spend more time in Perm, which was a nice town, but got very old after twelve hours.

Perm is situated on the bank of the Kama river, where a sculpture made of large Cyrillic letters reads, “Счастъе не за Горами,” (“shastye ne za garami”) which translates literally to “happiness is not beyond the mountains,” but colloquially means something more akin to “happiness is close at hand.” In the literal sense, Perm might want to rethink that motto. My memories of Perm are marred by panic and frustration, and therefore I mostly remember my relief as our tiny plane lifted off from the city’s very sketchy airport. It was only once we left Perm and heard that our companion’s travel documents were in hand that I understood the figurative meaning of Perm’s motto by the Kama, and I was able to prepare for part two of our journey, where we would always remember to appropriately ration our vodka, and double-check the location of our passports.

From Moscow by way of Vladivostok, Za Strovya.


Max Shelton is an American M.A. candidate at Middlebury College currently living, working, and drinking in Moscow, Russia. In his spare time (when he is not drinking), he enjoys writing, reading, and watching Better Call Saul. He is writing his dissertation in Russian about American intervention in the Russian Civil War between 1917-1922.