michael sat in his cabin on the trans-siberian railway studying a phrasebook, wishing he had paid more attention in class. everyone around him spoke only russian - they apparently paid as much attention in english class as he had in russian class - and after spending a week in moscow without having a meaningful conversation, he felt lonely and wanted to talk with someone, anyone. since russian was the only language his fellow passengers understood he sat there with his face in the book, trying to memorize some key phrases. he was a lazy guy though and became impatient quickly when things didnt come easily, so shortly after a failed exchange with his roommate, he threw down his book and stormed off to explore the train.
his car was at the back so he walked forward, passing from car to car, looking for someone to speak english with. along the way he tried to remember the important phrases, such as how are you?, where is the toilet?, i would like a beer, but they just didnt stick in his head. meaningless phrases did though, almost like some cruel joke. he could remember how to say tooth brush but how often did you need to say that? if he met a dentist he'd be in luck.
well at least i know a russian pet-name for my girlfriend when i see her again, he thought. galabushka. little pigeon. he scoffed at that since it would get him nowhere with his 60 year old married roommate. hed probably only get slapped with that word on this train. only useless words ever stuck in his head.
he continued making his way toward the front, always feeling a bit nervous when crossing between the cars. it felt lonely and dangerous out there. loud, precarious. it didnt stop him though. as he entered the next car he heard some english floating out of an open cabin door but when he peered in the faces didnt welcome him. maybe hed meet them later in the bar anyway; at least it was good to know that there were some people aboard that actually spoke his language. how do i ask where the bar is, in russian? i dont remember. blaaaaahhhhh! he just couldnt remember the useful phrases.
chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk - the train noisely rolled along the tracks as he made his way to the next car. a scruffy man, the cook, was leaning out the window smoking. he angrily waved michael away from the kitchen, pointing him toward the door to the passenger berths instead. so territorial michael thought. the russians ordered him around more than anyone ever had.
da, da, da, he said, remembering the russian for yes. he felt a little pissed off and wasnt watching where he was going when he ran into someone coming the other way, a chinese man.
sorry, sorry, uhhh, ezvuneetyeh, he always tried to speak the local language to locals but, being chinese, the guy he just ran over didnt understand his russian apology. tone goes a long way though so the gentlemen just smiled at him, his body language saying its ok, its ok. michael was excited about his first encounter with a chinese guy so close to china. he was riding this train from russia to china, enjoying the slow transition from one country to the next and he just witnessed part of the transition right there: he was yelled at by a russian and then he bowled over a chinese man. pretty cool, he thought.
he passed through the unappetizing restaurant car. russians serving russian food. hey! this is a chinese train apparently, why isnt this a chinese restaurant? he thought as he lamented his dining fate for the next several days. he noticed that half the staff was russian and half was chinese. wonder who is driving? he thought, not realizing that he was going to find out very soon.
he arrived in the first class car and paused in wonder. whoa, he said aloud. polished wood covered the walls, velvet red couches provided maximum comfort inside the palatial cabins. one person per cabin he noticed thinking of the four beds that were crammed into his smaller, run-down cabin in the caboose. a man looked up from his newspaper at him then looked down again with a satisfied smile. sometimes people enjoyed luxuries more when they saw others who couldnt afford it. michael looked at the silk curtains covering the hallway windows and pushed one aside to see if the sun was still shining. he often stopped at one of the few open windows on the train so he could smell the fresh air and enjoy the sun as much as possible. the countryside was colored with the signs of autumn: red, orange, and yellow leaves mixed with the dark green of evergreen trees, beautiful. the landscape was flat though. he loved the mountains and hoped that it would still be light out when they crossed the ural mountains - a range he never expected hed see in his life. he was hopeful he wouldnt be denied the chance. he wanted to ask someone about it but he knew hed never be able to say it correctly in russian.
he passed into the next car and found himself in the middle of a lot of commotion. people were yelling in russian and what he guessed must be chinese. men were pointing one way, other men were motioning downward, chaos. he disappeared in the crowd of about 6 men, they were too distracted to notice him as they came out of the next forward car. they passed michael and walked down the way he had just come, toward the back of the train. they continued to yell and gesture the whole time. the car became silent again when they disappeared into the next car. michael could now only hear the chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk of the wheels on the tracks.
michael turned his attention back to the open door the men had just exited. the interior looked quite different than the other cars - he immediately had a sense that it was somewhere he wasnt supposed to be. he reached out and kept the door open as he peeked inside. knobs, computerized panels, and levers filled the room. he looked forward out of a window and watched the train swallow the tracks. he was in the very front! in the engine! he had walked a long way but he had no idea just how far. jesus, he definitely wasnt supposed to be in here. he looked around but noticed something was missing - no one was driving! he heard a grunt and looked down. a russian man in a uniform was squirming on the ground with his fists burrowing into his eyes. his face twisted with pain and he bared his crooked teeth.
holy fucking shit, michael said as he moved forward toward the injured engineer. the door swung shut and locked behind him. he turned quickly and tried to open it - it was locked. some sort of security feature he guessed - september 11th affected russian trains too it seemed.
his heart raced as he looked down at the engineer squirming on the ground. he had wanted to find out what nationality the engineer was but this wasn't the way he wanted to discover it. the train was thundering down the tracks with no one from any nation driving it.
and i cant even ask this guy whats wrong, he thought to himself, his ignorace making him feel more helpless than ever. the engineer let out a growling sound and twisted onto his stomach, still pawing at his eyes.
fuck, michael said as he looked at the panel covered in lights, gauges, and dials, all dual-labeled in russian and chinese. a big, throbbing red light flashed on and off and someone squawked over the radio in urgent tones. something needed to be done but there was no one around to do it. what was that light for? what needed to be done? they were approaching an industrialized area and large buildings began to crowd either side of the tracks. michael's eyes followed the tracks to the horizon and he saw the reason for the warning light: a big yawning fork. his heart froze in place. the train needed to take that fork, either right or left, but he couldn't understand the alarming voice on the radio, couldn't read the dials, and the engineer had apparently been blinded. scrambling for an answer, michael spotted a large red button which read CTON, which he recognized as russian for stop. should he hit the button? trains took forever to stop, especially a monster like this - theyd never stop before they reached the fork even if he hit it now. how the fuck did this happen? he thought. and isn't this all supposed to be automated? but he remembered where he was and guessed that modernizing the old russian train system wasn't a prioirity in a country with massive economic problems. he was on an ancient train that needed a highly skilled engineer to drive it. his throat swelled and his blood became carbonated - his body went cold. he didnt know the language, and so the radio was no good. he couldn't open the door to fetch someone who could help. what happened to this guy? he wondered as he looked down at the writhing engineer.
michael breathed deeply and looked forward out the speeding machine realizing that the fate of the entire train lay in his ignorant hands.
he grabbed the stick with a sweaty hand and it felt alien. he had never even been in the engine of a train before but was now driving one. they careened down the tracks, chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk. the fork split wide apart up ahead, daring michael to guess which way to steer the train.
suddenly, sensing michael's presence, the engineer began to talk. leva, he said through a pained voice.
oh fuck, said michael as he stared ahead confused. does that mean left or right in russian? left seemed obvious but the language wasnt obvious and a guess was just too risky. the train churned forward. chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk. the buildings closed in. the fork beckoned.
yah nee poneemaiooh, michael said. i dont understand.
the engineer could not stand up to steer, he could only talk from the floor. he realized that the wrong person was at the controls, but he could do nothing about it. chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk, CHUNK-CHUNK. the heavy train tore along the tracks.
ne prava, leva! LEVA! the engineer shouted. SEECHAS! the situation was urgent but all michael could say was yah nee poneemaiooh!!! oh FUCK, why couldnt he remember the language?!?!? the train surged faster toward the fork which lay just in front of them now. michael had to guess. left or right? he firmly clutched the stick, closed his eyes, and yanked it to the....
GALABUSHKA! the engineer howled.
michael opened his eyes. wait, his brain screamed. WAIT!!! i understand that!!! it means pigeon! why would he say pigeon?!?! that cant be what he said?!?! the train groaned with speed. the engineer yelled it again and again, GALABUSHKA!!! GALABUSHKA!! michael snapped his eyes wildly at the approaching buildings. on the wall of a tall building he saw a giant pigeon staring down at him. michael gripped the stick with both hands and jammed it hard to the left toward the towering bird. the heavy train moaned and pitched, the wheels screeched, the massive steel train tilted hard to the left, almost toppling over. the wheels whined, grabbing the tracks and holding on as they raced past the building with a pigeon painted on it - a huge advertisement for laundry detergent. the engineer sighed deeply and michaels chest heaved with the excitement of averting a cataclysmic trainwreck.
just then 10 uniformed men broke through the armored door and hustled into the room. they shouted orders and scrambled to their duties. two men ran to the controls and slowed the hurtling train to a safe speed, two others rushed to aid the injured engineer, and the rest all collared michael. as he was yanked from the engine room and dragged roughly down the hallway, michael smiled wolfishly and said aloud i hope some useless russian will get me out of this one too....
September 2004 - Siberia, Russia