Travel Reference
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need to climb to your upper berth, it's fine that you may need to step on your neighbor's
bed—perhaps his or her feet or legs—to reach yours. The difference is, in third class there's
a larger audience to see whatever you're doing—like trying to elevate. At the edge of the
lower berths there is a small metal stepladder designed, in theory, to assist upper-berthers.
But the ladder is at the end of the lower berth, next to the aisle, which fully exposes you
to the spectators. I prefer moving away from the aisle, closer to the window, to leap up,
attracting somewhat less attention. The best method I've found is to put your two feet on
the side edges of each of the lower berths (desperately avoiding stepping on the occupants),
then put your elbows on the two upper berths, using all the forearm and shoulder strength
you can muster to lift your body up. While thus elevated, you thrust your buttocks onto
your berth. Next challenge: avoiding slamming your head into the roof of the train in mid-
thrust. Ducking your head can avoid a collision, but ducking while thrusting can be more
than the mind—and body—can handle, and often you lose focus and tumble to the floor,
which amuses other passengers. Fear of this embarrassment can be consuming, worse than
fear of hangovers and frostbite, which in Russia says a lot.
It's all about finding a comfort zone aboard a train, so you can begin to appreciate the
poetry of the experience. My first evening aboard a Russian train, Sergei, Rose, and I ven-
tured to the dining car. American dance music from the 1980s blared from an old television.
We sat in a booth, and a server ambled over and presented a voluminous menu—fourteen
pages describing some delicious dishes.
I ordered stewed chicken with vegetables. The server shook her head.
Pork loin?
Finally I asked her what she did have.
“Borscht yest [Borscht we have].”
I finally confronted the reality: Menus around here are for show. About the only hot
item they had was borscht, that ubiquitous and timeless Russian dish. I like homemade
borscht. I just don't always trust it coming from a Russian train kitchen. Pacing my train
car, hungry, led me to stop and say hello to my neighbors, travelers in the compartment next
to mine. One of them was Zhanna Rutskaya, an effervescent forty-five-year-old woman
who worked as a hotel receptionist and was returning home from seeing family in Belarus.
I greeted her with a smile and a spasibo —thank you—for inviting me in. Zhanna greeted
me with a link of Belarusian sausage, using it like a baton to wave me into the seat beside
her. Then came the jar of homemade horseradish-and-mayonnaise, a concoction that I was
instructed to spread onto toast and devour. Whether this strikes you as appetizing or not,
trust me: It beats the borscht in the dining car. The only unpleasant development was real-
izing how little I had to offer Zhanna in return. Food sharing is a Trans-Siberian Railway
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