Siberia, Russia, late December, 2014.
Part 4: I’ve had Siberian Express dreams for years, taking a train across the vast stretch of Siberia, leaving Moscow headed constantly on, day and night, to distant places in Asia. December 2014 was our opportunity to make dreams real. I didn’t know how much we would depend on our provinistas.
Before we could board the train in Moscow, we stood in line as the “provinista”, usually a woman on the Russian and Mongolian trains, men on the Chinese one, collected and verified our tickets and passports, and directed us to our cabin. Each car had a provinista who would live on board that car. She would be busy keeping the public areas and the rooms clean; minding the samovar, fueled by coal, to keep hot water ready 24 hours a day; selling snacks and hot drinks from her cabin which was stuffed with provisions for sale and just enough room remaining for her to sleep; and keeping an eye on things. She would hold our tickets and passports until our arrival. In the mornings we would ask the provinista for coffee, and she would deliver two large steaming glasses. Once, when we misjudged the hours of the restaurant car, the provinistas’s cache of candy bars helped make the wait until the breakfast serving tolerable.
Days later, when we boarded the second class train in Irkutsk late on Christmas Eve to continue our journey, the provinista on that train first checked our tickets and passports, and then told us to take cabin 4 instead of our scheduled cabin 9. “Take the lower beds,” she said, assigning us a cabin where there were no other reservations. By doing that, she provided us with a private cabin and a virtual upgrade to first class.
We wondered at first why the provinistas hurried to lock the toilet compartments about twenty minutes before entering a station for a scheduled stop and unlocked them about twenty minutes after leaving. Then we noticed that, like the old rolling stock in America, the flush on the toilet simply dropped the contents directly to the tracks and ties below instead of into a holding tank as they do on airplanes. Obviously, they didn’t want these deposits made right in front of the depots.
The samovar is a central feature of each car. They are coal fired and kept burning by the provinista whose small cabin is just across the aisle. If it’s tea, instant coffee, hot water for your instant noodles, or some extra hot water to carry to the bathroom sink, this is the place. The schematic on the open door to the left shows the water circulation system. Some samovars are set to heat two tanks–potable water for the drinks and the hot water which circulates through the train car’s radiators. This samovar is nearly 3 feet tall.
The provinistas kept the samovar (such as the one in the photo directly above) fired up to supply hot water for tea, instant coffee and the many containers of ramen we saw coming on board, tucked in the passengers’ luggage. Many of the passengers depended on the samovar to prepare all their meals. At some of the stops, a truck would pull up to the door of the car and unload a bag or two of coal for the samovar. At the same stops, the provinista would pull the spent ashes out of the samovar and carry them in a bucket up to the station where they were disposed of.
I caught a glimpse of a plumbing schematic posted in the provinista’s cabin on our third train which showed a boiler at the end of the car just before the exit doors which heated hot water to heat not only in the samovar, but also flowing through a loop system providing hot water heat to the cabins in the car. The provinistas kept that system fired up too.
For the provinistas to be standing by their car’s entrance, ready to check tickets and passports, wasn’t as easy as it might sound. The unheated entryways and connections between the cars were icy cold. Thick frost glazed the windows, and snow, pulled up from the ground by the suction of the train, filtered in. When the doors were opened for passengers, the heavy metal steps which lowered were often caked in the same snow, iced onto the metal. The provinistas would gingerly step down and, very large hatchet in hand, would chip and chop away at the ice and snow so passengers could disembark or step up into the train. If passengers weren’t in need of boarding, the provinistas would work their way along the car’s carriage, chipping ice away from the critical spots.
Comfort, safety, nourishment, warmth, upgrades, coffee and chocolate–a provinistas can do it all.