“How would you feel about going to Russia?” The question lingered in the air for less than a nanosecond before I screeched, “REALLY???!!!” My boss/one-day-to-be-sister-in-law had been invited to speak at the 1st International Conference on Children’s Health to be held in Chita, Russia. It was a project sponsored by the Boise-Chita Sister City Program, and suddenly I was going to be a part of it!
On August 31, 1995, our delegation of five took off. The journey from Boise to Anchorage to Magadan to Khabarovsk is a blur. But when we stepped onto our car on the Trans Siberian Railway, I felt the true journey had begun. At 20 years old, this was my first for-reals international experience. I had obtained my first passport, gotten my first stamp. So exhilarating! And after bribes had been passed and tempers had been calmed (our escort, Dr. V, maneuvered us through the shady process beautifully), R and I arrived in our cabin with smiles on our faces.
The Trans Siberian Railway, though romanticized in books and film, has very few modern conveniences. For this, however, we had prepared. No showers. Minimal food service. No problem. Lots of wet wipes and stockpiles of cup-o-noodles took care of that. Each car, you see, had a samovar with boiling water available at all times of the day or night. This was all the amenety needed, for we had brought tea.
The conductor in our car provided beautiful tea cups upon request, and we kept these in constant use while lounging in our cabin. Our cabin consisted of 2 bunks across from each other that doubled as seats during the day. A drop leaf table could be set up between the bunks. Our luggage was stowed in the netted berths above each bunk.
In the dining car, we were served Russian tea in traditional glasses. Hearty and warm, though very reminiscent of Lipton. Hmm. While three days on a train may seem like one way to die a slow, painful death, we had so many interesting adventures with some colorful characters. A traveling group of retired (and wealthy) widows were making their way through Siberia and Mongolia. One, in particular, was thrilled at the prospect of seeing a yurt. We ended up running into them again in Irkusk at the end of our conference and they told us all about it. We made friends with a lovely gentleman named Boris (who looked remarkably like Maurice on Northern Exposure), who invited our entire group into his cabin to share a bottle of scotch with us. Maurice-Boris also gave me a cassette tape of a Russian pop star that he knew his grand daughter liked, as a symbol of Russia welcoming me. We also crossed paths with a cabin full of young men (high school boys, really) on their way to their 2-year obligation of military school outside of Moscow. When they heard an American girl was on board, Dr. V had his hands full maintaining order. I entertained the troops with my limited vocabulary of such common Russian phrases as, “I have a knife.” It was a hit.
And through it all, we would come back to a place of appreciation and reflection, a quick trip to the samovar, a few minutes of steeping, and then that always-perfect first sip of tea.