By Train to Tatarstan

Students take overnight train on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Kazan
Posted Sunday, March 22, 2003; 1:14 p.m.

Kazansky Terminal - Passengers walk along the platform, waiting to board the train for a 12-hour overnight trip to Kazan, the capital city of Tatarstan. PHOTO: Sara Leitch

ABOARD THE TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY - With suitcases stuffed with souvenirs and notebooks crammed with interviews, Columbia students said dasvydanya to Moscow on Thursday night as they began the next leg of their journey through Russia's religious landscape.

Moscow's winter blew the group one last icy kiss as members scurried from their bus into Kazansky Train Station, one of seven terminals in the capital. They boarded an overnight train to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, a semi-autonomous republic of the Russian Federation approximately six hundred miles southeast of Moscow.

Trudging down the platform, students struggled not to lose sight of their companions or their luggage, having been given strict instructions from tour leader Andrei Zolotov to keep an eye on the porters, lest a bag get stolen off the heavily-laden trolleys.

No luggage went missing, but the group split in two when travelers reached the 11th car of the seemingly never-ending dark green train, with the word Tatarstan spelled out in raised Cyrillic letters along the length of the cars. Perhaps as a test of their mettle, half the class was booked in second class berths, while the rest continued on down the platform to the first class section of the train.

"I just couldn't get the grin off my face as I was walking down the platform," said student Sara Leitch. "I just thought it was so cool. This is a great way to travel Russia and one that many foreigners don't get to see."

Greeted by a stern train steward, her dark fur hat a pleasant contrast to her hot pink lipstick, the students in first class boarded car number eight, forcing their overstuffed suitcases down the narrow hallway. Faux-wood doors slid back to reveal cozy rooms for two, complete with couches and a small silver table covered by a sand-colored tablecloth that was held in place by two bottles of water, plastic cups and a small vase filled with fake flowers.

"It is so romantic," said student Angela Uherbelau, who quickly traded the harsh fluorescent overhead lighting in the berth she shared with student Alexandra Alter for the softer, dimmer wall lamps.

At exactly 7:28 p.m, the train lurched forward. Out of grimy square windows, the students' last glimpses of Moscow were of industrial areas sprinkled with graffiti and abandoned machinery. Despite the less-than-stellar views, the students, while looking forward to their rail adventure and the appointments awaiting them in Kazan, were going to miss Moscow.

"I'm sad to leave," said student Daniel Evans. "I found so many things that I would have liked to see."

Snow fell steadily as the train rolled through Russia. Changing into slippers and sweatpants, students explored the train and were treated to dozens of vignettes seen through open compartment doors, each a glimpse into another Russian life. Mothers played cards with their sons, while soldiers swilled vodka and talked the night away. A couple snuggled between cars, while businessmen clattered on laptops and Palm-pilots. Back in the second class section, one man stood in the hallway, clad only in boxer shorts and a t-shirt and intently focused on a slim Russian novel.

Students found dinner in the form of a Tupperware-like container filled with pepperoni, bread, chocolates and dehydrated mashed potatoes, delivered to berth by the stewards. Quickly dubbed the "portable pectopah," after the Cyrillic letters for restaurant, most diners picked out one or two things to nibble on, before washing it all down with the first of two standard Russian drinks consumed that night - tea, made fresh on the train.

"We might be in second class," said student Gabriel Rodriquez-Nava, "But they still feed us."

Zolotov had told the group earlier in the day that long train rides often spark confessional conversations among strangers. With a language barrier firmly in place between themselves and the Russians around them, the students instead confided in each other, continuing the wide-ranging discussions that had begun over the last eight days. Daniel Burke broke through the barrier, however, and quickly made friends with a group of Russian teenagers, who delighted in having him compare the American and Russian versions of things as varied as chocolate to pencils. Jokes were told and vodka shared, as the students prepared for an upcoming stop at Vekovka Station, about five hours outside of Moscow.

Despite being briefed by Zolotov that Vekovka station was a popular place to buy cut glass and crystal, none of the students were prepared for what was to come.

Around midnight, even before the train came to a halt, swarms of merchants crowded its doors. Men and women, young and old, held boxes of crystal glasses and decanters above their heads, wildly shouting out prices to the befuddled students huddled inside. The merchants swarmed the train, each trying to out-sell, out-shout, and out-shove the other in their efforts to exchange their wares for cash. Those travelers brave enough to venture off of the train were encircled by the mob, which, while never violent, was certainly desperate to make a sale - Zolotov later said that passing trains generate a large part of these glass sellers' incomes. Overwhelmed more by the melee than by the goods themselves, several students walked away with more glass than they had intended to buy.

As the 15-minute stop came to an end, the dozens of merchants crowding the train pulled back, walking slowly along the cars as the train chugged out of the station. With the vodka bottles empty and the cheese and chocolate consumed, students retreated into their berths, with either one roommate or three, to climb into or onto a bed, and listen to the soft clacking of the tracks, marking the end of one part of the journey and the beginning of another.

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