Tak-alok… tak-alok… tak-alok…
The train rocked and lumbered through the oak-forested hills outside of Vladivostok. My wife and I, Peace Corps volunteers returning to our home base of Birobidjan from a round of meetings at headquarters in the big port city, smiled congratulations at each other across the fold-up table under the window. There.
Whew! We had made it onto the train…

It’s always a challenge to buy tickets in foreign train stations, and we were glad it was over. We had started the journey with a couple of beers in the rather spectacularly refurbished Vlad train station down by the waterfront.

Built in the old eastern Europe style with pointy atticus facades, it was one of the few nicely rehabilitated buildings in eastern Russia. There is a pleasant bistro upstairs for whiling away your transitional hours, so we whiled one away, since I have an almost morbid fear of missing connections. (Bistro, meaning quick or fast, as in fast food, is one of the few words English adopted from Russian. Robot is the only other one I can think of. Comes from robotchik, meaning worker.)

At 10:45 p.m. we happily climbed up into Car 11, Train 185 — the Blagovezhensk, bound for the Jewish Autonomous Region, about 500 miles to the north and east. Stowed our stuff under the bottom bunks, told the woman conductor that yes, we would need two sets of bedding for the fold-down bunks she led us to, exchanged pleasantries with the two middle-aged Russian women who boarded shortly after we did, and noted with satisfaction that the green monster eased away from the station exactly on time. It was 11:10 p.m. and we would arrive in Birobidzhan around 3 the next afternoon. It would be a long trip.

We thought we’d make a nice saving by going platskart, the Germanic word meaning second-class. The cars had open compartments, with two lightly padded fold-down bunks on each side of the table, and where the wall and door ought to be there was open space the aisle and two more bunks stacked lengthwise on the other side. So six people more or less shared one compartment. The saving was good, but “nice” isn’t quite the right word. The ride was . . . perversely interesting. We had had similar rides before.

The Blagovezhensk (the name of a fairly large city to the west, en route to Lake Baikal and Siberia) is one of those slowly rocking milk trains that shudders, and sometimes screeches with the sound of rending metal, to a halt at every burg along the way. What ought to be a 16-hour ride becomes a 27-hour time warp. You seem to be suspended in a gel of some sort. The clock gets stuck. Not a good train if you are in a hurry. But it was cheap. The fare had been only $32 per person, and was only $8 after the abrupt plunge of the ruble on Black Tuesday in 1998. I had batted .500 in the ticket line scrimmage, losing one and winning one. A very bistro young woman had shoved in front me even as I pushed my passport through the slot at the bottom of the window (seemingly engineered to make talking with the cashier difficult), and with the nimble arrogance of youth got her ticket despite my scowling and frowning at her, without moving my hand from the window slot throughout her transaction.

But I bested the other combatant, another geezer who also tried to crash the line, perhaps enlisting sympathy by carrying his grandkid on his arm. Not today, gramps, I thought. I’ve sweated too long in this line already. Finally resigned in the face of my determination, he even translated for me when I couldn’t understand the muffled words of the teller. The compartment was OK, although typically trashed by time and abuse. The table was hacked by generations of sausage slicers and graffiti artists. Civic pride in the carved names of towns — Anuchino, Araz, Azer. Lives going by. I noted that the window was permanently stuck open a crack, so it wouldn’t be too hot tonight. Maybe even a little chilly. Generally the trains’ air-conditoning systems, if they have them, don’t work.

The cars are stifling in the summer and winter, leading the Peace Corps gang to call them Shake ‘n’ Bakes. The windows are bolted shut or simply rusted shut. I remembered our first train ride to Birobidjan. I had pleaded with a conductor to help me open the window. She objected, saying it was cold in Siberia. I said we were still a long way from Siberia (about three days), and it was only September. She relented and called a worker in to fix it. He struggled with the window for time, then took a tool to the emergency exit handle. I thought he might inadvertently stop the train, but then I thought of course he wouldn’t, because the thing wouldn’t work. And it didn’t. It broke off. OK, OK, I said. Fine. Forget it, thanks.

On another Shake ‘n’ Bake journey there had been a permanent draft under the window. Our traveling companion Vera had been awakened by large clumps of frost falling off the window and onto her stocking-capped head. Such is the price of the cheaper platzkart compartments. But this was a nice cool evening, so we stretched out under only a sheet, sleeping in our clothes. I would have to assume the fetal position – not my usual way, but if I stretched out my head would be bonked by passers-by. If I slept with my head to the wall, the draft would be in my ear, and my feet would be bonked. I sort of angled across the bunk.

NEXT STOP:We’re Gonna Make It!