As the train pulled out of Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, Valery opened the first bottle of cognac and was figuring out how much alcohol our compartment would need for the 15-hour overnight trip. It was only 4:30 p.m. and, with several hours of daylight left, I wanted to look out of the window, not drink. But to be sociable, I agreed to a couple of shots.
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Half an hour later, I escaped to the corridor for an hour before returning to the compartment. Valery and his friend Igor were already almost through bottle number two, and had bought a bottle of vodka from the drinks trolley. The restaurant car served vodka and cognac by the glass, but for those who want to drink in compartments, a vendor plies the corridors.
Sensibly, Valery and Igor were also eating—dark bread, cheese, sausage, piroshky and strong Russian mustard. Valery slapped mustard on a slice of bread and cheese and passed it to me. I felt as if my head was going to explode. “Good for your health—you won’t get a cold,” Valery laughed as I gasped and turned red. “Here, have more vodka.”
As the evening wore on and the alcohol took its toll, the conversation became more animated and difficult to follow. Valery and Igor were on their way to Kostanai oblast in northern Kazakhstan for a hunting and fishing trip. I must have skipped the chapter on winter outdoor sports in the Russian textbook because most of the vocabulary was new to me. There was a lot of extending of arms and simulated “boom boom” gunshot noises as virtual ducks fell to earth.
Valery, who said he loved all sports and was wearing a David Beckham T-shirt, wanted to know why I had never served in the military. He was reluctant to accept my explanation that there was no military service requirement in the U.K. and that I had arrived in the U.S. too late to be drafted for Vietnam. Military service was compulsory in the Soviet Union, and Valery served in Afghanistan. “A useless war,” he admitted, yet he still seemed to resent those who, in his opinion, had not served in the military. My argument that there are other ways to serve one’s country did not impress him.
By 10 p.m., everyone had settled down for the night. Then the snoring started. It didn’t bother me while we were moving because it was drowned out by the sound of the train, but it woke me when we stopped at stations, as we did four or five times after midnight. At 3 a.m. at an isolated town on the frozen steppe, there’s no traffic and no people. Only snoring.
At 6 a.m., the attendants knocked on the doors to tell passengers we’d be arriving in Kostanai in an hour. Valery swung down from the top bunk, opened a bottle of beer and offered me another. I politely refused. He smiled. “Now you know kak russkiye zhivut (how Russians live),” he said, with a smile. I wanted to say I hoped not all Russians lived that way, but recognized the sincerity of the hospitality. It was another warm memory of a cold winter.