Orient Express

The average Russian man consumes 4-5 bottles of vodka a week. Or so I’m told. The train journey from Moscow to Beijing was to take 14 days and so for 14 days I would be bathing in a bowl.

Each day, I went to the dining car for my meals. I was always the only person there. Perhaps the other passengers didn’t eat. Perhaps my eating patterns were considered strange in these parts. Perhaps I smelt.

One day as I was reading my book in the dining car, two men walked in carrying half a dead cow. They plonked it on the table next to me and went off to talk to the chef. I couldn’t help staring at the dismembered cow lying on the table, guts towards me. I was used to seeing cows as cows, eating grass, and equally used to seeing them presented as meat, steaks on plates. But I’d never before been faced with seeing them presented as both at the same time.  Not that it was eating grass. But it did still have fur and a head with big brown glassy cow eyes, which watched me as I watched it with a disconcertingly pleading look.

Eventually the chef and the two men came back to passionately discuss the cows’ fate in front of it. We ate beef stroganof for the rest of the way to Beijing.

About 6 days into the journey, I went to the dining car as usual, expecting to be alone again. But the table in the corner was occupied with two empty bottles of vodka and an unshaven, dishevelled man swigging from a third. A steaming plate of stroganof sat in front of him. As it was the first time I’d had the opportunity for company while I ate, I chose to sit at his table. He spoke no English, I spoke no Russian. We conversed mostly through the use of sign language.

Eventually, as people do when they meet for the first time, we asked what it was that each of us do. I explained that I was a journalist and then it was his turn. He was the driver of the train, and was on duty in 3 hours.

I began to wonder whether I’d ever live to see Beijing.

© Bea Pierce, 1999