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8 August, 2005

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One of the less chaotic moments in the hotel lobby.


A typical Moscow intersection with traffic from all directions and very few traffic lights.


All commercial vehicles are required to have their license plate numbers reproduced in huge type over their rear ends.


One of the departure boards at the train station. Our train is the second one with a so far unannounced track.


A small part of the crowd that filled the station.


This train had just arrived in Moscow.


While one diesel locomotive leaves, the one pulling our train in arrives. It too would be left behind as an electric engine would wind up in the front of our train.


Russian squatters. This seems to be a custom as I've never seen so many people sit like this anywhere else.


One of the infinite patches of birch forests we've passed so far.


As we make one of our first stops, pandemonium as merchants from all over town peddle their wares to the people on the train.


It goes on for the length of the huge platform as a freight train passes on the next track.


The cozy dining car on board our train.

8 August, 2005

Day 23. It was a good thing we weren't leaving until mid afternoon since I never would have woken up in time otherwise. As it was, I didn't actually get out of the room until 12:10. In fact, as I was about to close the door, the phone rang so I went back to see if it might be Hanneke or Sasja since we hadn't yet met up that day. Instead it was somebody from the hotel who was telling me in broken English that checkout time was 12:00. "Yes, I know," I explained. "I'm leaving now. I just came back to answer the phone." "You want extension?" "No, I'm leaving now!" "One day?" "No! Nyet!" And that triggered her to yammer away in Russian so I quickly excused myself before anything else happened. I may actually still be checked into this hotel for all I know.

Hanneke and Sasja were already downstairs and we had a couple of hours to kill there in the lobby before our ride to the train station. All sorts of strange and exotic people came and went through the crowded lobby. All sorts of loud and obnoxious people too. I heard some of the noisiest mobile phone rings I think I've ever heard right there in that lobby. And in Russia, talking loudly on your mobile is apparently something that's passed down through the generations. I'm sure this is reinforced by the fact that there is reception in parts of the obscenely loud metro. And of course there's the fact that Russians seem to always be arguing or talking in a loud voice to begin with.

This lobby seemed to be a part of the Hotel Pennsylvania/Regent Palace hotel network where you can basically just sit and watch as hordes of tourists flow in and out like the tide. And if you get bored, it's a short walk to the Delta quadrant which was basically an exact duplicate of Gamma. (On several occasions I somehow made it all the way to my alternate universe room in Delta before discovering I was in the wrong building.) At one point while waiting there in the lobby, we saw four young guys all dressed in black walk purposefully by, all armed with pistols, the one in the middle carrying a large knapsack. They could have just been four guys off the street or part of the government. Nobody seemed to know or care. In Russia, you see guns all over the place. There are cops and soldiers almost always within sight but sometimes you see a kid who looks no older than 15 dressed up in camouflage with a huge bag apparently on his way to military service. And invariably they have a gun shaped box on them which doesn't do much to hide what it is they're carrying.

I'm starting to feel out of touch. The space shuttle was supposed to land today but last I heard before leaving my room it was delayed. I knew I probably wouldn't be able to find out if they made it or not until we got off the train tomorrow night. People definitely don't have the same obsession with being kept up to date as so many of us do back home. But newspaper headlines everywhere were celebrating the trapped submarine's successful rescue.

The time came and our ride materialized right on time. Hanneke and Sasja had booked the whole Trans Siberian portion of the trip through a tour guide. This meant that we would get rides to and from the train wherever we happened to be. It definitely simplified things quite a bit and made it all a little less intimidating. So our tour guide for the next hour or so was Dmitry who gave us a ride to the train station using a somewhat less aggressive Moscow style of driving. In New York we would just call it scary. Naturally he asked if we had a good time in his city and we all said we had. "How long were you here for?" came the inevitable question to which the answer was a mere day and a half. I don't think any of us wanted to be here for that short a period but with so much planned, it was an unfortunate necessity. "Moscow is big city," Dmitry admonished. "You need to be here longer to see more." "I'd like to be here for a month," I put forth. I wasn't kidding either. If you want to really get to know a city, you need to live there for a period of time. Moscow is a huge and complicated city and the more time the better. "A month is too long," Dmitry said after a pause. "It's too crowded. One week is good." I wasn't sure if he was telling us that space was so tight that our extended presence would cause problems or if he thought that we just wouldn't be able to stand a crowded city for longer than a week. I have gotten the distinct impression from many Russians that living in Moscow is something to be avoided and that it's not a place they're particularly proud of. Regardless, I find it fascinating and having been a city dweller for most of my life, I knew that tolerating Moscow wouldn't be a problem at all.

Dmitry left us at the train station after a long and intricate explanation of how to find out our track number, get on the train, find our car, and find our seat. I guess the tour guides have to be very careful to explain everything since there are people who don't readily grasp these concepts, but it was still pretty funny and I was more than a little tempted to ask what the numbers of the cars surrounding car number 4 might be.

Our train finally pulled in and we climbed on board. We were actually on the Trans Siberian at last! Although I should probably issue a clarification at this point. Our first leg of the journey to Beijing (there will be four in total) is to the city of Yekaterinburg which is just over a day's journey. That very first part technically isn't on the Trans Siberian route but on a route slightly to the south. There are still a number of tourists on board and everything else seems identical. But this train will not be going clear to the end of Russia. When we board our second train on Thursday morning, that will be a true Trans Siberian edition. That's also going to pose a real challenge in doing the "Off The Hook" broadcast as I doubt I'll have GSM coverage and using the satellite phone on the train will be spotty at best with all of the tree cover. So I may wind up missing most of this one.

We got a cabin for four but we're only using it for three which gives us a noticeable amount of additional space. There are four beds, two on the top, two on the bottom. With a little doing, you can tie the top bunks up and convert the bottom ones to seats. And since I now know where all of the secret compartments are, storing luggage is quite simple. It's really a perfect environment. There's enough space for everyone to sit, relax, do work, sleep, or just wander around the train. We have this three places in a four space compartment arrangement for three out of our four legs. We weren't able to get it for the final part from Mongolia to China so we know that some stranger will be joining us there.

After leaving Moscow and passing through some suburbs, the landscape quickly changed to that of endless birch tree forests and occasional farm fields. I figured we'll be seeing an awful lot of this in the days ahead. And yet I also knew it was going to be anything but boring.

We got acquainted with some of the people on the train. A woman came by and sold us bottled water - the kind I like without the infernal bubbles. And after we paid her 100 rubles for something that cost 70 for two bottles, she gave us two little chocolate bars instead of change. Fortunately I had just read about this in one of my books so we were able to avoid panic and confusion. Oftentimes instead of change you'll get other little items which theoretically could be used to buy something else. Apparently little chocolate bars fit this description.

We later hung out in the dining car and met some traveling South Africans who said they wanted to be in our film and would speak Afrikaans. That would be exceptionally cool.

A few hours in, we made a stop at a small station somewhere. On the walls of the train is a schedule that tells you how long each stop will be for. This one was for about 20 minutes so we decided to have a look on the platform. It was filled with people selling all sorts of things from food to stuffed animals to giant vases. Somebody on our car bought one of those, in fact. I can't imagine how he's going to be lugging that thing around for the rest of his trip - it's as big as a small person. I got a snack from an old woman who has probably been doing this every day since she was a child. And then it was time for the train full of strangers to begin moving again.

I've opted to sleep on the top bunk and I really hope it stays up and there are no short stops that could propel me over the edge. I also hope I'll be able to go to sleep in this thing. There will be many such nights ahead.