Russia: Once Bitten

“Yeah, base camp was amazing,” Edwin said, necking another shot of nasty vodka and wincing as it went down. I copied him, the neat alcohol hitting the pit of my stomach. I had run out of instant noodles and was starting to feel hunger pangs. Edwin was a proper traveller; a medical graduate with a mountaineering addiction. I had just spent 3 months on various beaches in tropical South East Asia, drinking gin and tonic from buckets. Luckily the heat was cranked up to the thirties inside the wood-panelled train compartment; the only evidence of the freezing cold outside was a crispy layer of frost at the bottom of my blanket where it leant against the outer wall. Looking out the train window at the expanse of Siberia it was as if someone was playing the same dirty film reel over and over. Low brown hills splotched with snow.

Half-way through the second bottle of vodka, the squeal of train brakes announced our arrival at a desolate Siberian station. Peering out the window I saw old freight trucks standing as if frozen to the track opposite. Edwin applied a million layers of outdoor-activity wear. I, however, prepared to leave the train for the first time in two days by popping a hat and scarf over my linen jungle clothes.

I spotted little shops stocking beer, vodka and a million varieties of instant noodles. Thank God. Without food, the vodka was going straight to my head. Ice coated the external door, freezing it shut. Edwin battered at it with his shoulder, but it wouldn’t budge. I started to panic. I didn’t fancy living off pocket fluff and toothpaste for the next three days.

“Excuse me!” I shouted down the carriage to no one in particular. Other than the two of us it was packed with Mongolian students returning from New Year, and they had all brought enough steamed pork dumplings for the journey.

The Provinista waddled out of her compartment wearing nothing but her thermal underwear and a deep scowl. She was large and bulky, built like a female wrestler with the skin-tight outfit to match. She grunted something in Russian, draped heavy grey coat over her thermals and started battering the external train door with the fire poker. Eventually, with an almighty ‘crack’ the door swung open and the needle-sharp chill of Russian winter hit me.

Within minutes my hair had frozen and a thin layer of ice from my breath had settled across my scarf. It felt like a thousand tiny needles were pricking the surface of my skin and by the time we reached the shops I couldn’t feel my fingers. We stocked up on instant noodles and more vodka because the timetable was in Cyrillic, for all we knew it could be days until the next station.

Just as I was handing over my roubles to the toothless shopkeeper I heard the shriek of the train whistle. Snatching up my instant noodles and renewed stock of vodka I skidded across black ice to the door of my carriage. The Provinista now hanging out of the open train door and bulging out of her thermal underwear again, shouted garbled Russian at me, holding out a hand. I grabbed on to the metal railing of the door and pain shot through my fingers like I’d been burnt, but I managed to pull myself into the carriage. The Provinista slapped me on the back and laughed like she’s never seen anything so funny in all her life.

I threw my instant noodles onto the bed and stuck my fingers in my mouth. They were in agony. Tears pricked in my eyes as the change in temperature sent searing pain through my digits. The tips were turning a dull blue and Edwin, in his serious mountaineer’s voice, shouted at me to run them under very mildly warm water.

The lukewarm water felt like it was scalding my fingers and I started to cry from the pain. Emerging from the toilet compartment fifteen minutes later I held out my bruise coloured fingers to Edwin like a child with a paper-cut, tears streaming down my cheeks.

“Just what I thought,” Edwin said as he studied my hand, “frostbite.”

“What? Frostbite?” I couldn’t believe it. Frostbite is for intrepid Arctic expeditions, not dancing about on a station platform after too much vodka. I clutched my poor, painful fingers to my chest not knowing what else to do.

Moscow was still three days away.

Note: This is my winning entry for the Pure Travel writing competition, published in Geographic Magazine.

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