Trans-Siberian Part 3: Lunch with the Mafia and Breakfast with Spetsnaz
After Irkutsk we had a 3 days & 2 nights journey on the train ahead of us until we reached Omsk. After a little pow-wow we had heard that Omsk was nothing to write home about so we opted for a mega detour to Kazakhstan, specifically Astana. Of course before I jump straight forward to Kazakhstan I can’t skip the details of a very memorable lunch in Irkutsk and an eventful train ride to Omsk.
Before our trip we had heard what we believed were exaggerated stories of encounters of foreigners with Mafioso’s and soldiers. Well, needless to say in our case storied fiction was quickly becoming fact.
Rewind to two days earlier in Irkutsk and my friends Ian, Johnny, and myself are sitting down for a nice lunch at a little diner. A friendly well-dressed Russian guy hears our English and asks us where we are from. Happy at the rare chance to speak English to a local we told him the U.S., Canada, and Ireland. Before we knew it, our new friend and his two friends had joined us for lunch and were buying us round after round of beer. His one friend, a very nicely dressed guy about 27, spoke even better English and the third friend, a bigger older guy in his late 30’s early 40’s, spoke no English. During the course of our conversation we got to hear about them working at a Casino in New Jersey in the states, them fighting cops and their desire to do so with us, their professions as ex-soldiers, many different non-specific details about what their jobs were, and eventually them wanting to take us to another part of town to meet “their” group of 10 or so girls and drink vodka and take drugs.
I would call this the tipping point of the conversation, not because of the apparent awkwardness and our desperate search for an exit out of the situation, but because at this point about five cops, billy clubs in hand, showed up to the diner and escorted our new slightly aggressive friends out after a heated exchange. They told us to say screw the cops and go with them, but we knew better and kept our collective asses in our chairs, thanked them for the beers and told them we were going to order more food and wished them good look shortly before the were removed from the restaurant. Now, I don’t know what these boys did for a living, but I can rest assured it wasn’t legal, but definitely organized.
Now fast forward to when we hopped the train to Omsk. Our interactions with the Russian people were small and varied, aside from our possible mafia friends in Irkutsk, but riding 3rd class and sleeping 6 to a room on the train, our integration was about to begin. Our first night was quiet and uneventful, we pretty much kept to our assigned beds, read, and slept. However, day two was going to get started before I ever woke up.
My friend Ian, an early riser, got out of his assigned bunk on the train at about 7:30 and headed to the dining car to work on some travel writing not knowing what was waiting for him. What was waiting for him was a group of young Russian soldiers getting into a bottle of vodka. My guess is that Ian probably wrote for about 2-3 minutes before this group of fresh soldiers coaxed him into their group and relentlessly pressured him into gulping vodka.
Four and a half hours later Johnny and myself had got ourselves out of bed, eaten some food, and headed to the dining car. What we found was Ian, glassy eyed, bombed out of his mind, and still drinking vodka and eating a feast with a new set of soldiers. Apparently the first group had to leave the dining car under orders from their superior, but before they could head out a new group of guys showed up and started bottle-feeding Ian. He never had a chance.
Perplexed at Ian’s noontime state we sat by him and met his friends. The group number two he was drinking with consisted of a former Spetsnaz and Chechnyan soldiers. If you are not familiar with these soldier types, I will use the young soldiers’ own description to describe them, they are bad guys. Before Johnny and I could even work out our hellos we were delivered a beer and vodka. Lucky for us after a Spetsnaz knife demonstration and tattoo display the early morning marathon these guys were putting on couldn’t last and the slam session only lasted for another half-hour.
There were five train cars between the dining car and our bunks and the walk back became known as the gauntlet. In almost every train car we were offered vodka, beer, cigarettes, and food and were dragged into cabins to consume. The Russian hospitality was forceful and tempered, as every rejection at vodka was met with sneers and brash Russian spats. Johnny and I made it back to our bunks after about an hour not knowing what happened, Ian worn down from the morning was not so lucky. He would end up in the other cars until he made it back to his bunk after about 11 hours of drinking later that night. In a few short hours we befriended old Russian men, soldiers, an Uzbekistan family, and virtually everyone else that saw us.
When the next morning came we rolled off the train, Ian wearing the pin of the Russian Army on his shirt after the soldiers unofficially initiated him, and headed through the crowd of the train for the last time. It was a different gauntlet this time as we made our way through. We ended up shaking every other hand and posing for pictures. What a weird, strange, great ride to Omsk. With a slight hangover and feeling of comradery we set out for Astana.
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