July 01, 2005

Train Fare

In 1901 the intrepid American traveler Burton Holmes crossed Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, then still under construction. His travel notes reveal that although the dining car was “a stuffy little affair” and the meals “badly served,” they were “surprisingly well-cooked and appetizing; good bread, excellent veal, and hearty soups, sometimes frappés, with a clinking cake of ice floating on their chill depths, sometimes seething hot, with a hunk of steaming beef rising from them like a volcanic island.”

Hyperbole aside, it is clear that Holmes was able to eat well as he traversed the steppe. But things were different in 1983 when my husband and I traveled on the Trans- Siberian from Moscow to Beijing. Our Muscovite friends had warned us that food would be scarce on the train, so they gave us a special farewell gift: a beautifully plaited basket covered with an embroidered linen cloth. Inside were roast chicken, cabbage-stuffed pirozhki, hardboiled eggs, and homemade apple pie. We feasted on this bounty for a couple of days before venturing forth to the dining car. There we were presented with a menu of the day’s fare, though hardly any of the items were available. We soon found out why. At the next station, we exited the train to stretch our legs and caught sight of the cooks in their white uniforms, passing boxes of food to men who were giving them wads of rubles in return. No wonder there was so little food on the train! 

Luckily, our friends had arranged for a rendezvous at the Krasnoyarsk station. In those days, Krasnoyarsk was closed to foreigners because of the military installations nearby, so we were not allowed to go beyond the platform. As we stood trying to figure out who our contact might be, a buxom blonde in a tight black dress and stiletto heels – a Russian Marilyn Monroe – materialized from out of nowhere and nearly smothered us in the embrace of her ample bosom. She handed us a basket, kissed us profusely on both cheeks, and disappeared. Back in the train we opened the basket and swooned with delight. Inside were pelmeni, those famous Siberian dumplings, still hot and swimming in a rich chicken broth. We also discovered garlicky pickled cucumbers and a bottle of Kedrovka, a local vodka infused with cedar nuts. 

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