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Russia By Rail: One Last Look

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Russia By Rail: One Last Look

Russia By Rail

Russia By Rail: One Last Look

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Six thousand miles, seven time zones and endless cups of hot tea. That's a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

NPR's David Greene just took that journey across Russia, from Moscow to the Sea of Japan, and he has this reporter's notebook.


DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: I want to bring you into the dining car of our Trans-Siberian train. That's the dance music that blares from a radio on the bar. There are comfortable booths; it's a nice atmosphere. It seemed a perfect spot to sit down and write some of my stories from the trip.

But I was told no laptops in the dining car. And before you ask why, let me stop you. When traveling in Russia, you never ask why. This country thrives on chaos, uncertainty - inexplicable rules. Russians have learned to live that way. It's actually why, I think, many Russians find the U.S. pretty boring when they visit. Suffice to say, Russia is not the place to travel if you prefer printed-out itineraries, tour buses and Hiltons. You must expect the unexpected.

OK, so back to the dining car.


GREENE: Another of their rules: no food. Like in so many Russian restaurants, the menu here is merely suggestions for things that might sound tasty, in theory, if they were actually in stock. Once you read over the menu, a server will typically break the news that the kitchen tonight is only serving one thing - borscht. You come to understand why so many veteran passengers avoid the dining car. And that's not a bad thing because relationships are actually built by sharing food in the passenger compartments.


GREENE: In the friendlier atmosphere outside the dining car, the menu included cabbage rolls, smoked cheese, Belarusian sausage and horseradish mixed with sour cream. And so, the train speeds along, 24 hours a day, making whistle-stops at towns large and small.


GREENE: We just pulled over in the city of Omsk. And the train attendants are cleaning snow off the bottoms of train cars. People are selling cigarettes and beer along the train platforms. It is freezing. But it's a nice breath of fresh air for 15 minutes or so. Sad, we can't go in and see the city of Omsk, but it's time to get back on the train and head to our next stop, which is Ulan Ude, near Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal, it's the world's largest freshwater lake - this massive and majestic landmark in eastern Siberia. And it's one of the places I decided to get off the train for more than a few hours and get some reporting done. This is where I met Yuri Bronnikov, a retired engineer.

YURI BRONNIKOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: We were looking for a driver. And Bronnikov, he was looking for a few extra rubles and so we got to know one another. He ended up teaching me how to dissect Omul. That's the famous fish of Lake Baikal.

Where shall we go? On the snow?

BRONNIKOV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: His classroom was a patch of snow along the shore.

BRONNIKOV: (Through Translator) You cut out whatever it has inside.

GREENE: Like the bad stuff?

BRONNIKOV: (Through Translator) Yes, you cut out something which is not tasty.

GREENE: This journey marked the end of my two-year assignment in Russia. And I'm always going to remember people like Yuri, whose warmth could somehow melt away the Siberian cold. I've left a country that's going through a difficult transition.

There've been anti-government protests recently, and a sense that Russia under Vladimir Putin is still struggling to find its identity, two decades after the Soviet collapse. Maybe the fact that I was leaving Russia is the reason I kept playing this song on the long train rides. It's called "Eta V'sor," and in Russian means "That's All."


YURI SHEVCHUK: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: The singer is a Russian rocker named Yuri Shevchuk. And the interview I did with him last year really sticks in my mind. Shevchuk performs at anti-government rallies and he's pleaded with Russia's government to do more for its citizens. But he points out that Russia's citizens aren't sold yet on the idea of democracy.

A lot of Shevchuk's fans interpret this song you're hearing as the musician saying: That's all, I've done everything I can for my country, big changes may come well after my time.

David Greene, NPR News.


SHEVCHUK: (Singing in foreign language)

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