The Trans-Siberian Toilet War

Left behind for a surmised breach of lavatory protocol, our correspondent and his two companions lead a desperate, paranoid, all-out car chase in an attempt to cut off the train at Ulan Ude.

Published November 11, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Though I'd never be able to prove it in a court of law, I will forever suspect that the reason train No. 263 left me behind at the Naushki, Siberia, border post had a lot to do with toilet etiquette.

This is my only theory, aside from generic rancor, as to why the provodnitsa encouraged me to return to Naushki Station at 4:00 for a train that left at 3:15.

A "provodnitsa," as Russian-rail veterans know, is the female attendant responsible for overseeing the passengers in a given train car. Formally, the duties of a provodnitsa include taking tickets, vacuuming the berths and attending to the upkeep of the toilets. On the surface, this seems like an innocuous job description -- until one realizes that, in Siberia, these duties fall under an obsolete model of customer service.

Years ago in the United States, service industry workers wore lapel-buttons that read "The Customer is Always Right." As far as I know, their employed-for-life Soviet counterparts were never required to display a customer service philosophy -- but if they were, I'd suspect the buttons would have read "The Fact That You Exist Annoys the Hell Out of Me."

Within the confines of train No. 263 to Irkutsk, this old Soviet style of service reigned. It didn't help that the head provodnitsa, who had the demeanor of a pit bull, looked like a breasty, platinum-blond version of Boris Yeltsin. Nor did it help that the assistant provodnitsa looked like a female Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man with support stockings and a perpetually blank facial expression.

For the most part, the melancholy Madame Stay-Puft kept to herself, but La Femme Boris roved the corridors with a petty ruthlessness that would have made Nurse Ratched come off like Kathie Lee Gifford. I soon discovered that the meekest request to the head provodnitsa -- a tea bag, or a roll of toilet paper -- invariably resulted in a spittle-flecked Russian tirade so merciless that I eventually hid out in my cabin in an attempt to avoid her entirely.

The problem with this isolationist strategy, of course, is that sooner or later one has to go to the toilet.

A quick look at an Ulan Bator-Irkutsk train timetable reveals a glaring inconsistency in the schedule. Whereas, say, the 100 miles from Ulan Bator to Zuun Kharaa is listed at a fairly reasonable three hours -- the tiny 14-mile stretch from Suhkbaatar, Mongolia, to Naushki, Russia, weighs in at no less than 16 hours and 13 minutes. This is because the train arrives in Suhkbaatar late at night, and the border customs station doesn't open until mid-morning.

Unfortunately, my cabin-mates and I never bothered to check the timetable while we were waiting at the border. In what seemed like a good idea at the time, Dan, James, Mark and I numbed the boredom of Suhkbaatar by quaffing several bottles of Admiral Kolchak lager for breakfast. This was great fun, until we realized that the train toilets -- which empty directly onto the tracks -- are kept locked for sanitary reasons at all stops. We'd been allowed out of the train for pee breaks the night before, but -- since we were in the middle of a tedious customs process -- we had no such luck in the morning.

By noon, we were all prone in our berths, cradling our bladders in agony.

When the train finally lurched into motion after the 15-hour wait, we stampeded for the toilet. La Femme Boris was there waiting for us -- along with half the other passengers in our car.

Since I don't understand Russian, I'm not sure what the provodnitsa's rationale was for barring us from the toilets for the 14-mile transit into Russia, but her eyes -- which were lit with the righteous fire found only in true prophets and petty bureaucrats -- said it all. My companions pleaded with her in English, but I beat a path back down to the other end of the rail car. There, the sad-faced Madame Stay-Puft stood -- keys in hand -- in front of the small private lavatory reserved for the provodnitsas.

"Toilette!" I implored, hoping she understood.

The assistant provodnitsa held a finger in front of her face. "Nyet!" she said somberly.

"Da! Da! Toilette!"




"Da!" I insisted, desperate.

Before Madame Stay-Puft could "nyet" me again, the lavatory door opened, and a startled-looking Russian man stepped out. Seizing the moment, I sprang into the toilet, pulled the door shut and locked the bolt. Madame Stay-Puft pounded on the lavatory door as I tremblingly dropped my pants and loosed the flood-gates -- her protests fading from my consciousness with each second I stood over the rattling metal bowl.

Never before can I recall deriving such transcendent satisfaction from such a simple activity. If God is in the details, then my triumphant moment in the lavatory was communion itself: a prosaic psalm, humbly praising our Creator for dreaming up the urethra. Perhaps Madame Stay-Puft was livid when I emerged from the toilet, but I don't recall: I had emptied my bladder and been filled with the Spirit. I walked back to my berth as blissful and impervious as Shadrach in Nebuchadnezzar's furnace.

I noticed a stark contrast in my train cabin upon return. Dan and James occupied the bottom bunks, miserably coiled into fetal positions. Mark, on the other hand, gave me a wink and grinned from the top bunk, nonchalantly swinging his legs back and forth.

The Admiral Kolchak bottles, I noticed, were no longer empty.

After completing the paperwork formalities at the Naushki stop, our train car emptied out in a matter of seconds. Mark and I lolled in the cabin, giggling at the sight of Dan, James, and the rest of the train passengers sprinting for the Naushki Station toilets. After a few minutes of congratulating each other on winning the Trans-Siberian Toilet Battle of 1999, Mark and I were interrupted by Madame Stay-Puft. Standing imposingly outside our door, she gestured at us to leave.

"No worries," Mark said to her. "We don't need to use the toilet." This gave us both a chuckle, but the assistant provodnitsa just scowled and kept gesturing. Still giddy, Mark and I got up to leave.

"Let's just hope she doesn't steal our supply of cold, delicious Admiral Kolchak while we're gone," I said, to Mark's amusement, as we walked down the corridor.

La Femme Boris met us on the tracks as we climbed out of the train. "Back! Here!" she barked, holding up four fingers.

"What, four o'clock?" I said.

The head provodnitsa shoved her fingers under my nose and glared at me. "Here!" she repeated.

"I guess she wants us back at 4:00 then," Mark said.

Exactly two hours later -- not long after having inspected some old Soviet tanks with James -- we returned to find the train gone. It was not a minute later than 3:50.

The Trans-Siberian Toilet Battle of 1999, it appeared, had suddenly escalated into a war.

By the time a small Mongolian woman named Monika had talked us into hiring a large Russian man named Igan to drive us to our Ulan Ude cutoff point, the train had been gone for nearly an hour and a half.

Mark, James and I sat in the Lada and pondered our odds as Igan filled the car with gas. I had the shotgun seat; the Brits shared the back.

"So are we in favor of this, then?" Mark said suddenly.

"What do you mean?" I said. "We've already paid half the money. He's almost filled us up with gas. Of course we're in favor of it."

"I know," Mark said. "I just have a bad feeling about this all of a sudden."

"But Monika said she had a good feeling about this guy."

"Monika had a good feeling, but this is Russia, not bloody Kansas. For all we know, she's in on it."

"In on what?"

"In on a bullet in your head and mine. Russians think Westerners are filthy rich. Think about it: This is Siberia. Nobody will miss us if he drives us over to his mates' place and blows our brains out."

"That will never happen, Mark."

"Says who? We're dealing with Russians here! I say we vote on whether to keep going with this guy."

Mark, a normally confident 26-year-old graphic artist from England, was beginning to worry me. Somewhere, I had read that 38 percent of all Russians live below a poverty line of $20 a month. The figures for Siberian Russians had to be even more dire. If Igan wanted to, he could indeed kill us all and make a year's profit. But by that same logic, our $26 fare would certainly fill his coffers handsomely -- and murder is not something one does on a whim, even in Siberia.

"OK," I said. "If you want to vote, I vote to have Igan drive us to Ulan Ude."

"I vote to quit now and wait for the next train," Mark said. "I'm willing to cover all the money we've already paid up front."

"We'll look like a bunch of freaks if we do that!" I protested.

"We'll look like freaks with bullets in our heads."

Mark and I turned to our tie-breaker, James -- a 19-year-old Hong Kong native on his way to a London law school. James silently looked at us, obviously uncomfortable at being the swing voter. "Let's just go," he said finally. "I think we'll be fine."

"I have a bad feeling about this," Mark grumbled.

Igan eventually returned to the car, and we left Naushki. For the first 20 minutes, nobody uttered a word. I was just getting comfortable with the silence when Mark piped up from the back seat.

"What did the driver just do?" he said.

"I don't know," I replied. "He threw something out the window."

"I think it was a cigarette."

"Yeah, it was probably a cigarette. So?"

"So, don't you think that was a little strange? He hadn't even smoked it."

"Well, I also saw him take a 10-kopeck coin from the ashtray and throw it out the window. Maybe he's just bored."

"He could be bored, or maybe he's nervous."

"Nervous about what?"

"I don't know."

"Then why worry, Mark? Sheez." I fell silent for a moment, knowing that I couldn't even be sure if were headed in the right direction. All the road signs were lettered in Cyrillic; for all I knew Igan was driving us to Vladivostok to sell us into slavery.

"So, James," I said, determined to defuse my own creeping paranoia. "What makes you want to study law?"

Fully aware of my clumsy play at changing the subject, James took a long moment before answering. "I'm not really sure," he said finally. "I don't know if law is what I want to do, to be quite honest."

"Well, what's your dream, then? Where do you see yourself in a perfect future?"

"I'm not sure, exactly, but I know I'd like to live in fantastic opulence."

"What, like Hugh Hefner or something?" Across from me, Igan had just put a fresh cigarette in his mouth.

"Not at all," James said. "I mean opulence like the gardens of Versaille or the Czarist Winter Palace at Peterhof. I'd want my riches to be excessive and Baroque."

"It'd be impossible to zone a Versaille in the industrialized world," I said. "As close as you could get to that these days would be to buy an island in the Caribbean."

At this, Igan tossed his unlit cigarette out the window. Mark seemed about to snap. "I told you I had a bad feeling about this," he said, his voice angry. "Could you two please cut out the chit-chat?"

"Why?" I said. "I assure you the driver has better things to do than to kill us."

"I've only had this feeling two other times in my life, Rolf."


"And what?"

"And what happened the two other times?"

Mark didn't reply to this; James' face went blank. It was a couple of beats before I registered what had happened.

Igan had just stopped the car.

Monika's words rang in my head: "Just don't let him stop the car, and you'll be safe." I imagined Igan pulling a Glock out from under the driver's seat and blasting my brains all over the upholstery. No doubt Mark and James were thinking the exact same thing.

Before any of us could react, Igan slammed the Lada into reverse. Backing us into a ditch, he put the car into gear, pointed the front end 45-degrees from the road, and sent us bumping across a field of dirt. As Igan began to arc back to the left, I noticed a look of terror in his eyes. Then it dawned on me.

Igan was not going to kill us; Igan was taking us around a stretch of poorly marked road construction. Furthermore, Igan was afraid. What he was afraid of, I'm not exactly sure -- but, knowing Monika, I strongly suspect he was told he wouldn't get the other half of his money if he ever stopped the car.

Flooring the gas pedal across the dusty field, Igan's face broke into relief as we bumped back onto the blacktop.

During his pioneering Arctic voyages of the early 1700s, Danish explorer Vitus Bering confessed that "you never feel safe when you have to navigate in waters that are completely blank." Having seen Igan's moment of panic, my companions and I emerged from the blankness: We finally had a human indicator by which to navigate our own emotions. The issue of Igan's integrity was summarily dropped, Mark and I stopped making each other nervous and we actually began to enjoy the ride.

In a way, missing the train was a gift, since it allowed us to experience a part of Siberia few Westerners ever see. In the land beyond the tracks, Siberian life took on a sleepy pace amid dense taiga forests and along broad mountain basins. Dovetail-jointed log cabins sat at the roadside, their window-shutters freshly painted sky-blue. Long-haired girls in homemade dresses carried baskets across fields. Buryats -- Siberia's original, Asiatic inhabitants -- roared past us on motorcycles. Concrete bunkers with heavy steel doors (Oil pipeline valve stations? Roadside emergency shelters? Nuclear war evacuation tunnels?) appeared at 6-mile intervals. Log-cabin villages with wooden-spired Orthodox churches appeared in the river valleys. A brightly painted Buryat Buddhist shrine, still under construction, sat by the roadside. Ducks and herons frolicked near the rivers; a lone elk jogged across a distant hill.

Igan said nothing the whole time, taking his eyes from the road only to toss cigarettes and kopeck coins out the window. We eventually deduced that he did this -- perhaps in deference to local shamanist superstitions -- only when he was passing another car or negotiating a dangerous mountain curve.

We arrived at Ulan Ude just after 7:00 that evening -- nearly four hours after our train had abandoned us at Naushki. Hastily handing a relieved-looking Igan the rest of his money, we rushed into Ulan Ude Station to check the train schedule reader board. Train No. 263, I noticed, was due to arrive at 17:15 and depart at 17:30.

"Perfect!" I exclaimed. "17:15. That means the train should be here in just a few more minutes."

Mark and James stared at me without a trace of enthusiasm. "17:15 means 5:15," James said quietly. "Not 7:15. The train left nearly two hours ago."

Crestfallen -- trembling with adrenaline withdrawal -- the three of us walked into downtown Ulan Ude to change dollars into rubles and find something to eat.

Ulan Ude, a Buryat regional capital of 400,000 souls, proved to be a colorful, bustling, ethnically diverse city. Vintage electric streetcars rattled down its avenues, Western-style supermarkets graced its downtown and a suburban airport promised a last-ditch fail-safe method of catching up with our train. Since there seemed to be no other immediate choices, my companions and I bought some food, scouted out some hotels and returned to Ulan Ude Station to inquire about the next train to Irkutsk.

James, our language specialist, immediately went to work at the station information booth. The clerk spoke only Russian, but was able to direct James to a German-speaking army officer.

"We need to find the next train to Irkutsk," James said in German to the officer.

James frowned at the officer's response and looked over at Mark and me. "He says train No. 263 will come soon. That doesn't make any sense."

James turned back to the officer and pointed to the reader board. "Train No. 263 left for Irkutsk hours ago," he intoned in German.

The Russian army officer laughed and gave a brief reply. Suddenly grinning, James looked at us and translated: "All Russian train schedules run on Moscow time. Moscow is five time-zones behind us. Our train won't be here for at least another hour and a half!"

Mark and I let out a whoop of relief that echoed off the insides of Ulan Ude Station.

* * *

Train No. 263 pulled into Ulan Ude just after 10:30 that night. Dan and a handful of Swiss, Kiwis and Canadians greeted our return with a hearty round of applause. Apparently, the provodnitsas had few fans -- and our abandonment at Naushki had turned into quite a scandal among the non-Russian passengers. As we walked up the train car corridor, La Femme Boris and Madame Stay-Puft were conspicuously absent.

Sometime around midnight, I was strolling the corridor when La Femme Boris emerged from her berth and sternly waved me inside. Dispatching her glum-faced assistant to some unseen duty, the head provodnitsa handed me a cup of tea and glowered. Madame Stay-Puft returned with an English-speaking Russian passenger who announced she had been recruited as a translator.

"The provodnitsa says she is not responsible for what happened at Naushki," the translator told me. "You should have known about the time-zone change. It's your own fault the train left without you."

This was an obvious red herring. Even with the change of time zone, the provodnitsa had clearly misled us. Having already planned for this scenario, however, I decided to forgo argument and play my trump card.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," I said to the translator. She passed this along to La Femme Boris, who spit out a furious Russian reply.

The translator turned back to me. "She insists that it was a time-zone problem. It's entirely your own fault the train left without you and your friends."

"But the train didn't leave without us," I said, putting on my best expression of befuddled innocence. "We've been on the train this whole time. Are you sure she checked the dining car?"

I waited just long enough to see a bewildered expression crease the head provodnitsa's face as the Russian woman translated.

Then I sauntered back to my cabin and went to bed.

The train trip was not over -- among other things, a mind-numbing 81-hour ride from Irkutsk to Moscow still lay ahead. But for that moment, I could revel in the fact that the Glorious Trans-Siberian Toilet War was officially over.

And I -- in my own estimation, at least -- had emerged triumphant.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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