I did not expect to be in Siberia for Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Which is to say, I’d known for a few months that I’d be in Siberia on Jan. 20, 2017. I just thought I’d be missing Hillary Clinton’s inauguration instead. That thought had made me a little sad. Seeing the first woman president of the United States sworn in, it was a moment in history I hadn’t wanted to miss. But there was always YouTube, I told myself, and when opportunities come up to go someplace like Siberia and take the Trans-Siberian Railway, the world’s longest railway route, all the way from Vladivostok to Moscow, I take them.
I’m not going to pretend to be neutral here: On Nov. 8, when it became clear Trump would be president, I raged. I cried. I felt numb. I did not want to accept that an extremely accomplished, strong, smart woman had lost to a sexist, racist reality TV star. It was really too on the nose.
I sure didn’t want to see Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Spending Inauguration Day in Siberia seemed like a great idea. It was far away, a place associated with cold, exile and gulags, with a potential for isolation — could we even get the internet on the Trans-Siberian Railway? I liked the idea that we were going at the coldest time of the year. Dealing with the cold would give me something to focus on other than the reality of a President Trump.
Also, there was the whole Trump/Putin bromance, Russia hacked our election deal, and I’m a sucker for cheap irony.
I traveled with a good friend and her mom, whose parents were both born in Russia. The idea of this trip, besides taking the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way from beginning to end (or maybe it was the other way around, given we started in Vladivostok), was visiting some of the places Olga’s family had lived and worked in. Ulan Ude and Irkutsk were two of those places, on opposite ends of Lake Baikal, so those would be our stops between Vladivostok and Moscow.
Siberia, you should know, is beautiful, at times breathtakingly gorgeous, from our train a succession of little towns with brightly painted, steep-roofed wooden houses, onion-domed churches, frozen rivers, endless birch and pine forests frosted with snow, vistas of ice, all under a bluebird sky.
I slept through Trump’s inauguration, as our train rumbled through snow-covered villages, a modest city or two. When I woke up, there were notifications on my phone (it turns out you can get internet over data along most of the Trans-Siberian Railway route), informing me that “Donald Trump Has Been Inaugurated 45th President of the United States.” I didn’t want to use the data to click on the articles.
Shortly after that, we arrived in Ulan-Ude, capital of the Buryatia Republic. Buryats, a Mongolian people, make up close to a third of the population of Buryatia, and Ulan-Ude is an interesting-looking city, with its mix of Mongolian, old Russian and Soviet architecture. Ulan-Ude also has the world’s largest Lenin head, something to put on your list.
First post-inauguration Donald Trump sighting: On a TV in the lobby of the Hotel Geser in downtown Ulan-Ude. I made a face, shook my head. The Buryat desk clerk grinned, not meeting my eyes. I like to think she agreed with me.
“Congratulations on your new president,” said our guide for the day. She was an elegant Buryat, middle-aged, with impossibly round, prominent cheekbones, like half-plums.
“Oh no,” my friend Christy and I chorused. “We don’t like him. He is very bad for our country.” We went on. Our guide seemed shocked for a moment. “Well, it is worth celebrating a peaceful transition,” she said, smiling.
We managed to have a Trump-free trip until we left Irkutsk and boarded the train for Moscow. This would be our longest stretch on the train -- four nights and four days. It turned out to be the oldest of the trains we traveled on, with suspension that approximated a bouncy castle. On the plus side, at least for the first few days it wasn’t as stiflingly hot as these trains can get —while you are trundling through Siberia and it’s -30F outside, it’s often semi-tropical inside the train’s compartments, with some women wearing butt-hugging short shorts and a few men going topless.
We were the only Americans we saw on this entire trip and just about the only tourists. Of course on a long trip without a lot of better things to do, we attracted some attention. I shared cat photos with a sweet carriage attendant while waiting for the bathroom at 4:30 a.m. (she worked the night shift). But it was a trio of Russian guys who were most interested in talking to us.
And they wanted to talk about Trump.
[jwplayer file="http://media.salon.com/2017/04/eb8b50d05b60873fbf3ba8379e5c06bd.mp4" image="http://media.salon.com/2017/04/de61622ca8f1deffcb62adf66884aa17-1280x720.png"][/jwplayer]
It started with Inna, the sweet carriage attendant. Who did I like better, Trump or Obama? A tall Uzbek kid recently graduated from high school helped translate — he had a good Russian/English dictionary app on his smartphone. Obama, I replied.
A Russian guy popped his head out from his compartment. “Trump!” he said, making a thumbs-up gesture. He was in his thirties, a sleek and wiry man with dark, slightly feral good looks. He seemed to know this by the way he would pose, a study in taut relaxation.
“Trump . . . he has become crazy,” I said. Well, more accurately, the Russian phrasebook on my phone said. It was the best I could come up with.
“He’s rich!” the man said, translated by my Uzbek friend.
“His father’s money,” I replied.
“Why did you Americans vote for him?” the Uzbek wanted to know.
“Most of us did not,” I said.
He seemed sympathetic.
Later, the Russian guy, Nicolai, and two of his friends, Alexander and Igor, also in their thirties, came into our compartment. Alexander and Nicolai were truck drivers for Gazprom (Russia’s huge and partially government-owned natural gas company). Alexander, tall and pale, wore his blond hair in a sort of bowl cut, his eyes dark-circled, maybe from the cigarettes he constantly smoked. Igor was short, the shape of a small barrel, with a tanned face, shaved head and brown eyes that seemed warm. He was in the military. I’m not sure which branch.
It started off like this: I made the mistake of demonstrating my one solid Russian sentence: “I like Russian beer.” Friends, do not do this. Because what will happen is, a Russian guy will go down to the dining car and return with three cans of Baltika 7s for the American ladies in the compartment, along with cheaper Polish beers for themselves and a plastic water bottle full of vodka for everyone to share.
The reason for the plastic water bottle turned out to be that it is not exactly legal to drink alcohol in your train compartment, or at least that it was problematic for reasons we couldn’t determine. One of the carriage attendants -- a stern-faced older woman with a poof blonde hairdo -- came in at one point and scolded us: “The police are here!”
We all hid our beer cans like guilty teenagers.
We tried to offer the Russians beer in return, an imperial stout we’d bought at a craft beer bar in Irkutsk that came from a microbrewery in Krasnoyarsk, which is the third-largest city in Siberia. They refused the beer, but Igor in particular was quite interested in the label, a moody black-and-white image that turned out to be a missile launcher in a grove of birch trees.
Alexander showed us pictures of his two kids, a 10-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl. He took particular pride in sharing photos of his son in a martial arts uniform, practicing kicks and punches. Igor had pictures of his niece. Also many shots of jet planes and missiles.
It was at times a confusing couple of hours. They didn’t speak English, and of the three of us, only Olga spoke Russian, and not all that much. So the conversation proceeded with Olga translating what she could, the use of various dictionary apps and a lot of miming.
Igor was fascinated by my hair. He kept saying my hair “was like an Indian,” meaning a Native American, which he confirmed by doing a stereotypical war whoop, several times. He’d reach over and touch my hair to emphasize his fascination. For the record, my hair is longish, a mix of brown, blonde and silver, which I don’t color, and it’s parted on the side. I have no explanation for how this made me have “hair like an Indian,” particularly when Christy has long black hair that’s parted down the middle. You’d think she would be the one who had “Native American hair.” Instead, Igor kept saying he wanted Christy to stay so he could marry her, at times putting his arm around her. It’s possible he was a little drunk, but I’m pretty sure they all were.
And they all liked Trump. Nicolai liked that Trump was rich. Igor liked that Trump was strong — unlike Obama, whom he characterized as “Mickey Mouse.” Christy and I said we did not like Trump, that he was bad for America and for the world, that he’s crazy, that he got his money from his father — none of that mattered to these men. Trump likes Russia, and that was enough.
Why does CNN show such anti-Russian propaganda?, Alexander wanted to know. “Libya, Iraq, Syria -- why do Americans think Russia is always the aggressor?” he asked mournfully. Why does “the black” Obama (that was Olga’s translation) blame them for everything?
Russia is a good country, Russians are good people, Putin has made things better, they said. It was hard for me to know how to reply, but then, I couldn’t speak their language.
I tried. I said, “You are Russian. You like Putin. That is up to you.” I gave them a thumbs up. “I am American. I don’t like Trump.” But they were not interested in hearing what I thought about my own president.
It didn’t matter that we said repeatedly how much we loved Russia, how beautiful we thought it was, how much we were enjoying our travels. Why did Americans have such negative opinions of Russia, they wanted to know? Why did they have so little understanding of what Russia is like? “We have no bears on the streets,” Alexander said, several times.
Why do Americans think Russia is bad?
Why don’t we love them?
Igor showed us more photos of planes and missiles. Russia would never use them, he insisted. We shouldn’t worry. "We're not going to start Big Fire” -- meaning a nuclear war.
“You are a very interesting person,” Alexander said to me. “You should study Russian. It is a very interesting language.”
“I want to,” I told him. “For my next trip.”
We had to toast to the veterans of wars at one point. You have to stand up to do this, and you do not clink your glasses. It is too solemn for that. Igor mentioned Stalingrad. “Only 1 percent survived,” he said.
Eventually, the three men drifted out. But Igor returned later with some tea that he wanted us to have. The tea helps you sleep and makes you strong, Igor told us.
The strict blonde train attendant passed by, looked in the compartment and saw that we were drinking tea. She smiled approvingly.
We spent at least 20 minutes trying to determine what a series of American movies Igor wanted to discuss were. He had the DVDs at home. The films might have featured Jon Bon Jovi. And a missing hand. And creatures with teeth. And possibly shooting.
We never did figure it out.
* * *
We finished up our travels in Saint Petersburg, a lovely city with so much art and history that a few days can’t possibly do it justice. On our last night, we visited the taproom of one of Russia’s better-known craft breweries. Chatting with one of the beer-tenders, who spoke excellent English, I mentioned the imperial stout we’d had on the train. I showed him a photo I’d taken of the label, the one with the missile launcher in a grove of birch trees.
He studied the photo and shook his head. “We avoid these kind of subjects for our labels, anything political. We get enough politics outside, we can’t get away from politics, with Putin.”
I lifted my glass in a toast. I sympathized. Unlike Russians, I don’t have to worry too much about my political opinions getting me arrested, or worse. But I can’t get away from politics either, not even in Siberia.