Trans Siberian World Cup

Photos and Text by Peter Dench

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By Peter Dench

Arriving in carriage number one, cabin number three of Trans Siberian train number 002 from Moscow to Vladivostok, I can touch all four bunks without stretching. I’m joined by Toni who immediately whips of his jeans revealing a pair of camouflage underpants before swiftly pulling on a bright pair of yellow FC Rostov football club shorts. Toni is 19 and serving in the Russian army bomb disposal unit. He is firm in his instructions and questions. “Make your bed. Put on your flip-flops. Sleep with your wallet and passport in your pocket. Always stay with your phone when charging it. Don’t put your pillow on the floor. Are you gay?” He isn’t the first Russian to ask me and wouldn’t be the last. Wearing a wedding ring and having one daughter isn’t convincing enough. Bringing David Niven’s autobiography along, The Moon’s a Balloon, with a cover photograph of a winking Niven wearing a tuxedo, white dickie bow and holding a cocktail wasn’t the wisest choice. A mother and son join us in cabin three and the four of us nestle in for the night. I lie awake terrified I might wet the bed (a legacy from my youth) and even more terrified the boy above might. He doesn’t move for the next 20 hours and I eventually have to check he’s breathing. 

On my way to the 32 seat restaurant car I meet Abdi, a Somalian born, English educated Arsenal fan living in Oslo. He brings along Marcus, a Leeds United fan living and working in London. We drink vodka as you often do on the first day of a trip, heavily. An uninvited Sergey wedges in alongside, a sniper in the Russian special forces, he is returning home to Vladivostok from a brutal tour of Syria. We drink more heavily. I ask Sergey if I can take his photograph? He says no. He drinks enough vodka to allow me to photograph his new special forces tattoo. Then he drinks enough to regret allowing me to photograph his new special forces tattoo. He waves an empty vodka bottle angrily about before sliding into a stupor, his head bobbing like a fishing float. The waitress, who delivers bowls of Borscht like she’s carrying fuse lit bombs, finds the nerve to guide Sergey towards his bunk, fortunately it’s in the opposite direction to mine. 

On another evening, after an enjoyable meal of pickled herring, boiled potatoes and fried onions, a man of Cossack origin sits opposite making jabbing gestures at his neck. On a third evening, a Mongolian man mountain joins my table, drinks three large vodkas then a large brandy, slams the glass down and bursts into tears.

I decide to photograph the length of the train and hope that Sergey is asleep. I lose count of the number of carriages on the way and on the way back. I’d estimate between 16 and 20, that’s a lot of sweaty feet. Children skip and play games along the corridors or dangle from whatever they can. Cigarettes are illegally smoked in the spaces between carriages. Conductors grab a nap or watch videos on their phone. The bright eyes of shaven young soldiers look far into the future.

On day four, Toni is feeling the strain. “I’m bored, let’s get drunk!” he exclaims, jabbing a finger in the air. We stop at Omsk for a luxurious 50 minutes and leave the station to stock up on fresh air and alcohol. Toni talks about his love of rap music, his belief in God, “you have to if you’re in bomb disposal” and being a bit of a naughty boy on the football terraces before signing up for the army. He points to a deep scar on his right shoulder from a FC Rostov hooligan tear up. After six litres of beer and one bottle of vodka, Toni plops face down onto his pillow and I totter to the restaurant car for a night cap and some canned peaches with whipped cream.

The highlight of the train journey, I’m excitedly informed, is passing Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world. It has gobsmacking vistas across deep blue waters and spectacular mountain ranges. Due to the night time snores, snorts and sneezes from my carriage companions, my best opportunity for sleep, is when they’re awake an Lake Baikal passes unnoticed.

When Toni disembarks at his destination I feel a bit teary. Witnessing his youth and vigour, I mourn the passing of mine. Returning to my cabin, Toni is abruptly replaced by Chong, a 67 year old, South Korean engineer. Chong has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and helped develop magnificent hotels but he can’t manage to clean his coffee mug or keep his bare feet off my bed. Bunk protocol has disintegrated and mine has become a free-for-all. Returning from the toilet, I find children sat eating noodles on it. I wake up and an old woman is knitting at the end of it. I want to be alone. In a country with a surface area roughly the size of Pluto, it shouldn’t be a problem but on the world’s longest train journey, it’s impossible.

On day six I give up exploring the train and stare at the world’s biggest country through the world’s flimsiest curtains from the world’s smallest bed. The setting sun kisses the roof of dirty shacks and will probably have an ulcer in the morning. A reel of tanks and military vehicles flicker past. Men fish waist deep in rivers, children flick out their middle finger. Cemeteries punctuate the landscape with a burst of blue paint. Long stemmed red flowers pout a silent fanfare. There are regiments of silver birch trees, burnt tress and broken trees. Women on station platforms sell armfuls of fish and jars of murky content. The train enters a tunnel and I nearly scream from the intense feeling of being double entombed.

When England kick off in the round of 16 against Colombia, fans in London are over twice as close to the game in Moscow than I am and I’m in the right country. As England midfielder Eric Dier heroically rolls his penalty spot kick past goalkeeper David Ospina Ramírez, sending England through to the World Cup quarter finals, my Trans Siberian seven day journey rolls to a halt in the gloom of Vladivostok. Relieved, I step off the train and into the outstretched arm of omnipresent Lenin. 

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