14.9.08

ALL POWER TO THE PROVODNITSA. En route to Gori and beyond, Michael Totten encounters train service to the khanates, which brings back memories of the Evil Empire.
I didn't know it at the time, but the train I took from Baku to Tbilisi is identical to the train you'll see in the nail-biting thriller Transsiberia currently playing in theaters and starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley. The film takes place almost entirely on a Russian train from Beijing to Moscow. Whoever wrote and directed the movie is familiar with the train system in the former Soviet Union and took pains to get even the small details right. The film was shot on one of the these trains. I recognized the cheap wood paneling, the formica tray tables, the broken light switches, and the dirty windows that wouldn’t open.
I must make time to see this movie.

Some of the train staff remember their Cold War era doctrine, when any foreigner riding the strategically important railroads was a spy, and anyone taking any interest in the railroad's operations was a particularly clumsy spy.
The severe and bullying women who run these trains and watch over the passengers like prison guards are portrayed with precision. They bark orders at every passenger and seem beaten down as if they’re treated the same way by their superiors. They stare holes through you if you smile and act as though your very existence is an offense that may get you thrown off the train at any moment.
It's a very different experience from being a guest on a private train, with two sleeping car attendants and a glass of tea in a metal holder first thing in the morning.

Mr Totten enlists the help of a local to engage in some proper speculation.

He summoned the angry attendant and spoke to her in Russian.

“She wants to know if you have ten manats,” he said. Ten Azeri manats is about twelve American dollars. I sighed, pulled a ten manat note out of my pocket, and handed it over. Then she nodded as if to say I could move wherever I wanted without being harassed.

I walled myself off in my private compartment and edited a long essay that will soon appear in a quarterly magazine. The air conditioning had kicked on and the train was finally comfortable. Then I let myself be rocked to sleep by the wide swaying of the old communist train as we slowly made our way to the border with Georgia.

Border crossings still have the old thrill of the long delays for careful inspection (the better part of a day to move ten miles from Erlian to Dzamyn Uud, with the added risk of being shot.

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