- Food & Drink
The provodnitsa knocked on our cabin door and then slung it open with a wide smile and a cheery nod. If anyone tells you that the Russians are a dour, gloomy people, give them a kick in the shins. You couldn’t hope to meet a friendlier, perkier nation rampaging around The Caucuses and stealing all the sun loungers in Turkey.
Our provodnitsa was explaining something to us in Russian. Being British, we nodded along and smiled, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that we could only understand every 50th word. She finished, fixed us with a beaming, open-faced grin and waited. We smiled politely back. She sighed.
‘Chicken or fish?’
We were on the Baikal, train number 10 on the Trans-Siberian network, and on our way to Irkutsk. We’d had to buy catered tickets for 1 of our journeys and I’d assured DJ and Leonard that was for journey number 3. So we’d gone to the Omsk Happy Shopper and loaded ourselves up with bread, salami, spreadable cheese, pastries and Russian champagne. But the provodnitsa’s question suggested that we were about to enjoy some in-cabin catering.
Our carrier bag picnic was kicked under a seat and we anticipated the joy of (not exactly) free food. Provodnitsa number 2, a curly-haired Mrs Overall with a mania for vacuuming, brought round black carrier goody bags and bottles of water to add to the 41/2 litres of mineral water we’d brought with us. The risk of drowning in our cabin was surprisingly high that night and if the train had suddenly put on the breaks, at least one of us would have been bludgeoned to death by a Bonaqua avalanche.
The black bag contained tea, coffee, creamer, sugar, salt, jam, butter and a small bar of coffee flavoured chocolate. A bit disappointing, but after our Rossiya dining car experience, how could the main course disappoint?
DJ and I had opted for chicken. Leonard, who knows no fear, had gone for the unidentified fish. Our meal came in a styrofoam box – a bad sign. It contained rice (properly cooked, which is immediately better than rice you’d get on a British train), a greasy chicken portion, some dressing-strangled salad and gravel that had been mashed together to make bread. Leonard had exactly the same basics but with a glistening heap of warmed tinned salmon balanced on top of her rice.
Oh dear God, but it was bad. We were hungry, so we picked round it and then turned to the bottle of Russian champagne DJ had been cooling in a wet sock for consolation. The cooling method had actually worked and the wine was below body temperature, which was a plus. It smelt of petrol and tasted of sulphates, which was a negative.
The next morning, the provodnitsa pulled open our door, wrinkled her nose at us cutely and asked: ‘Yum yum?’ Why they hell not, we thought. The options were… chicken or fish. We all went for chicken.
I pride myself on being a strong-stomached sort of a person. Later in the holiday I proved this by chowing down on crickets and cicadas and even facing that Great Evil of the breakfast table, congee. But the greasy smell that accompanied the plastic boxes of chicken and rice had me crawling and writhing back under my bed sheets in pure physical horror. The chicken did not get eaten.
To add further insult, the nice coffee flavoured chocolate had been replaced by a Choco Pie, a travesty against both chocolate and pies for which someone deserves to have their fingers broken, their tongue split and their ears pulled off.
The meals were finally removed and I ate a delicious pastry filled with peanut caramel, which we’d bought in Omsk. The picnic we’d flung aside so joyfully was retrieved and deployed for lunch.
You can imagine the joy we felt when the provodnitsa popped her head round the door that evening to ask if we were ready for our final round of Yum Yum. I had gone mad by this point, ordered the fish and ate most of it. Do not despise me for it – pity me.
The next morning, bread rolls and peanut pastries were happily eaten in place of chicken or fish and we arrived in Irkutsk in need of sleep, a shower and vegetable matter. We had a tour around Lake Baikal and beer instead.