The train came to a halt with a jerk. I woke-up to find that it was already morning and people were up and roaming. I was on the upper berth, so I lowered my head over the edge to see through the window. We were at some station; probably already out of Uzbekistan, because the train had been running for about ten hours now.
Turning back from the window I saw the English speaking woman, who was already up and sitting in her seat. I said hello to her and we exchanged usual pleasantries. Talking to her, I jumped down from my berth, and woke Faisal up as well, because I had to get my bag out, from under his berth, to take my toiletries.
Although we were not in a first class car, but the service was not all that bad. The conductor had given us fresh sheets, blanket and a towel, for a small extra fee.
Taking my toilet amenities and towel I prepared to go to the bathroom, when our co-passenger told me that the washroom would be closed as long as the train was in the station.
I sat down, and instead started a conversation with her: “My name is Ali. What’s your name?”
“I am Maria.”
“My friend here is Faisal. We are from Pakistan. It is our first time here, so we do not know even a single word of Russian. It was quite a pleasant surprise to know that you spoke English. If you don’t mind telling, what do you do?”
She replied: “I am a school teacher. I teach English. I am not from Uzbekistan also. I am from Moldova.”
She cleared the mystery a little. This explained her knowledge of English. I continued: “I haven’t met many people, who speak English in this part of the world. Why is that so? I know that the level of education in the Soviet Union was quite high.”
She nodded positively and said: “You are right. The level of education is high, but we never had many chances of meeting foreigners before. Everybody studies English at school. Well nearly everybody, because some people learn other languages, like German and French. That’s the reason why most of the people, never had a chance to speak. And to tell you the truth most of them are shy, when it comes to speaking English.”
“Well you have nothing to be shy of. You are quite proficient in your speech.”
“Thank you. I think my job has a lot to do with my ability to speak English.”
I moved my head in agreement, and turned the vector of conversation: “If I am not wrong, you are travelling with your husband”, and I pointed to the man sleeping on the upper berth: “and your child?”
She said: “Yes. Up there is my husband Alexei, and this is my son Sasha.”
I asked: “You say your name is Maria. But last night I heard your husband calling you something different. Or maybe I just heard it wrong?”
She smiled and said: “You heard it right. He calls me Masha…”
I interrupted: “Yes. Exactly, this was the word, Masha. So do you have two names?”
Her smile broadened and she explained: “Well in Russia everybody has their name and their, what you can call, nickname. Like Maria is Masha. My son’s name is Alexander, but we call him Sasha. Alexei is Lesha. Natalia is Natasha. Elena is Lena. Constantine is Kostya. Nicolai is Kolya. Lubov is Luba. Ludmila is Luda. Mikhail is Misha…”
I again interrupted: “I got the idea. This is interesting, because everywhere people have nicknames or better say shortened names. But it looks like in Russia all names are reduced.”
While we were still in our conversation, the train again started off with a jerk. This woke her husband up. He also peeked from up on his berth and said something to me in Russian. Maria translated: “He is saying good morning.”
I responded: “Good morning to you also. How do you say good morning in Russian?”
I tried to repeat, but it seemed that I could not pick up the nuances of the language, because every time I repeated “Dobry utro”, Masha tried to correct me. I tried to get hold of her pronunciation, but I was missing some link.
To escape the exhibition of my inability, I picked up my towel and turned to leave asking: “Which way is the washroom?”
She said: “There are washrooms on both ends, but you better go to the one on the right.”
“Thanks”, and with this I headed to the washroom. Had I known in advance, what was about to happen, I might had taken my bag and pillow with me to the washroom.
Faisal and I followed each other to the washroom to freshen up. As I came back first, before him, I took the two bottles of yogurt, and a packet of cookies, out of my bag and placed them on the table.
As Faisal came back, we sat down for breakfast. We cordially asked Masha, her husband, and her child to join us. They turned down the offer. Masha told us that soon the guy from the restaurant car would be serving breakfast, so they would wait for him.
Real hot breakfast with tea and coffee sounded very nice, and to tell you the truth, my metabolism was so great back then that I could take a second breakfast without any hesitation.
So we opened our bottles of yogurt (curd) and the contents went down the hatch. The taste was a little sour or bitter, than usual. But I knew that when you keep curd out of refrigerator for so long it tends to go sour. As per my taste buds, it was still consumable.
Looking at us pouring the contents of the bottle down our hatches, Masha asked: “Do you know what this is called in Russian?”
She said: “It is called “Kefir (Кефир)”
So now we knew that yogurt was Kefir in Russian. But believe me, we had no idea that although it was kefir, but it was far from being yogurt (curd). After the first sip Faisal rejected the idea of consuming any more of that sour yogurt, but I just ignored that slight displeasure and drank the whole thing.
It was very wholesome. I opened the pack of cookies and shared them with Sasha and his mother. The child was a little shy in the beginning, but after getting a go-ahead from his mother he helped me quickly run through the contents of that pack.
While we were still busy with cookies the guy from the restaurant-car came to our wagon, to take orders for food. For breakfast they were offering tea and some sort of soup. Since I had just gulped a whole liter of kefir, I just ordered tea for me, but Faisal ordered the soup also.
Within half an hour the waiter returned with our order of breakfast, or you can call it early lunch. All five of us sat across that small table and ate, while talking. By the time everyone finished their meal, I felt some discomfort in my stomach.
I excused myself and went to the washroom. While I was standing by the washroom door waiting for my turn, the discomfort increased manifold. It got so acute that I was having a hard time waiting, so I knocked on the door a couple of time to send the SOS.
What happened inside the washroom was the beginning of a serious issue. I had hardly returned to my seat, when I again felt nature’s call. I rushed back to the washroom. This time around I also vomited.
As I came back, Masha asked me: “Are you feeling alright?”
I said: “Not very. But I hope it’s nothing serious!”
I had hardly finished my sentence, when the urge to rush to the washroom resurged. This visit left me very exhausted. I had cold sweat. Coming back from the washroom, I excused myself and went up to my upper berth to rest.
I did manage to stay up there for more than ten minutes, but then I followed my path to the washroom in a great hurry. It felt that I would do a lot of jogging down that aisle for the remainder of my journey.
When I came back, I asked Masha: “Can you please ask the conductor if he has some medication for disturbed stomach?”
She went to the conductor. Coming back she told me: “The conductor has nothing of the sort, but he is saying that we will be stopping at a station in little more than an hour. He can call for a doctor.”
That sounded like a good idea. I requested her to arrange for the doctor at the next station.
At the station a nurse came aboard. She asked me about my condition with Masha’s help, and after gathering enough information gave a packet of tablets. There were black tablets in that wrapper. I asked: “What is it?”
Masha told me: “It is activated coal.”
The nurse was so beautiful that I had no problem taking anything from her hand, even black, dangerous looking tablets.
Under different circumstances I must had asked her to drink a lot of wine with me, but the current scenario ruled that out.
The train had to leave, so the nurse hurried off, waving me goodbye, and leaving me all alone with two men, a child and a married woman.
I took two of the black tablets with a lot of water. Faisal offered me to swap berths. I shifted my mattress to the lower berth and he shifted his to the upper one.
The train kept running, and I kept running to my favourite place in the train. Every visit to the washroom left me weaker than before.
The whole journey from Tashkent to Moscow was supposed to be of 68 hours. This meant that we had a lot of hours left on our hands, but my continuous runs made those hours longer than ever.
The whole car soon came to understand that I was sick. So whenever I would go to the washroom, they would let me use it out of queue.
The day and the following night were not so eventful, except for the repetition of one same event. But, for the first time I had a chance to feel the difference between the attitude of Soviet people and the Western people. Everybody in that car took turns to come to our section and ask me how I was feeling. It seemed as if I was a part of a large family, where everyone cared about me.
Except for that everyone had some homemade recipe to cure me. Those treatment ideas were all very interesting, but one of them was ultimate. A man, who might had been drinking since we left Tashkent, came to me with a bottle of vodka and insisted on getting me drunk. He explained millions of benefits of vodka using Masha’s services. He was so sure that if were to drink and switch-off under the influence, all my troubles would go away.
The offer was tempting, but ailment or no ailment, drinking with strangers during your journey is always a bad idea. So I turned down the idea saying that I didn’t drink at all.
The first night following my sickness, we once again called for a doctor. This time a doctor did come aboard. This doctor asked for what I was taking, and he seemed satisfied with the prescription. He also advised me to drink a lot of water, and left the car.
The only bottled water available on that train, and in fact in all of ex-Soviet Union, was Borjomi sparkling water. Believe me sparkling water is great with whisky, but when you have to drink a lot of sparkling water, you get fed-up.
Anyway, the train kept its course at designated speed, and my runs to my favourite place in the train kept getting more frequent.
The whole of next day passed without much change. The only change was in my looks. Now it was evident that I was drained out. I didn’t know for how long I could survive.
By the second evening I had problems standing up straight. For me the run to the washroom was no less than a repeated marathon. Those few steps seemed like eternity.
Late that night, we again called the doctor. The doctor came in and seeing my condition readily said: “We have to take him off the train. He needs to go to the hospital.”
Masha informed me of the doctor’s verdict. By that time Faisal was also exhibiting similar symptoms. His condition was not as bad as mine, but he was also suffering from the same ailment.
I asked Masha: “Where are we right now?”
“We are in Orenburg, in Russia.”
“How far are we from Moscow?”
“We are quite far away yet. We will get to Moscow only tomorrow evening.”
I turned to Faisal to get his opinion. He said that he was ok with getting off if it was ok with me.
I did not want to be stranded somewhere, God knows where, so I informed her: “In that case I am not getting off this train. Please ask the doctor to prescribe something that would help me get to our destination.”
The doctor was reluctant in agreeing with me. But, he left me to my own devices and got off the train.
Now my stomach, my intestines and all of the internal paraphernalia was aching. I was not rushing to the washroom as frequently as before. This was probably because I had not had anything to eat in the last more than 40 hours.
Keeping the whole car on their toes, I passed that night and good part of the next day in agony, before we stopped at a station. The conductor had already called for the doctor. As soon as the doctor came aboard, she did not hesitate in issuing her firm verdict: “He has to go to the hospital. He cannot continue any further.”
Masha told me about the doctor’s verdict. I asked the same question again: “How far are we from Moscow yet?”
The answer was quite comforting: “We are about 4 hours away.”
“What town is this?”
“This city is called Ryazan.”
By that time I was so weak that even the doctor’s good looks did not pump up the jam. I agreed to get off the train, because Faisal was also not well now.
We said good bye to Masha and her family, as well as all the passengers, who had been so supportive all the way. Faisal took both of the bags, because I could not lift anything.
We got off the train and went straight to the dispensary at the station. While we waited for the ambulance, the duty nurse took saliva samples. She also poked our behinds to attain some samples.
For the last more than two days we had forgotten about difficulties in communication, thanks to Masha, but at Ryazan station those problems came back to haunt us. The duty nurse could not understand us, so she called a policeman, who was probably known to be a foreign language ace. He came in and asked: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
Once again my response was similar: “No”.
At the hospital the paramedic team passed on all the information to the duty staff, and left us in the hands of scintillating nurses, who could not talk to us. After understanding that it was a futile exercise to try to make us understand anything, one of the nurses went out.
Soon she came back accompanied by a man in his mid-thirties. The man was wearing a white medical gown. He was around 175cm tall. He had dark brown hair and bright eyes. Walking at a fairly fast pace, he was actively talking to the nurse, most probably about us.
He came right up to me, and said: “Hello. I am Dr Last. Dr Alexander Last.”
To be continued…