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Rolling Through the Years: Love and Peace on the Russian Railways

Anyone who has ever travelled through Russia by train will have found themselves as regular, if reluctant, users of the rolling restaurant cars.

There really is nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do, so no matter how bad the food, or awful the service, one is somehow compelled to return night after night.

Perhaps it’s this absolute reliance on the places that leads to a strange flowering of respect, even love, for the people who run them. Or maybe it’s more like a form of Stockholm syndrome, or something to do with the cheapness of the vodka on offer.

It’s hard to know how the people behind the counters find themselves rattling back and forth through Siberia for a living — but they certainly never come via catering college or any charm school.

But somehow, when you finally step off the train, there’s a twinge of sadness. Somehow the filthy thumb that always smeared the soup over the lip of your bowl will take on a glow of nostalgia. You’ll smile fondly at the memory of their irrational outbursts of anger. Shake your head wistfully as you recall their constant attempts to overcharge you.

When I travelled between Moscow and Harbin, China, in 2013, I wrote about my dining car hosts just at the very moment I was beginning to fall under their strange spell:

The filthiest couple in the world have somehow found themselves in charge of the restaurant car in train number 20 of the Trans Manchurian express.

I don’t know their names, I wouldn’t dare ask, but I’ve come to think of them Mr and Mrs Grimski.

Most sleeping carriage attendants have little to occupy their time on these long journeys — apart from terrorising the passengers — so turn their hand to the most meticulous cleaning and polishing. Before each stop they lay cotton runners along the corridors to prevent dirty feet soiling the passageway carpet. The samovars are always gleaming and any daytime nap is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a vacuum cleaner, the head thrusting back and forth through the compartment door.

But Mr and Mrs Grimski have been in this game for too long to worry about such details. The toilet on their carriage, for reasons best not discussed, has been out of order for several months, so it can safely be locked and forgotten. The carpet has long since achieved a durable shine; now lacquered down with layers of dirt and grease it repels all further contamination. Everything else takes care of itself. The curtains hang stiffly in the windows, just as though they’d been recently starched, customers tend to wipe clean their own little corner of the plastic table covers, and the leather-effect seats are just the right shade of reddish brown to hide any stain.

With the housekeeping taken care of in such a way, it’s a rare day that anybody troubles the kitchen. I’d imagine that, being so unused, it remains perfectly clean under a smooth layer of protective dust.

The couple themselves were probably a handsome pair on their wedding day. A shadow of beauty can still be detected on her round face and a faint light still glows behind her tired eyes. He hasn’t lost his lazy swagger, nor the bootleg aviator sunglasses that so impressed her when they first met all those years ago.

But they’re still in love, so who needs To wash? They don’t notice that their hands are permanently blackened with coal dust, or the mysterious greyness that migrates from their hair, down their necks and onto their collars.

Their clothes — well, what of them? They’re government property — and while their bosses may change with predictable regularity, new uniforms turn up in their own good time.

But I like Mr and Mrs Grimski. For a married couple of so many years their conversation together is easy, fluent and good-natured.

What’s more, because of their management policies, the restaurant car is a haven of absolute peace and quiet, and they usually let me smoke with my evening beer.