Yesterday I spent the day in a place called Gastello, situated just outside Poronaysk about 280km north of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. I’d travelled up the night before on the same train I took to Nogliki in July, only this time I wasn’t in the business class carriage. My travel was courtesy of one of the oil companies, who for security reasons reserve an entire carriage at the front of the train and employ a moody security guard with hideous shoes to ensure nobody comes in who isn’t suppposed to.
The journey to Poronaysk takes 7 hours, at an average speed of 40km per hour, and the train gets in shortly before midnight. The train back from Poronaysk also leaves at around midnight, thus cleverly ensuring that few outsiders see the place in daytime; I am led to believe that there are few completer shitholes on Sakhalin Island than Poronaysk, which is nothing more than a small fishing port. I found myself sharing a compartment with two Russian men, neither of whom could speak English, which was good in a way because I could practice my Russian, something I’ve not done properly for a while. Sometime before nightfall the guard came around asking if anyone wanted to play him at chess, and I unwisely accepted. Twenty minutes, two games, and two wins to him later, he picked up his board and pieces and went off in search of some decent opposition.
The drive from Poronaysk to Gastello takes about 20-30 minutes, and drivers have two options: drive along the road and risk destroying your suspension, or drive along the beach which has been washed smooth by the sea. It says something about the state of Russian roads that people prefer driving along a beach than taking the highway. At first when our driver whisked us onto the beach, which was bathed in the light of a full moon, we wondered where the hell he was going, but on Sakhalin Island it is wise to not worry about strange behaviour and better to just allow events to unfold. Needless to say we arrived where we were supposed to.
As our train back was leaving after midnight, we thought it would be a good idea to pop into the local hotel in Poronaysk and have a beer in the small bar located inside. Unsurprisingly for a Wednesday night in Russia, the place was full of people – almost all in their 20s – drinking heavily. Equally unsurprisingly, after a few minutes one of the young men, who was completely drunk, wanted me to join him and his mate at the bar. The invitation came after the following conversation, which took place in Russian:
Him: Ah, Michael Jordan!
Me: Eh? WTF? Oh, yeah, Michael Jordan. Ha ha!
Him: Something something Michael Jordan.
Me: Do you know Michael Jordan?
Him: Yes, I know him very well.
Me: Oh. Splendid.
Him: Something something facists.
Me: Eh? WTF?
Him: Facists! You know, Hitler!
Me: Oh, yeah. Facists. Yeah, facists. Yeah.
For reasons which my readers might find strange, I declined his invitation to join him, which led to him twice coming up to me afterwards and, clearly offended, say things to me which made our initial conversation sound like a public reading of Shakespeare. It was in this bar that I tried to order a vodka and orange, but they had run out of orange juice. It seems they ran out of change as well, because the woman behind the bar made no attempt to return my 100 Roubles to me in the 15 minutes between me handing her a 500 Rouble note and my leaving to catch the train.
The journey back entailed me having to do one of those things I’d always hoped I’d never have to do: enter a 4-berth Russian railway carriage which has 3 people sleeping in it already, and the spare bed – inevitably a top bunk – is piled high with the others’ luggage, the space between the beds has a suitcase in it, and there is no sign of your own bedding. At least the oil company’s carriage had people in it more patient and understanding than a carriage full of ordinary Russians trying to sleep off a hangover, so after a fair bit of clambering, heaving, and sweating, I managed to get 3 hours sleep.