On Saturday night I got on my train to Irkutsk. I had just taken off my valenki when the train conductor came by and said, “We’re not going to Irkutsk tonight! I don’t know when we’ll go, but it won’t be tonight!” We all just sort of stood there in stunned silence as she told us that there had been a terrible train wreck down the line and that we wouldn’t make it to Irkutsk. So, naturally, we all ask: “What are we supposed to do?” Her answer: “I don’t know. No one knows anything. I just wanted to warn you that we won’t get to Irkutsk tonight.”
“Well, is this train going anywhere tonight?” we all ask in unison? “Yes, yes. The train will leave on time. But it will not arrive in Irkutsk.” A perceptive woman pipes up and says, “So we may be stranded in the middle of the taiga?” There’s no answer to this. I decide to get off the train.
Sweet Olga took me back for one more night and I exchanged my ticket for one leaving the next morning. An Internet search revealed that 26 cars of a cargo train had gone off the rails, injuring no one, thank goodness. I also checked the Russian Railways website which has a real-time train tracker and saw that the night train had stopped at a station called Selenga, in the middle of nowhere, and had not budged. In the morning, I called Russian Railways and was told that the accident was cleared and there was one rail open; trains were taking turns using the one track. I asked about the train that was stuck at Selenga and the woman said, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” When pressed, she just kept saying, “I don’t know. Your train leaves on time this morning.”
There are no flights out of Ulan Ude for another 48 hours. My other option is to take a shared van to Irkutsk—an 8-9 hour ride over a twisty and icy road. At the train station, I ask four different people in charge of “information” about last night’s train and this morning train. Over and over they all tell me the same thing: “I don’t know. The morning train is leaving on time.” Even the train conductor says she knows nothing except that the train will leave on time. So I get on, mostly just because I’m standing right there next to the train and I’m tired.
I settle in to my kupe with a young couple on vacation traveling to Ekaterinburg. They have not heard about the wreck. On my phone I check the website again and last night’s train is still stuck at Selenga, but it’s departure time and so the train sets off on schedule, just like I was told it would.
We make it to Selenga and sit there for an hour. No sign of last night’s train, not even on the website. Eventually we start moving again! We arrive in Irkutsk only two hours late.
I get off the train and the person meeting me looks exhausted and relieved. “How long have you been waiting? “ I asked. “Two hours!” she said. “They kept saying your train was on time and they didn’t know anything more.”