Russia, Samovars, Vodka and me


I travelled alone on the train and was allowed to keep a compartment for myself.  Since I spoke only little Russian, I think the agency that I booked this trip with tried to protect me by giving me a first class compartment all to myself. The “babushka” locked my door at night after bringing the last cup of hot tea.  Years later I realized she was not only locking me in, she was locking danger out. She even left the tea glass, with its precious silver engraved cup holder with an image of Sputnik and Russian symbols, in my compartment.  I was afraid until the very last moment of the train ride because I kept that precious souvenir hidden in my suitcase.  People have been arrested and gone to Siberia for less.

My longest stretch without leaving the train was the route from Lake Baikal to Nachodka. For a full week I saw only white Tundra, birch trees, pine trees, and white snowfields. It was in places like this that the barbaric fashion was invented to spice up  Russian tea with the fire of vodka.  Sweet brown sugar was the usual additive.  If you were lucky, blessed or rich you had a special luxury of some cherry compote or marmalade.  This heap of  berry marmalade dissolved in tea was like a meal in itself.

Most black teas in Russia came from China and India but they also grow their own teas since not everyone can afford the good strong teas from other countries.  The tea would be made in a samovar.  The bubbling hot samovar was often used to warm up cold train compartments.  The babushka would leave it overnight  in my berth so I could refill my glass with more hot water.  The samovar stayed heated for a few hours with some pieces of coal, glowing in the dark like the eyes of the wolves, keeping me warm.  I remembered that Russia had been drinking tea since 1638, when the Mongolian emperor sent a gift to the czar, the first shipment of Chinese and Indian teas. With the thought that for many middle- and lower-class Russians, tea was their only luxury, made me treasure ‘my’ samovar even more.


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