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Victual Vending Babushkas Convene, Platforms Swarmed

All week long, Eater National will be running exclusive excerpts from the just-released issue two of Swallow Magazine (available at your finer newsstand or online). Here now, a piece about the dining options on and (especially) off the Trans-Siberian Express train by editor James Casey.

In preparation for a week aboard a speeding tin can, the eager traveler is advised to come prepared. A visit to Yeliseev's (Moscow's city's grandest gastronom, or delicatessen) should suffice. Hampers brimming with Caspian caviar (on ice, no doubt), smoked fish, pickles, butter, Borodinsky bread, Armenian pomegranate juice, and vodka (on ice, always) should be enough to see even the most jaded gourmand through the dreary days ahead. To the remainder of travelers (the great unwashed) a scratchy ration of instant noodles, leather-like dried fish, and lukewarm beers usually fits the bill, for to rely solely on the restaurant carriage is to observe a law of diminishing returns in action.

As the engine rolls out of Moscow's Yaroslavsky station, the excitement is palpable. A Chinese proverb, something about a long journey beginning with a first step comes to mind. After toasting your fellow cabin mates with whatever class of libation is at hand, an announcement is made over the speakers, "The dining car is now open for service," she says.

Upon first encounter with the menu, you tell yourself that this is the thing travel is made of. Gristly meats and sullen soups remind that you're in Russia—that this is the goddamn Trans-Siberian Express, and you're headed into the dark heart of the evil empire. You hold up your can of Baltika, toast Boris and Natasha at the opposite table (who, by the way, are TOTALLY unamused), and congratulate yourself on having made it this far.

The following morning, in a haze, you drag yourself forward for breakfast, and wearily accept that the thrill has gone—the food is ghastly, the service interminable, and the coffee, instant! With five and a half more days of this, or 17 meals ahead of you, it's looking grim. Gazing desperately out the window, the train pulls into a station for a quick stop as a flotilla of grannies swarm around the carriage entrances. As if a mirage, the babushkas off-load homemade baked pies, smoked sterlets, picked tomatoes, tinned preserves, fresh bread, and sausages, all available for a song. Running outside, you'll desperately gather supplies, haggle as is custom, before hopping back on board, and beating the whistle before the train rolls ever onward.

As it turns out, most stops throughout the journey replay this scene over and over. The train serves as a vital source of income for many people living along the route, and for the hungry traveler it's a way to sample some of Russia's more interesting home-cooked regional fare. To avoid unnecessary time spent in the toilets of unspeakable horror, look for vendors busy with a crowd—many grannies have a loyal following amongst regular travelers, eager to avoid the assortment of undesirable edibles on offer in the restaurant compartment.

— James Casey

· Swallow Magazine [Official site]
· All Swallow Magazine Coverage on Eater [-E-]