Was there ever really any way that the experience could be complete without me losing money in a chess game to a man named Vlad? He wears a suit, even. Yesterday I saw him handily defeat another guy, and, not particularly confident, I wanted to play that guy. But when Vlad heard I had the chess itch, he got his board all ready for me. After I sat down to play, he suggested we bet $100 on the game because that’s what Bobby Fischer always bet on his games. And I’m American, so clearly I must be on a level with Bobby Fischer. I laughed, but Vlad pulled out a $100 bill. With fumbling Russian I told him that was a bit much for me, and eventually we agreed on $7 – my $2 bill plus 150 rubles. He put the stakes under his big Mason jar of tea and we began.
Let me tell you, it was tense. I did the best I knew how all through the opening, and didn’t lose any more than a pawn. Somehow, Vlad managed to give me his queen accidentally (“I’m playing badly!” he said to a spectator). Right after that, he had me in a position where if I moved my bishop, I uncovered his bishop giving me check, but when I tried to take his bishop with mine, he insisted it was an illegal move, and I needed to move my king. So I did, but things started crumbling from there. I was confident after the queen and didn’t notice him moving both bishops and a rook in for a checkmate. By the time I figured it out, it was too late. He cleared out all my pieces precisely and mathematically and I was left with no sensible option but to resign. But I still believe it was bogus, because damn it, I could’ve taken his bishop that one turn and it would be completely legal!
Just then the train pulled into a town for a twenty-minute stop, but Vlad was spoiling for another game, this one for Fischer-style stakes. I wasn’t going for that no-how, but even if I’d wanted to I don’t think the old folks on the train would’ve let me. They all told me not to play again for money, in no uncertain terms. My role on the train seemed to have become less the simpleton who wants to eat poison mushrooms, and more the endearing, naive grandson or son that everyone never had. I’ve continued to get food given to me: today, two whole fish, some fruit and vegetables, and a block of halva.
Let me explain about the mushrooms. When the train stopped in Irkutsk, I got off and took a bus to Listvyanka, the nearest town to Irkutsk that’s on Lake Baikal. Baikal is a special lake. For one thing, it’s the world’s deepest lake, and as a result it has more water than any other lake on Earth, more water than all the Great Lakes combined, in fact one fifth of the world’s liquid freshwater. And because it’s so remote, out in Siberia with no one to ruin it, it’s incredibly pure and clean, clean enough that you can fill up your water bottle and drink it straight, practically distilled. Something like sixty percent of the plants and animals that live in it are unique to the lake. There are freshwater sponges, freshwater seals, a fish called omul that forms one of the backbones of the local economy, and of course quite a bit more.
Hell yes, I camped out in Siberia. There’s a trail under production (perhaps fated to always be so) called the Great Baikal Trail; the volunteers who are making it hope to get it to encircle the entire lake. The first night, I only got to Listvyanka in time to make it just past the trailhead, to a little grassy clearing nestled in among the yellowing birches in a valley, with a trickle of water running past the entrance. It was pretty damn idyllic. Also, I discovered that night, cold, and extremely dewy. But, undaunted, I trekked on the next day over steep cliffs and stopped at a beach, where I had a fun evening with a group of vacationing Russians my age who gave me lots of food and insisted I swim with them in the frigid waters of the lake. They left before night, and I was left alone with a pair of omul fishermen who went out on the lake once it got dark. Theirs was one of a constellation of lights out on the surface of the lake. I guess omul fishing is a night thing.
The next morning I walked back, and counted the switchbacks up the giant hill that stands between the beach and Listvyanka: there are twelve. On the way I met a Russian girl and her mother; the girl was home from her job in England to visit family, and while they walked, they were collecting mushrooms, a kind called opyata. The girl told me I should take at least five to try them, so I took them and stuck them in a bag, simultaneously trying to figure out how to cook them on the train.
At the end of each car on the Trans-Siberian is a samovar, a water boiler that serves for making the whole car’s worth of ramens and Doshiraks and tea. Here’s what I figured: I would cut up the mushrooms and put them in my little pot, then put in boiling water and right away insulate it with my yak wool sweater from Mongolia, so the heat would stay in and cook them very thoroughly. It’s a method I’ve heard of for cooking rice without the need to keep feeding a fire. If you can keep the heat from escaping, it’s as good as keeping a constant heat on.
It seemed to work, too, but as I started to put them into my macaroni and cheese, everyone was watching me extremely closely, and they all started tripping over each other to hand me other foods that I should eat instead, because I was obviously going to die from these mushrooms. Only frying them made them edible, they said; if I only boiled them, I would vomit my stomach out through my mouth or something. I was handed ramen, tomatoes, fish, and bread, and I had no choice but to give up on the mushrooms. I still kept them, hoping to cook with them in Moscow, but after a day or two of them sitting around, I decided they were probably pretty much germ paste.
However, I’d made good allies of the two nuns on the car, Olga and Tamara, headed back to their separate convents in Moscow, and over the next few days they gave me a bit of food at, I believe, every meal. I got along pretty well with pretty much everyone on the car. There was a nice, if very tame, old couple in the bunks below me, and some giggly young women playing cards with various young men, and a guy who might have been a priest, who talked religion a lot with the nuns, and a guy across from me named Valeriy. I even laughed a bit with Vlad, though Olga insisted I needed to stay far away from him and he was a bad man. Vlad said we should play another game, and for a moment I thought he meant for free, but he specified that it would be for just $50, and he’d give me a one-knight handicap. (“You’ll win, a hundred percent.”) I was actually going to do it for stakes of $2, just to try and win my $2 bill back, but before I could get him to understand that and take it out of his pocket, Olga came and grabbed me and physically hustled me back to my seat and mimed belting me. Tamara said she’s like a grandmother. As far as I know neither of my real grandmothers has a problem with me gambling, but she was adorable nonetheless. I was a bit sad to get off the train when we finally pulled into Moscow, but not too sad. I had a Europe to explore.