We had been hoping to meet ‘real’ Russians, but had not bargained on Dimitry. I guess no one really bargains on guys like Dimitry, but there he was, all six feet of him, lurching around in his army fatigues, a half-empty bottle of vodka swishing like a cutlass in one hand and a pistol threatening us from the other.
We had set out from our native Edinburgh in search of adventure, to realise many a traveller’s dream of riding the legendary Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow deep into Siberia. Tossing his gun onto my partner Jackie’s pillow, Dimitry clamped my sweaty hand in introduction. “Hallo, my name’s Dimitry. We are friends,” he bellowed. Did we have a choice?
Dimitry was not alone. Also sharing our small four-berth compartment was his comrade Yuran. He filled the doorway behind, his massive hulk squeezed into the frame. Some people are blighted their whole life with looking like a film star. Yuran did not have this problem. I had no doubt he actually was Sly Stallone’s colossal adversary Drago from Rocky IV, played by the pumped up and muscle-bound Dolph Lundgren.
I laid out a limp hand in welcome, which he refused. “I like sprinting,” he said in a voice that made Arnold Swazenegger sound emotional. Somebody had forgotten to tell Yuran that the Cold War was over.
For the whole journey the only English Yuran spoke was that immortal ‘I like sprinting’. Dimitry did not like sprinting. Unfortunately instead he liked drinking, only pausing occasionally to spout out nationalist invective against anyone he could think of. As we hurtled on into the night, he set about single-handedly decimating Russia’s vodka lake and polluting the air with his unique world vision. The choice was to stay sober in wide-eyed terror for the rest of the evening or to join in.
Vodka it was. We meandered through his views on American movies: “Rambo nyet good,” sneered Dimitry. I raised slurred toasts to glasnost, but they fell on deaf ears. Then Dimitry decided that sharing my vodka was not enough, and, following fine Communist principles, he decided to try to collectivise my girlfriend.
Capitalism took on communism in the battle of the top bunk while I snored straight vodka through my nostrils beneath. Fortunately, capitalism just about managed to fend off the worst of communism’s advances, but the next morning Jackie pushed me into giving the Russian delegation a formal warning over the serious breach of international etiquette.
Being honest was not an option – I knew the line “Well Dimitry I know you are really drunk, not to mention armed, and of course you are backed up with another 20 armed Russian solders, but” was going to fall on deaf ears. An accusing point towards Jackie in the top bunk, and a mumbled “Dimitry, nyet good” was the extent of my bravery. It seemed to work – at least for a couple of hours before the drinking began in earnest again.
By mid-afternoon spurned Dimitry was consoling himself on his second bottle of vodka and had given up on conversation. Swinging his loaded pistol around the confines of the carriage he guzzled from his bottle, pausing only to offer rants like “Jews, Muslims, Chechnya, Scotland bang bang!” I’ve long petitioned for Scotland to get more recognition. Just not this kind. Jackie cowered on the top bunk. I lay impotently beside her, forming a literal barrier as Dimitry cranked up the radio and grooved to his favourite seduction serenade – “Shut up, shut up and sleep with me, we’re young, we’re free. Shut up and sleep with me!”
As Dimitry flailed his gun and our lives around to the frantic sounds of Russian techno, we fed a constant stream of sweets over the opposite bunk to Yuran in the hope of bribing him into keeping Dimitry under control. It seemed to be working until we ran out of chocolate and Starbursts.
Yuran caught us taking a powder dry vitamin tablet. With no way for us to communicate what it was he insisted on having one and his face showed emotion for the first time, sheer disbelief that these strange Scots ate such disgusting sweets. For a moment as his face contorted and he scowled over we feared our lives might be lost due to the unappealing taste and texture of British supermarket vitamins.
Just when it looked like we would never seem home again, our nightmare came to an abrupt end at Novosibirsk. Some 2,000 kilometres after they had bundled into our lives, Dimitry and Yuran were gone. Okay, so we had lost a bottle of vodka and my male pride had taken a major dent, but we were still alive. Dimitry had even been kind enough to leave us a present. How thoughtful. Underneath our bunk lay a sprawling mess of vomit, an apposite souvenir from our first brush with the Russian military.
Full time travel writer covering 100+ countries and making 20-30 trips a year. Regular in Telegraph, Times and all the Scottish papers. Fortnightly travel DPS in The Courier. Also write for other newspapers, magazines, websites and blogs across five continents. Author of over 30 guidebooks and both a TV and radio broadcaster, for BBC World Service, BBC 5 Live and Radio Scotland. Very active on social media with 40,000+ Twitter followers. Runs the travel website www.insiderscotland.com.