I’ve never been in a forest before! Woodlands, copses and groves, yes, but never have I seen such trees as these in Central Siberia. They stretch as far as the eye can see on either side of the railway track as we pound eastwards, ever eastwards after four and a half thousand kilometers from Moscow on our way to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. This, the Trans Siberian Express, is possibly a misnomer, I’m not even sure there is such a thing. It could refer to one of those luxury trains that ply the route but those are so far above my pay grade, I didn’t even bother to look at the price. They say that if you have to check the price you can’t afford it don’t they? I am taking local trains I suppose, the first from Saint Petersburg to Moscow (8 hours), then another to Ekaterinburg (16 hours) and now all the way to Irkutsk on a third (60 hours). There is no big sign proclaiming its Trans Siberianness on the side of the coaches, there is in fact quite a small sign proclaiming Moscow to Chita. But I am going across Siberia so up to a point it is Trans Siberian.
There are fourteen coaches and in each there are eight compartments with sleeping accommodation for four. There are two lower bunks with a table between and two upper ones. The backs of the lower bunks fold down at night to provide a bed and then up during the day for seating. The lower bunks also fold up to provide storage. Bedding is provided; clean sheets, pillowcase and a heavy duvet type thing and I actually sleep well. The dining car provides a basic menu, many people bring their own food especially families. Of course you have no say in the choice of cabin mates unless you pay extra for a double cabin and pay for both bunks, if you are on your own. On my way from Moscow to Ekaterinburg I was joined by a young man who harangued the other passengers throughout the carriage for the whole ride except when he passed out, after two boxes of cheap wine. I had no idea what the harangue was about obviously as I only have about half a dozen words in Russian. Then, when I went out to the Romanov Memorial Monastery there he was, still haranguing! Turns out he was Russian Orthodox zealot/nutcase and wanted my guide to drive him two hundred miles to another monastery. That didn’t happen! For most of this particular ride I have had a Mom and two small children which might have been more enjoyable with a common language but alas no.
What is there to do you might ask during all these days and hours, doesn’t it get boring? I loaded up my Kindle with new titles, setup new traveling playlists imagining long tedious hours with nothing to do and climbing the walls with frustration at the slow rate of progress. Nothing could be further from the truth as it happened. I was captivated with the ever-changing show that took place out of the window. Dawn came at around 5.00am and already my face was pressed against the window, admittedly listening to Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rimsky Korsakov or some other local composer, but seeing the light change over the Taiga as the sun came up. It was quite enrapturing and enchanting. Never the same for any length of time there was always something to see. Silver birch after silver birch for hundreds of miles, sometimes great expanses of just harvested grain, perhaps fields of potatoes, a small village, a herd of sheep complete with shepherd or juxtaposed, a massive industrial complex belching smoke and fumes high into the sky from immense cooling towers. We stopped periodically, mostly just for two or three minutes for passengers to embark or drop off, but every four or five hours there would be a lengthy stop for thirty or so minutes. Everyone would clamber down the steps to the platform, the crowd resembling evacuees from some dystopian apocalypse. But there was nothing to see! There might be hawkers of some sort selling anything from berries to fridge magnets. There would be the station itself, emblazoned with its name in large Cyrillic lettering that might be worth a photo. A booth or two selling prepackaged food, drink, trinkets and maybe newspapers but nothing too exciting. I actually found just being in places I had heard of over the years, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk or even Bogdanovich, quite enthralling, inspiring or even thrilling. Then it was time to scramble back on, coaxed by our carriage’s provodnista or attendant. Each carriage had one to keep order (!), keep it clean, vacuum (hoover), polish the windows or keep the loos (toilets) at least acceptable. Not well versed in the different languages of their charges they resorted to that very English solution of speaking very slowly and loudly, in Russian which I, unfortunately, found absolutely hilarious. Not disrespectfully I should add, nobody messes with the provodnistas, they might leave you behind. Yes there was TP despite all the advice I had read about bringing your own and additionally, despite aforementioned advice, there were power points to keep everything charged up. Yesssssss.
Finally there was Irkutsk, mid morning of the third day, and it felt rather poignant to be leaving. I liked the train; I liked the perpetual motion, the views as we sped along, the angry, noisy vestibules between the carriages, the chatter in a language I didn’t understand, the smells, and the activity and to some extent the camaraderie.
A country railway station. Varykino?
A larger station.
Booths on the platform.
There were birch trees.
The train climbing, climbing.
A view of the cabin.
The dining car.
In a big country.
Very big country.
The platform at a longer stop.