Thursday, 1 September 2011

Moscow to Irkutsk (The Trans-Siberian Railway)

In which we travel through time to have a beer
Starring a howling man from third class

The main chunk of the Trans Siberian railway journey (from Moscow to Irkutsk) takes about four days to cover.  This sounds like a helluva long time to be on a train, a train with no real bathroom to speak of (toilet and small sink definitively not big enough for washing in), in a compartment where the window will not open.  And it is, but it goes very quickly.  You can literally watch the miles fly by as there are mile markers along the track stating the distance from the 0 mile marker outside the Kremlin in Moscow. If you have the patience to sit and look out for it there’s also an obelisk marking the transition from Europe to Asia. 

The train stops frequently – sometimes for up to 40 minutes at a time – and people get on an off.  If the stops are long enough, the Provinista opens the doors and everyone piles onto the platform (or not – in some cases it was just onto a muddy track between trains and containers) and stocks up on provisions. The platforms are usually full of people peddling beer, tomatoes, sunflower seeds , smoked fish and in one case huge soft toys (no way they would have fitted in the compartment)

At first I was sharing with a family of three including a very smiley Dad wearing a vest top and sporting a tattoo but smelling (and we hadn’t even set off yet) like he had a rather liberal attitude to personal hygiene.  Mom was reading what appeared to be the Russian equivalent of Mills and Boon and the daughter was extremely shy. Aside from offering me some sunflower seeds there was no hint of a conversation until Abby turned up with her approachable face and guide book and the Mom leapt from the bed and began a long conversation about where they we getting off (near Yeketerinburg as far as we could tell).  

After that she gave my ankle a firm rattle every time something exciting was to be seen from the windows and I leapt down from top bunk and we stood amicably side by side in the corridor while she chatted away and I said “da, da”.  The scenery through the foothills of the Urals was particularly stunning as the train ran alongside a river and the landscape was much hillier with hints of autumn in the trees.  I waved them sadly goodbye in the middle of the night on the second day.  From then onwards it was a bit random – There were two army boys and then a guy who just slept and slept. 

On both remaining nights I went to sleep alone, heard people come in during the night but they were gone again by morning. Having the cabin to yourself means you get visitors. A whisper goes round the group that your people have just left and before you can so much as snap open your kindle, they’ve all turned up and sat down at your table bearing foodstuffs appropriate to the time of day.  There’s a hot water urn at the end of the carriages, so aside from what we could by on the platforms we lived off tea, porridge, soup and cook in the bowl noodles and mashed potato.  In the evening we supplemented this staple diet with bottled beer or cheap Spanish wine that came in cardboard boxes. 
The interior of the trains is very retro with tons of fake wood laminate and orangey-brown curtains. 

All trains in Russian run on Moscow time which keeps things nice and simple for a country covering five time zones with a lot of long distance trains, but it does make things rather odd. The further we got from Moscow the great the discrepancy between the daylight and the train’s time.  The added complication was that the dining car runs on local time.  By day three this meant the dining car was 4 hours ahead of the rest of the train and we literally travelled through time to have a beer. 

The dining car is tiny – seating about 10 people - and would have been empty if it weren’t for two groups of Dutch and French tourists who filled it up at every mealtime. We had herring with a vodka chaser (sold as a single menu item) and very cheap beer.  

The whole experience was made more entertaining by the presence of a very drunk man (head in his plate with a whole chicken on it when we arrived) who woke up and started howling some sort of song, the words of which, Anna assured us, were unintelligible even to Russian speakers.  He was eventually given a fireman’s lift all the way back to third class by his apologetic friend who made no effort to protect the drunk man’s head from doorframes as they made their thumping, bellowing way back down the train. Aside from him and a quartet of very drunk young guys who got on at one station and harassed us every time we went to the bathroom (offering by way of gesticulation ‘strong Russian love’) it was all extremely civilised.  

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