|Liam with our train, the No 340 from Moscow to Chita.|
This was part of the trip that unless people had already bought into the romantic notion of the Trans-Siberian railway, they couldn't quite understand why we would want to spend 4 days on a train. And while its clearly not a mode of transport to be taken if you're in a hurry, it is the only way to get across Russia on a budget and in more comfort than a bus or a plane. On the face of it the journey might sound like hell but actually it was rather pleasant.
We boarded the train on a cold afternoon in Moscow, and met our cabin-mates for the trip. They were 2 friendly, middle-aged Russian sisters called Anna and Luba. It turns out they had come to Moscow for hospital treatment for Luba, but despite this they were in good spirits and were quite typical, giggly sisters. Anna spoke a small amount of English which she had remembered from school, but the conversation didn't really got past where we lived and what were our jobs. We learnt that Anna was a military doctor, and she had children working in Israel and Egypt. They were both always very smiley and always offered us food, I think they took pity on us as we were living off instant noodles and biscuits! So we had some good Russian snack food; meat, cheese, bread, and more was offered to us, keeping us well fed throughout the trip. We felt a bit ashamed at only being only able to offer them biscuits and sweets, although we did offer them vodka, which was gratefully turned down due to Luba's medical condition. One day Anna was excitedly looking out the window at one of the stops, before hurrying off the train and return with a large smoked fish. Being the only male in the cabin I was given the honor of cutting it half. We weren't quite sure how to eat it at first as there was a lot of bone and tough skin, but picking out the bits of tender flesh, it was actually very tasty. On the 3rd day Luba left the train at her home town but Anna was continuing on to Irkutsk. Luba's family had given Anna some hot homemade food and so I was treated some very tasty chicken soup and Charlotte to some meat and potatoes.
Their hospitality went beyond what you would ever expect of some you were sitting with on a train journey, and it was great to have a somewhat 'real' Russian train travel experience, rather than sharing a cabin with other foreigners which is what would happen if we had booked it through a travel agency. Buying our tickets from the railway station more than halved the cost too, so it's a no-brainer really for independent travelers looking for an authentic experience.
The journey was 87 hours, travelling 5185km over 4 nights (up until now we had probably traveled roughly the same distance in 8 weeks!). We traveled through 5 time zones, although all long distance trains in Russia stick to Moscow time to avoid confusion. This is strange as when we got off the train the station clock said it was 5am, despite it being daylight and clearly mid-morning. The jetlag wasn't helped by the lack of any real concept of time on the train anyway, as you can imagine normal routine was out the window, with the added confusion of the train running on Moscow time, and half the day would be spent dozing anyway! We were in 2nd class or Kupe (one up from the platskartny accommodation we had on the Moscow to St Petersburg train), our accommodation was a 4 berth cabin (Two beds each side, one up and one down) and just a little table by the window and enough room for your feet so you can sit on the bottom bunk during the day. A couple of evenings we stretched our legs and had a change of scenery in the restaurant car, giving us the opportunity for a couple of beers and the room to play cards. We made the mistake of eating there once, very bland and overcooked fish with undercooked potatoes.
For the most part we very much enjoyed our time on the train. It was a perfect excuse to kick back and almost completely isolate yourself from daily reality, with no feelings of guilt just spending the days relaxing, reading, listening to music, eating and sleeping. After the 3rd night we felt a little stir-crazy though, and can't imagine doing the whole stretch (8 days to Vladivostok in far eastern Russia) in one go. If it was summer and our visa was valid for longer we would have thought about visiting a few places along the way, but we were saving our time for Lake Baikal.
Images of the Trans-Siberian probably bring to mind a rollicking piss up with free flowing vodka, but actually everybody was very respectful and quiet. To be honest though I can't imagine anything worse than a hangover on a stuffy train! There was a group of militia (soldiers) a few doors down who when they got on promptly changed out of their uniforms and into shorts and t-shirts, cranked up the radio and got on the vodka. But actually they were pretty well behaved and we didn't hear anything else from them.
The scenery along the way was just how you would imagine Russia. A snowy wasteland basically and every few hours we'd go through a big dirty industrial city but apart from that it was quite hauntingly scenic. There was a point in the journey where in the distance it looked like a forest, but I read that actually they were just single trees hundreds of metres apart. They stretched out for so far that it looked like a forest from a distance. Numerous people have apparently got lost out there (and not returned alive) as there are no landmarks at all.
On arrival in Irkutsk we were completely zombified, not being able to sleep during the night due to a combination of jetlag and the cabin being roasting hot. One thing we have noticed about Russians is that despite them presumably being used to very cold conditions, they love to crank up the heating to often pretty unbearable levels indoors!
On arrival in Irkutsk, Luba very kindly offered us a lift to our hostel as her husband was picking her up. We gratefully accepted as the railway station is quite far from the centre of the city. So all in all a great experience, and we were quite taken aback just how hospitable our Russian companions were!
|Trans-Siberian Railway - Moscow to Irkutsk, Russia|