Notes from the Transsiberian Railway


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October 16th 2007
Published: October 16th 2007
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It's a dreary Tuesday night, and five layers of clothing, a big furry hat and thermal gloves later, I have braved the dark and unwelcoming night of Siberia for you, dear readers, to visit an internet cafe bring you the new installment of my travel adventures - even if it means sitting in a drafty doorway!

Last week, I spent four days and three nights on train number 2, also known as 'Rossya', from Moscow to Irkutsk. This time, I shared my compartment with a Vladimir, a lovely retired Siberian surgeon, who wore a short-sleeved T-shirt in all weathers and bought me ice-cream on the platform stops. Apart from his snoring, he was a great roomie, and we had many monosyllabic conversations.

Being on the Trans-Siberian railway is a bit like one big pyjama party. Once you're on the train, you either wear your pyjamas or a tracksuit all of the time, and your berth becomes your everything: not only do you sleep there (when you're not being jerked around by the frequent and unexpected stops), you also eat, read, sit, write, do yoga (try to!) and watch the world go by there. Every few hours, there is a 20-minute stop, at which you can jump off the train, walk around and buy food from the platform hawkers: mainly babushkas with full cooked meals, potatoes, meat, fish, noodles, bread... anything you can imagine really. These stops became a great highlight, in particular as the train restaurant was absolutely vile. Pot noodles never tasted so good after that!

I met a bunch of corporate English blokes on a career break on the train, drank vodka with a compartment of Russian military accountants (with very nice uniforms, I must add!), and was befriended by an ex-mormon called Jeremiah, who serenaded train staff with songs on his guitar and is a seasoned traveller: he's been on the road, on-and-off, for seven years, and his aim is to have visited 100 countries before he is 30. He is writing a book about his journeys called 'Around the world on minimum wage', and introduced me to a great concept called 'couch surfing' (www.couchsurfing.com), where travellers stay at each other's houses for free.

There's a lot more I could write about the trip, but in short, the Transsiberian railway is an exquisite journey, very relaxing, very social, and amazingly beautiful - there are miles and miles of woodland, I simply couldn't believe just how much forest there is in Russia. However, this journey was not such a joyful occasion for everyone: on the train, I read a lot about the Siberian exile system - by 1900 over a million people had been exiled and made the long march to the squalid and overcrowded prisons of Siberia, where conditions were horrific.


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