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Published: February 20th 2006
All Aboard the Trans-Siberian Express
Yes - Marcus is in his pyjamas but the hat successfully keeps in the body heat!
The Trans-Siberian...Moscow to Irkutsk
Several different trains travel the wide expanses between Moscow and Vladivostock and Beijing. The "Trans-Siberian" train, as such, only travels the region of Siberia in Central Russia. Siberia is not everything East of Moscow, but the region between the Ural and Altai Mountains. Its Winters are so fierce because the region is one large basin. But few people realize that the Summers can be uncomfortably hot. The train that goes from Irkutsk to Beijing is called the "Trans-Manchurian".
The geography of Russia is known to most of us but this trip made it all the more real. Aside from being a magnificently large country we left with a better appreciation for the Russian people and their views towards Moscow. We learned early on that Moscow is basically its own "country" within Russia and those living outside the capital do not usually hold it in high esteem. To be a non-Muscovite can actually help you in politics. (Putin is from St Petersburg, Yeltsin from Ekaterinburg).
Many countries have a chasm between the capital and the nation but the feeling is very strong here. It is significant to realize that Moscow is not only the biggest
(and extremely expensive) city, but most Russians do in fact come from the constellation of smaller communities scattered throughout the vast country. Moscow's population is 6+ million but no other Russian city tops 2 million. Moreover, many Russians resent the control Moscow has on the media and politics. Folks eating dinner in the East are forced to watch the breakfast programs as broadcasted for Moscow. Fewer Russians East of the Urals could save up the funds for a ticket to Moscow and they resent the perceived ostentatiousness of the capital.
For the first leg of our journey--from Moscow to Irkutsk-- we travelled on a very nice, modern train. There were probably 20 carriages and each was staffed by a prodovnik, or attendant. Our prodovnik vacuumed the carpets and cleaned the bathrooms at least three times per day. A samovar (giant, metal water boiler) provided unlimited hot water for tea and noodles. There was also a restaurant car which was rarely occupied with people. The food was simple but tasty. Most Russians presumably got a few drinks from the bar and returned to their rooms.
The train itself was newly built and the rooms were clean. We shared our
A friendly Russian Grandma selling fresh river fish
Many of these 'babushkas' would brave the -30 temperatures to sell a few fish and cakes to their only passing customers of the day.
sleeper with a Swedish couple, also travelling together.
We spent four days and four nights on the first leg of the journey. Life on the train was fairly predictable: wake up, look out the window, make tea, look out the window, eat breakfast, look out the window etc. Of course the train would stop now and then and sometimes we braved the harsh Siberian weather to venture outside for some air and to take photos of other trains or stations. At Novosibirsk we thought the weather was especially cold. We later learned that the temperature was -38 degrees celsius!
The stops were also an opportunity to buy some local good and cheap food. At most stops a few elderly women sold smoked fish, Russian pancakes, bread and cakes. We couldn't say "no" or "nyet" to a few of these lovely Russian grandmothers. They were tougher than we were to be out in that weather!
As expected, the scenery was beautiful. We were warm inside the train but the land looked cold. For most of the journey the scenery was covered with snow. Russia is an overwhelmingly flat country, so the variety lies in the different forests and
There is nothing going to stop this locomotive!
small villages. We adored the Siberian izba houses (more about them later). The small villages would usually be clusters of small, wooden houses with the chimney billowing smoke. Many Russians take pride in these homes and decorate them with ornamentation around the windows and the roofs.
Along with the scenery a highlight of the train journey was actually meeting and talking with Russians. Just a few doors down from our cabin were some Russian soldiers. We watched them board in Moscow carrying metal boxes and machine guns (were not sure whether this should make us feel safer or not!). Most of them were in their early twenties and were presumably carrying out national service. (Everyone loves their hats, just like in the films). Right before their stop at Novosibirsk we bravely tried to talk to a few of them as they gathered in the train corridor. We had a friendly conversation in broken English and Russian, resorting to a very rudimentary vocabulary as printed in our guidebooks. They acted professional but friendly. They politely declined an offer of vodka, pointing to their military insignia, indicating that they were on duty. It was a tank symbol; looks like they are
armour? At the stop we took some group photos and exchanged handshakes of friendship. Right before the train departed, one soldier handed Marcus a bullet (without the casing!) as a token of goodwill.
That same evening we had a late night talk in our cabin with two of the train guards. After they completed their late night duties they came in to join us for a shot of vodka and some lovely Georgian wine. The language barrier was there but we still managed to have a good time, tell some stories and have a few laughs. They showed us photos of their families as well. We exchanged contact information and for the rest of the trip we would say a few words to each other when meeting on the train. Before arriving in Irkutsk, one officer gave to us one of his epaulettes to keep!
Upon boarding the Trans-Manchurian we had little doubt of our destination. The whole train seemed to be filled with Chinese passengers. We shared a cabin with two Chinese men and from the first day became friends. We resorted to an English-Mandarin dictionary and communication usually revolved around pointing to the Chinese characters because we need to work on our Chinese pronounciation. These two men were very generous, sharing their superb Chinese tea with us. We learned a lot about each other in just a few days using that small dictionary (given to us by an English couple in Irkutsk).
Crossing the border...
We must mention the border crossing. First we had Russian immigration come on board and take our passports to be stamped. But then we had to exit the train as it entered a special shed to have the gauges changed (only 10 cm) because the Chinese railway gauge is slightly narrower. This took four hours and we were in a cramped station waiting room for four hours with literally hundreds of Chinese people. We did meet an English-speaking Russian, who was en route to China to study Chinese and martial arts. It was good meeting him--Mikhail-- and we plan on staying in touch.
After being allowed to board the train we watched Russian customs inspect the cabins, including lifting the ceiling panels. Then Russian customs asked each and every passenger about their customs form (written only in Russian). This led to one of our cabin-mates having to unpack everything and a few tense minutes where it looked like he might be in some kind of trouble. In the end things were fine and we crossed the border into China, marked by a big arch.
Chinese customs and immigration were more straightforward. We were on the train and things seemed calmer. The immigration officer carried around a laptop computer supported by a collapsable, accordian style podium.
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