5 Time zones closer to home - on a 4 night train across Russia! The Trans-Siberian Railway

November 14th 2009
Published: November 27th 2009
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5185 Kilometers
1 train
4 nights
3 Brits
A lot of army soldiers
1 Tajikistanian with 14 children
1 Belarussian sporting (minor) celebrity
1 man with three gold front teeth
Many games of Russian durag (joker)
"Jenny of Russia"

What a journey!
At first I was daunted by the prospect of four nights on a train all the way from Irkutsk to Moscow, especially as we had opted for the cheapest class 'platskart' (3rd class) which we had not been in before. It did save us a hundred pounds sterling though, being half the price of the 'kupe' second class which is a cabin of four beds.

Platskart was basically a big dormitory on a train carriage, and it was the best decision we made! It was very social, with four beds on one side and two beds opposite by the window, the lower one of which turned into two chairs and a table. This pattern went all the way down the carriage, without any doors. At one end was a boiling water tap, and at each end was a toilet.

Being in Platskart meant that we could always be seen and heard, hence we ended up meeting a lot of very interesting people! The 14th November, our first evening on board and the Russian phrasebook was in heavy use already! We had heard some people laughing in the next section to us, and seeing as everyone else was just sleeping, we were glad that they opened up the conversation by asking where we were from, in Russian! Once we had figured out the question and begun communicating with many hand gestures and translations, we were all sat round discussing our cultural differences. It was really interesting to hear what things they wanted to know, such as what our currency was called, what our passports looked like and how Russia compared to England, and what other countries we had been to. We learned that they were University students returning after a holiday. It was only because the prodivista (cabin guard) told us to be quiet that the evening had to come to an end and we went off to bed!

The next morning the students were back, with more questions! We too tried to ask them questions, but sometimes it was very hard, even with the phrasebook. They attempted to teach us a Russian card game which was very tricky without any instructions to understand! We managed to play a simpler game with them. They played Russian music to us using their phones, and asked us to sing the British national anthem! They were also keen to know what the words to the national anthem meant - quite hard to explain with only a Russian phrasebook. Early afternoon, and the conversation turned to vodka...soon enough we were drinking vodka from the students' home town, of which they were very proud.

Russians drink vodka very differently to Europeans. In Russia, a sweet food, or drink such as orange juice, or a segment of orange is kept nearby, and is consumed after the shot of neat vodka. More sensibly, vodka is just a friendly social thing to drink, often with dinner, rather than as a means to getting drunk on a night out! They must think we ruin our vodka drinks by diluting them with coke or lemonade!

The students left the train late afternoon and we just had a short time to ourselves before the next interest began! This time...the Russian army. There were many twenty-one year olds on their way back from a year of compulsory service and they came over to get the lowdown on the tourists! Once again the phrasebook was essential, for us and them. As the conversation went on, more army lads came to join...eventually there were at least twelve of them all huddled round, intrigued! It was really funny. The beers were cracked open and everyone was having a fun time. The conversation even got as far as nightclubs and DJ Tiesto! With a big language barrier there were always plenty of comedy moments and misunderstandings! The line one of them kept using was "Jenny, you good girl"!! One of them gave me his soldiers belt, and wrote on the back "Jenny of Russia" I was really chuffed with that! Nikki also got given an army t-shirt. Once again the prodivista told us all to be quiet and the night was brought to a close!

Our second day on board was a lot quieter. We were slowly adjusting to Moscow time. Over the four days we would need to move forward five time zones. We occupied ourselves with books, many card games, food and general laziness! However, of course we couldn't go a whole day without some comedy Russian interest and conversation! A young guy from Belarus (who turned out to be a very good kayaker in his country and suggested he was a little bit 'famous' when we pointed to that word in the phrase book!) began uttering Russian to us, but luckily the guy in the bed opposite could now reel off our whole story in Russian because he had been with us the whole journey. The Belarussian was joined by two others from his area of the train, one of which spoke a little German, so now the conversation was tri-lingual, which aided our understanding of each other! The other man was from Tajikistan and had 5 wives and 14 children! He thought it was pathetic that two children was normal in the UK! Once again....the vodka came out! For the third night in a row, the prodivista told us to be quiet!

The next morning and our final full day on board, the Belarussian celebrity and the father of 14 came to play "Russian Durag" with us, a fairly difficult card game. Every instruction was in Russian, so it took us a long time to get to grips with it. Eventually though, I am very proud to say that we did! To the extent that we were copying their Russian terms for the game such as "add boy" for burn the cards, and "croisse" for magic card! Being surrounded by Russian conversation for so many hours, we could now convey a lot more than we could at the beginning of the journey which just goes to show how total immersion is the best way to learn a language! Everyone loved it when we announced that the view was "beautiful" in Russian!

We took a break from cards and tried lunch in the dining cart (we had been eating our own pre-purchased supplies of porridge, porridge, cereal, cheese, and oh, porridge!). In my opinion the dining cart was over priced and not very tasty either, so I was glad I wasn't relying on it for four days worth of food.

On the last evening, our friends in the beds opposite departed, and we were joined by two cousins who were told our story this time by the Belarussian! Once again, we could use German to help us communicate better and it was a good memory jogger for me having learnt German at school. We played cards again, this time joined by a man with three gold front teeth. After a very random conversation with a family on their way to Chechnya, who gave me three apples (!) we stopped cards for a dinner break. In true trans-siberian style we couldn't go a night without a friendly vodka - the cousins offered us a shot "to companions!" - never before have I had a shot of vodka and then porridge (my dinner)! It was a surprising change not to be told off by the prodivista that night!

Finally, four nights, 82.5 hours, 5185km, five time zones later, we rolled into Moscow station in the early hours of November 18th! We had made it!!!!

A memorable experience and I loved it all! Hard as it might be to believe, four nights on a train did not drag, it was filled with Russian adventure!


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1st December 2009

Love it! You should write a book Jen :) ALMOST HOME!

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