Vladivostok 13:50, the sign popped up on the check in board at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station followed by the platform number. The moment had arrived, this was the major part of this trip, the whole journey had been planned around catching the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, our home for the next 74 hours.
The journey from Moscow to Vladivostok covers an impressive 9289km in roughly six full days. Our journey however, covered only 7858km to Beijing and if done non-stop takes roughly the same length of time. Most people, locals and tourists alike will break up that journey or only travel a small section of the line. Our first section, Moscow to Irkutsk, covered just over half the total distance and this was our longest section on the train.
There was an air of excitement on platform number two as everybody started to pile onto the train. Luggage, boxes, goods and supplies all being loaded on. The Trans-Siberian is not a tourist train, it is a living, breathing important transport hub linking one side of the country to the other and a vital, and cost effective mode of transport for many locals. As we would later learn it is a service that they are immensely proud of.
Waiting at each wagon door was the ‘Provodnitsa’ or cabin attendant. They work in a team of two and ride the train back and forth for a month before getting time off. She checked our tickets, showed us to our cabin, handed us our linen and gave us a rundown of how to use the bathroom, all in Russian of course so we understood perfectly!! She also ensured the Samovar (hot water urn) was always full and had snacks and supplies to buy and generally ruled the roost. Ours even had a pet dog that twice escaped making a beeline for our cabin and food bag (and was pulled away with Natalie chasing to stroke it!)
There was almost like a party type atmosphere on the train that first afternoon, not just because of our excitement but also from many of the locals. The main reason we wanted to catch the train was for the chance to mix and interact with the locals, meet new people and we certainly met a number of characters.
As the train pulled out of the station and meandered through the outer suburbs of Moscow, we found that we had the cabin to ourselves for the first stretch. We explored the train, settled in (took over the cabin!) and watched the city melt away to the snow covered Russian countryside. This idyllic picture was interrupted by the singing and shouting coming from the cabin next door. It was not too long until we met the culprits and had our first social experience on the train.
Sergei, his friend Petr, and who we assumed to be one of their wives or girlfriends but never did get her name burst into our cabin when they saw the door open. Sergei began chatting to us (in Russian), asking here we were from and where we were going. There was lots of giggling and laughing, apologies for his poor English and our poor Russian. Eventually his friends pulled him away, only for him to come crashing in minutes later to continue the conversation.
His friend Petr also not wanting to miss out would appear in the doorway and yell out the only thing in English he could say, ‘My name a Petr’, sounding exactly like Sasha Baron-Cohen’s Borat. He would then produce a three quarter empty bottle of vodka to which Sergei would quickly push back, tell him to hide it and continue the conversation. We were obviously causing a bit of a commotion as there were several walk-bys from the Provodnitsa giving us un-approving glares resulting in the girlfriend/wife dragging the boys back to their cabin.
This again, was only short lived. Sergei now entered bearing gifts and we had our first experience of Russian generosity, something you hear so much about from people who have ridden the train. He gave us some small sticks of a local chocolate, (and every time Petr arrived and attempted to add to the gifts with the vodka he was quickly shooed away!), and with help from his girlfriend/wife said to us ‘Welcome to Russia forever’, he then ran out the room. Sergei quickly returned this time with the Provodnitsa in tow and presented us with two cups of tea and a block of chocolate, followed again by a ‘Welcome to Russia forever!’ (Petr still reciting ‘My name a Petr’ in the background)! With that they were gone, they were getting off at the next stop and had to drunkenly prepare their things.
We barely had time to digest our first train experience before there was a knock on the door followed by ‘Are you guys tourists?’ spoken in perfect English. The voice was owned by Jean-Francois Belanger, the Moscow correspondent for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and his local cameraman Alexi. He was doing a number of short documentaries about Russia for the lead up to the Sochi Winter Olympics and one was about the train, the people who worked on it and the people who rode on it. He asked if they could film a little of what we were doing and ask us a few questions about why we were travelling on the train. Our budding television careers had begun!
As luck would have it the train arrived into Nizhny Novgorod and our cabin quickly filled up, Alexi,(yes another one), a young guy who spoke a little English who left us first thing the next morning and a lady who kept to herself and left us the middle of the next day. We spent some time talking to Jean-Francois who was a very interesting guy and then settled in for our first night on the train. Oh did I forget to mention we had polished off a third of a bottle of vodka as well? Somehow it tasted better than ever…
The following day the train was incredibly quiet. It was as if the entire train was sleeping off a vodka fuelled hangover, or perhaps the realisation of how long the journey actually is had set in. The landscape slowly opened up as we crossed the Ural Mountains and left the continent of Europe behind and with the cabin to ourselves we both had time to contemplate what the train ride meant to us. Writing our diaries, listening to the iPod, a number of cup noodle runs and all the while mentally checking off each kilometre, how long to the next station and a chance to jump off the train into the chilly Siberian air and stretch our legs.
After an hour of playing the card game UNO and working our way through another third of a bottle of vodka we were contemplating what to do when Jean-Francois knocked on the door and invited us down to the dining carriage for a beer. How could we say no?
Dating back to the late 70’s the dining carriage is the place to meet people. There was Jean-Francois, Alexi his camera man, Yelena their ‘fixer’, Michael, an American guy from Oregon we had met the day before, and a number of young Russian military guys. By the time we had arrived the party had well and truly begun.
The army boys were continuously toasting and downing shots of vodka, while we decided to play it safe and stick to beers. One of the young locals, Vladimir was heading home after completing his military service, and for him it was time to celebrate.
Vladimir was only 20 years old and had served his one year compulsory military service in the dog squad detecting landmines. His English was very good and was eager to practice it with us as well as teaching us a few Russian words, none of which are printable here! A couple of beers later for us and many more vodkas for the army guys, they finally excused themselves and retired to bed. As they did a voice piped up, ‘I hear you speaking English, may I join you?’
Sergei, (yes another one) now joined us, and true to the amazing Russian hospitality more beers arrived without us knowing how to say we had had enough. Armed with a gravelly voice that belonged in an action movie, and a face a bit like Sylvester Stallone, Sergei worked in the oil and gas fields in the north of Russia, one month on, one month off and was heading home for some much needed rest. His English was incredible and was another great person to chat to. We finally made it back to our cabin knowing we had an early start the next morning as the train was making one of its only stops of the day early and we wanted to get some fresh air.
The alarm went off at 6:30am and it definitely felt early – we are not sure if that was the beers of the third time zone change in as many days! The train came to a creaking stop at the town of Barabinsk and we had 30 minutes to jump off and explore, do some exercise and hunt down some provisions. Jean-Francois and Alexi wanted to shoot some footage of us sourcing out supplies from some of the local ladies on the train platforms and we bought some interesting cabbage filled pastries and caviar bread. It would be fair to say the caviar bread was not really a hit, but it was great to support the local economy. Things could have been worse, we could have bought the smoked fish hanging off wire clothes hangers from another lady!
We retired to the dining car for a tea and a last chat with Jean-Francois and Alexi before returning to our cabin to watch the Siberian flatlands stretch out before us. We arrived into Siberia’s capital, the city of Novosibirsk, where we said farewell to Jean-Francois and Alexi, took a couple of photos of a WWII memorial dedicated to all the Siberians who left this train station for the war, before reboarding the train to continue our journey.
The series of trains known collectively as the Trans-Siberian Railway have played an important part in Russia’s history, particularly during WWII and Soviet times, a show of strength and engineering know-how. Many stations have either a memorial to commemorate locals heading off to war or an old steam locomotive on a pedestal to celebrate the train line’s construction linking that city to the larger network.
That’s the amazing thing about the Trans-Siberian, it does not matter how small a village is, how remote or isolated it may appear to be, one of the world’s greatest engineering achievements means somehow, nearly every Russian is connected to it. However, many of these stops also have darker history, either being used to transfer exiles to the infamous Gulags (such as in the town of Perm), or to relocate those ‘unwanted’ members of society, such as the Polish Jews deported to Zina.
It was the final day of our journey on the train that this all dawned on me. The Trans-Siberian has played such a vital role throughout Russian history, but it also gives you a glimpse into all aspects of Russian society. From our vodka swilling friend Sergei to Vladimir the young man returning home after his military service, this was why we wanted to ride the train. Most people only ever visit Moscow or St Petersburg, but to get a better understanding of Russia what better way to do it than to take one of the world’s most iconic overland journeys?
Now having completed part of the journey it feels kind of weird to call to hear the reverence people use when speaking of the Trans-Siberian. The journey has developed a mystic over the years outside of Russia, and we kind of got the feeling many of the locals were amused by the ‘tourists’ catching the train. It has been there for over a hundred years, while incredibly proud of it, it was merely a simple way to get locals from A to B.
That may be the case for the locals, but for us that mystic still exists. It doesn’t matter if you ride non-stop the whole six days to Vladivostok or break up your journey along the way, the Trans-Siberian will change the way you think of Russia, and is an experience you will never forget.