Moscow - Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian train
26.10.2005 - 29.10.2005
"Aficionados of going nonstop from Moscow ... compare it to being on a sea voyage or having a beach holiday indoors. It's a chance to catch up on sleep and reading, perhaps sharpen your card playing skills with fellow passengers, while the landscape unreels in cinematic slow motion outside."
So says my guidebook about the trans-Siberian journey. And I wasn't doing all seven days non-stop. I was only doing 4 days before getting a break in Irkutsk. And it is something like a cruise, assuming a cruise includes being in a cabin with three people you don't know, and not having a shower or hot water to bathe with, and not having a pool to lounge by. It's a pretty low budget cruise.
It does have it's benefits, though. While not all you can eat, food is incredibly cheap. Firstly, because I was doing nothing, I was eating little - just a couple small meals a day. And most of those I bought from vendors along the way on the platforms. Usually a couple of dollars and I would have a small meal of meat baked in pastry and a bottle of water, coke or beer. Of course, given that I can't speak any Russian, it was always a bit of a mystery what was inside the pastry until I bit into it. Sometimes meat and onion, sometimes cheese, sometimes hotdogs. But it was never an unpleasant surprise.
My cabin was quite small, and had four bunks in it. For the first day, all four bunks were full. I was joined by a sullen, 20 something who spoke to no-one and a couple of older ladies who chattered to each other for a bit. The strange thing was, though, that they all went to sleep around 6 in the evening. So I went to explore.
There was no one else on the train that I could find that spoke any English, so no lively conversations to be had. There were a couple of army-recruits playing cards and drinking a few cabins down from mine, and I thought briefly of joining them, but then decided playing cards with drunken soldiers (who probably have weapons) my not be a winning proposition for me (even if I end up winning at cards).
There was a nice dining car attached directly to our car. It was quite fancy, but kept incredibly dark. I only ate there once, but it was an excellent meal and only 12 dollars for a chicken with potatoes and beer. But really, I was never that hungry again, and the platform purchased pastries were much cheaper.
Sometime in the middle of the night, my fellow cabin mates the sullen 20-something and one of the ladies left, leaving the four person cabin just to myself and the other woman. This is a situation that would persist until late on the 4th day, when we had another man join us and were 3 in the cabin again for a short while, until the woman left. The man joined us at Krasnoyarsk, getting on the train with nothing but a brief case and a cell phone, which we was chattering into. After finishing his call, be threw his briefcase in storage area, took off his pants and collared shirt, and spend the night reading a Tom Clancy-like Russian thriller in his shorts and underwear. Very casually, life on this train.
I did a lot of reading and staring out of the window. The scenery was nice, but repetitive at times. to start, leaving Moscow and climbing into the Urals, there was birch and pine forests punctuated with drab industrial towns. As we climbed into the Urals (which are really just big hills at the point where the trans-Siberian crosses them), we had more forest, less drab industry and more snow. On the third day we descended from the Urals and crossed into Asia and Serbia proper. Strangely, the snow disappeared, replaced by lots of sun. The landscape alternated between fields, agriculture, birch and pine forests and boggy swamps.
There was little to see at nights looking out, except a blackness. If you looked up, however, there was a wide array of stars on display. I was a bit shocked to look out one of the north-facing windows and see the big dipper framed perfectly. I had expected, like Africa or South America, that I wouldn't see the same stars as at home. Of course, logically thinking about it, we both see the same Northern hemisphere stars. But I must admit that I feel if I am this far from home, everything should be different.
A couple times I got really antsy and thought I couldn't take much more on the train. At one point (around hour 52 of straight train travel), I wrote in my journal, "I am feeling restless and overheated. I need a good jump in a cool pool. I am sick of reading and staring out the window. This all feels so disconnected."
The 4th (and final day) aboard the train I was pretty antsy as well, but luckily had getting off the train (at least for 9 hours) to look forward to in Irkutsk, and thus it muted my jumpiness a little bit. But I was running out of things to do, finally spending time translating things from our alphabet into the Cyrillic the Russians use.
Finally, some 90 hours later, we passed Zima, the last major stop before Irkutsk and my day off the train. And now the longest part of my journey is over, and the stranger parts begin. A day wandering around a Siberian town, the sights of Lake Baikal, the Gobi desert and the Great Wall ahead of me.
The 4 day cruise is over...