By Martine Self
Photos by Denis Manko
I’d spent at least five years dithering about taking the Trans-Siberian express, worrying about safety on board, levels of comfort and boredom, and how to keep clean, not to mention worrying about getting lost in the middle of Siberia, without passport phone or money, and simply just worrying about all the little things one worries about when faced with an option to procrastinate.
But I’m glad I plucked up the courage, bullied my 19-year old son into coming with me, with the proviso that it would give his gap year resume some street cred, and finally did it.
In hindsight, there was really nothing to worry about. In fact, it was great fun.
Buying our tickets
Because I live in Moscow, it was logical that we buy our tickets locally, so no going through expensive foreign agencies. I purchased our tickets on the No010 or ‘Baikal’ as it is known at a local agency in Mozhaiskoe shosse which said it charged 350 RUR commission. However, you can now purchase a ticket at any station ticket office as the process is computerised.
We reserved our seats two weeks before our planned departure date and found that this was cutting it close as there were only three seats left, and they were in separate compartments. “No problem,” said our driver, Ivan, soothingly, “we’ll sort it out with the provodnitsa when you board the train,” which is what we did.
We reserved our seats in a second-class kupe which is a misleading Russian word for a four-berth compartment. We could have booked first-class but felt that we might meet more travellers in second-class. Platskarts, the cheapest of the cheap was not an option. We paid 10,000 RUR per ticket which included food. (Visit www.trainsrussia.com/en/travels/results to get an idea of fares). Our train was of the ‘firmenny’ category which I found out only afterwards meant: “fast and comfortable”. Peak season is during summer and at New Years and prices rise accordingly.
Getting ready for the trip
This ultimate train trip is not the sort of journey to undertake lightly, without research. I looked at the forums on the Lonely Planet site (http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com/) and figured out just when we would arrive and a few other things from the copious and very valuable information provided by www.seat61.com. I’d bought a copy of Bryn Thomas’s Trans Siberian Handbook some years ago, so it was a little out of date. General opinion on the internet was that it was superior to Lonely Planet’s guide. I was able to book home-stay accommodation and further assistance, if necessary, from Jack Sheremetoff at www.baikaler.com.
What and how much to pack required more thought than usual, as we limited ourselves to two sports hold-alls. Because we were travelling in mid-June, we assumed the weather would be warm, which it was. The train is air-conditioned to about 20C which is comfortable. We packed tracksuit pants and light tops which we could sleep and live in. We packed a fleece in case it was cold and a light waterproof as protection against the rain, which was needed.
Where I went wrong was in packing far too much comfort food. I packed instant noodles, chocolate, nuts, tins of sardines and mackerel, tea, cheese, crispbread, chips, salami and sweets.
However, this plan was blown out of the water, on our first morning in the train, when we discovered that our tickets entitled us to two good meals a day, breakfast and dinner. Thus we ended up carrying around far more food than we should have done.
I even packed a squeegee to clean the window, as I’d heard that some train windows were so dirty, that it was difficult to see out of them, but our window was clean enough.
Seventy seven hours on the Trans Siberian
The thought of following the path (albeit in comfort) of thousands of exiles to Siberia, a land of isolation and punishment, was gripping. The world’s longest railway, built at the turn of the 19th century acts as a metaphor that underlies so much that is extreme about Russia and its awesome size. It also highlights the determination and drive of the Russian character when it puts its collective mind and muscle to daunting challenges, disregarding extremes of cold and distance. The 10,000 km line which links the Far East with Europe, took fourteen years and 90,000 men to build. Having lived in European Russia for seven years, I was eager to find out what the rest of the country looked like.
The No. 010 or ‘Baikal’ as it is known, leaves just before midnight on odd days and arrives in Irkutsk, in Eastern Siberia, mid-morning on the fifth day. It seems long but it isn’t.
Our first surprise was our carriage. It was less than a year old and could rival anything in Europe. It was clean, modern and comfortable, and a quite pleasant environment in which to pass the time. The first-class compartments were virtually the same, but without the extra two top beds which gave the feeling of more space.
The next surprise was the number of foreign tourists on the train. They vastly outnumbered the Russian travellers. Our travel companions were a young man and woman who were part of a Dutch group, a happy lively lot who were fun to be with. They were on their way to Beijing, via Irkutsk.
Without exception, they thought that the landscapes were extremely beautiful. One went so far as to say he thought the Russian countryside was ‘overwhelming.’ Indeed, we were surprised to find that the stretch from Moscow to Irkutsk, was a continuation of more or less the same verdant European countryside we see in Moscow, with majestic firs and magnificent birches in great supply, bursting with springtime energy. We were blessed with great swaths of wildflowers, wild blue lupins, white edelweiss, yellow buttercups, pink larkspur and orange daisies scattered around like confetti. Part of its beauty was that it all seemed so untouched by humanity. To me the birds and meadows seemed to fit my view of what heaven should be like, a bit like a Timotei advert but without the girl.
I noticed the prevalence of swamps, particularly in mid-Siberia. This is where the fly and the mosquito thrive in summer and make life very uncomfortable for people. Not surprisingly, there were few signs of human habitation.
There was some disappointment amongst the travellers about how European Siberia looked. They had expected it to start looking more Asian, given its proximity to Mongolia and Kazakhstan. The only give away was the more Oriental-like facial features we saw the further east we went.
We saw little advertising and I was surprised to notice how refreshing it was to be spared the joys of capitalism which are now so ubiquitous in Moscow. Another sign that capitalism had not penetrated too deeply here was the lack of litter which is normally the sign of a wealthy society. There was no sign of Ikea, and nor of McDonald’s; you could imagine that people had lived like this for hundreds of years. One wonders how the demise of communism affected them, being as self-sufficient as they seem to be. This is no place for the fashion and finery of Moscow; more likely the people live a much healthier, organic lifestyle.
Another aspect of the view which proved interesting was the type of architecture. Apart from the occasional decaying Sovietera factory, usually situated on the approach to a city, we mostly saw small isbas each with their small patch of lush black soil that had been meticulously ploughed and prepared for planting. Many houses were painted in different colours and virtually every house had its typical beautiful carved window frames reminiscent of gingerbread cottages in childhood fairytales. What was unexpected was how little the architecture varied from Moscow to Irkutsk.
Most of the isbas we saw belonged to villagers. Their inhabitants lived there throughout the year. What fascinated me was how these people occupied their time over the long winter. What was there to do that was stimulating so far from civilization? To what extent did the Internet cover any of these houses?
We were all very confused about the issue of time on the train as all trains and all train stations throughout Russia work on Moscow time in order to try and minimize confusion. Our train had a nifty digital screen which announced the time, temperature, and whether the toilet was free or not. As we swept across Siberia at an average speed of 49 km per hour, and sometimes much faster (a maximum speed of 160 km/h was painted on the outside of our carriage), I forwarded my watch an hour after every 1000 km, as we entered a new time zone. However, what my watch said and what the sun indicated did not seem to correspond, and after initially sticking to Moscow time for meals we found that our meals were being served earlier and earlier. I disputed this with the restaurant, wondering why they were not working on Moscow time, but they simply said we had to eat according to local time. I was none the wiser.
All the tourists were happy with their accommodation and had no complaint. What really impressed them was the way the train would arrive at a station when it was scheduled to arrive, even over a distance of 5,000km. They regretted that their own countries’ train services were nowhere near as punctual.
One aspect worth knowing about if you are sharing a compartment is that your travel companions might want to go to sleep later than you and wake up later than you. This can cause some awkwardness if not handled with tact.
Distractions on the train included mealtimes and drink times: it is pleasant to have an evening beer in the restaurant car, or a late mid-morning tea, despite the free use of the constant boiling water on tap in the samovar in each carriage. We played cards with our companions, chatted, read, slept and occasionally showered. Most of the people on our carriage denied feeling bored though they were glad to get off the train by the time the fifth day arrived. I, for one, never got tired of looking at the scenery.
The train stops for about 20 minutes about four times a day and these stops are spaced apart conveniently so that it helps to break up the day. However, there was not much to do at many stations because of their layout, except to get off and stretch your legs and take some fresh air. A poster on the wall of the carriage informs the passenger of the times of arrival and departure at each station and how long the stop will be, meaning you have no reason to get off at a two-minute stop and run the risk of the train leaving without you, as has happened. There are no bells and whistles when the train departs so it is reasonably easy to get left behind. We made sure we always left the train at these stops with phones, money and passport just in case this might happen, though our efficient provodnitsa Tanya, watched over us like a mother hen. She told me that she had not lost a tourist in this way yet, though I had heard of provodnitsas themselves being left behind.
We encountered fewer of the famed grizzled baboushki hawking their home cooked pirogki and other snacks than we had been led to believe. Their faces were lined and tanned, evidence that when they were not cooking indoors, they spent most of their time outside, no doubt tending to their small plots of land. They seemed to have been elbowed out by well-stocked kiosks located on the platform itself. At these you can buy drinks (beer at about 30 RUR for 0.5 litres as opposed 50 RUR on the train), chips, biscuits and enough to keep you going if you really feel the need to snack. Note that drinking water is provided on the train in the newer carriages, so you don’t have to bring your own bottled water along.
Food supplied by the restaurant was absolutely fine and tasty and nowhere near as awful as has been described by other travellers on the internet. Perhaps because the No 010 train is more prone to taking tourists, the railway authorities have made sure that they make an extra effort.
Sufficient and quite adequate bedding including a cotton towel, is provided on the first day and you simply need to fold it away during the day.
One major worry was that the toilet would start smelling awful after a few hours, but our provodnitsa made sure we always had toilet paper and that the toilet area was clean. The toilet seat had a plastic sleeve around it, which could be wound along by the next person to use it. There were 220v plugs in the corridor and in the toilet which can be used for hair-dryers and shavers and recharging phones and batteries. The next big worry was how to survive five days without a shower. But no worries, we found a shower at the end of a first-class cabin which we were able to use for a cost of 110 RUR a time. Being able to wash one’s hair made a huge difference to comfort levels. Professional to the nth degree, Tanya also made sure that she vacuumed the carriage passage and the interior of each compartment, twice a day.
I’d heard that music was piped into the compartments and dreaded being forced to listen to what probably wouldn’t be my taste in music, but we were able to turn down the volume to almost zero, and the only time we heard the music (Russkoe Radio mainly) was in the morning at about 9am when it seemed that Tanya thought it might be time for us to be getting up. Apart from that it was non-intrusive.
Safety was another consideration that we didn’t even think about. We could lock the compartment from the inside when we slept, and there seemed to be no through traffic by what one could call ‘dodgy types’.
Being on the train somehow blurs your concept of time and space. Life becomes timeless and seamless as you hurtle through space in your sealed capsule, far more slowly and far more comfortably than if you were in a plane. It’s a must for those who cannot ever find the time to wind down and relax, because you are forced to relax in a gentle, rhythmic way as the train relentlessly swallows up mile after mile of the endless landscape. By the time we had reached Irkutsk over 5,000 km from Moscow, I somewhat regretted not having extended my trip to Vladivostock, which says a lot about how comfortable the trip was. The consensus on board the train was that many wanted to come back and do the trip a second time, but in winter. I think I’ll do that too.
It would seem that Russian Railways has understood that tourists are willing to jump through the requisite hoops to make the journey and is making a determined effort to provide a lot more comfort than I imagine was available in the past. Now, what are you waiting for?
The more than 10,000 km journey from Moscow to Vladivostock, makes it by far the longest train journey in the world.
This article applies only to the No010 which seemed to be more tailored to foreign tourists. Bear in mind that conditions may not be as comfortable on other trains heading for Irkutsk.
There is a train running to the East on every odd day (No 10), and one returning on every even day (No 09).
The train makes 33 stops between Moscow and Irkutsk from between one minute to 35 minutes in duration. advertisement