Before I begin this, here’s an invaluable tip. If you are planning on taking any long train journey around the world, look at website http://www.seat61.com the man who writes the blog is awesome, and it is an absolutely invaluable website, I have found it way more helpful than any official rail site.
I arrive at Moscow Station ridiculously early because I am worried about going to the wrong station and missing the train, so after two hours of sitting around the station I’m eager to board the train …where I will sit down for five days.
The rail routes that make up the Trans Siberian (there is no train by that name, it’s a nick name for the route) are the Trans Manchurian and the Trans Mongolian, and I am currently on the Trans Manchurian route I believe. Originally I was going to go to Mongolia but the discovery that Ulan Bator is the coldest capital city in the world changed my perspective slightly, so now I am leaving the train in Irkutsk and flying to Thailand where it is a balmy 26 degrees celsius.
After my luxury experience on the number 3 express, I was a little concerned about the comparative standard of the number 70. Apparently the higher the number train the worse it is. Three boys, one of whom is a train engineer, inform me that this is the worst train in Russia. But we’re doing okay so far, there are two lovely women who run our carriage, the pravadneeks. Each compartment has four bunks in it and mercifully I have a lower bunk, the train is quite bouncy to say the least and it’s a good five foot drop from the top bunk. I’ve been given ultra clean sheets to go on top of a suspiciously yellow mattress and pillow. There is a hot water tank for tea and such like, the carriage is heated, and the toilets are …functional, and fortunately breezy.
My bunk mate was chatting away to me when he first came in, but has been mute ever since I explained that I didn’t speak Russian. I was hoping for a little bit of Rangliski conversation on the train, but no matter. Pravadneek Lena has already been in to let me know there are two French men on the train who can speak English with me if I am going nuts.
As luck would have it though, the only charger stations on the train that are powerful to charge phones and tablets are in, and next to, the toilets. So I end up getting talking to a bunch of people in RangIiski by dint of lots of smiles and drawing stick figures on my tablet. One of them includes a lady who is going to Los Angeles next year and wants to know how much time she should allow for Hollywood Blvd. The thing about living in LA is you need to make a conscious effort to remember that the rest of the world will see Hollywood Walk of Fame as a crowded, must-see, tourist attraction, they will not think of it as a claustrophobic, circle of hell, to be avoided like syphilis. I told her half an hour, and hour with souvenir shopping.
My silent room mate leaves at 6am, and for roughly four minutes I am excited that I might have the compartment to myself for a little while. Then a new room mate replaces him. He seems like a merry old soul, his wife is waving him off through the window. For 6am, he is very chatty. I remind myself he has probably been awake for hours and went to bed early, and doesn’t realize I am hoping for at least another two hours of sleep. By 6:10 it is obvious my resting is over, and I am trying to understand my companion. He teaches kindergartners so his grasp of English numbers is very good, everything else not so much. I have a crappy phrase book, so my grasp of Russian numbers is okay, everything else –crappy. I am delighted though, this was what I wanted, a chance to communicate, however haphazardly, with people living in Russia.
Two hours later I am exhausted. The man expects constant conversation, and expects me to understand and respond. I understand maybe 1 word in 75 so it’s not going well. He’s one of those people that likes to talk about anything and everything I think, a suspicion confirmed by another person on the train who at one point is called into translate, and after one or two sentences, bluntly tells me, there’s no point. I am now cursing what I wished for.
When finally he takes a moment to breathe, I take out my tablet and don’t put it down for several hours.
The scenery is beautiful with a bleak quality to it. Millions of bare birch trees circling sun bleached grass fields. Streams, ponds and the occasional tired looking farm. This is the harsh landscape that movies and TV convey. I got ridiculously excited at spotting a light dusting of snow on the ground. It’s been 6 years since I saw even a bare covering that wasn’t made and groomed on a ski slope. 8 years since I’ve seen the big impressive stuff.
There is snow. Lots of snow. Mnoga sneg as they say here. It is exciting ..and daunting. I have two pairs of shoes: lightweight trainers and flip flops. I may get frostbite.
Today brings new conversational problems. The bunk mate wants to talk about religion. He has a picture of the Madonna and child on his phone. I got ordained as a priest online and started a religion that worships nothing, has no deity, and is founded in the science of electromagnetic energy. Even if we could understand one another, it would not be a pleasant chat.
I lent the French boys my crappy phrase book last night so they could talk to their bunk mate, we got talking when they gave it back today, and they expressed facing similar hurdles, in that their companion wants to talk about how Russia is reported and perceived around the rest of the world. They do not know how to say, “We only hear bad stuff, but we don’t think that way, and we’d love to hear real Russian people’s take on it.”
As my translator explained to me yesterday, the things that we see in the media about Russia are not truly representative of the country and it’s people. We are given the impression that it is a harsh, inhospitable land, stricken by poverty, rural, distrusting of the West and wanting to fight all the time. He told me that actually most Russians reside in large, cosmopolitan cities, and they just want to live their lives and enjoy themselves. From the little time I have had in Russia, I can see exactly what he means. I was so nervous to come here, and try to figure things out on my own, because as travellers you get warned about all the things that can go wrong, but so far it’s been a very positive experience. I’ve met helpful, charismatic people, who are interesting and interested in the world beyond them.
This afternoon’s conversation with the bunk mate by the way, has consisted of the English monarchy, Syrian immigrants, and a disturbing 10 minutes of him miming me playing strip poker.
I washed my hair this morning in the sink. It was a chilly and not entirely successful cleansing experience.
Also left the train for a minute to get some fresh air. The air was plenty fresh, I did not need a full minute.
Pravadneek Lent had a surprise for me today and told me to hold out my hands. It was a snowball.
Sleep last night was impossible, it was so hot and my mind was whirring. I was sufficiently grumpy that the intense, chatty bunkmate left me alone after 10 minutes. However today has brought with it a welcome variation of scenery. After 3 days of fields and birch trees, today we’ve had pine forests, hills, valleys, houses, even some rivers.
Tried washing my hair again today, was even less successful than yesterday’s endeavour as the water ran out before I was done. I am sure I’ll be wowing the Irkutsk crowds with my glamorous appearance.
There are quite a few soldiers and cadets on the train. The cadets are between 18 and 20, but they look much, much younger, and this group are distinctly crabby. The more experienced soldiers by comparison are far more friendly, and laid back. I suppose they don’t have to worry about how they come across because they already know they’re hard as nails. One of them has been talking to me with the help of the google translator app, and showing me pictures of his young family and life in the barracks (many push ups, and terrifyingly large guns, also a couple of bears).
My bunk mate seems a bit pissed off by me spending time in the corridor talking to the other people in our coach and I did feel a bit bad because I don’t want to make someone feel rejected, but then I thought about it some more and decided that was bollocks. I do spend a good few hours listening to him everything day, and his choice of topics of conversations makes me uncomfortable. I think it’s perfectly okay for me to prefer talking to someone who’s not pulling at my clothes to mime me removing them in a card game. In fact, if we were speaking the same language and he was nearer to my age, I’d be giving his hand a slap.
Another sleepless night on the train, but that fell away when we pulled into Irkutsk. The morning was bright, the air crisp, and the ground devoid of snow. People up and down the carriage let their shoulders relax with the relief of being off the train. Honestly though, I felt I could have spent another couple of days happily rolling along through Siberia. I’m really enjoying doing nothing.
The two French guys were also leaving the train at Irkutsk, in contrast to my farewell to my bunk mate –a firm handshake, a big smile, and a cheerful Dosvyedanya – they were taking photos, hugging, swapping emails etc.. I snuck away quietly from the platform feeling every inch a repressed Brit.