After a quick stop to see the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral lit up at night, I made it to the station with an hour to spare before my train. Totally unlike me, I know, but it was nice to be relaxed for once!
Although it was cold and dark, the station was full of people, laden down with suitcases, rucksacks, carrier bags and the odd animal here and there.
The train I’m booked on goes right across the entire width of Russia to Khabarovsk, some 8,500km, so naturally many people have supplies for the trip too. Some travellers seem to have brought an entire shop with them!
I’ve already come prepared – a trip to Tesco before I left the UK means my rucksack is full of Batchelors Super Noodles, some cheap Tesco home brand noodles (thought I’d give them a try!) pasta snack pots, crisps and biscuits to keep me going, as I’d been advised by my guide book.
Im in carriage 10, and given berth 10 by the carriage attendant as I clambered onboard the train.
Its warm and cosy inside, with wood panelling, Russian-style carpets, curtains and a soft light. I’m in a top bunk in a room with four beds, which actually works out quite well because I can put all of my luggage in the compartment above the corridor.
Soon after I get in, a Russian family arrive and start stowing their suitcases everywhere.
In the corridor I see someone wearing a German football tracksuit top. I asked if he was German, thinking that he’s likely to speak a little bit of English if he is. Turns out his name is Igor, and he’s Russian – but his English is fantastic.
Igor works in the cosmetics industry, and told me of his trips to Italy on business. He seemed surprised I was on the train on my own, and even more surprised when I said I was heading to Irkutsk. He’s heading to Yeketeringburg to see his family, a couple of days away, but he gave me his business card and told me if I needed any help to go and see him. A nice guy.
Back in my cabin, and the family are getting settled. At first, I didn’t think anyone could speak English – I worked out there was a mum, a teenage daughter and a younger girl who kept appearing from down the corridor, clutching a cuddly camel. At first, communication was through smiles and nods, but then we introduced ourselves. Nastya Kristell, the 15 year old daughter, knew a little English, and worked as translator. Then her dad Andrey appeared from down the corridor – their friends were in another cabin, and so were spending their time between the two.
I spent many hours that night talking to both Nastya and her father – they had just returned from a family holiday in Hurghada in Egypt, and were now embarking on an 18 hour overnight journey to their home city of Kirov. Never again will I complain about a two hour drive back from Manchester Airport after a week in the sun!
Andrey offered me a beer, and at first I politely refused, but then remembered from reading my handbook that it can be seen as rude to refuse. When he asked again, I accepted, and we laughed as we all tried to swap English and Russian phrases together. Nastya was practising her English, and secretly whispering Russian phrases to me as I tried to remember them, to our mutual amusement! As the lights of Moscow outside changed into the darkness of the Russian wilderness, we all fell about laughing many times with our stories and bad translations, and after sharing some photos our lives back home, before we knew it, it was 2.30am and time for bed.
Its quite perculiar trying to sleep on a train. First there’s the movement, and while I’m sure I’ll get used to it, it does move around a lot! Its more of a gentle wobble really, with the occasional jolt added just for fun. Then there’s the noise- the tracks aren’t especially smooth, so there’s the traditional clackety-clack, clackety clack that’s disappeared back home with better rails. The rest of the noise is passing trains – my head is right by the window, so anything going the other way is pretty noticeable, especially as it seems to be a Russian rail tradition to sound horns as the locos pass each train!
I slept like a log in the end, so much so that I struggled to wake up the next morning. The motion of the train kept rocking me to sleep, and while I woke up at around 10am to have a look around, I made the fatal mistake of getting back into my bunk. Cue more soothing rocking and the repetitive clackety-clack, and I was dead to the world once again. I needed it though, the past few weeks had left me shattered, and to be honest its nice to be able to switch off and relax a little.
Aside from the sleep, Im completely cut-off from the outside world now. As we head towards the 1,000km marker post, mobile phone signal is something of a rarity, while my new USB Data Modem stopped working as soon as we left Moscow. Without my music (iPhone issue again!) and having to preserve battery in my netbook, I read my Trans-Siberian Handbook for a while, planning the next few weeks, and decided to explore the train.
Im finding it really comfortable, although Igor tells me it’s a very old train, and the newer replacements are much better. The only thing that is a bit grim is the bathroom – but even then, I’ve been in much worse. I’ve tried to get water out of the tap twice in there now though, and without success. It’s got two big cogs above it, which I presume are for hot and cold water, but try as I might, I can’t get any H20 out of the tap. It works, and I know it works as someone has splashed water everywhere, almost to tease me, but I give up for now.
Each carriage in second class has about nine cabins in it, all aligned to one side with a corridor along the other side. At the end of the carriage is a samovar, a coal-fired water boiler which has an endless supply of water, and is also responsible for the intense heat which seems to build inside the train!
Every now and then, somebody walks past with a bowl of steaming noodles or soup, and from somewhere there’s a supply of tea in a glass cup with a handle. I’ll look for those later!
I decided to head down the train, and over the slightly daunting joins between the carriages where the tracks are whizzing by in the big gaps below you at 40-50mph. The restaurant car is only two carriages away, but it seems quite pricey and from what I saw, the food didn’t look that good. I decide to stick with the Super Noodles from the samovar for now, and pick up some supplies from the station traders as we stop along the way.
I searched through my book for answers about how to get water out of the taps in the bathroom – and there it was. Apparently, you have to use a little lever right underneath it. I ventured to the bathroom to give it a go, and out the water came! I was quite relieved – I was in need of a wash by now, so freshened up. Then I went to the carriage attendant and asked for some tea – its 10 Roubles for a teabag and glass, so about 20p. More importantly, it came with a spoon, so I can now stop slurping my noodles straight out of the Tesco Snack Pot container I’ve fashioned into a reusable bowl!!
Back in my bunk, Andrey and his family are preparing to get off. He told me how he wants to go to Thailand next year, and I showed him some of my photos from my visit earlier this year. He’s got a battle on at the moment, as his daughter wants to go on holiday on her own. He asked me what age children in England are allowed to go on holiday on their own, and disappointingly for Nastya, I told him around 18. She rolled her eyes and laughed- she was pinning her hopes on me taking her side… I told her you’re never too old for a holiday with your parents!
Andrey gave me some Egyptian jam and a teabag as a gift from his family, and took some photographs of me with them. I took some of them too, and I knew Nastya was impressed when I told her that I worked for the BBC, and knowing I had a BBC Open Centre pen in my bag, I gave it to her as a present. Just the BBC logo on it meant something to her as she ran her fingers along it – I think the BBC is still so well-known and respected here. She gave me a hug, as did her father, and we said our goodbyes.
I watched through the window as they ran out to meet their family who had met them at the station. They turned around and waved at me. I was sad to see them go if im honest – they had made my first daunting night onboard such an enjoyable experience. I realised we were stopping at their station for a while, and as they were still on the platform, I went out to get one last photograph of them all together as a family. The camera was quickly taken from me, and I was ushered into the middle for a few photos with me too.
It was lovely to meet them, and I wished them every success in the future before they headed to their cars and their nearby flat. If everyone I meet on this journey are as friendly and fun as Andrey and his family, this will be a fun trip!
I bought some Coke from the station shop and got back onboard. Two older Russian men were now in my cabin, and although they mustered a ‘hello’ didn’t really say much else. Thankfully I bumped into Igor who was heading for a cigarette, and we spent the night chatting. We got off at one station and walked the entire length of the train, getting some much needed fresh air, and watched as the locomotive was swapped over at the front for the next leg of the journey. It’s a cold night, our breath drifting into the stillness. Police dogs and guards are patrolling the tracks, checking the trains, while a maintenance man does what the maintenance man does at every station I’ve seen so far- walks along whacking every axle with a long-handled hammer and listening to the noise it makes. It sounds strangely like a xylophone.
Back on the move – with all axles intact – and after another hour of talking in the corridor, Igor and I are politely told to shut up by another passenger, so we went to bed!
The next morning I wake up as we approach Yekateringburg, some 1,816km from Moscow. It’s where Igor is getting off to meet his family, but he gives me a guide as we drift into the town, pointing out the main factories and a huge towerblock that was built on unstable ground without planning permission. Even Igor says it was a crazy thing to do!
As we arrive in Yekateringburg, I walk to see Igor off the train. His mum and dad are there waiting, and he introduces me to them in Russian. The only bit I understand is the word BBC, to which there are raised eyebrows, gasps and then hugs all round! I think his parents must have been parked on double yellows or something, as they needed to be off in a hurry, and Igor gave me a manly hug and a pat on the back, and wished me well for my trip before walking down the platform with his suitcase and parents in tow.
There’s an old lady in my cabin now. She got on in the middle of the night in Perm. She wears really thick glasses and fairly bright lipstick for a grandmother. At first im not sure how to take her – she looks a bit serious, and clearly cant speak much English. I think she’s a little unsure of me too. For anyone reading this who went to Healing School, she reminds me of Mrs Storey, same height, build, even looks very similar.
She motions me to sit down near her on the lower bunk, pats my knee and says something in Russian. I do my usual ‘Sorry, im English, I don’t know Russian’ act with a big smile and a wave of my hand near my throat (I don’t know why that seems to indicate we cant speak the language!) In broken English, she asks my name, and the ice is broken.
Her name is Yekaterina, and she’s on her way to visit family at the last stop for this train, Khabarovsk, not far from the Sea of Japan. A lot of our conversation is done through pointing, smiling, motioning and looking at photos on her camera and on my laptop. I work out she’s got a son, and her grand-daughter is a student. That’s when the food offering starts again, and she pulls out what look like some uncooked Findus Crispy Pancakes. She tells me I must eat three of them, as it’s a Russian tradition, and thrusts one into my hand.
I’m not entirely sure what was in it, I think it was minced chicken or something, but it tasted quite nice. It’s a good job, as I wasn’t going to be let off with just one, and two more later, I’m quite full. I offer to get her a cup of tea to return the favour, but she asks me to fill her cup with hot water instead. She’s got her own supply of teabags, and looks at me as if I’m daft for buying one from the carriage attendant!
Outside, the scenery is changing. Until now, much of the view has been of trees and forests, but as we’ve headed west, its visibly turned from Autumn into Winter. In Moscow, trees were still hanging onto leaves, rather like back at home. Gradually, the leaves have disappeared, and are now all on the ground. Igor had told me its unusual not to have snow by now – maybe I’ll see some before we arrive in Irkutsk.
The trees are also thinning out, with lots of empty grasslands and meadows, interspersed with a few huts and houses here and there. Every now and then, we’ll stop at a station, the longest today being at Tyumen. A young couple get on, meaning for the first time on the trip the cabin is full. Yekaterina talks to the guy, and shows me his bracelet/necklace thing he’s playing with. Its something to do with the game Warhammer apparently. Ive never played the game, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but associate it with geeks – and despite him not knowing much English, he strikes me as the sort of person that would play Warhammer! I think there’s been some Warhammer convention on somewhere, and he’s heading home to Novosibirsk, where we’re due to arrive tomorrow. Nice enough couple though.
Life onboard is getting to be a bit of a routine now. The trick is not to think of it as a journey to somewhere, and to count off the hours until you get there, but to enjoy it as an experience.
It was certainly fun trying to have some form of decent wash in the toilet earlier – and I mean in the cubicle, not in the actual pan, before anyone says anything!
Space is limited, so I managed to hang my clean clothes up on the peg, filled the bowl with water thanks to my squash ball plug (a great travel tip by the way – they block up sinks and you can play with them!) and basically gave myself what can only be described as a standing-up bed bath! It was awkward, water was sloshing around everywhere, but I didn’t care as before long there would have been complaints from fellow travellers…or I’d have to start handing out nose pegs! It felt much better to freshen up and have clean clothes on, and I returned back to my cabin and an admiring glance and squeeze of my shoulder from Yeketerina!
Im fascinated by how many people are using the train, and indeed how many trains there are travelling backwards and forwards across this vast country. Back home, I had visions of an empty railway line with one or two trains a day trundling along, each with a few tourists doing the same as me, knowing they can add ‘worlds longest railway journey’ to their list of things to do before they die.
These are actually really busy railway lines – at least one train passes us every 10 minutes or so, be it a passenger or freight train, and most of the compartments onboard are full of people travelling around this huge country.
Speaking to a few of them, they reason that the train is safer that flying. Russia has a dubious flying safety record at best, so its understandable. Its certainly more relaxing – I’ve got my nose into Piers Morgan’s ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am’, his follow up to ‘The Insider’, and the first time I’ve properly read a book for years. I sometimes get ridiculed for this, being a journalist and not reading much doesn’t seem to compute with some people, but the fact is I hardly have the time! On here, I do, in between dozing off for a few minutes after being rocked to sleep. Its just what I needed, and something I certainly wouldn’t have considered on a normal annual leave holiday- I’d have seen it as being stuck on a train for a week and wasting my time off, rather than treating it as a once in a lifetime experience, as I am able to now.
Once in a lifetime or not, im certainly getting fed up of Super Noodles. I went for the chicken flavoured packet tonight. I’d hoped that the station vendors would be selling sandwiches, or something useful to eat. Instead there seems to be lots of packets of fish strips, manky chicken and big Russian Pot Noodles, none of which particularly float my boat at the moment!
I take myself down to the restaurant car in the end, not to eat, but to sit and watch the world go by with a beer and my book.
Today seems to have flown by, and already we’re almost halfway to Mongolia.