Experience the Trans Siberian Express
Although the real Trans Siberian Express, the Rossija, only goes to and from Vladiwostok twice a week, there are more trains using this railway. We just book a one way ticket Moscow Irkutsk on a train that moves on to Blagovashensk, and call this train Trans Siberian Express for the sake of ease.
The ride to Irkutsk will take 4 days, and we will have to change our watches 5 times during the ride. It all starts at Jaroslavski station in Moscow, where Uncle Pasha drops us off. The train is waiting for us at the platform, where the Provodnitsa (female conducter) checks our tickets and passports before we get in.
Sharing CabinsThe first question is who we are sharing a cabin with. The answer comes quick as an old man greets us and starts telling stories in Russian. We don’t understand a word he’s saying but it takes a while for him to notice that.
After installation of our gear, we start reading our guide. Although we’re trapped in the train we like to know something of the places we pass. So we carry a guidebook with details of all places where the train stops. We notice that every city has some remarkable tales to tell.
Stop and ShopWe left Moscow at 14.39 PM and it is dark when the train makes its first stop that is longer than 2 minutes. We are not getting out on the platform, since we don’t expect much action.
But to our surprise, there are a lot of people trying to sell their goods. It amazes us they even sell souvenirs, we assumed we would be the only tourists on the train.
After making our beds it is time for dinner. We hear the restaurant is a few carriages further, and we’re on our way. When we open the door between two carriages, there is a lot of noise and cold. In between the carriages are just two metal plates covered with snow, a rubber curtain separates us from outside. Carefully we make the leap to the other carriage. Once on the other side, we’re completely covered with snow.
We did not expect the restaurant carriage to have an English menu. But it is even worse: the Russian menu is hand written, so we cannot decipher the Cyrillic writing. Luckily, the waitresses are very helpful, but it’s still a gamble what we’re ordering. In the end, the Soljanka (meat soup) Sabine ordered is eaten by Patrick and the meal Patrick ordered is eaten by Sabine. Having different tastes can be very convenient on the road.
Trying to sleepBack in our cabin we brush our teeth and go to bed. The noise and especially the shaking of the train make sleeping very difficult. And the next morning getting up is difficult as well. Obviously, we don’t need to get up, but since the days are very short we try not to be tempted to sleep in.
A snowy landscape passes our windows. There are a lot of birch trees and every now and then a village with mostly wooden houses. Unfortunately, it gets dark when we enter the Ural mountain range. Today’s major stop, in Yekaterinburg, is also in the dark and the obelisk marking the official border between Europe and Asia passes unnoticed.
Our cabin-mate stays in bed all day. Once in a while he says something, but it doesn’t make sense to us, so he gives up. He chooses to tell his stories to the provodnitsa, who brings him his noodle soup.
But she seems relieved when we enter another railway station so she can go out to remove ice from underneath the train with her axe and iron bar. The ice is probably what we flush down the toilet…
Meeting RussiansIn the meantime we have met another passenger. A six year old girl thinks it’s very interesting that we speak another language. She sits with us to see what we are doing and to play cards with us. There are some more children in the train as well. They play soccer in the train and we are invited to join them.
The third day goes by as the second did. Our cabin-mate more and more acts as a grumpy old man. He scares away the kids that come for us, and shouts at people who block his view in the aisle. We just pay little attention to him.
Arriving at the railway station of Omsk, we appear not to be the only westerners on the train. We meet Florian, a German who asks for our guide. His visa has expired, so we give him our Asia overland guide, with tips and tricks for visa trouble. We doubt that he can get off without a big fine.
Siberian citiesLast stop of the day is Novosibirsk. We stay awake since this is the only city featuring on weather websites we visited before we left. As the other cities along the route, Novosibirsk is much bigger than we would expect. From the train we see large, lighted roads with heavy traffic. There are a lot of tall buildings and there are many people on the streets. In no way the city looks like the exile haven it once must have been. The railway has connected the cities to the rest of the world, and made them grow. Besides, in the cold winters it is probably better to live in a city than in the countryside.
The fourth day we arrive in Eastern Siberia. The landscape is mainly taiga, swampy grounds with big flats and small groups of trees. Also, there is less snow here, what surprises us.
Life on the trainWe get used to the slow life on the train. We get our tea, look from the window, read a book, and play with the children. So we’re learning the concept of relaxing quite well. We do have a little problem with getting up in the morning, however. This is partly due to the heavy shaking of the train, and partly to the changing time zones, making the days shorter.
When Irkutsk approaches, our cabin-mate comes to life. He had had a nightmare and kept us a bit awake during the night. But now, he dresses himself and keeps asking when we arrive. He says goodbye one station early and gets sent back by the provodnitsa. And when we do arrive, he’s the first one to leave the train.