I love going on trains. I really do. Whether it’s the Liverpool to London Pendellino, a super-fast train from Shanghai to Beijing, an overnight Indian sleeper train from Kochin to Bangalore, or Train 82 from Moscow to Ulan Ude. The travel writer Paul Theroux, father of documentary maker Louis, once wrote: ‘I’ve never once heard a train passing somewhere in the distance and not wished I was on it’. I couldn’t agree more.
Thus, I was rather relishing the 3 days and 3 nights along the trans-Siberian railway, the famous railroad linking Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia’s far east, Ulanbaataar in Mongolia, and ultimately China and Beijing.
I’m still on the train now as I sit and write this blog, on the morning of our third day. During these three days we’ve covered the length of track between Kazan and Irkutsk, a journey of some 2,500 miles, taking almost 72 hours. We’ve crossed five time zones. We’d had occasional stops at stations for up to an hour, giving us the chance to get off and stretch our legs, and buy treats on the platform. Such as drinks and snacks. And Communist ice cream.
The train itself is perfectly comfortable. Cabins are allocated along a coridoor, each containing four bunks. In our case the four girls in our group were given a cabin to themselves. To begin with Dave and I were sharing with two locals, a mother and her young son, but they got off a few days back and we’ve had the cabin to ourselves ever since.
So what do you do on a train for three days? Well. You do whatever you can to pass the time, I guess. You learn to stretch out anything you do to fill in as much time as possible. You want a cup of tea? Great idea! But, spend at least half an hour planning the cup of tea first. Then give your cup a wash. Even if it doesn’t need a wash, make sure it has a good wash. Then prepare the tea bag. Then add hot water, and allow a bare minimum of 20 minutes for brewing. Sip gently and slowly, and perhaps go back to top up with more hot water as you go. Thus having a cup of tea is not only refreshing, but it can soak up an hour or more of your time.
You listen to music. You read books. You chat. You look out of the window. Indeed, looking out of the window on this train in particular is entertainment enough. We’ve seen vast open tracts of land, beautiful lakes and dazzling sunsets. We’ve cut through forests and wilderness, small towns and huge cities. There’s been plenty to see.
But that’s the whole point of what I’m doing, isn’t it? That if you get on a plane, yes you get there quicker. But you fly over all this stuff. Right now, as I look out of the window, I can see in the distance a canopy of trees sweeping down into a deep, rock lined valley below, coloured with every green you could imagine. The sky above is a clear blue with only a whisper of cloud, a slight mist rolling through the air. You’d miss this if you were up in the sky. You’d miss it all!
Travelling this way also gives you a sense of the vast distances you’re covering. We’ve been travelling on a train for three days now. Three whole days, and nights, where we’ve rattled along at quite a rate. Its not gone slow, this train. Its gone at a fair whack, and yet on our third morning we’ve still got 12 hours until we arrive at our destination!
It comes to something when you say, ‘only twelve hours to go!’
One thing that has tried my patience has been the food. Every carriage includes a samovar – basically an urn of boiling water. Thus you live on giant pot noodles and cups of tea. There is a canteen in one of the carriages, which we did try. We ordered four ‘Meat Sandwiches’. Shortly after we were presented with 4 small pieces of bread with a few slices of sausage on each. It wasn’t quite Jamie Oliver, lets put it that way.
At night the carriages become quiet. The kids who spend all day roaring up and down the coridoor finally exhaust their energies and fall asleep. The window’s turn opaque, the world outside disappears into blackness. Evenings have been spent playing poker, nibbling biscuits, and of course drinking vodka. I’m not normally a fan of vodka, but you can hardly come on the trans-Siberian railway without a bottle or two, can you? By my calculations we’ve polished off five bottles between six of us in three days. That’s not actually too much, if you think about it…
We’ve met a few locals as we’ve gone along. One was a gigantic drunk Russian bloke who stank of vodka, who very helpfully explained to me, at quite some length, in Russian, how to cook a Pot Noodle. How it took him 5 whole minutes to say ‘Put some boiling water in it’, I’ll never know. He was a friendly chap though. Spent most of the time staggering up and down the carriage with his shirt off. Good chap.
We also had a run in with one of the provodnitsas. You see each carriage on the train is managed by two provodnitsas – women who treat the carriage like their personal domain, and who take it in turns to run shifts while the other rests. They’re tremendously house proud, and like to keep everything as clean as they can. They’ll tell you to be quiet at night, provide you with blankets and pillows and give you cups of tea and drinks.
…And, apparently, they’ll nick your vodka! It was yesterday evening, 10pm or so. Our provodnitsa was coming down the carriage closing the blinds. I had my laptop on charge in the coridoor. She said I had to move it. I asked if it wasn’t possible to just leave it there, as it wasn’t causing any harm. She furrowed her brow for a short while before saying she’d go and ask. Thirty seconds later she returned with the other off duty provodnitsa, bizarrely carrying two packets of biscuits.
The jist of the conversation was that if we bought two packets of biscuits, for 80 roubles (£1.50), then I could leave my laptop on charge. I refused, and said thanks for the offer, but I’m good for biscuits just now.
Not satisfied with this outcome, the off duty provodnitsa then took one of our bottles of vodka, making it clear that she was essentially holding the vodka hostage until we purchased the biscuits.
This was all very bizarre. We did attempt to negotiate. But she clearly wasn’t interested. Thus, not wanting to lose a bottle of vodka, we went ahead with the purchase of two packets of milk biscuits. Our vodka was duly returned and we went to bed very happy indeed.
I’m still unclear as to why they were so keen to trade biscuits with us. I wonder whether they get a biscuit bonus? Another theory, from one of the girls in our group, is that biscuits soak up alcohol, thus making us less likely to vomit, thus potentially saving the provodnitsa an unpleasant clean up job. I think this idea could have some currency to it. But it was all very strange. Another theory is that they were just messing around.
Whatever the reason, the provodnitsas have actually been a good laugh. I was worried we’d get some bolshy Russian babushka prodding us and poking us awake every morning. But these two have been alright, we’ve had a laugh with them whenever we’ve stopped at a station and got off to stretch our legs. This morning I was teasing the one who nicked the vodka and she took it pretty well. But I can imagine it’s a good idea to stay on the right side of your provodnitsa. If they wanted to make your life a misery they’d be able to do it in fine fashion.
We’ve got more train travel to do yet. We’re only getting to Irkutsk tonight, and we’ve got a few days at Lake Baikal. Then we’re back on a train to Ulan Ude, then to Ulaanbaatar, and then ultimately to Beijing. Trans-Siberian becomes trans-Mongolian.
I’m not going to lie – as much as I love train travel, it’ll be a blessing to finally be able to walk somewhere again. Three days is plenty of time to appreciate life on the rails. But it’ll be nice to get off, and to explore Lake Baikal.
Before then, we’ve got 12 hours left to try and wind up the provodnitsas a little more…
Adam’s Top Tips: The Trans-Siberian Railway
Blimey, so much for your 600-word limit.
Yeah. Sorry about that.
So, if I wanted to go on the trans-Siberian railway, how would I do it?
You buy a ticket. That’s about it! Lonely Planet do a good guide, and you can do what I did if you want and book a tour through a company such as VodkaTrain, who’ll take care of all the tickets for you.
But of course you pay a premium for this. You can get a ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok – the entire length of the journey – for around £500, with similar costs through to Beijing. I think www.realrussia.com have a facility where you can basically tell them how long you want to stop off in different places en-route, and they’ll book all the tickets for you, which makes things easier again.
Cool. These provodnitsas sound like a laugh.
To be fair they are, but don’t get on the wrong side of them. We’ve had some banter with ours, but I can imagine if they wanted to make life difficult they’d be able to do it without much trouble. She who must be obeyed, and that…
And its definitely better than flying?
Depends. If you’re in a rush then don’t get the train! But if you want an unforgettable experience, there can’t be many better than this…