We just completed the first leg of our trans-siberian journey (Moscow-Irkutsk) and, even after four days cooped up in a train carriage, I wasn't in a hurry to get off...(ok, I'm blatantly lying, living with no shower for four days is more than this girl can take...)
Seriously though, if you can get over the lack of bathroom facilities and discover the wonders of wet wipes (I'm still working on that one), it is such a relaxing way to travel and the time just flies by. I had expected to be twiddling my thumbs by the end of it but, in fact, i didn't get around to half the things I'd been planning (including our remaining wedding thank yous - sorry guys...)
The best moments of the trip were when we pulled into a new station (approximately every 500-600km) where the train usually stopped for 5-20 minutes. This was our opportunity to jump off and get some fresh air (it was generally over 28 degrees on board) as well as to pick up more food provisions from vendors on the platform. It was quite a sight...
The European tourists would nervously descend onto the platform in their uniform North Face jackets, while the hardy Russians would leap off in their shorts, beer guts and flip flops. Local women turned out in force to sell their home-made offerings - filled pancakes, sausage rolls and, for some unlucky carriages, whole smoked fish... The sell wasn't too hard though - these people were very warm and friendly, in contrast with the freezing weather.
The train passengers themselves also used this as a chance to sell their various goods to other travellers and the platform was often overflowing with cheap handbags and clothes on their way to/from China. This selling frenzy was even more entertaining when we met another long distance train in a station and vendors would jump over the tracks (sometimes climbing under a stationary train) to offload more of their goods. On one occasion, at Nizhny Novgorod, the Ulan Bator Express pulled in and the Mongol hoards invaded. However, unlike their ancestors, these guys were armed to the teeth with cheap kitchen wear and fake designer jeans.
The challenge for everyone was getting back on the train well before it left as there was generally no warning and there have been tales of people being left behind...
Unlike the guide book's description of the trip, there was always something new to look at. The autumn colours and
constantly changing scenery were amazing to watch. Dense forests of ghostly birch trees turned into rolling hills and fields and regular villages of well-kept, wooden, Swiss-chalet style houses (in bright blues and greens) next door to run-down, abandoned old shacks. This bizarre landscape was also interspersed with wide, murky rivers and the odd polluted, industrial town thrown in for good measure. We saw very few people along the way - not all that surprising given the temperatures outside.
We were both amazed at the extent of the rail network out here and the amount of freight being transported on this route (some freight yards handle over 100 trains simultaneously). Given the size of the country and the relatively limited road infrastructure, this railway really is the lifeline of Siberia.
Life on board the train itself was also pretty good. As we are still officially on honeymoon(!) we had opted for a cabin for two, which was extremely comfortable, but perhaps not as sociable as we'd been expecting. Instead of playing games of chess with random Russians over shots of vodka, poor Charlie had to make do with cosy games of backgammon and cups of tea with me (big mistake - although i'd never played the game before now, it seems i'm actually quite good at it ;-)) Our particular carriage was mostly Europeans who kept to themselves (and their doors closed) but we did meet a couple of nice Americans and two German guys who joined for the last day. Having seen the other accommodation options further down the train (6 people in open bunks with zero space and a whole variety of smells), I'm also quite glad that we treated ourselves for this particular leg of the journey...
Our one dining car experience was definitely better than expected, including the surly, unhelpful Russian waitresses who more than lived up to their stereotype! For the rest of the journey we had prepared a big picnic and made regular use of the samovar (big metal kettle at the end of every carriage) for tea, soup, hot chocolate and more tea.
All the safety and timetable information on the train was in Russian (very helpful). The only thing in English was the reference to not putting toilet paper in the bowl (a small bin was provided instead - nice). But enough about the bathrooms...
The two people I haven't yet mentioned are our Provodnitsa (Russian carriage attendants) who are responsible for keeping everything clean and tidy (and getting you up in time for your stop!) We had two very entertaining ladies in our carriage, Marina and Ludmila, who made us giggle regularly despite not speaking a word of English.... We spent one very amusing evening with them in their cabin over a glass of wine making "conversation" with our very best hand signals. They soon had Charlie figured out as the "comedian" but I'm still not sure what Marina meant when looking at me saying "Chiky Chiky!"
We've passed through 5 time zones in the space of 4 days and it was great to see the kilometres fly by (literally - some kind person has put a sign post for every km of the journey!)
It's now 5am local Irkutsk time (17th Oct) and we're pulling into the station for our final stop on this part of the trip. We are planning to head over to Lake Baikal for the next few days so will write again on our return.
Love to all from sunny Siberia,
Funniest moment - describing the concept of vegetarianism to two Russian Provodnista using hand signals only...
Best sight - the expectant faces (and loaded carts) of the vendors as our train pulled into a station
Best scenery - sunset every night - the pictures (and our photography skills) don't really do it justice, but the light was just amazing.
Greatest achievement - Charlie's heroic attempts (and success) in getting a photograph of the front of the train as it went round bends, without losing the camera (or himself) out of the tiny window. Tied equally with my tolerance of the bathroom facilities (princess, moi?)
Narrowest escape - taking the "platform 2" sign at Moscow station at face value, only to realise at the last minute that it was actually referring to platforms 9-12 (go figure...) and the real Platform 2 (and our train) was on the other side of the station!
Most annoying feature - the vacuum toilet on the train which, EVERY time it was flushed, sounded like "a thousand elephants simultaneously farting in a cathedral" (and we weren't even next door to it).
Most unfriendly person - the French chick in our carriage who never came out of her cabin (we only saw her on two occasions during the entire 4 days and that was en route to the bathroom!