Venturing towards VladivostockJune 26, 2017 in Russia
It was a daunting thought as I boarded the train at 07.47 on Friday morning, knowing I would be on it for the next three full days. Again it was a bit unnerving on arrival at Irkutsk station to see the departure board (only in Russian) and the station clock showing the time of departure (for what I had worked out must be the Vladivostok train) as being 02.47 (Moscow time). Even more confusingly, local trains were shown in the correct local time!
On boarding, I was disappointed that for the first time my compartment was dirty and untidy, littered with food and drink debris. Summoning up my courage, I approached Madame Provodnitsa (Slack Svetlana from Siberia) and, with the aid of Google translate, let her know I was not happy. ‘Russian pigs’ she declared as she set about clearing out the berth. My travelling companion was a heavy built Russian lad who looked like a young Sumo wrestler with the face of a film star - ah yes, I remember - King Kong! He had his foodstuffs spread all over, and looked a bit sheepish as Senga told him off for being so untidy. After my complaint, Slack Svetlana made a show of cleaning the whole carriage with much huffing and puffing. To her credit however she did bring me a pack of fresh linen and a cup of tea in one of the lovely metal tea holders.
The scenery was lovely as we left, with sweeping views of Lake Baikal as we skirted its southern edge. The train stops for 10 minutes at Slydyanka 500 metres from the lake, and some brave Trans Siberian passengers have been known to take the dare of running down to the lake for a quick dip before running back to catch the train. Apparently a few have missed it, so I decided to forego this pleasure.
This original part of the line did not follow this route due to the expense of building through this mountainous part, and passengers were ferried across the Great Lake ( I have noticed there have been barely any tunnels on the entire route so far). However in winter the ferries could not break through the ice. At one point in 1904, troops had to make the crossing, and it was decided to lay tracks across the thick ice to allow the train to cross. However the train did not get too far before the ice cracked and the locomotive sank into the icy water Oops!
At Ulan-Ude the line to Mongolia and Beijing branches off. Another passenger joined us here who reminded me of Gerry Begley from the Apollo Players (no offence Gerry if you are reading) - a friendly Russian, kind and generous with his food which he offered to share. King Kong needed no 2nd invitation, and soon was tucking into roast chicken and home made bread.
Gerry Begley proudly showed us photos of his children and grandchildren ‘look how she can put her jacket on, all by herself - ah’. He told me in his limited English he was a fisherman - and proceeded to clear the table of all the foodstuff (much to the annoyance of King Kong), and set up a large antiquated laptop. He proceeded to show us a video of him and his mates on various fishing expeditions on the Volga and other great Russian rivers - shooting the rapids, camping, displaying their catches etc. Although it was interesting initially, I have to say my interest waned after 30 minutes or so - I mean how excited can you get at seeing yet another poor Omul dangling from a line! In his favour however the next home video about boring a 5 foot deep hole in the ice of Lake Baikal to fish was pretty amazing. I congratulated him on the videos and he proudly announced he was the Director. He laughed when I referred to him thereafter as Sergei Spielberg!
The scenery on this part of the journey is beautiful. Rather than just miles of forest, there are rolling hills and gleaming rivers - very like Scotland in many ways. The sun shone again all day and you never tired looking out the window. The railway line is very well used, not only by passenger trains but by freight ones too, with 100 wagons or more carrying a variety of materials such as timber, granite chips and gas. Sod's law, as soon as you see an interesting photo opportunity a lengthy train passes. Although the countryside is beautiful, it is marred at times by ugly towns with their decaying industrial buildings. However we can go for hours without seeing one and the vast majority of the landscape is completely unspoiled.
Another passenger joined us during the night - a keep fit fanatic on the wrong side of 40 but with the body of a guy half his age, a Vladimir Putin type. He spent much of the time exercising in the corridor and didn't speak a word. After a reasonable night’s sleep, we all got up and washed around 7.30 - except for King Kong who did not stir until 2pm - taking up the whole of one side of the seating area. I decided to give the restaurant car a miss today and had just finished my breakfast of banana, black bread with pate and cheese portions and coffee, when Sergei Spielberg sat beside me smiling with his laptop open, and showed me a huge collection of still photos of the mountains, wildlife, flora and fauna of the Volga region. Don't get me wrong, they were stunning photos, but there's only so many times you can ooh and aah at a snow-capped peak or a piece of lichen.
In between video shows, I caught up with my reading, and managed to finish the Robert Harris novel Archangel - set in Moscow and other parts of Russia, with a Stalinesque theme - very entertaining. I moved on to read a new book about Nicholas ll- the Last Tsar and the Russian Revolution of 1917. I found it fascinating to read about some of the places I had been on this trip. There seem to be a lot of new books out commemorating the centenary of these momentous events.
By Sunday morning, King King had cleared every scrap of food he could find and got off the train, disappearing into the trees. This gave Sergei more space to show off his cinematic achievements. He was very generous and continuously offered to share his food. After two days now on the train I felt the need for a shower and, with the help of Google Translate, the Provodnitsa arranged this, after allowing 10 minutes for the water to heat (you'll need tae wait till ah put the immersor oan!). Thankfully I had brought a towel, soap and shampoo, as it was just a bare cubicle with a seat, but it did the trick and I felt suitably refreshed.
On Sunday afternoon we crossed the 2.6km bridge over the River Amur - the longest bridge on the Trans Siberian Railway. This area is the home of the Amur or Siberian tiger, the largest member of the cat family. My guide book told me that in 1987 a tiger had strayed on to the tracks and held up the train. I asked Sergei if there was a chance we might see one of these great beasts and he replied ‘yes, of course - in the Zoo!’.
Sadly Sergei Spielberg had to get off at Khabavorsk at Sunday tea time. I was sorry to see him go as he was good fun and we had many laughs. It's amazing how you can communicate with someone with odd words, gestures and mime. As he struggled to find the words about leaving, he shrugged his shoulders and said ‘Me - Brexit!’ and off he went.
More passengers get on here to take up the berths vacated by King Kong and Sergei. The train is not a tourist attraction but a real working train used heavily by locals. Slack Svetlana is busy handing out fresh linen to the newcomers as we face our last night on board. As my granny used to say: ‘that's how the rents are cheap!’
From here, the line runs south all the way to Vladivostok and there are good views over the plains to China. On Monday morning, 72 hours after I left Irkutsk on Friday morning, the train finally pulls into its eastern terminus. It's been 5630 miles since we left Moscow, and I am thrilled to have experienced the world's longest rail journey, and one I will never forget - the Trans Siberian!Read more