Crossing Siberia by train, fulfilling a dream.
Crossing Siberia by Train
The pleasure of standing in the corridor of a sleeper carriage watching the world pass by the window is one of the reasons I adore long distance train travel, being rocked to sleep by the rails, I could rhapsodize forever.
For a vagabonding train lover, the Trans-Siberian route is a long yearned dream. To travel slowly across the vast Siberian plains, to take a train from London and with a few changes arrive weeks later in Asia.
If it can be done, it has to be done, it has to be travelled.
This leg of our rail journey to Vietnam was to be the longest, Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk. Three days, two nights, 3373 kilometres and four time zones.
I craved this journey! I booked our berths in a (4 bed) Kupe using the Russian Railways website (English bit). This worked fine for me but I understand that not all credit/debit cards are accepted by it, especially American ones.
You can book any internal Russian train on the site and it gives you a registered print-out-yourself ticket which you hand to the attendant when you board, I couldn’t believe how easy it was!
Our train, the 002 Rossiya, Moscow to Vladivostok, departed from Yekaterinburg station in the late afternoon.
All trains in Russia run on Moscow time, which can be a little confusing to start with.
All the stations have clocks at Moscow time too, as well as the trains.
It had snowed all afternoon, we crunched onto the platform as the train pulled in towards us, looking for our carriage as it passed.
This is the rail traveller’s moment of anticipation: boarding a train and meeting your fellow voyagers.
This train had begun its journey in Moscow: we would be joining an already settled and inhabited sleeping car.
Bundling down the corridor of our carriage with our bags we found our cabin and introduced ourselves to Natasha and Valiyr, its other occupants. Both Russian, Natasha was travelling the full Moscow to Vladivostok for the first time and Valiyr was on until the next stop later in the evening: Tyumen.
We managed to converse quite successfully, although rather slowly, with our little phrasebook. In trying to explain why we were doing our trip, and how we could afford it, we used our old travel story (used when we travelled through the Middle East and India) that we were on our Honeymoon. It usually justifies with no questions asked.
Valiyr disappeared. He returned soon after with a bottle of Liebfraumilch (it had a mother and baby on the label) and a bar of chocolate (had a baby on the label, do you see a pattern here?).
We toasted our nuptials, we toasted our future off-spring, we went along with it.
Fully in the celebratory swing now, Valiyr dragged out a ubiquitous checked laundry bag from under the seat and produced a bottle of dark, home-made liquor. Blackcurrant we managed to deduce, it was poured and passed around.
We toasted our nuptials, we toasted our future off-spring.
The bottle was returned to the bag and another took its place, this time a pale home-made spirit.
This one was herby: we toasted our nuptials, we toasted our future off-spring.
Natasha, keen to keep things under a bit of control dished out slices of a salami-type sausage to the men. The bottle went back to the bag, this time unlabeled cognac replaced it.
This was potent stuff, Natasha and I agreed we’d had enough after the first shot.
We toasted our nuptials, we toasted our future off-spring.
Chris and Valiyr continued with the cognac, we were all getting rather merry. Natasha and Valiyr sang to us, traditional Russian songs, then asked us to do the same.
Our befuddled minds couldn’t think of anything, they urged us on, we looked at one another and a spark lit in both our eyes: yes,
“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, No escape from reality.”
It was a rousing version of Bohemian Rhapsody: it blew their minds! Well, it may have been bemusement!
By the time the train pulled into Tyumen station four hours later, Valiyr and Chris were very drunk. Valiyr had to be helped off the train by Natasha!
I felt a little bit guilty with our Honeymoon fib, Natasha and Valiyr were so sweet in celebrating it. We may use it with more care from now on! Natasha even made my bed for me that night.
Valiyr was replaced by two placid men over the rest of the journey, one after the other.
Over the following two days the Siberian world passes by the window, it looks similar to the pre-Yekaterinburg journey. Trees, so many trees, naked in the late Autumn.
The occasional wooden village, dusty streets dividing the shabby, colourful houses. Orange-attired railway workers appear in remote locations along the track.
We pass a couple of big towns, Ob and Novosibirsk, with ugly housing blocks, litter and congestion. They look bleak and grey compared to the fragile, colour-splashed wooden villages.
The afternoons burn golden.
The seamlessly endless background of tall, upright birch trees, rotates over the miles, punctuated in the foreground with short low platforms next to the railway. These rudimentary stations serving tiny villages hidden among the trees.
Time is lost as we travel through the time zones, we eat by the sun and the days are short. The train continues east as we sink into darkness, time to curl up and read.
The following morning there is much more variety to the outside world, many logging settlements and poker straight pine forests. The train crosses rivers, frozen at the edges and the platforms of stations we pass through sparkle with frost.
As we get much nearer to Irkutsk the logging activity increases, the land becomes more undulating and the forests more diverse.
There is traffic on the roads and many goods trains. We see foxes, their big bushy tails disclosing them.
At Zima the train stops for thirty minutes giving us plenty of time to get off for some much needed fresh air on the platform.
Our diet on the train consists of noodles and powdered soup, brown bread, brie, pickled gherkins, crackers. Packets of instant porridge make filling breakfasts, made with water from the samovar.
Three-in-one sachets of instant coffee wash everything down – I know, shocking, but strangely quite addictive!
Chris enriches this diet with hot food that is brought down the train: doughnut rolls filled with hotdogs or meat.
Arriving into Irkutsk
There were a few other backpackers in our carriage, we had met up and chatted throughout the journey. Everyone gathered in the corridor as the train pulled into Irkutsk in the early evening.
We walked into the city with a lovely Aussie girl, Tori, dumped our bags at the hostel and joined some other guys in the dorm for drinks in town.
Wow, we were now so far along the rails from the UK!
I couldn’t believe that stretch of the journey had been completed: something I’d dreamt about for so long! It had lived up to my dreams and expectations, and I felt a little solemn now it had been travelled.
However, more adventure beckoned, the journey was far from over…
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Irkutsk, a Lovely Place to Pause Hop off for Lake Baikal!
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Hello Mongolia! Arriving by train into Ulaanbaatar on Chenggis Khan’s birthday! How very auspicious!
Breaking Up The Vastness Of The Journey In Yekaterinburg, Russia A perfect pause on the Trans–Siberian.
Moscow. Lenin, Gorky Park and a Soviet Space Shuttle! Exploring Moscow and finding some surprises.
Arriving into St Petersburg, Russia Baby! We got very, very drunk on the train. Let’s just call it an initiation!
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By Rachel Davis