Four days on a train. Ninety-two hours of my life. 5185km from Moscow to Irtursk. Before we left Moscow we did a quick supermarket shop to buy our food, drinks and snacks for the journey. We boarded the train and I found my cabin with my room mates for the next few days, our Russian guide Olga and I took the top bunks and Stephan and Ursula, a retired German couple took the bottom. I got to know them well over the following days as they shared titbits of their lives in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down. They have been travelling and making up for lost time ever since. They also had a guide book (I was not that organised) and shared Transiberian facts and landmarks with me over a shot of vodka each day.
On the first day I spent a lot of time standing in the corridor looking out the window. We had the windows open so you could feel the breeze. I watched as the landscape and houses changed, big log cabins, larch, pine and birch trees and a beautiful sunset. I imagined how it must be to live so remotely especially in the middle of a harsh Russian winter. Stephen and Ursula pointed out the rivers that we crossed, Volga was the first one. We got out at the first train stop, Danilow, which is known for its toy factory. There was a guy selling soft toys, he had them attached to his body like some sort of soft toy backpack towering over his head. He had a queue of people buying them so they were expecting him. There were Babushka ladies on the platform selling food: homemade pancakes, garlic, onions and berries.
I woke up and had to change the time on my watch. We were travelling through time zones and were already two hours ahead of Moscow. We travelled through the home of Mendeleev, the scientist who created the periodic table and past the rivers Kama and Seva. A couple of people caught colds, and I learned about some interesting Russian cold remedies: the standard Garlic, ginger, lemon and honey; Vodka, pepper and honey; A shot of vodka to drink and another to rub on the soles of your feet before wearing socks to bed; and the most extravagant: onions in your ears and your head wrapped in a bandage (to keep the onions in place), plus a head scarf like a babushka, a string of garlic around your neck and a clove to sniff all at the same time. If that doesn’t get rid of it I’m not sure anything can. We crossed the border between Europe and Asia marked by an obelisk that whizzes by so fast you’ll miss it if you blink! We stopped and got out at Ekaterinburg and Perm to stretch our legs. Perm is known for its minerals and salt mining. Fourteen of us squeezed into one cabin for a Russian lesson with Olga. A few basics to help us order food from the Babushkas: Kartoshka (potato), Pirogki (pastry), Kuritsa (chicken), Myaso (meat), Blini (pancake), Peevoe (beer), Spaseeba (thank you) and vada (water)… everything we might need to get us through the journey! We met some fellow passengers travelling to work, home and back from holiday. To end the day we celebrated Eileen, one of the woman in our group’s birthday, with a drink and games in restaurant car.
I woke up late. Though what is late or routine when you live on a train and the time is constantly changing? Another day sitting, watching, thinking, listening to the constant sounds and feeling the train vibrations. We jumped off for at the next stop to practice our Russian and order some home made food from the Babushkas. We stocked up for the day with boiled potatoes, eggs, meatballs, pancakes filled with sweetened cottage cheese, chorizo-like sausage and some kind of fried bread (like a vetkoek) filled with mince. Julia, who was 72 and sharing a cabin with some of our group, used to work in the fields and is part of a Babushka band. She chatted away to us in Russian and plaited my hair while I learned to play ‘Fool’. The Siberian scenery continued to change. It became very flat and sparse as we gained another hour.
The day started out cooler, grey with rain. Stephen and Ursula informed me that we crossed our 5th and largest river, the Enisej (Yenisee) river. We got off at Krasnojarsk and had enough time to walk to the main square to see its fountain and people watch for a few minutes. I bought some goats wool gloves from a seller on the train for 200 rubles and some dinner at the next stop - meat and potato dumplings, cottage cheese fritters and a caramel sugar cone. Russia is what sparked my love of dill. It comes with pretty much everything… potatoes, eggs, meatballs, dumplings, pickles, even dill flavoured crisps! Another hour gained. We were now 5 hours ahead and 4477km away from Moscow. I listened to the sound of the rumbling train as I fell asleep for the last time before disembarking at Irtursk and saying farewell to our new Russian friends.
I don’t know if I’d say this journey was life changing. Though it probably was in a butterfly effect way. It was certainly thought provoking and totally different to anything I’ve done before or since. Breathtaking scenery, fascinating people and hours to just be present.
I travelled Russia with Intrepid on their three week Trans-Mongolian experience.
Credit to Vicky Wright for some of our lovely group photos!
Last Stop: Moscow
Next Stop: Lake Baikal