The Trans Siberian Railway
The Trans Siberian is not so much a train, as the Orient Express is, rather a route. It is a route that crosses from European Russia into Siberia ending in the far east of the country in Vladivostok. The Trans Siberian is but one of three routes that cross this mighty continent, all following the same tracks as far as Irkutsk. However only the Trans Siberian continues heading due east terminating in the Russian naval city of Vladivostok. The Trans Manchurian meanders east for a while before cutting diagonally down to Beijing whilst the trans Mongolian noses on south, pretty much immediately after Irkutsk, crossing Mongolia via its capital Ulan Bator (and how many different ways are there of spelling that -for once you cannot pick me up on my spelling. You take a look, all our guidebooks are spelling it different), finally ending in Beijing. It is this route we are taking. Starting on the Baikal Express, train #10 departing Moscow 23.30 on day 1, arriving Irkutsk at 08:30 on day #5. And it will be 08:30. Russian trains are always punctual. The managers are rewarded on it. (Now if only on South West Trains...) We will be stopping in Irkutsk for a day or two (the plan is unintentionally vague here), when we found out that first class tickets were unavailable for the train to Irkutsk on the 13th. We got them for the 15th instead.... But forgot to change the dates for our onward journey from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator.
Life on board
Our compartment is very much like a shop display in one of the major department stores. Each train window presenting its own display of a temporary exhibition of life in a confined space for an extended period of time. The up market windows of which ours is one are sparsely populated. And like two mannequins we look out onto the world beyond our window. Two manikins staring onto a high street beyond the great glass divide, and like the high street the scenery rarely changes. The details do. Distractions to the never-ending monotony of flat landscapes; with birch forests, the odd pool of water, habitation or sign of life. How tedious it must be to be a manikin.
Yet beyond the tedium of the vista through our window, we keep ourselves amused. These mannequins lie supine for much of the time, engrossed in books, reading, writing and playing cards.
We paid extra for first class primarily for the privacy. Four nights in a confined space six feet by five feet with the unknown was a proposition too far for Lindsey. And whilst in India I have spent many hours in such confines, I have usually found at least one of my fellow passengers to have at least an elementary grasp of English, making long journeys bearable with some form of communication. I have wandered up and down this train, been to the restaurant car and found no one who speaks English. And without language, communication collapses into the rubble of sign language, smiles and facial gestures that can sustain the active mind for only so long. So we keep our minds active between ourselves. There are other Europeans on this train- in this carriage in fact, but they are middle aged Germans on a tour, seem happy to keep themselves to themselves and have shunned the opening lines of conversation I have presented to them. 'The weather is getting worse the further east we go eh?' Well I am British; it is my prerogative to commence with the weather.
Three days in and the weather is changing. Gone is the sunshine we enjoyed in European Russia. We toasted Adios to Europe and the fine solar rays at the Urals with Vodka and Caviar. We awoke in Siberia to look out over marshy grasslands, birch forests and dirty water-logged fields that reflected the rolling clouds like lumps of caviar from the previous evening, smeared below a white t-towel sky that had greyed from too many dark washes.
At each end of the carriage there is a small bathroom. This is somewhat of a misnomer. The room that measures barely 1 metre square contains a toilet and a basin. Washing was always Lindsey's primary concern. Her Bete Noir. Her primordial fear. 'How am I going to wash my hair?!' And so we traveled across one continent and now a second carrying a shower attachment from Woolworth's in the vain hope that the routine of bathing would be uninterrupted en route. We would make do, improvise, and wash on the trans-Siberian. Yet the attachment has remained in the bag. It would not fit over the unusual tap mechanism on the train.
So maybe I am getting a tad grimy, musty, smelly per chance, but man can live without a bath for a few days. Lindsey finds my attitude repugnant, and with a flannel that she formed from an old towel out of a market in Moscow, and a plastic beaker to douse herself with water, she makes a valiant attempt to maintain the sanitary routine and keep clean. Personally I look forward to a hot shower in Irkutsk. Five days after my last in Moscow. And possibly a Banya, a traditional Russian Sauna if we get the chance... I can live with being unclean. But it is becoming noticable that Lindsey is avoiding close proximity with me...!
The train stops and I venture out onto the platform. The air is heavy with the smell of burning wood from the samovars that are kept piping hot for the duration, enabling us to have unlimited coffee, pot noodles and cup-a-soups. (I would add tea to that list, but we failed to read the Russian on the box properly- we bought leaf tea, not tea bags).
It is a hive of activity with traders wandering up and down selling goods, whilst others have set up trestle tables from which they are peddling their wares. The choice is far from extensive. All the tables contain the same meagre options of beer (the further east so the strength of the amber nectar increases, nothing below 8% this side of the Urals); instant noodles, biscuits, chocolate, toilet paper, bread and salami sausages. All look positively weary in their packages, unappealing necessities when the few provisions we brought from Moscow ran out. Occasionally the odd piece of fruit is on display, an apple here, and an orange there. And on the isolated table a leg of cooked chicken. The traders walking up and down the platform ply a different line of goods. Smoked fish. Little ones, big ones, any size of kipper you desire. A couple of Mongolian entrepreneurs are trying to sell large fur hats that would be appropriate for this part of the world when it is really freezing cold, but not today. Not when it is just cold, wet and miserable. That doesn't stop a couple of traders selling ice cream. I mean come on!! This is Siberia!! But apparently ice cream is popular in these parts despite the climatic conditions. And hey, looking at that girls skirt over there she clearly thinks it is ice cream weather. We are talking micro material around her waist. Maximum leg. But then this is not so unusual. Mini-skirts are definitely de-rigueur with many young Russians we have seen.
Time ceases to matter much on this train. What time is it? Depends. The train is running on Moscow time, and every station displays this on its clocks. But they are a fraud. Time is what we make it to be. We are slowly crossing time zones, our waking days getting shorter as we add hours to the clock one by one. This is no trans-Atlantic flight.
-Thank you for flying with Trans-Siberian, put your clocks forward by five hours, the time now is eight thirty.
No. Here we amble across the longitudinal markers of time, setting our watches by the setting sun and assumptions of where we are from the distance markers by the side of the tracks. Four thousand four hundred and seventy four kilometers from Moscow. That'll be another hour for the clocks to move forward then.
The restaurant car
Ignoring the kitchen on your left (best ignore the kitchen, you don't want to know how the food you are about to consume is prepared, and its surroundings) you enter the restaurant. It speaks of what could be, of stately grandeur, hinting at culinary promise. OK, so the seats are vinyl and the tables covered in Formica, but lets call this culinary promise of the fifties. A large wooden mirror on the far wall. Blue silk curtains, flower arrangements on the tables. An effort to what a restaurant car -should be-. Even if the final effect fails by a degree. We walk past the tables. We are alone, save for a young, skinny guy slowly slurping at a watery soup, knocking back the piva and chatting up the waitress. And a casualty of the same folly on the adjacent table. Empty soup bowl, the dregs in his beer glass. Slumped over the table, his shaven head cradled in his arms, occasionally emitting the low pitched snoring breath of a man who has had one too many.
A woman whom I assume is the Maitre D sees us to a table. She is a scary looking woman with a dangerous, inviting smile. She resembles a witch. A riot of jet-black hair, recessed dark eyes in a haggard face that has a fleeting similarity to Ronnie Wood. Large golden-hooped earrings give a gypsy aura to her, but the black she wears speaks of witch. Black leather skirt to the floor, hiding her feet and ankles, black crimpled top that does little to flatter her figure. And isn't it an expression that is used to describe a beer with no fizz? As flat as a witches tit? Her flat chest declares that she -is- a witch. She leads us to our table, not so much walking down the carriage aisle as gliding.
The young waitress leaves her one sided conversation and presents us with a menu in Russian and English. It is eight pages long. Appetizers, starters, main dishes (meat, poultry), deserts, drink. Lots of choice. She produces a pen from her jacket pocket. Leather is the theme here, full length fitted black leather skirt and matching skimpy leather jacket that covers the equally skimpy black mock silk shirt she wears, tied in a knot below her cleavage, showing off her pudgy midriff. It harks back to the seventies, to Grease the movie. "Grease Lightning" Lindsey laughs. She moves her pen down through the line items on the menu, occasionally pausing to say 'da'. Red Caviar and salmon for appetizers, 'Solyanka' ('meat soup') for starter and roast chicken or entrecote for main (two nights later and only the entrecote is on the menu). Eight pages and that is it. Oh, I forget the piva, vodka and champagne. "Stroganoff?" I ask, (referred to in the guide book as 'ever present'). "Nyet" she replies. Ho hum. Well forget the appetizers, other than them; we'll have the lot. And plenty of piva.
The Solyanka appears along with the beer and bread. It is a thin soup with an assortment of vegetables, smoked hams, salami and a rancid lemon floating in it. Strong on the garlic, it is never going to win any awards for gastronomic flare.
And with a friend who edits a food magazine for one of the supermarkets in the UK, there was me thinking that I would be able to part finance this trip with an article on food on the trans-Siberian. Ho hum. I pick at it, slurp the thin liquid with globules of oil in each spoonful. And what have we here? A pitted olive. Truly a concoction of whatever the chef had to hand when he fired up his stove as he came on duty.
A bell rings. Obviously the kitchen informing the waitress the next course is ready. Despite the fact I am only half way through the broth. A saviour I suppose. Don't want the main dish going cold. Lindsey has the chicken, I have the entrecote. Hah! Entrecote!! A thick layer of batter hides the quality of the meat. There is nothing from its outwardly appearance that says whether it will be good or bad. I cut a slice and pop it in my mouth. The batter is tasty, not too greasy, unsurprisingly garlicky, but the meat is tough, stringy and full of sinew. I chew and chew. The mastication muscles working at full effort. At least some muscles are getting worked on this train.
The battered meat is joined with what one must assume are chips. Thin, oily, white strips of potato that sits on a translucent puddle of grease. A miserly helpful of cold tinned sweet corn and luminous green tinned peas set the plate off with a garnish of sliced tomato and pickled gherkin. For these accompaniments we have to pay an extra three pounds when the bill arrives.
Lindsey can be funny with food. With chicken she picks at it, removing the skin, the bones, the dark meat, focusing solely on the quality white meat. At home, if we have not bought a bird from the local, organic butcher, in Sainsburys she will only ever buy free-range chicken breasts that come ready boned and skinned. Doesn't want to be doing with all that -crap-. Usually her eating habits result in her passing an un- finished dish to me- 'the tub of lard'. And usually I will be able to find plenty of quality meat that she has missed in her fussy picking. Not tonight however. A scrawny bird on her plate with precious few morsels of meat. All soaked in a slick patina of garlic. And for all this nearly fifteen pounds. Thank goodness I've got enough cash.
Before we caught the train I'd had a panic attack that we did not have enough money. Earlier in the day we'd changed some money, but used not a few of these valuable roubles on a bottle of wine for a gift to our hosts in Irkutsk, Also chocolate, a bottle of the finest Russian Vodka "Rusky Standard" and caviar. Well you have to really, don't you? And at the station I was panicking that we would not have enough money for the trip. So I left Lindsey on the train and went hunting for a cash point machine.
The elusive ATM
At 11pm at night, the railway station in Moscow was not a pleasant place. And it is not just one station but also three, all in the same proximity.
And I am running, looking in vain for an ATM and I am getting the Fear. But I've got to find one, but my speed makes me stand out. I am going to be stopped by the police and asked for my papers and I've got the fear and my wife is on the train and I know she is going to be worried sick...
And I find a cash point. But put the wrong card in. Wrong PIN. Put the right card in but the bank refuses my request. Please. Not now. Mental note. Find out why. First card back in. Look at the watch. Twenty minutes. Not sure how long it took me to find this machine. And come to think about it, where am I? Real paranoia now. Walking fast, but not running.
In every country in the world it must be true to say that stations, late at night are not the most savory of places to be in. If you look for the worst in humanity, look to the city stations. I hurry past a couple of drunks fighting. Police checking someone's papers (not that that is the first time I have seen that occurring- please don't let it be me). An old man sprawled out on the pavement. The booze not permitting any more footsteps for him, for tonight at least. Hurry back I do. To the train. To the carriage. Where I hear Lindsey finishing a sentence with 'my husband'.
Lindsey was sitting in our compartment, getting increasingly concerned about the absence of her husband, (he said he'd only be gone five minutes. He's been gone fifteen...) when there was a commotion in the carriage. The provodnista, a friendly woman whose name sounded something like Ludvamaloo, with a bright smile and equally bright red high lights in her hair opened the door to the compartment and started gibbering to Lindsey in Russian. 'Eh?' The woman gestured that Lindsey should follow her. She did. Standing at the doorway to the train a very tall, well-dressed gentleman addressed her. "McNeill?" "Kirell?" Said Lindsey. He smiled. Lindsey stretched out her hand to shake his. "No, this is not good" he said. "You must come on to the platform". (Only later do we read in the guide book on Russian customs 'Do not shake hands... across the threshold of a doorstep; this is traditionally bad luck.')
Oh, the good professor
And in the nick of time I appear. What's all this then? I put the bottles of water and beer down on the platform (well liquid refreshment was essential to see us off on this grand trip, I'm sure you'll excuse the indulgence, despite my worrying wife). I put them down and offer my hand to the gentleman to whom Lindsey was addressing.
Prof. Kirill (two PhDs, areas of interest including economics and eastern philosophy) had come to meet us at the station as he said he would in his email.
On announcing that Russia was part of our proposed trip, I took no time in letting Maria know this. Maria, whom I work with in London (zdrastvuyte Maria) is from the Ukraine (or is it Italy?) or whatever. She speaks Russian and I put it out to her global network to find us a contact in Irkutsk. Maria's mother, Lucy kindly obliged, she knew Prof. Kirill from some time back and put us in touch with him. Kirill was not in fact from Irkutsk but from Yekaterinburg (well, it's still Siberia!) But no matter, he promised to throw open his global net and find us a contact in Irkutsk who will help us 'with orientation and sightseeing in that wonderful region'.
Prof. Kirill had just come to Moscow that morning for a funeral he had been called to. And ever so kindly he came to see us off at the railway station. We had a brief discussion about his areas of study, and whilst eastern philosophy is not currently on our agenda, it will most certainly be brought into focus in India. It will be impossible to avoid it. India nourishes the soul and a sojourn in an Ashram in the north is calling to recharge the spiritual batteries. And when the good professor said that he had spent time in the Dalai Lamas home in exile, Dharamsala, my mind started to race several months hence when we will most probably be in Himachel Pradesh, in the foot hills if the Indian Himalayas, looking for rest, stillness and oneness that can be so easily sought in that region.
Sadly we didn't touch on the other areas that I was so keen to quiz him about, changes in Russia, the transition from the Soviet Union to the Russian federation, from communism of sorts to capitalism of sorts.
We were saying our goodbyes, boarding the train with a video on esoteric religions for his friend Konstantin who will, with any luck, meet us off the train in Irkutsk. Must remember not to offer to shake his hand until we are well off the threshold of the train doorway.