There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 20 July 2007

Across Siberia to Irkutsk: Part 3 of the Trans-Siberian Railway

‘The Baikal’, as the Moscow to Irkutsk train is known, covers the 3 400 Km from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk in 52 hours. It travels - allowing for four hours of scheduled stops - at an average speed of 70 km/hr. The Trans-Siberian Railway it might be, the Trans-Siberian Express it is not.

Siberia starts two hundred kilometres east of Yekaterinburg. The point on the Great Post Road, a little south of the rail route, was once marked by a 3 metre high pillar of plastered brick. It was here, just as at ‘Last Gate Under Heaven’ in Jiayuguan, that families took leave of those condemned to exile in the barbarous lands to the east – or west in the Chinese version.

Standard Siberian view - a green plain with clumps of trees

We entered Siberia asleep and woke to the familiar birch forests, though they soon gave way to the standard Siberian view, a green plain stretching to the horizon dotted with clumps of trees. The villages had the same dilapidated wooden look as in European Russia. We stopped at numerous towns and several cities, their names, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk rolling pleasingly off the tongue. Many of the stations were decorated like wedding cakes, but the cities themselves were more mundane. Although we were far into Asia, they were clearly European cities – and ugly, industrial European cities to boot. Around Krasnoyarsk the land became hilly and the village houses chalet-like, as though we were passing through some long neglected canton of Switzerland.

Omsk Station

Parts of Siberia were surprisingly beautiful. Rolling hills, sleepy villages and ripening crops basked under a clear blue sky. Occasionally fields worked largely by hand lapped up beside the railway and we moved through a gentle bucolic landscape unchanged since the 1920’s. Despite its remoteness, exile in Siberia did not look a great hardship, but we were, of course, travelling in summer; the long, bitter winter makes this place considerably less benign. Life in the gulags, far from the railway and the villages, was particularly grim, and often short - although contrary to myth there never were any salt mines in Siberia.

Around Krasnoyarsk - like a long neglected canton of Switzerland
Our provadnitza on ‘The Baikal’ was of the old school. Clearly understanding that she had been entrusted to look after the carriage, she regarded the passengers as unwelcome obstacles to the smooth performance of her duties. An early show of temper at those too slow to move when she hoovered the corridor carpet demonstrated her priorities. She relished locking the toilet doors precisely fifteen minutes before each stop, regardless of who was waiting. She unlocked them precisely fifteen minutes after departure – or later if she could.

Inside the toilets was a standard pedestal with a foot-operated lever allowing a trickle of water to flush the contents onto the tracks. The route from Moscow to Vladivostok is marked by a 9 000 km line of turds. A small hand-basin with cold water was the only washing facility. The train reputedly had a shower but, like the unicorn, everybody I spoke to had heard of it, but nobody had ever seen it.

At the opposite end of the carriage – as in Chinese trains - was a samovar with a constant supply of hot water. We, like the Russians, used this for making tea. Most Chinese prefer to bring their tea ready made and drink it cold, using the samovar mainly to irrigate a never-ending supply of pot noodles.
Off to buy beer, Omsk station

The first evening we ate in the dining car. The uninspiring beef stroganoff was small, expensive and served by a staff who clearly resented our presence in their domain. For other meals we picnicked on our spare slab of meat from the possibly Ukrainian restaurant and some bread, cheese and smoked ham we had bought in Yekaterinburg. The heavy Russian bread is excellent in such situations as it never goes stale - not that it ever seems entirely fresh either. We bought some doughnuts from a tray carried by an unsmiling denizen of the dining car. We intended them to accompany our morning coffee but our enthusiasm was dampened when we discovered the sugary doughnuts were stuffed with beef. We acquired beer, bananas and other goodies from platform vendors during the many, sometimes lengthy, stops.
Crossing the River Irtysh
As a child I loved Geography map quizzes and could place the great rivers of Siberia, the Ob, Yenesei and Lena on an outline map with unnecessary precision. I revelled in the names and let my imagination wander as I traced their courses northwards across the huge blank space of Siberia. I never thought I would ever actually see them, but now, with that prospect in view, I became more than rationally excited.
The Yenesei at Krasnoyarsk
Outside Omsk, we crossed the impressive River Irtysh, a main tributary of the Ob, but that was a tease - we rattled across the Ob itself in the middle of the night, fast asleep. The Lena, rising north west of Lake Baikal and flowing east before heading for the arctic, never meets the railway, but the Yenesei at Karsnoyarsk fully made up for these disappointments. There, in the middle of the world’s largest continent, was a huge river lined with wharfs and derricks like a small seaport.

Our travelling companions showed no sign of resenting our 4 a.m. arrival. They were two middle-aged women, possibly heading home from an annual shopping expedition to Moscow, or maybe traders returning from a buying trip. We had to shift their extensive collection of huge stripy bags to fit our suitcases into the luggage space, but we were too polite to look inside. In the morning the younger woman tried to engage us in conversation. Despite willingness on both sides little progress was made and she seemed bemused by the existence of people who did not understand Russian. Later she lent us her magazine, packed with Russian celebrity gossip. We flicked through the pages looking at the glossy pictures of people we did not recognise and had not heard of. It was much the same last time I picked up a copy of ‘Hello!’ in the dentist’s waiting room.

The River Yenesei, looking south

Soundproofing between compartments is excellent, but is less effective between the compartments and the corridor, and it was in the corridor that a party of Dutch students was apparently holding a party. We had put our watches forward two hours between Moscow and Yekaterinburg, and another two hours since as we changed time zones. Russian railways, however, work on Moscow time. We retired to bed at eleven by our watches while the train clocks said it was seven in the evening. To be fair to the Dutch students, who had been on the train since Moscow, they were merely having a communal evening meal. In truth, we were disturbed very little, but when we rose at seven the next morning, we did think of giving them a 3 a.m. wake-up call.

We had assumed our companions were travelling together but early in the second evening the younger one started gathering up her mountain of belongings. She left us at Kansk-Yeniskeysky - or it could have been Ilanskaya - and headed off into the Siberian evening, leaving a free bunk and a bit more space for the rest of us. 

The older woman who had hitherto been quiet, now became more communicative, though we still lacked a common language. As the sky darkened I fished out my vodka bottle and offered her a nightcap. At first, she seemed delighted, then disappointed and then she started rooting through her bags, searching diligently for something she feared might not be there. At last she found what she was looking for, three of the small, sweet cucumbers that grace almost every Russian meal. She gave us one each; now we all had food we could drink vodka.

Every Russian knows that only alcoholics drink vodka without food, but few seemed as concerned as our new friend. Russia’s vodka problem is well documented, but we have never visited a country where so many people walk round swinging a bottle of beer by the neck. In other countries it is not unknown for people to call into a bar or a pub on the way home from work, but in Russia they pop into a shop, buy a bottle and walk down the street drinking it. It is not always a pretty sight.

We, however, did things the civilized way. After a moderate nightcap and a crunchy cucumber we had a good night’s sleep and arrived in Irkutsk refreshed and ready for a new day.

We had left Yekaterinburg three quarters of an hour late, but reached Irkutsk on time – plenty of slack is built into the timetable and some of the stops had been slightly shortened. We had now completed the Trans-Siberian section of our journey, from here until we crossed into Mongolia we would no longer be in Siberia, but in the Russian Far East.

Back to Part 2: Yekaterinburg

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