Sunday, 26 September 2010

Trans-Siberian Moscow-Irkutsk (31st of July to the 3rd of August)

Having overcome our confusion as to where to board the train (first you have to wait in the station and then cross over the pedestrian street behind it to the platforms) we were finally aboard the Trans-Siberian. There were some German girls who were waiting for the Trans-Siberian but they didn’t turn up in our carriage. We moved all our stuff into the small compartment, where there’s not much room to do this when other people are there. The train was rather old looking and rustic, with quite a bit of rattling when it got going. In its hey day it may well have been the crème de la crème. Our compartment was extremely hot and as yet unoccupied.

As we left Moscow it wasn’t raining, well it only rains for 20 minutes at a time and we’d missed our opportunity. Not long before we left our fellow traveller arrived. She was an IT consultant from Moscow with a good grasp of technical English but very apologetic about the way she was speaking. She was very entertaining and reminded us of our mum’s friend Hester. No sooner had she sat down than she said “wait a minute” and went dashing to find the lad who had checked our tickets to open the window. The window wouldn’t open and she said “this is Russia” but fortunately the window in the corridor did open and it was much cooler. She was off to a 10-year wedding anniversary, 200km away from Moscow on the apparently extremely beautiful Volga River. Well that’s how we understood it. She thought we were mad going to Irkutsk, but visiting Mongolia she approved of and gave a gesture of pure bliss.

She went outside to smoke and told us we were “good girls” for not smoking or drinking. Reconfirming what we have read she said “Russian’s love to drink anytime of the day. Drinking and talking in the company of friends as the sun is rising is the most pleasurable of experiences.” It was a shame she would be gone by six in the morning as it would have been amusing to spend more time conversing with her. She told us to be careful and to not give the Russian police any money or our passports. “The Russian police are not all good”. We knew this, we’d read it all in our ‘Lonely Planet’, and thought we’d let her read it. She thought it was hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing, saying “Russia is not that dangerous”.

The Trans-Siberian has all the perks of air travel without the air travel. Food served up on small plastic plates in plastic bags, eaten with plastic forks out of a plastic box, alongside water out of a plastic bottle. You even get a new set of plastic every day. That’s an awful lot of plastic and a few plastic bags of plastic waste lying in the corridor to prove it. Better part is you’ve got more space, good views and no airport queues. More importantly fewer carbon emissions (we hope).

The lady had gone in the morning and been replaced at some point by two tired Russian girls. Everyone was asleep when I got up at 9am and stood in the corridor watching the procession of silver birches and conifers roll past the window. At 10am we stopped and I walked up and down the platform. Baboushkas with baskets full of drinks and plastic bags containing eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes and apples walked up and down the platform trying to sell their wares to the passengers. Life stirred in our compartment and Jenny had to open the blind because the Russians couldn’t figure it out. They couldn’t speak much English but one of them told us where she was from and that she’d been to a place on the Volga for five days. Later she sat next to us with her camera and proceeded to show us her holiday snaps.

Tree after tree rolled past and in some areas there were wisps of smoke and lots of burnt out trees. It felt like autumn in places, with leaves having turned yellow and red probably due to having their roots burnt. We didn’t however see any of the flames or blazes that had been hitting the news headlines.

At some point the dining car lady came to take orders for lunch and see whether we wanted chicken. Telling her we were vegetarians was tricky. We couldn’t find it in the guidebook so we rummaged around for paper and a pen. I drew a plate with a cross through it to indicate we didn’t want anything but that didn’t work. Then I drew a cat and a chicken with crosses through them. Jenny found vegetarian in the book and we got offered fish, so I drew a fish with a cross through it too. This joint effort worked and we opted for rice over potatoes.

In the evening the girl who showed us her photos got off the train. Her and her boyfriend had a seemingly endless supply of luggage, it just didn’t stop being produced from the space above the corridor, her bed and under the other bed.

On board several traders made their way past us selling the following useless tat:

- Rings and other jewellery
- Round wooden things with paintings on them
- Bags with things in
- Knitted items such as scarves and cardigans
- Colouring crayons, magazines, newspapers and playing cards
- Hoops that may have been alice bands, decorated green and silver metal boxes and blue and purple purses
- Books that looked liked fairy tales

Looking out the window at the Russian houses is like going to the Latvian Ethnographical museum without the entrance fee. Jenny says you can’t go into these ones though but you couldn’t do that in Riga either.

On the second full day in the train Christmas came early. Eight English travellers from Bristol and the Midlands boarded our carriage. Suddenly the air was full of words we could understand and we were no longer such a minority, two of them could even speak Russian being Russian teachers.

The first lunch we had was good – rice on its own with a tasty cabbage, onion and tomato salad. Unfortunately this did not look appetising enough and the kitchen staff added a sauce, which had obviously come out of the meat sauce with little bits of meat in it. It felt slightly criminal throwing food away in a country where there are so many impoverished people. Day three and we managed to get exactly what we wanted, just salad, aided by the Russian speaking English next door.

On the last night in the train the Russian girl (who we’d been sharing the compartment with for four days and was going home to Angarsk, near Irkutsk) managed to communicate to us in a combination of signals, Russian and a spot of English that she was cold and wanted the air conditioning turned off. She came back from asking with a roll of scellotape and a wad of newspaper. This was turning off the air conditioning Russian style and involved her and Jenny clambering up to the top bunks and sticking it all over the air vent. It was an amusing spectacle and I had a good vantage point.

Hoping to see some Baboushkas with baskets at most stations, it was a disappointment to have only seen them at the one. We’d made plans to buy eggs and fruit but thankfully the other English people gave us some fruit to help us avoid scurvy.

The houses got more Asian looking and the people too as we made our way through Siberia. Hundreds of small wooden buildings, most with a patch of potatoes and geese, tethered cows or goats within their wooden fences pased us by.

At a station it was 16 degrees centigrade and at another 15 degrees and going down. Some goats wandered onto the tracks at the station and people joked that goat curry would be on the lunch menu. Excitement filled the air as we came into the rain. The English travellers next door thought it looked like snow, but then they’d also seen a “meerkat” out the window! At the next station it was 10 degrees outside and like a wet weekend at the British seaside, I got cold and soaked and Jenny very excited.

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