Sunday, September 11, 2011

On the Trans-Siberian (August 4-7, 2011 or Ulan Ude/5642 km to Kungur/1534 km)

Dining on the Trans-Siberian

I am posting this from Tallinn, Estonia.  It’s a little out of sequence as I need to write about my time in Beijing, Ulan Bator (Mongolia) and Lake Baikal.  Hopefully this will give a bit of flavor to the railroad trip.  Unlike my other travels this summer, I was a part of a tour for this stretch(Intrepid Tours).   I meet the group (there were 8 of us) in Beijing and we toured the Great Wall together before getting on the train to Ulan Bator.  The trip ended in St. Petersburg.

Char and Ben boarding train in Ulan Ude

Day 1 (August 4, 2011)
Siberia is an enchanting place.  At this latitude, in summer, the sun takes a long time to set and I lay on the top bunk for a good hour, my head partly out of the window (we’re on an non-air conditioned train), watching the sun slowly drop behind the far shore of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world and one that holds 20% of the world’s fresh water.  We catch glimpses of the sun’s rays shimmering across the water, in between the birch forests.   It’s after ten (local time as the train runs on Moscow time) when the sun finally disappears.  Afterwards, I read a chapter in Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, then crawl into my silk sleeping sack and pull over the heavy quilt provided for each bunk and fall asleep.  It was quite warm in the car when we boarded late in the afternoon in Udan Ude, but as the train began moving, the fresh air cooled things off a bit. When the sun started to sink, it cooled even more and with the cool air from the open window, it’s comfortable sleeping under heavy covers.  I fall asleep to the gentle rocking of the train, only to wake up as we slow on our approach to Irkutsk. 
Lake Baikal

Ana photographing the sunset from the other top bunk

Sunset on Baikal
It’s 1:30 AM (local time) when we stop in Irkutsk, a town best known for being a position in the game of Risk.  It’s also Yulia’s home (our tour leader), so a group of us (Ana, Judy, Ben, Yulia, I’ll introduce them later) get off to check things out.  It’s a thirty minute train stop.  We take the walkway under the tracks and climb up into the station and then out onto the streets.  There are still a few vendors selling snacks, newspapers and magazines.  There are no English magazines or newspapers even though there are a lot of American magazines in Russian, with Cosmopolitan and Playboy appearing to be the most popular.  Pointing the selections, I jokingly ask if I purchased one would I be able to convince anyone I was just interested in the articles.  After a few minutes of roaming (and I don't buy any magazines), we head back to the train. We don't want to tempt fate and find ourselves left behind.   I crawl into my bunk at 2 AM and sleep till morning light.  

Notice the Kilometer Marker on the left

Day 2 (August 5, 2011)
We’re in the town of Zima (which means Winter), a 20 minute stop, and I get up and walk out onto the platform.  It’s cool in the early morning air and clouds are building to the east.  After we’re herded back on board, I crawl back into my bunk and read a bit more in Frazier’s massive book of his time in Siberia. Everyone else is asleep and soon I doze off again.  I’m in no rush as I’ll be on this train another two and a half days (and even after that, they’ll still be two more overnight trains before we reach St. Petersburg).   
At nine, I rise again and fix breakfast.   Instant oatmeal and coffee, made with the boiling water that’s provided in the samovar at the end of each carriage.   The train is now running through gentle hills.  The tops are barren and some of them have been cut for hay.  On the lee side of the hills and in the depressions are birch forests.  Wildflowers are everywhere in a palate of colors: white and yellow daisies, several varieties of purple flowers, as well as yellow ones and some that appears to be bluebells.  There are some white flowers that are tall stemmed and must be a relative of Queen Anne’s Lace and another yellow weedy plant that has to be next-of-kin to Golden Rod.  Or maybe they’re the same plant as I’m no botanist. 
We stop in Nizneudinsk and I get off the train for a few minutes.  The station is drab, of an older Soviet style and the people standing on the platform seem to have a similar expression.  Clouds have moved in and it has recently rained.  After leaving the station, the train climbs over the Sajan Range, snaking back and forth and providing great views for photographs of the ends of train.  Coming down on the opposite tracks is a train of timber and lumber, followed shortly behind by a train of tank cars.  We occasionally pass small villages: bare wooden houses with only the shutters painted generally blue and white.   Rough-cut fencing separate the yards, with each yard containing a garden of potatoes and onions and other vegetables.  Huge amounts of firewood are neatly stacked by each house, a reminder that winter will come early and last long in this land. 
A Russian Village photographed from the train
Between looking out the window and reading, I engage in numerous make-believe firefights with a Russian kid and his toy AK-47.  He runs into our compartment shooting and we all act like we’ve been hit.  Then, using my index finger as a gun, I hide just outside his compartment where he retreated and wait in ambush for him to reappear.  Sure enough, he soon runs back out with his gun at the ready, only to find my “pistol” at his head.  He laughs, but doesn’t “die” when I shoot, but instead points his gun and bangs away.  Like most six year olds, he’s invincible!  
After lunch (peanut butter on a heavy bread which I brought with me on the train), I read some more and take a 2 hour nap, waking up in Ilanskaya.  Vendors have set up shop along the platform.  The breads are tempting, and so is the baked chicken (but I wonder how long it’s been sitting out).  Instead, I opt for an ice cream and pick up some cucumbers and tomatoes for dinner.  The rest of the afternoon is spent reading and looking out the window.  Somewhere along our journey, I crossed Ian Frazier’s 2001 path the opposite way across Siberia.  His journey across the vast land was in a van.  Tomorrow, when we cross the Urals, I’ll have entered Europe through the backdoor. 

For diner, our compartment has wraps.  Ana supplies the wraps and salami and I provide cucumbers, tomatoes and peanut butter (there is no mayonnaise).   We both have cheese. The tomatoes are wonderful!   Afterwards, there is a long stop in Kranoyarsk, where I pick up from one of the sellers on the platform a ½ liter bottle of Kolchak Beer to cap off dinner.  Later, while reading Fraizer’s book on Siberia, I learn the beer is brewed in Irkutsk and named for a Russian admiral known for his heroic deeds in the 1904 Russia-Japanese War and the Great War.  Interestingly, he was a White Russian, a part of the movement that opposed the Bolsheviks and his end came in 1920 when he was executed by the communists in the same city that now brews his namesake beer.  A beer named in honor of a White Russian is a sign the old regime is dead!   Darkness falls and we all climb into our bunks for the night.
Day 3  (August 6)
I’m up early and slip out of the compartment without waking up the others and sit on the fold down seats along the aisle where I can both work and recharge my computer in one of the few electrical plugs on the train.  I am writing up my notes on my trip to Chengde, which seems like ages ago as we run through Siberia on the train.  The landscape has flattened.  When we stop at Novosibrisk, one of the largest cities in Siberia, we climb a walkway over the tracks for photographs.  I take several and then Ana comes up and I take one of her with her camera and when she starts to return the favor and take a photo of me with mine, a husky Russian woman runs up shouting and wagging her figure, saying nyet, nyet nyet (no, no, no).  She crossed her arms as a sign to stop and points for us to go back to our train.  When we ask Yulia why she didn’t let us take the photo, she said matter-of-factly, “Because this is Russia.”  Communism may be dead but there is still the lingering presence that big brother is watching (but that wasn’t limited to the Communists, for the Czars had their own forms of totalitarianism).
Omsk Station

After forty-eight hours on the train, things are getting a little squirrelly.  Our group is split up between three compartments.  At night, when the bunks are all put down, we’re sequestered inside, but in the day, we move around between the three compartments.  I’m in the middle compartment and joke that we’re the “Old Folks Place,” as the four of us are all over 40 (Ana is 40.  She and Judy are both from Australia. Judy and I are in our 50s and Terry, who is from New Zealand, is in his early 60s).  Judy and Ana quickly chastise me, saying that we are the not the old folks home but the “mature compartment.”  Travelling a third of the way around the world with a Kiwi and two Australian Sheilas, I found myself chastised a lot.   The two of them also corrected me when I addressed the two of them as blokes, a term they frequently use for me.  Unbeknownst to me, the term bloke is gender specific, but I obviously had skipped class the day when Australian grammar was taught.  By the end of the three days, I’m shocked to find myself using “bloody” as an adjective.
To our right of our compartment (toward the engine) is Yulia and Leo’s place.  Yulia is Russian and Leo is from Indonesia, but lives and works in Denmark. They share a compartment with a Russian woman traveling to Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad) and another man.  That compartment is also where the cards games occur, at least until the group of would be card sharks tire of always losing to an old woman heading to Volgograd.  Afterwards, the card game is moved into our compartment.  The game is called “Fool,” and, as Yulia explains, “As with Russia, there is no winner, only losers.”  The object of the game is not to lose! 
The cabin behind us includes the two other Americans, Ben and Daniel who live in Chicago.  With them is Charlene (from New Zealand) and Jo (from Australia). Their compartment serves as the main bar and a classroom where Yulia teaches Russian, using a magic marker on the window.  I make a mental association between the Russian word for “thank you” (spassebaa) and placebo...  The sounds are not exactly the same, just close enough that I manage to have half our group asking for sugar pills instead of saying thank you, causing much confusion in the towns nestled along the railroad tracks.
The two Sheilas in my compartment take turns keeping a lookout for a jukebox, something they’d been hoping to spot since leaving Mongolia.  Yulia, who lives in Siberia, doesn’t know of any jukeboxes, but that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm.  They’re determined to spot a jukebox, which seems strange behavior to Terry and I until they finally educate and entertain us with a duet of a popular Australian song, “Jukebox in Siberia.”  Obviously, the jukebox is a metaphor as they never found one in their 4000 or so kilometer vigil.                                                                                                                         
One of the many "parked" Steamers along the route

The main topic, or at least the most frequently reoccurring one, for our compartment is the condition of the bathrooms on each end of the carriage.  The two Aussies share the exciting news when they observe an attendant heading to one of the toilets with cleaning supplies and rolls of toilet paper.  And when the toilet cleanliness begins to wane, they share disinfect wipes.  Having seen a lot worst bathrooms (they quickly tired of my descriptions of bathrooms on Indonesian and Vietnamese trains), the toilets on the trans-Siberian don’t bother me too much (you do your business and get out quickly).  Ana and Judy find that a better way is to find a bathroom when the train pulls into a station for an extended period.  These bathrooms cost between 15 and 25 rubles (between 50 and 75 cent), but to them it’s worth the extra expense and long before the train comes into the station, the anticipation of a “clean loo” is just too much for the two of them that they began to wax poetically about the possible experience.  Loo is another word that was added to my rapidly expanding vocabulary during these long days on the rail.  Interestingly, according to my processor, which highlights loo in red, indicating it’s not really a word, leaving me with the feeling that I have been corrupted. 
In addition to our bathroom talk, another topic that begins to dominate on Day three is the need of a shower.  We’re all in need of a long hot shower with lots of scrubbing by this point!  After the attendants clean the bathrooms, I go in and using a rag, wipe up and change clothes.  I feel better, but am still not really clean, but am clean enough to go out for dinner.  Everything I’d read about the Trans-Siberian is that eating in the dining car is kind of like playing Russian roulette.  You never know what you’re going to get!  We’re all prepared with plenty of noodles, but wanting a variety, we head into the car.  The menu is about as thick as the Russian words are long (or a small Russian novel), which should imply (I mistakenly assume) there are lots of possibilities for fine dining.  Perhaps I should have taken a clue from the lack of patrons, but I was looking for an experience.  As we combined our knowledge of words and share  a dictionary (along with the help of a drunk Russian who spoke a little slurred-English and whose Russian at this point in the afternoon probably wasn’t any better than his English), we asked for dish after dish only to have the attendant stand by the table with her arms folded, shaking her head no.  In the end, we surmised there were only three options:  a soup, a vegetable salad and a potato and meat paddy entrée.  I have the latter and it’s good, but expensive.  Half way through the meal, a couple of Russians come into the dining car.  We watch as they discuss their order with the attendant (another clue should have been that they never looked at the menu).  We wait with bated breath to see what they might be eating, and what we might be missing out on, but they're also served the same potato and meat paddies that we’ve enjoyed.  I’m not sure what purpose the menu served, maybe it was just reading material. 
Jude and Leo in the Dining Car

Michael, the inebriated Russian, joins our table.  With his laptop, he attempts to educate us in Russian Rap and other music styles.  His conversation helps the time pass (which is good, for the dining experience takes almost two hours, a pretty amazing feat considering that during this era (which was only slightly shorter than the Napoleonic Wars), there are never more than ten people in the dining car (12 if you count the attendant and cook).  I get the sense that the attendant is a little jealous at Michael’s interest in us (or at least his interest in Ana, who seems the most interested in Russian pop music).  The attendant had Michael for herself before we entered the dining car.  Michael, the Russian DJ, plays different songs from a range of genres.  When we start heading back to our compartment, (I’m the last to leave as I am on the inside of the booth), Ana turns to me and commands with a firm whisper: “Don’t you leave me with alone with him!”  But Michael is harmless and I’m sure that the next morning when we got off the train, he was nursing one heck of a hangover. 

Day 4 (August 5, 2011)
I wake up to the familiar sound of a Russian woman barking out instructions at a station.  It’s a familiar sound as every train station has a woman giving instructions over the loud speaker and they all sound as if they all studied voice in the same school where they all excelled in monotone.  It’s 5:30 AM and a gray overcast dawn.  It’s been raining in the night.  We’re Yekaterinburg (or Ekaterinburg, depending on which book you’re reading).    According to my guide (Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook), we’ve officially left Siberia (we’re now in the Urals), but according to Ian Fraizer, we’re in the western most city of Siberia.  It’s a long stop as they change engines here, and I wait till the train pulls out of the station to get up as I know the bathrooms will be locked.  As we begin to move, we pass a large restored steam locomotive on display, a 0-10-0.  Many of the larger stations in Siberia have an old steam locomotive on display, and they’re all sharply painted and look as if they’ve just rolled off a production line.
According to Frazier, Yekarteninburg/Ekaterinburg, was named Empress Catherine.  During the Soviet times, the name was changed to Sverdlovsk, in honor of a companion of Lenin and the chairman of the Russian Central Executive Committee.  It was in a basement here that last Czar, Nicholas II, along with his family and their servants and physician met their brutal end at the hands of the Bolsheviks.  Frazier also writes about this being one of the few places where there is a monument to the victims of Stalin’s purges, another horrifying event most Russians would just as soon forget.    
The border between Europe and Asia
(sorry, this is not the best photo, but the only one I got)

I’m excited to know that we’re in Yekarteninburg as it means we’re still in Asia (even if we may be out of Siberia).   I start counting down the kilometer markers that are on the south (east) side of the tracks, knowing there is an obelisk around marker 1777 that indicates the spot where we pass from Asia into Europe.  Forty-five minutes after leaving Yekarterinburg, we pass the marble obelisk.  It catches me by surprise and I am only able to get a passing photo.  The guide book says to be ready for a crowd to gather in the hallway wanting to see the obelisk, but because it is still early.  Only a handful of us are up to witness our 6:40 AM crossing.  For the first time in my life, I’m in Europe (and I came in via the back door!).  
The Urals are not exactly the Rocky Mountains.  Actually, they’re no where nearly as majestic as the Appalachians and, if they stretched for more than fifty miles, the Uhwarrie Mountains in Central North Carolina would be a more prominent.   The Ozarks also stand tall next to the Urals.  Of course, if you stretched the Ozarks out 800 or so miles (like the Urals), they might provide about the same rise to the land.  Yet, these low rolling hills define a continent.   The landscape is wooded, as we travel through forest that alternates between birch and evergreens.  Later in the morning, we arrive in Kurgur, but that’s another story.


  1. The Trans-Siberian has always been a train trip I've wanted to take. Thanks for kicking me in the pants.


  2. There's got to be a book in all this, Jeff. Wonderful reading - I saved it for my lunch hour. (It didn't update in my reader - I'm glad I checked.)

  3. I can't get over what a wonderful trip you are having and how many nice people you are meeting!! A book is to be the outcome, I hope!

  4. I've been waiting for this installment. Lots of good details that make it come to life. Thanks.

  5. Love that village. It's just how I imagined it, albeit with less snow and ice. :)

  6. Such wonderful experiences on this trip. I'm so happy for you that you have this opportunity. A trip of a lifetime.

  7. I really liked the photo of the sunset over the lake. It continues to sound like you have many great people experiences.