Monday, December 17, 2012

Trans-Siberian Railway Part II - Moscow and Siberia overland

This is Part 2 of a series on my trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway from St Petersburg to Beijing. Part 1 is here.

We reach Moscow early in the morning and get off the train looking conspicuous with our huge rucksacks. As we head for the exit three Russian policemen close in on us like raptors, shouting indistinctly.

"Keep walking, quick, don't look at them" mutters Tara, our Australian guide, knowing the corrupt extortion tricks of the constabulary once they have you in their hands. We want to keep our passports so escape them by literally running away out of the building and into a taxi. I celebrate my arrival to the Russian capital by having a huge and unusual nose bleed when we arrive at the hotel.

Moscow is like London, a bustling Western metropolis, apart from the extraordinary fairytale buildings dotted around like shiny E numbered sweets. We have very limited time here so head for the main attractions at once.

The Red Square is magical. The Kremlin looms, shrouded by gates and trees. We see huge black limousines slowing driving inside ...Vladimir? Cranes are everywhere just like in St Petersburg.

"The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat" - or St Basil's
The Resurrection Gate
L E N I N - he is inside, waxy, dead and immortalised. I didn't go in to see him and regret this now.

90% of Russian women wear extremely high heeled shoes. All the streets in Moscow are deeply paved with cobbles, so we see a huge amount of women with their feet stuck.

Religious trinkets for sale
Goosestepping at the memorial

Tiny floating puffs of seeds drift through the sky all over Russia, they call it 'summer snow'

We wander into this building and are entranced by a group of four Gregorian singers.

Our Moscow hotel room

Good for leaning Cyrillic
Watching the people
Selling kittens
The Wall of International Peace with tiles painted by hundreds of citizens in 1990, now terribly vandalised.

West Sussex!

Another walk round the city, we end up next to a huge ring road staring at this strange thing, I don't know what it's for or what it means. It's next to a swimming pool

The GUM shopping centre in Red Square, lit up the night
St Basil's at night.
Moscow tires me and Mongolia is calling me so I can't wait to get back on the train for the biggest stretch of our trip. We will leave this train in deepest Siberia after 4 days and 4 nights by train, covering over 3000 miles.

This becomes a more serious undertaking when the reality of train life hits us. The carriages are cramped, hot, dusty, has no shower and one tank of boiling water (for pot noodles) for each carriage. I'm so excited. We set off, and here starts four long days and nights of desperately trying to entertain ourselves in mere feet of space, drinking vodka, smoking chocolate cigarettes and gesticulating through the language barrier at Russian soldiers returning home.

The train, almost ready to leave in Moscow
Our provodnitsa on this journey.. the woman who looks after our carriage and is in charge of the tank of boiled water
Our cabin before we festoon it with all our stuff
We stop in Omsk and I take this photo.

There are a few train stops along the way offering a chance to stock up on pot noodles, bottled water and if you're lucky, some freshly cooked food from the women who come to the stations with little carts covered with cloths for this very purpose. These ladies are a godsend, after 4 pot noodles in a row I buy a full on roast dinner from a wonderful women, it's heaven.

We have a time table that indicated the length of time of each stop but soon learn that 20 minutes can turn into an hour, or 30 minutes become ten. Every second off the train is fraught with terror that it will leave without us.

On the first day we had cheese, apples and tomatoes. They didn't last long and when they were gone we dreamed of them
A cute Russian baby called Veronica

A siding somewhere along the way
A babushka's food cart

Entertaining ourselves..

I wished I could get out and explore sometimes
We meet some Russian soldiers travelling home to Vladivostok. I give one a piece of paper and a pen and he immediately draws a tank with a star on it. They ask us what our patronymic's are (Russian's people have an extra name derived from their fathers forename)  and are aghast to learn that we don't have them.

Playing football with Russian children who suddenly appear in our carriage
One afternoon I sit in the expensive food carriage, aged curtains flapping at the windows, and watch a Russian waitress eat a huge bag of black sunflower seeds, discarding the husks on the folded out newspaper cone they come in. I am so excited to get my own cone from a woman at the next stop and proudly learn how to extract the seeds with my teeth.

A sweaty me with a very sweet girl called Kira. She could say 'dog' and 'frog' in English and wanted to learn more but her school wasn't open for long enough during the week. The community spirit on the train was brilliant, people from all over the world crammed together in strange circumstances leads to extraordinary events.

I spend one night waiting for daybreak, attempting to escape the relentless heat, hanging out the train window in the empty corridor alone, listening to I Want More by Can and watching the cool Siberian dawn rise over the passing landscape.

The most interesting thing about travelling by train is how the rhythm of it becomes a part of your bones. De dun de dun.... De dun de dun.... It lulls you to sleep at night, it becomes the backdrop to your existence. When we get off the train it's impossible to sleep and we actually feel 'land sickness'!

A friend texts me my degree results and it's so inconsequential.

It's really exciting when the train goes round a bend. Everyone rushes to the window to take a photo.

We pass a stone marker, glimpsed as the train passes- we're in Asia! The writing says "Welcome to Asia!"
On the last day some Russian guys come into the carriage and say they are setting up a shower in the toilet with a hosepipe and a bucket of water, it will be 20 RUB to use and I decline.

Desperately looking forward to fresh food, a wash and a cool night's sleep, we eventually arrive at Irkutsk, say goodbye to friends made and sadly depart our hot grimy train...

The only think I can think about is showering.
We're off Listvyanka, a village by Lake Baikal - the largest freshwater lake in the world. Direct all the world's rivers into it, let them flow for an entire year and it will still not be full.  Listvyanka is the only place we've been so far where you can drink water from the taps as it comes pure and direct from the lake.

In my next post, I'll show you amazing Lake Baikal and we'll go on to Mongolia, a place that deeply contrasts with Russia and provides us with the refreshingly easy smiles and Buddhist calm of an extraordinary and ravaged country.......


  1. This post is absolutely amazing! I would love to do the Trans-Siberian one of these days! I visited Moscow just over eight years ago, which was great, but I'd love to see much more of Russian! I'm going to hunt down your Lake Baikal post now!

  2. Oops, I'm getting ahead of myself - you haven't posted it yet?!

    1. Thank you! It's in the works! I'll try and finish it this weekend - it's going to be a long one...


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