The Trans-Siberian is a journey that everyone knows about, but few have taken. It’s steeped in romantic intrigue, crossing land that to western minds is about as remote and far away as it is possible to get. For many who take the journey however, it is just a way to get from A to B. This is reflected in the population of the train with a majority of the passengers being ordinary Russians just trying to get home. Being an over privileged “Angliski”, I opted to travel Second Class (four beds in a compartment) rather than the more raucous Third Class (three beds in rows all the way down the carriage). The train itself surpassed expectations, with new fittings everywhere including power outlets in the compartments. My room mates were, as I expected, nearly entirely devoid of English skills but sadly were not very sociable either. It is also written that Russians are generous with their food and drink, and fortunately this turned out to be true. Sharing snacks and chicken (not the first choice to bring on the train, but was still welcome), we were able to communicate through a rudimentary charades type game, mostly complaining about the abysmal food that was offered to us by the Provodnistas. I don’t exaggerate that the “food” was very possibly the worst I have ever had in my life, with rehydrated mashed potato with a drizzle of bottled sweet and sour sauce being a typical choice.
Many people have written about crazy Russians handing out vodkalike it was going out of fashion, babushkas selling local specialities on the platforms, hordes of backpackers and a general air of party on two rails. I feel that I must have been there at the wrong time as I did not find this to be the case at all, and I was on the “main” Trans-Siberian train – the number 2 from Moscow to Vladivostok. Once you are on-board though, there is no going back…
The suburbs of Moscow give way to the dachas of the outskirts – clap board sheds for the most part, but a necessary part of Russian urban life regardless of one’s means – and the birch-wood forests begin. Russia is in the throws of Autumn throughout October, and so the trees, the grasses and the fields are all a golden colour that is very emotive. Four days later, it’s rather less impressive. The following two photos were taken approximately 2000km apart from each other. I am sure you can really see the difference.
You have to be able to follow the rhythm of the train to appreciate the journey and reading vast quantities of literature is about the only way to pass the time other than staring out the window with the scenery drifting hypnotically by. I must have digested a good 1500 pages over the total journey. Many people choose to break the journey up in to several sections, stopping at such destinations as Yekaterinburg, Perm, Novosibirsk and other such stops. Other than the first of these, nowhere else on the route appealed at all, so it was that I stopped after four days at the city of Irkutsk in the depths of Siberia and on the shore of Lake Baikal. Upon arriving at Irkutsk, I had a strange desire to stay on the train. Four days of torpor got peculiarly addictive, but it wasn’t hard to over come, so off I hopped to taste cold Siberia.
Irkutsk is not a place to excite the senses, although it does retain some charm that wasn’t blotted by concrete apartments or abandoned to ruin. There are a great number of traditional wooden buildings with peeling paint and rotting shutters that could be beautiful but instead are a dirty shell of their former selves. A small number of 19th century buildings in the European style have been granted the means to be preserved, and the churches stay glowing white and gold but little else remains to evoke the city’s history other than the dull concrete edifices that are darker than the shadows they cast.
It’s just as well that staying in Irkutsk was never the plan, so it was off to the lake shore! Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, and contains more water than all of the North American Great Lakes combined, in fact containing a full 1/5 of all the liquid fresh water on earth. Such a large body of water creates a uniquely mild climate around the area, but upon my arrival the weather was not very obliging and decided to snow. Being at the lake out of season is quiet enough but with the weather being so disagreeable, I decided to stay just the one night and try to get further up the lake in the time I had left, so it was up to Olkhon Island. This is a large island that extends about 120km up the lake on the western shore, and is a beautiful area. It is also home to a number of ethnic Buryat people and these villages, replete with herds of horses prancing in white rivers, really bring home that you are most definitely in Asia.
The next leg of the journey was to take me even deeper in to both Asia and to lands that evoke mystery and wonder. Mongolia.