Into Siberia

 

Samovar on all trains. Impressively still coal fired, and looked after by the Provodnitsa.

Immediately upon boarding Train 100 to Irkutsk, it became clear that this wasn’t quite the level of comfort that I’d become accustomed to. Train 100 is one of many which ply the Moscow-Vladivostok route and is slightly slower than the best trains. It also seems considerably more “Local” than Train 2. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if I was the only Westerner on the entire train.

The accommodation is still alright- I gather in slight part because I nabbed one of the last tickets which happened to be a “luxury” carriage, however the cabin seemed smaller and older than Train 2.

I was expecting a friendly welcome when I saw the provodnitsa (Carriage attendant) at the door as she was one of the younger generation, reputed to be slightly less bitter and venomous than the normal breed of disgruntled middle-age attendants. And indeed very attractive. I was wrong.

Right from the part she picked up my lack of Russian and ever since has been shooting me dirty looks, particularly after having to explain the included meals on my ticket. I’ve tried to build bridges but it’s all in vain. I even walked alongside her as I was leaving the train at a station and she hid the screen of her smartphone from me, before shooting a properly Siberian scowl at me. #probablyfanciesme

I arrived at the 4-person cabin and was warmly welcomed by my cabin mates Vitaly, Aleksandr and Constantin. I immediately explained my complete lack of Russian and this was greeted with laughter and a few words of English. Having settled into my assigned bunk I again committed a major faux pas by unwrapping and deploying the provided bundle of sheets onto my bed. This encountered the considerable ire of the provodnitsa since apparently they were the wrong sheets. I meekly handed the bundle back to her and received an identical bundle. #sheetsmatter.

Me, Vitaly, Aleksandr and Constantin the bear

Having set myself up in the top bunk I popped down for a fairly monosyllabic but enjoyable chat. I’d established that Aleksandr was going all the way to Vladivostok, as an Army medic and that the other two were going somewhere in the middle. I think there is some sort of running joke in Russia about Germans, and to be honest I’m glad I am not actually one, as they always ask “Bist du Deutsch?” in an arch manner before I whip out my passport.

I’m not actually convinced that Russians, particularly from the far end, are that keen on Europe at all but they are friendly enough on an individual basis.

Constantin was definitely the most entertaining figure. A huge Russian bear, he showed us pictures from home basically consisting of him and his children with rifles and knives surrounded by dead livestock including an entire necklace of stoats, a couple of bears and some enormous fish. He said that he lives 2000km ABOVE the railway which in my book is the middle of nowhere.

I think secretly he wanted to break me when he pulled out the bottle of Vodka. I countered this with my bottle of Estonian liqueur, which I’ve been trying to get rid of since, well, Estonia. His answer “Cocktails!”. Neither Aleksandr nor Vitaly were drinking, so began a rapid-fire round of shots. Slightly competitive shots. Large, competitive mixed shots.

These were interspersed with the eating of pickle, bread and fatty cured pork. Kind of like a Russian tequila slammer. I’ll be honest and say that I really struggled with the pork. Round three involved me discreetly leaving the cabin and binning it, rather than the ignominy of extravagantly vomiting over all three of them. It was excessively chewy but amazingly seems to have failed to kill my iron stomach.

Lunch…with Russian champagne

I think my drinking impressed Constantin, as he clapped me on the shoulder and declared that I was definitely RUSSKY. I’m actually fairly impressed with myself, given that we got through about three quarters of both bottles without significant incident. Well, I say significant incident. About half an hour later, despite Constantin and the others’ clear disgust of the liquid, I cracked open a beer which turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and I woke up many hours later in my bunk, deeply confused as to why I was on a train, but with all organs and valuables intact.

The next day was a bit of a struggle. A 56 hour train journey was always going to be a bit of a schlep, and the knowledge that I had at least another day to go was challenging. Particularly since Vitaly was replaced in the early hours at Omsk by a slightly scary Russian dude with gold teeth. He was a bit more taciturn, but he and Aleksandr did see me off the train though which was nice.

The distance of this trip is immense, even from Yekaterinburg I have crossed three time zones, and the train isn’t exactly hanging around. It’s also brought home to me what an important trade and transit route the Trans-Siberian is, with numerous half-mile long freight trains going both ways. The entire line is electrified, despite the remoteness it’s like a ribbon of civilisation crossing the country. Just as busy as the Bristol-London line too.

So, I’ve found my way to Irkutsk with 5000 overland miles under my belt  Let’s have a gander at this lake…

 

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