Here is the link to some of the images from my recent trip to Russia. Enjoy
The last leg. The train trickles south west from Irkutsk over the Siberian steppes to the Mongolian border.
During the night, through a mist of sleep and semi consciousness, strange things begin to happen. In the darkness, the train starts to hum and then breaks out into 3 parts like a Rock Choir warm up without the lyrics. The resonance of the wheels on the rails produces humming harmonies in time to the rhythm of the bogies (a railway term for the pairs of wheels at each end of each carriage and responsible for that clickerty clack sound, I hasten to add). If only the train could get some lyrics it could put on a summer concert all on its own or accompany a church service. Beautiful.
Mysterious energies are at work. I get off at the first stopover. 7 of the 11 original carriages have disappeared. My carriage is now the last one. Behind us is nothing, empty, just tracks leading back to the far horizon. Sometime during the night a ghoul has diverted them to a different destination and devilled them away into this new landscape.
This is southern Siberia. Gone are the continuous flashing streaks of silver birch and pine. Gone are the large industrial oases in the flat desert of wood and forest. Gone are the acres of timber yards & marshalling sheds and the huge rivers and glimpses, through the strobing trunks, of far off horizons. Here it is open land rolling away on either side in undulating patterns of scruffy grass and dirt roads. Rolling hills line our route in humps and bumps and soft boobs and bellies, the shadows of cotton wool clouds marked out on their multitude of faces to wrap the landscape in a patchwork of greens.
Winding, wriggling rivers dissect the land. A group of horses patter & paw & shuffle around in a small dust bath, showing their enjoyment with swirling tails and rubbing necks. Low, single storied houses, built in wood with corrugated asbestos rooves, painted in green or purple, to give the weathered, timber houses a unique character, cluster around platforms in towns and villages throughout this rolling, open scenery. It is immediately obvious that the one thing these settlements all lack is any sign of mechanised transport – no cars, no lorries, no bicycles even. How do they get around between villages and towns? Where are the shops? What do they do during a long Siberian winter? (I can think of some answers to that last one)
So the border approaches. The train stops. Documents are checked. That takes 3 minutes and then we have to stopover in this one horse border town for over 4 hours. So up the road to find a bar amongst the wooden dwellings.
Back to the station and onto the platform. The ghoul has struck again. 3 carriages have disappeared. Even the locomotive has abandoned the single carriage that stands all alone on platform 1 with several rather anxious passengers waiting outside its locked doors.
After an hour or so, a reversing engine appears, locks itself like a guppy onto our carriage and, with a spring in its wheels, drags us off and away to the border, unused to its ultra light load.
We come to a stop after 10 km and Mongolian bureaucracy takes over. This time the stop over takes 4 hours. Go into town, buy an ice cream, take photos, chat. Return to platform to find out solitary carriage again has no engine and is now hidden behind the twelve carriages of a Mongolian train. All is well though. We are shunted along, hooked up to the end and finally chugged off to Ulaanbaatar on our first night in Mongolia. The whole process has taken over 8 hours.
Still, I have had lots of time to reflect on my fascinating 6 day, 5,867 km journey through Russia. It’s been a bit like chalk and cheese. Moscow holds the chalk, making good, multicoloured marks with money, power & privilege. Outside, life is tough and grey, with empty pages lacking any marks or colour most of the time, especially during a long, hard winter. Maybe that is why there have not been a lot of laughs and smiles on the trip, at least not from the Russian travellers. An occasional nod or a grunt are more common place although the blank stare is most prevalent. I leave you with some images of the chalk and the cheese.
After 5,178 km the train draws into the city of Irkutsk where a break in the journey has been planned. Yes – a night in a hotel with a bed that does not rock and roll. Yes – a proper meal and a large cold beer. Yes – a long hot shower after four nights in the same clothes with only a pack of Boots wipes to take into the cramped toilet. The shower was magnificent, the meal was glorious and the beer was out of this world. The bed was so soft. Sadly the body was on Moscow time (you did get all that stuff about the time on the railway system?) so in effect I was going to bed at 7 o’clock. Little sleep followed.
Still, a day to spend in a large Russian railway city. How best to see it? Follow the faint green line, painted on the pavement around the the historic centre. Tall apartment blocks stand out above the wide streets of weathered traditional houses all standing at rickety angles and defying gravity by just remaining upright for the inhabitants.
Statues abound – Lenin, of course, lords it over Lenin Street. Down by the wide river the two Russian Orthodox Churches and the single Catholic Church pop their heads over the promenade to oversee the fishermen holding steady in the swirls of the current.
Enjoy the images of this large, industrial city. Tonight I return to the train for the last leg of my journey to Mongolia. See you in a few days.
Let me tell you a bit about the Pectopah.
Firstly you have to understand that time stays still on the railways. Wherever you are on the system, on a train or within a sstation it is Moscow time, 2 hours ahead of the UK. The timetable is Moscow time. Times, by the way, are amazingly punctual with arrival and departure and stopover times accurate to the minute even thousands of miles along the track. Time only passes outside in the real world. Put simply, every 24 hours traveled equates to putting the clock on 1 hour. That is outside the train. So 4 days out of Moscow, train time is 0830, outside time is 1330, UK time is 0630. Got it?
So, the restaurant car its found a few carriages up. Images of a comfortable bar area with tableclothed tables set out with napkins and place settings and glasses are immediately dashed. A stulag dining room comes to mind with Formica tables and functional benches aligned on each side and lacey maroon curtains around the windows. If not a stulag then a chapel at a crematorium.
The place is empty except for two females counting till receipts. Characters out of Dickins come to mind. They look up. A frown reinforces the tight lipped scowl that greets me. One is young, skinny, pale & a bit spotty. In her black uniform and regulation tights, she seems to be looking longingly at my neck. The other is a large lady wearing a floral nightie and displaying huge trunk legs. She looks as if she should be a friendly, bubbly character. She is not. The faces stare. Neither moves. ‘Food’ I mime. Nothing. I mime again and go and sit down. The skinny one sighs, gets up, comes over. ‘Beer, beer, beer’ she says. No food.
This is the beginning of the search for the cheese omelette. The following lunchtime, at 1145 I return. This time the skinny one brings up a menu. Quite extensive sounding good. The menu is in two sections: breakfast 1000 to 1200, lunch 1200 to 1400. The assumption is Moscow time. We’d been warned off anything with mayonnaise by the American missionary from Milwaukee. So the ‘eggs with cheese’ sounded a good choice. No. Forceful shaking of hand. No, that it’s on breakfast menu and that’s over. Anyway, no eggs. Ok. So the choice of a cheese sandwich from the lunch menu seems obvious. It is completely under-whelming, consisting of half a slice of the smallest brown bread covered with two thick slices of cheese. Goodness knows where the other half slice went to but it didn’t go on top. I order a second.
Thinking I have grasped the concept of the menu, I return the following day at 1900 for dinner. The two are still counting till receipts. At the stopover two crates of eggs are seen to disappear into the kitchen. Yes, omelettes must be on. No, no, no. NIET. Eggs and cheese are on breakfast menu. Loudly she flicks the pages and points, exasperated, to items from the lunch menu. my friends opt for salmon with lemon (3 minute slices on a saucer). I go for meat soup (a reasonable soup of onions and potato with 4 hunks of gristle; suitable fayre in a gulag).
I return the following morning to ascertain when the breakfast menu is available. I get a smile from the skinny one. Maybe she too is fed up with gristle and its holding herself back from diving into my jugular. With the help of drawings I ascertain that breakfast time is Moscow time plus 5 hours. The Pectopah is the only place on the whole Russian railway system which does not keep to Moscow time. Conspiracy theorists might argue that the staff just add hours so passengers always miss breakfast and they never have to cook a cheese omelet.
These guys have nothing to do with omelets. They were on the platform the stopovers. The style police might be hauling them up.
I have made some new friends this morning. From compartments 6 & 7 tall figures emerge with mugs in their hands to worship at the urn of boiling water. As the morning develops I start chatting to the tallest, Ivanovitch. It turns out that the whole group are engine drivers from Siberia. I meet Igor, Alexi, Constantine, Andrew, Ivan. No-one speaks any English. I watch countless images of their blue engine on Constantine’s phone, friendship between UK & Russia is proclaimed, vodka is offered but refused, temporarily (it is only 1030 after all), although I do take a glass of beer and smiles all around and back smacking till in hurt. Later in the morning Ivanovitch appears at the door with a gift for me – a Russian flag from the front of his locomotive. Yes, the actual one from the photograph. A few minutes later Ivan appears with 2 fridge magnet images of Russian locomotives. So touching.
Our relationship blossoms. We talk about steam locomotives in very effective sign language. We stop for half an hour and I go exploring and I find, guess what, yes, an old steam locomotive. This really fired them up. We clambour all over it going ‘choo Choo’. They take my photo, I take their photo. On the way back to the train, they force another driver to allow me up into the cabin of a huge loco where I can take pictures of the controls to add to my collection. So exciting.
They promise me a surprise at the next stop where they present me with a mug of wild strawberries. At the one after that it’s a huge chocolate ice🍦-cream, with a soggy wafer, I have to tell you. I feel like a pampered pet. They just refuse to say no. So frIendly.
So let me tell you about life on the Trans Siberian Railway. Firstly, the outside bit rarely changes – silver birch and pine blur past continuously. Their flow is occasionally disrupted by the appearance of weathered, wooden, ginger bread villages or the even more occasional sizable town of apartment blocks, railway marshalling yards and uninspiring, functional housing. At the centre of every one, whatever size, will be a statue of Lenin or another revolutionary figure, stretching out to indicate the way forward.
No, real life only carries on inside the train. Attire for men is simple: a pair of light, airy, shorts. Hairy backs, fronts, bellies, shoulders all proudly on display. As they pass in the narrow corridor, the feel of static electricity remains as a light kissing blush of soft fur on any exposed skin.
Meal times revolve around the provisions you have bought on board or those you have been able to supplement in the station kiosks en-route. Inevitably crisps, cereal bars, biscuits form the basis of train diet, enhanced with cuppa soups and noodles. I never want to see another cuppa soup.
The routine on board is quite simple. It tends to revolve around sleep. Mornings are filled with excited anticipation about the day to come. The first hours of flashing trees quickly dampens that. After that any journey through the carriages will be like a sci-fi adventure with sleeping or dozing crew laid flat out in their cocoon cabins waiting to emerge at journey’s end.
Time flows past like the trees. Every few hours the train stops to refresh the clientele. Old friendships, made in the narrow corridors, end with a hand shake or an awkward hug. They are replaced with a catalogue of Russian humanity who will continue the confusion of unintelligible language and life stories. It is truly amazing how long conversations can last when there is absolutely no common language. Why is it that some people are convinced that if they shout louder and louder that the other person will eventually understand what they are trying to say? Continue reading
The 44/100 to Vladivostok is pulled into platform 1A by a small diesel with its big, big brother that will take us there, silently gliding in backwards. I start walking along the carriages. Am a bit concerned that the end carriage, which is first, if you see what I mean, is number 20. Half a mile further on is home for the next three days – carriage 4 and compartment 9.
Teams of provodnitsa control each carriage. Now don’t get excited, picturing young sexy, red suited and booted Virgin staff.
Let me introduce you to one of the two provodnitsa that guard the steps to carriage number 4.
It’s a bit like being in charge of a dormitory at boarding school with a uniformed, Stalinesque matron. Keep on their good side and keep smiling and there is a perceptible softening of their facial features, the stern facade drops ever so sIghty and, with considerable trepidation, an approach might be considered. Like most Russians they speak no English and don’t even try. I had to mime the fact that we’d run out of toilet paper – use your imagination!
In pairs they tag team their own carriages, one on nights, the other on days. They sort dirty linen, hand out clean sheets, empty rubbish bins, clean the corridors and the two toilets, act as ‘no fuss’ security guards by their door whenever the train stops, check tickets and very occasionally grimace which is the only indication that you have been accepted. They give the only sign that the train its about to depart which takes the form of a curt nod. If you miss it, you face a long walk.
I fall at the first hurdle in Moscow. A rather large, hairy Russian gentleman its settling into carriage 9. He is not supposed to be in here. Despite numerous approaches to the provodnitsa and the full catalogue of smiles and charm, there is no option – Boris, as I have decided to call him although his name is Sergei, has to stay. He doesn’t help his popularity rating as he spends most of the time in shorts displaying an extremely large and hairy torso, particularly around the shoulder area. I have to emphasise that these are not the largest of compartments. Boris clambers up to a top bunk and stares down at the interlopers, like a large primate contemplating his next swing down. Pushing away images of King Kong grasping out for little old me, I settle down below and let the rhythm of the tracks take me to the land of nod.
The noises eminating from Boris are enough to eventually end my first night of light slumbering. Every carriage has a big urn full of boiling water. I take my teabag and mug, make my tea and watch the sun come up over the passing forest of silver birch & pine.This will be the scene for the next five days and 4,000 miles. Very cathartic.