The amount of time that one spends on the Trans-Siberian is as vast and seemingly endless as the number of birch trees that the train speeds past. Time slows down and the view out of the window barely warrants any mention – there are a few places that are stunningly beautiful but for the most part there is no change at all – from Vladivostok to Moscow.
The thing that makes this trip worth the time is the people you meet along the way.
On the first leg of my trip from Vladivostok to Irkutsk I was exclusive with the Russian soldiers in my cabin area. The train was crowded and a little rowdier, the Tajiks staring at me made me feel nervous to walk around and start chatting with people.
The second leg was much different. It was less crowded and people seemed friendly the closer we go to Moscow. I was in the same car as an Australian I had met on the ferry from Korea and he was pretty keen on meeting people, so we went around chatting people up with what little Russian we know. Here’s are some of the people sharing our train…
My cabin mates:
Valentina Ivanova – the only person I’ve met in Russia who introduced herself with her patronymic. Valentina Daughter of Ivan. She’s an older lady who got on in Angarsk near Irkutsk. For the twenty minutes we sat at the platform, her grown daughter stared at her from the platform with one of the saddest looks I’ve seen. I didn’t ask why. Valentina Ivanovna was going to Moscow.
Galina – got on in the second station of Irkutsk. She looked like any classic American mom. Same haircut, same clothes, same appearance. When she and Valentina Ivanovna met each other, it was instant friendship. They talked and talked the whole three days to Moscow. They turned our cabin area in to a very clean nest; table cloths, little decorations and cloth napkins.
Pasha – was an army soldier who was returning home in Omsk. He never left his bed and was always always either sleeping or eating sunflower seeds. Tons of them. Pasha was the same height as me but had no front teeth.
Vladimir – moved from another part of the carriage to Pasha’s bed after he got off in Omsk. Vladimir was in the navy and had one of those classic Russian striped navy shirts. He was very tall and handsome except for his navy mullet. He didn’t talk much but was friendly. He got off in Perm.
The two Svetlanas – They had never met before but were both named Svetlana and were both travelling to Krasnoyarsk. The older Svetlana lived in Australia and the other Svetlana was an operator at a electronics company.
Aleksandra – An ethnic Russian who lived in Uzbekistan. She is a baker and she was moving from Tashkent to Ekaterinburg. It was a five hour flight from Tashkent to Krasnoyarsk and then 36 hours on the train to Ekaterinburg.
Nataliya – A translator working in Baikal – she was on her way to Moscow to visit her family – a prestigious sounding group of journalists and intellectuals – and her husband. They were going on from Moscow to the Crimea to do some hiking. She was very nice and helped us converse with a lot of the people on the train. She said I have child-like eyes.
Nastiya – A professor of social anthropology in the state university in Ekaterinburg. She was on her way to see the rock band Alisa play in Moscow. Then she was going to hop on another train to Saint Petersburg to see Alisa play there. She is a fanatic. Alisa shirts, Alisa mugs, Alisa scarves, etc. She was very keen on chatting with John and me – and she as very good at toning down her Russian so I could understand her.
Tony and Rosemary – I saw a man on the platform in Mariinsk and thought to myself “that is the most British looking Russian person I’ve ever seen” but low-and-behold here was an Englishman. Wearing a green sweater, pink pants and with a shock of white hair, he was most unlikely person one could meet at a train station in Siberia. He had had a long and prestigious career in the British Army during the twilight of the Empire and then a long career in international finance. He and his wife Rosemary were doing an overland tour from the Himalayas to Moscow. They were in a first-class car and seemed happy for some English-speaking companions. They were pretty shocked by the tedious landscape. We were in their car when we crossed the Urals. Tony said with extreme British resignation “Well, I have to say, I am vastly disappointed. I’m sorry but they are just a terrible disappointment.”
Razik – a soldier returning from duty in the Russian Far East. Through Nataliya, he told us that he wanted a picture taken with us but when we went to talk to him he seemed uninterested. He gave John a patch from his uniform and again we tried socializing with him but he got up for a smoke.
As we neared Moscow the train emptied out. People got on and off more regularly. The landscape of birches, wood houses and abandoned factories gave way to housing blocks, highways and abandoned factories. Moscow from the train wasn’t very impressive, but here it was the city I travelled for 80 hours to reach.