✍️: Jan 📸: Erin & Jan
It’s 12:25 in the afternoon. I’ve forgotten what day it is, Wednesday perhaps. Two days ago, in the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, beside the monumented remains of Engine 3306, a restored Soviet-era steam engine built by Americans during World War II, we boarded Russian Railways Trans-Siberian Train 001 at 7:10 in the evening.
Since then, we’ve been lumbering westward toward Moscow through the Siberian Taiga on the Trans-Siberian Rail. Our destination is Sludyanka on the southwestern tip of Lake Baikal, just one station shy of Irkutsk. We’ll arrive tomorrow in the early afternoon. But this is the Trans-Siberian Rail. The saying that it’s about the journey and not the destination is more apt here than just about anywhere.
The Joys of Slow Travel
Bullet Train, this is not. Our average speed seems to be in the 35 mph range. I’ve heard Siberia described as a vast country. Vast. Such a little word for such an immense place. We stopped at the Mogocha station about two hours ago and won’t stop again until Chernyshevsk in about 3 hours. Usually stops are a bit more frequent. They seem to arrive about every other hour.
Nikolai Chernyshevskiy, for whom the city of Chernyshevsk was named, holds a little known but fascinating place in Russian history. He was a dissident writer arrested for sedition in 1862 and exiled to Siberia in 1864. Written in prison, his Utopian novel “What is to be done?” became exceedingly popular and is credited by some historians as sewing the seeds of revolution that Lenin later reaped. Karl Marx called him a “great Russian scholar and critic.” Ayn Rand was likely influenced by his utopian ideas, but took them to a different conclusion than Marx. Feodor Doestoyevksy didn’t care for his work and wrote “Notes from the Underground” as a response to Chernyshevsky’s book. That said, Chernyshevsk was apparently a supporter of American democracy and praised Abraham Lincoln. Here’s more insight from a professor of Russian at Wellesley College.
Time scales are different on the Trans-Siberian Rail. I think it’s because so little changes outside the window. For two days, we’ve been admiring the beauty of Siberia. It feels somehow familiar, like the hill country of Colorado or Montana as we approach the mountains. We roll by acres of flat prairie growing wild with grasses, shrubs and purple, yellow and white wildflowers that give way to pine and poplar groves in the distant hills.
After a time, we find ourselves cutting through dense pine forests, then deep canyons, and then a tunnel. And there are rivers everywhere. We’ve crossed at least two rivers as wide as the Mississippi, and maybe two or three dozen smaller ones. Sometimes, the land is marshy, other times it’s rocky, but it’s almost always green. This is lush, arable land. But we’ve seen not a single farm or ranch. There are no cattle, no feedlots, no rows of neatly layed corn or soybeans.
It’s August – late summer – and Siberia seems ripe for agriculture. But in a few short months, this becomes a frozen land. Maybe that’s why humans have left this place wild. Or maybe it’s just too big and too empty and too far away from any big city to make it worth anyone’s while to try.
That’s not to say that Siberia is void of humans. At least every hour, we roll past a small village, yards filled with gardens, some with small greenhouses. And we see numerous work crews sitting alongside the tracks watching us go by. Spare or discarded railroad ties line the rails, along with empty 5 liter water jugs, a stray orange safety vest here or there, old tires and other evidence of brief human inhabitance. Which makes sense, given that every mile or two is a small shack, all the same shape and size. Maybe about 8 feet by 6 feet, with a sloped roof and a small chimney. I can only guess that they are temporary shelters where workers can sit out a rain shower, or warm up during a meal break in the winter.
Unlike Amtrak’s use of diesel engines for long haul trips, Russian Rail has electrified the entire span of the Trans-Siberian Rail. In fact, as far as I can tell, even the freights – which all appear to be operated by Russian Rail as well – pull power from the electric lines that run next to tracks. So, of course that means that there are power cables and the occasional substation lining the rails. The only combustion engines we see belong to the maintenance engines responsible for repairs or moving rail cars around the yard.
For our three night ride on the Trans-Siberian Rail, we decide to splurge on a first class carriage. That turned out to be a very good decision as Erin came down with a pretty nasty cold the day before we boarded, and then I woke up on our first morning aboard with the same affliction.
So we’ve been medicating ourselves with throat lozenges, a little Theraflu (or Teraflu in Russia), a lot of tea, and sleep. I can’t help but wonder a little if our bodies knew we had a break coming up and after two months of being on the move almost constantly, decided to take advantage of this three day “break in the action” and force us to rest hard.
Unfortunately, because we’re in a private carriage, and because we’ve basically quarantined ourselves from the rest of the train, we haven’t had the opportunity to meet any other travelers. So I can’t speak to the sense of camaraderie that sometimes grows between people over time in confined spaces despite language barriers and cultural differences.
That said, it’s quite comfortable. Because it’s just the two of us, and there is no upper bunk, we have plenty of room to stretch out. There’s a bathroom on either end of the car, and an electric samovar (hot water heater for tea) across the hall from the Provodnitsa’s berth. The Provodnitsa is the ticket taker, passenger manager, matron, and general manager of our car. Ours is quite friendly, but I get the sense that it’s best not to get on her bad side. Because she holds our tickets, she seems to hold the power of whether or not we’ll reach our destination.
Customer Service on the Trans-Siberian
Once we found our berth, a welcome packet of tea, chocolate, toiletries, and little blue slippers were laid out for us. We asked our Provodnitsa for teacups and she returned with a pair of stainless steel cup holders containing glasses. We liked them so much that we asked if we could buy one. She said they were all out. But half an hour later returned with one that she’d found a few cars down.
What’s For Dinner?
We stocked up on ramen noodles, chipsies (that’s what Russians call potato chips), cookies and fruit to nourish us for the 70 or so hours of train travel. But we looked forward to a couple of meals that did not disappoint. First, if I’m on a long distance train, I like to try the dining car at least once. There’s something about sitting in a dining car watching the countryside slide by while listening to the rhythmic clickety-clack of the bogies on the rails that is just a little magical.
So we visited the dining car for dinner on our second night. Frankly, I don’t remember what I ordered. I remember liking it. But what I remember was the envy I felt for Erin’s Borsch. (They don’t call it borscht here – there is no T in this Russian soup.) It was so good. For no good reason, I had a mental picture of borscht as something undesirable, bland, and mostly unpleasant.
This is not the case. We had delicious borsch in Kamchatka at Grushanka Guest House. We had great borsch in Vladivostok. And Erin had a fantastic bowl of borsch on the Trans-Siberian. This soup is three for three! I resolved right there to learn how to make borsch when we get back to the States. It’s so rich and deep and flavorful – and maybe even healthy (I’ll have to look into that, but it’s mostly vegetables with a dollop of sour cream).
We’d read about stops on the Trans-Siberian where local little old ladies sell homemade mince meat pastries and sweet rolls, and that was another meal we looked forward to. Sadly, we only saw it once, but when we found these women, we jumped. They didn’t speak a word of English, and time was short, so we had to hurry. Some stilted sign language got us through, and a few minutes later we sat looking at each other across the little table in our carriage wondering what we’d just bought.
Well, fortune favors the bold, so we take a bite.
Flaky … buttery … a little spice … rosemary, thyme, a touch of garlic. Mmmm … this is good. There’s a short burst of excitement mixed with relief. We murmur approval. And our berth is silent for the next few minutes while we attack and destroy what those sweet little babushkas forked over for a few rubles just a couple of miles back.
End of the Line (for us)
As I write, we have only a few hours remaining on the Trans-Siberian Rail. We’ll soon be reminded by our Provodnitsa that it’s time to pack up and get ready to de-board. I bought tickets all the way to Irkutsk. But we decided to get off the train one stop early in the town of Slyudyanka so that … well, that’s another story. But for now, let me just say that I’m really gonna miss berths 15 and 16 of carriage 09 on Russian Rail Trans-Siberian Train 001.