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Walking down the street, I came face to face with a bus heading for downtown Seoul. As I live in Seoul you might think that's normal – except that I was in Vladivostok, city at the start of the legendary Trans-Siberian train route !
Its proximity to Korea and Japan mean that most of Vladivostok's vehicles are imported from these countries (in the latter case it leads to right-hand drive cars driving on the right-hand side of the road.
|Vladivostok port (home of Russia's Pacific fleet)|
After three days exploring the city which was forbidden to foreigners until 1991, my husband and I went to the station to discover the train in which we were going to spend the next 70 hours non-stop as far as Irkutsk, our first stop.
We had two months holiday to look forward to, and the first two weeks would be spent travelling the Trans-Siberian across Russia, back to Europe. By the way, there's no regular train called 'The Trans-Siberian' (which is the common term for the train route), rather a series of working trains that run east- or west-bound all or part of the way between Moscow and Vladivostok.
We soon settled into life on the train. Trans-Siberian trains are comfortable rather than luxurious.
Time passed reading, watching the view, eating, watching the view, listening to music, watching the view, and learning to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet in order to read station names.
|typical view from the train|
|Ulan Ude station|
(As non-Russian speakers we'd used the services of a specialised agency to book the train tickets and hotels, but once in Russia we were totally independent). We also spent a lot of time adjusting our watches as the train travels through seven time zones - but all the timetables run on Moscow time. This often led to some complicated mental arithmetic !
We travelled through mile upon mile of steppe and taiga, past villages whose average January temperature is -33°C. Contrary to popular belief, however, summer in Siberia is scorching. In these conditions it was difficult to believe that the tipsy-looking telegraph poles we saw were caused by year-round permafrost.
Our ablutions (shared 'bathroom'; no shower, no hot water, no sink plug !) were both gymnastic and perfunctory. Feet braced against the train's rocking, you had to avoid your personal belongings falling down the toilet hole, all the while holding the hand basin's tap down with one hand to extract a trickle of cold water. And beware of needing the toilet at the wrong time – they were closed for thirty minutes before and after all stops … I enjoyed descending from the train whenever our provodnitsa (carriage attendant)
allowed us to, getting some exercise by walking up and down the platform during short stops. I think I gave my husband a few grey hairs as I was invariably the last person back on the train before it moved off again with no warning !
Thanks to the samovar in every carriage
and its unlimited supply of hot water, our diet was very varied in the train … it varied between instant noodles, instant pasta, instant mashed potato … . Although there is a restaurant wagon on every train our initial trips there didn't make us want to return. At our stop-off points (Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg) food was delicious : omul (a fish only found in Lake Baikal), pelmeni and vareniki (types of filled dumplings), blinis, borscht all washed down with kvas (a summertime beer-like brew made from fermented bread, yeast, malt sugar and water), and the occasional vodka. On train platforms we bought home-grown cucumbers, boiled eggs and juicy tomatoes from wrinkled babuchkas.
|train platform seller|
(but not a wrinkled babuchka !)
Irkutsk, a former Siberian exile point, is now a gateway to the beautiful Lake Baikal, 64 km away, where we enjoyed scuba-diving in water at 4°C!
In Irkutsk we also came across the first Western tourists we'd heard since we'd left Seoul six days previously.
Back in the train for 'only' thirty hours,
our next port of call was Novosibirsk, Russia's geographical centre and the sprawling capital of Western Siberia.
Later, a trip of only 21 hours brought us to Yekaterinburg for a day, infamous as the place where the Romanovs were murdered, where we straddled the Europe-Asia boundary marker.
Twenty-six hours later, after travelling through the Urals we arrived in our final Russian destination of Moscow, where we spent several days visiting in the company of a Russian friend – including the wonderful Bolshoi Theatre.
|St Basil's, Moscow|
All too soon it was time to move on to the next leg of our journey – unfortunately by plane !
The next trip we made in Asia was to Bali.
This article was originally published in SIWA's "Discovery" magazine (October-November 2009 issue).
Vital ? Statistics
· Russia is the world's largest country – twice as big as the USA.
· The Trans-Siberian runs 9289 km from Vladivostok to Moscow, making it both the world's longest train route and the longest domestic train route.
· Non-stop, the train journey lasts 146 hours.
· More than 30% of all the world's trees grow on the Siberian plains.
· Lake Baikal is the world's deepest, biggest lake, with 20% of the world's fresh water.
· The train's average speed is just 69 kmph (43 mph).
Suggested reading and listening:
The Great Railway Bazaar, by train through Asia by Paul Theroux