Boarding the train in Moscow, we settled in to the cabin which would be our home for the next three and a half days. After congratulating ourselves on getting to the right station, the right platform, and the right carriage as planned, we handed our tickets to the Provodnitsa (the ticket conducter/house-keeper/general matron-esque boss of each carriage) who frowned, examined them in more detail, looked up and with a curt “Stop, no!” promptly marched out of the cabin, our tickets in hand. Ah.
After clearing up the confusion of whether our tickets did or didn’t state that we’d paid up-front for linen (we hadn’t, but happily handed over a few quid for the big squishy pillows and fleecy blankets) and for food (again, we hadn’t, but this is where our supermarket haul of picnic rations came in), our Provodnitsa turned out to be very kind, and pleasantly amused by the hapless Brits in her carriage.
The Train and Cabin
As we pulled away from Yaroslavsky station, through high-rise Moscow suburbia, everyone was soon padding about the train in their adidas shell-suits and sandals. The train is kept at about 24 degrees all year round, so even in the depths of winter you could be speeding through Siberian snow drifts in just pyjamas and flip flops.
Settling in to our Spalny Vagon cabin, our first impressions were that it was very clean and much more modern than we had been expecting; including an airline-style freebie packet of slippers, toothbrush and toothpaste, and, somewhat inexplicably, a shoehorn and mini sewing kit.
Having secured our nice linens we both set up our bunks. Rebecca made a cosy nest with the pillows and blankets, iPad and Kindle in easy reach. When she turned around, Timian had removed all trace of human life from his side of the cabin. Mattress reverted back into a bench. Blankets and sheets folded with military precision and out of sight. All belongings squirrelled away into various cupboards and compartments. Welcome to Austerity Bunk. Wunderbar.
Eating and Drinking
The dining car, however, was a step back in time compared to the bunks. It had just the kind of flouncy curtains, immaculate table cloths and plush seating in which you picture Poirot gathering his main suspects for the final reveal in Murder on the Orient Express. The menu wasn’t over-priced at all given a relatively captive audience for days on end; you could get a beer and a meal for a few quid.
However, on this leg of the journey, the samovar at the end of our carriage was key to all of our meals. The advice was to bring anything from the ‘just add water’ school of cookery. In addition to our instant coffee and packets of instant noodles, we had other rations for breakfasts and lunches, and of course, a Russian-style Afternoon Tea of vodka and pickles.
If your rations run out and you don’t fancy the dining carriage, there are little kiosks on the platforms at nearly all stations en-route, selling everything from snacks and drinks to shampoo and tin foil. Better than these, though, were the platform vendors we encountered once the train had entered Siberia.
Stations and Scenery
The platform vendors in Mariinsk are ready and waiting for the train with their trolleys and wheel-barrows piled with food and drinks. We topped up on fresh fruit and bought more Pielmeny. Not quite as fancy as the pork and veal-filled ones we’d had in Moscow, this time filled with… mashed potato (why did we not pack the chilli sauce?!) The vendors sell different things from one station to the next; you can pick up a fur in Barabinsk, books in Novosibirsk, or ice cream from pretty much any station at any time of the day or night. If you can’t wait the few hours between stations for your ice cream, Provodnitsa is never far away with her own portable freezer bag of “mar-ozj-nee” for sale.
Our Lonely Planet guide had a kilometre-by-kilometre breakdown of the places along the route, the people and the history. This meant we were always poised to jump off at the more interesting stations and, with some eagle-eyed kilometre counting from Timian, to spot the white obelisk at 1777km marking the border between Europe and Asia.
What we first thought would be a vast expanse of nothingness (though there’s plenty of that rolling by the window on Day 3), the route actually passes city after city with populations of hundreds of thousands and varying cultural histories often based on exile, imprisonment, mining, and revolution.
Between these cities the land is dotted with seemingly self-sufficient wooden shacks deep in the forest and miles from any other civilisation (other than the odd train speeding past), each with its own vegetable patch, log piles and the occasional goat. Timian thought the scenery changed much more than expected over the three days, particularly when we crossed into the Ural mountains. Rebecca is skeptical that these are in fact mountains, categorising the scenery as: Birch, Birch, Birch, Birch, Birch, Autumn Birch, Fewer Birch, Some Hills, Flat. More Flat.
The Trans-Siberian route has seemingly had a huge impact on the people and places that the tracks pass. It’s been an important negotiating point in Russia’s relations with neighbouring countries. There are apparently talks at the moment for Russia, China and the U.S. to collaborate on a new line that would, in the end, connect Moscow to New York via the Bering Straight.
Maybe our next Trans-Sib trip will start from St. Pancras and end at Grand Central Station 🙂
To see how and why we chose this route, check out: Trans-Siberian: Planning Our Route