On Thursday I boarded the train at 13.20 in Moscow with my new Brazilian friend Saulo, who I had met in the hostel and who was travelling on the same train as me. It is now 23.30 and I am 5 time zones and 5,153km away, in Irkutsk. It is hard to beilieve in 3 days I have covered more distance than cycling for two months. I cannot quite get my head around that….!
Before we boarded, we were a bundle of nerves and excitement, not really knowing what we should expect. He was travelling for 7 hours in the third class, a dormitory style carriage with 50 or so beds arranged in groups of six with a corridor that ran throughout. I was travelling three days non stop in second class which meant I shared a cabin with 3 other people and the corridor ran the length of the carriage to one side of the cabins. At one end were two toilets and at the other an unlimited supply of hot, drinkable water.
Thanks to some insider knowledge (it pays to meet some locals), I knew that the hot water was unlimited, and free, so I armed myself full of noodles (the instant variety), oats for porridge, tinned veg, fresh fruit and of course, tea!
I drank a lot of tea! 🙂
I shared the cabin with 3 Russian ladies, and despite the fact I spoke not a word of Russian and they no English we managed well enough with the aid of hands signals, smiles and sharing food. I was amazed to find that the moment the train started moving out of the station in Moscow, the ladies proceeded to strip of outer layers, smart trousers, jumpers and jeans to reveal leggings, jogging bottoms and loose fitting t-shirts, perfect travel wear! When it came to leaving at the other end, sure enough they all put their smart clothes on top, as if they had never worn anything else. There was no doubt I was a newbie – turning up in the same clothes I was to travel in! 🙂
Despite the kind company, I was grateful for my stash of books, and when they were all settled in watching (quite terrible) Russian TV, I could hunker down with a good book. I managed to devour 3 of 5 I had, which by my reckoning leaves just the right amount for the two day journey that awaits me later in the week to Mongolia… One of the best books I read on my journey was in fact a book recommended to me by my Dad, and written by an escaped prisoner of war, who walked across Siberia in search of home. It is called “As far as my feet will carry me”, and definitely gives a sense of the wildness of the place.
Of course, I didn’t just read my books! 🙂 I had plenty of time to gaze out at the siberian landscape unfolding before me. It was more wooded than I had anticipated, to begin with deciduous species and conifers, but increasingly the further East I travelled, the more I saw birch, birch, and even more birch.
Their long thin trunks protruding from the earth like fingers racing for the sun. The bark bleached bright white. Beneath them parched prairie grass, mud and sometimes snow. Occasionally there would be a beautiful village or hamlet built of wood nestled low to the ground, like nesting birds, guarding life beneath their wings. Smoke rose from some of the chimneys in spindly wisps, and occasionally I caught a glimpse of the local kids messing around or a man with what looked like a briefcase heading for the small village platform and the next train. I couldn’t help wonder what people did for work out here, and what life was like in such a barren landscape. I did pass by a few ruined old dwellings and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was due to people moving elsewhere for work and life; it would not take long for an un-lived-in-home to fall into disrepair in such an unforgiving landscape. My train, the fast “Rossiya” passed by these small villages with their platforms on the side of the track, only stopping at the biggest cities, often ugly industrial scars on an otherwise seemingly untouched landscape.
It was a beautiful train ride, but I feel that I have barely skimmed the surface of siberia, like a mere pebble on the sea. It was hard to appreciate just how vast and unchanging siberia really is. Today proved the most spectacular, when we gained some height and had some brilliant views across the expanses.
Some views from the train window, and the platform stops:-