Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Trans-Siberian Railway

We’re now four trains, 62 hours and almost 4,500km into our train journey from St Petersburg to Beijing.

We’ve been travelling in kupe (2nd) class, meaning we have a small lockable compartment that we share with up to two other passengers in a carriage of 8 or 9 compartments. The compartments come fitted with four bunks, a small table (with table cloth), and just enough room to turn around in. Each carriage is presided over by a provadnitsa who checks tickets, sells tea, coffee and snacks, keeps the urn at the end of the carriage topped up with boiling water, and generally looks after us and the carriage.

Our first couple of (shorter) journeys were on new, smart “firmenny trains” with comfortable bunks, smart carpets in the corridor, clean toilets and even a tv in each compartment, while our longest journey (38 hours) was on an older, slower and more careworn train. Despite its harder bunks and rockier motion I rather liked its old-fashioned decor though with its faux red leather seats and mock wood panelling.

Outside the views have been largely of yellowing birch trees, intermingled with firs and red-leaved maples. Every so often we pass small settlements with potato and cabbage fields, and falling down wooden buildings with corrugated iron roofs and we’re stuck by how poor much of rural Russia appears, while the many freight trains carrying oil and gas provide a reminder of where much of the wealth of Siberia comes from.


We’ve also enjoyed the conversations we’ve had along the way too: with the English professor who invited us to talk to her students in Kazan, the Turkish immigrant heading to Siberia for work, the young oil worker on a 36 hour journey back to Omsk to see his wife and young daughter after a month at work and others. They’ve all been friendly and welcoming, and it’s been fascinating gaining an insight into their lives and their thoughts on Russia. Interestingly, despite their obvious patriotism they’ve all been surprised that we would want to come to see Russia.

The trains stop fairly frequently for between a few minutes and an hour at a time, giving you the chance to stretch your legs, stock up on food or do some quick sight-seeing. We haven’t been very adventurous though, as on one of our first stops Rachael got off to go for a wander, misunderstood how long the train was stopped for and noticed just in time that our train was pulling away – leaving her to sprint for and scramble aboard the moving train with the help of a strong tug from a disapproving provadnitsa. Quite what we’d have done if she’d been left on the platform, in the middle of nowhere, in just her pyjamas without money or passport we’re not sure...

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