“Are you girls sporty?” Asked an old Russian Grandma at the Moscow train station, looking at our bulging backpacks. Or rather, that is what Sandra later told me she asked. “Yes, I guess so” replied Sandra.
“Well, then you shouldn’t be smoking.” the Grandma joked, referring to one of the two Finish girls we had recently met. They too were going to be taking our train to Irkutsk, though they had opted to ride in the cheapest class, Plackscarta whereas we had decided to splurge on 2nd/Kupe class. “Have a good trip, and be safe, girls.” concluded the Grandma. Then she went one way and we went the other, to platform number 1 where our train would be arriving shortly.
And so began the ACTUAL Great Railway Adventure. The reason for this trip, or rather, the excuse. The train ride itself would take only three days out of the thirty-two I had allotted for the trip. The cities before and the Mongolian camping trips after would make up the bulk of the journey, but this promise, to ride the train across Siberia was the impetus behind it all.
So board the train we did, wagon 12, room 6, bunks 22 and 24 (both top bunks, which I came to find would be a blessing). We would be spending 80+ hours on the train, sharing this room with our two lower bunk mates: an older music professor on his way to a music conference in Ulan-Ude, where he would give a talk on a paper he had written on Russian Folk Music; and a younger man on his way to work, prospecting oil in the vast uninhabited expanse of Siberia. He would ride this train most of it’s length, then take a small plane to a river where he would board a boat to carry him an hour or so up stream to his final destination.
To be honest, I am really enjoying this forced relaxation, this mobile captivity. We are over half way into our journey by now and what I thought would be cabin fever is actually contentment. There has been a lot of sleeping. Long nights of quiet, dark, rocking sleep; and short naps after meals and between sessions of reading, writing, daydreaming, and talking to our roommates. Oh and long views of the passing countryside! And I have to say, I am very glad we decided to go with Kupe Class. The reports from the Finnish girls confirmed our suspicions: people packed 6 to a room with no privacy, space, or fresh air. Our moods would be quite different by this time had we opted on 3rd class. Some things are worth the extra dough.
There is a grandpa a few cars down who has taken a liking to us. We met him walking on a platform during a longer stop. He is on vacation, returning home now after having watched his daughter’s apartment in the city while she traveled in Europe. Today he bought tomatoes, piroshkis, and a strange smoked fish from the grandmas on the platform, a lunch feast full of “things to try” while traveling the railway. The fish was a bit much, but like always the potato and cabbage filled piroshkis were amazing. There is something about deep fried dough wrapped stuff that is good in every culture. Dumplings, pirogue, piroshkis, boutza, ravioli…call it what you will, they’re yummy and you know it!
I’m just about ready to settle down into another nap actually, after said lunch. Sandra is down below chattering happily in Russian with our “roomates”. She is certainly getting the practice and language refresher she was hoping for.
Hopefully the second half of our trek will pass as pleasantly as the first has.
I’ve relocated! I took a walk through the train to find the food car, and discovered it wasn’t a far walk at all. It was one car down, and so having passed through several sets of doors and an extremely shaky car joint, I now find myself at a little table with a red table cloth and an extremely overpriced cup of black coffee.
The rest of my cabin is napping after an exciting class in electrical engineering earlier today. The musical professor’s extension cord stopped working, so the oil prospector said he could fix it. Which he did. After taking the thing nearly completely apart and re-wiring it. Luckily ever ready Swiss Sandra just happened to have a Swiss Army Knife and black electrical tape on hand. My favorite comment so far came from the prospector, after going farther and farther up the line looking for the problem with the cord. He told the professor that “he shouldn’t have gotten this cheap Chinese plug. He should have gotten an old Soviet one. They are big and ugly and old but they are robust and work forever.” Now, I don’t know if that is opinion or fact, but it was funny enough to hear while he slowly hacked away at the plastic plug. Whatever his opinion, I really can’t complain- I wouldn’t have charged the laptop and been able to type right now if not for his ingenuity and Sandra’s over-prepared packing!
It’s not too much longer now, before this train journey is at an end. Before it does, I’ll leave you with something a little more practical than my silly anecdotes: a packing list for your own Ttrans-Siberian train trip.
You’ll certainly want to bring:
1. comfortable, soft, loose fitting clothes
2. small change for buying things from the grandma’s at the platform stops
3. fresh fruit, bread, cheese, and other relatively non-perishable foods
4. cup of noodles soups (there is unlimited hot water in each car. You’ll use this to drink, cook, and wash fruit and flatware. Don’t use the water in the bathrooms for anything!!)
5. a cup or bowl, spoon, knife
8. slippers or sandals/flip-flops
9. hand sanitizer/hand lotion
10. a good book and a pack of cards
11. a light (the lights in your rooms are turned on only after dusk, and it can get quite dim in there in the afternoon, especially on a cloudy day)
12. snacks to share with your cabin mates
13. tea (rather than try to stock up on enough bottled water to last the journey, just bring along a box of teas and enjoy the hot water on board)