Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #59: Trans-Siberian Railway: Life & Fun Across 9000 km of Taiga, Steppes & Plain Wilderness, Part I – S

#58: Trans-Siberian Railway: Life & Fun Across 9000 km of Taiga, Steppes & Plain Wilderness, Part I

9 September 2002
Newsflash: WeeCheng in Ulan Ude, Buryatia, Siberia

Gigantic Lenin head, Buddhist prayer flags, Mongolian boy band posters, nomads and wild horses, striptease clubs and casinos. Welcome to Ulan Ude, capital of the Republic of Buryatia, a member of the Russian Federation.

The people here are Mongol by heritage – Asians like me. I feel somewhat at home here and weird all the same. I arrived here this morning from Irkutsk in central Siberia. In the past week or so, I have travelled more than 5300 km across Russia/Siberia, on the legendary Trans-Siberian railroads, and am now in the same time zone as Beijing. If I move in a straight line southwards, I should reach Singapore. Over the next week or so, I will continue to move eastwards for 4000 km, until I reach Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.

16 September 2002
In Khabarovsk, Facing China’s Heilongjiang Province

I have just arrived in Khabarovsk, capital of Russia’s Far Eastern Territory. Staying at Hotel Amur – had a hard time looking for hotel, everywhere seems to be full. This largest Russian city in the East is on the River Amur, known as “Heilongjiang” in Chinese – River of the Black Dragon.

On the other side of the river is the Chinese province of Heilongjiang. I am now travelled 8500 km along the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow, and only left with 500km to conquer. I will take an overnight train to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast tomorrow – that is the eastern end of the world’s longest railway. Congratulate me with I reach there on Wednesday morning! I will stay in Vladivostok for 2 nights and then fly back to Irkutsk in central Siberia on Friday. From there, I will take the train to Mongolia on Saturday.

But more on these adventures to come…

18 September 2002
On the Trans-Siberian Railway

Siberia – the name chills. Siberia, to many, invokes images of an eternally cold land of exile and dark, endless winter. Siberia represents vastness as well as emptiness, a strange unknown territory stretching into the borderless horizon. There are shreds of truth, as well as misconception, in these popular images.

Let’s get the facts first. To geographers, Siberia is all the Russian territories east of the Urals Mountains, although politically, the popular definition of Siberia in reality also include parts of the Urals Federal District and the Far Eastern territories of Russia.

All in all, 14 million square kilometers with only 30 million people, stretching across taiga, steppes as well as vast forest lands. This is a land of great rivers – the Ob, Lena, Angara, Yenisey and the Amur – all among the world’s longest rivers. 53,000 rivers flow across its plains and 1 million lakes altogether. This is also a land of extreme temperature differences. There are places where annual temperature range from -50�C to 45�C.

What holds this vast territory together is the legendary railway – the Trans-Siberian Railway – also the longest in the world, more than 9200 kilometers between Moscow in its western end and Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. This is not a special tourist train. In fact, it comprises a number of lines and sub-lines that stretch from the west of Russia across the plains of Eurasia, some of which covers almost the entire length – such as Train Number 1 and 2, known as the Rossiya (“Russia” in the Russian language), or the Baikal Express, which runs from Moscow to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal. There are also services (Number 4) which run to Beijing via Ulanbataar (Mongolia).

The TransSib is a working train. It is the lifeline of Siberia. There are few roads in Siberia, or rather, there are few intercity roads of reasonable quality connecting cities and settlements in Siberia. As such, it is the TransSib that link these parts together with Mother Russia. It takes 7 days nonstop to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok, and it cuts through almost the whole length of Russia – 8 time zones in total where the train passes through, through many interesting (as well as absolutely boring) cities and locations.

During the past few weeks, I have been travelling across Russia on some of these trains, on Second Class tickets. I have met a number of interesting people along the way – not just travellers like me, but also ordinary Russians. In the confined space of a few carriages, people have no choice but to interact, or worse, tolerate each other. There is little space for those with an attitude problem. One simply has to live in close quarters with strangers. Of course, some people recommend spending the night in cities along the way and skipping long stays on the trains. That is certainly desirable if you get off to visit interesting places, but if you do that all the time, you might miss out the interaction with the locals, which in my opinion is the most enriching experience of the entire journey.

It’s a matter of luck who you end up with. The worst it could was in the case of an Irish traveller I have met, sharing the compartment with a belly-challenged xenophobic man who ignores his presence, and sleep-walks naked at night. Even in that case, you could well spend most of your time with other people in the train. Most trains carry more than 400 people, and you must be really unlucky to find a train full of 400 morons!

I was somewhat fortunate. During my 8 nights on the trains (more than 7 because I have got off and on at some locations, and hence got onto trains of varying speed and types) and numerous daytimes I have spent on the main line, I have played cards and gotten drunk with Russian soldiers, veterans of the Chechen war and sailors of the Russian Pacific fleet; discussed politics and development issues with North Korean diplomats (while trying my best to use politically correct terms so not to use Bush’s language on the so-called Axis of Evil); and chatted in sign language and pidgin Russian with motherly babushkas (Russian grandmothers) who doted me like their grandsons and stuffed me with endless supplies of cakes, cookies and other goodies (while thoroughly disapproving of my drinking binges with the young soldiers and officers).

The TransSib is also notorious for one thing – boredom. It’s the perfect train to read all the books that you have begun and never finished. The only problem is you can’t bring too many on the journey for the weight. And forget about posting them home along the way. Soviet-era laws still applicable in New Russia say that it is forbidden to send abroad all printed media, including those published outside Russia, such as your Harry Potter and the Official IYH Guide to Hostels in Africa, the Americas and Australasia.

For 5000 km from Moscow to Irkutsk, the landscape is fairly homogenous. Most of us were intrigued by the initial sight of quaint Russian villages and their wooden houses, sometimes brightly painted. However, if you have 4 days of that and most of the time nothing else except for endless forests of birch trees and occasional plains of endless emptiness, you go a little mad and start seeing kangaroos and dinosaurs as well. Many people even gave up on books and simply lie on their couchettes, slipping in and out of consciousness and Dreamland. Or you have endless feasts and drinks – the TransSib is not a journey for those on slimming programmes. TransSib etiquette requires one to lay out all of one’s supply of food and drinks, and share it with fellow travellers. And friendly locals might take your refusal at an offer of food as rudeness. The supply never runs out, for there are numerous stops where supply is constantly replenished. It’s an opportunity to get acquainted with food products and brands in obscure Russian provinces.

Indeed, the most exciting events of an average Trans-Sib day are the stops in provincial stations. Even the sleepiest passenger would suddenly jump off the bed and rush for the great Perm, Omsk, Yerofey Pavlovich or god-knows-what-Siberian-hamlet shopping experience, as he or she would for the summer sales in London, Hong Kong or New York. I have no clue how the Russian Railways selects where to stop and for how long, for sometimes they stop for 2 minutes in a large town of 200,000 people, and sometimes for 25 in some unheard-of hamlet. In many places, one is mobbed by local peasants selling anything from warm, hearty pelmeni (Siberian meat dumplings) and smelly dried fish, to toys and clothing.

Of course, the train does have a restaurant car, and if you fancy paying high prices (OK, they are not expensive by Western standards but having travelled in many Russian provincial towns, the prices do appear high on the trains) for normal standard food, they are fine. But it’s good to spend an occasional afternoon in the restaurant car, do some reading there while having a coffee.

The greatest benefit, however, is observing the restaurant staff – they seem to operate in a world of their own. Many seemed more keen on their private trading activities than serving customers. At every stop, even at 2-minute stops, they are seen rushing to buy huge quantities of local produce or selling produce bought at previous stations. Sometimes, they have so much to work on that they shouted for the restaurant customers to help carry the stuff they bought onto the train. For instance, I have assisted in helping to carry basins of fresh cherries twice, but seeing no improvement in the service I received on subsequent visits to the restaurants, decided to ignore any shout for help during station stops. For whatever it is, the range and quality of food do seem to decrease as the train moves eastwards into the wilderness of eastern Siberia, and that seems to encourage the restaurant staff to spend more time in private merrymaking. I have seen them half-drunk more than once while trying to serve dinner to customers, swinging from side to side, with grinning red faces.

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