Travel and a bit of shopping
First published in Travel Ideas, March-April 2016
Looking out of the train window I see the Volga River where the cronies Of Genghis Khan caused mayhem in the 13th century. I’ve spent my first night on the Trans-Siberian Railway and it has yet to dawn upon me.
Instead of starting our long-haul trip in Moscow, we did so at Vladimir after having spent a few days in the town of Suzdal. Vladimir is 190 km from Moscow; Suzdal another 35 km from there.
Suzdal, a quaint village, defies belief that it once served as a royal capital of Russia. In their small kremlin the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral has azure blue onion domes with a touch of gold and the frescoes on the inside takes your breath away. The icons at the Saviour Monastery made tears run down my cheeks. In a tiny wine shop we came across a bottle of Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon.
At Vladimir station we warily witnessed an altercation between two Russkis after one called the other a maniak and claimed he exposed himself to him. Then some frantic moments as we tried to ascertain at which platform our No. 10 train would be arriving, not being able to read Russian and with no staff to be seen at around midnight when we had to board within a few minutes of the locomotive pulling into the station.
When the train arrives, our provodnitsa (female conductor) barely smiles – old habits (under communism) die hard – but the samovar at the end of the corridor (with its red carpet that is rolled out and tacked at stations where new passengers embark) is bubbling merrily. It is part of her job, apart from keeping ‘her’ carriage as neat as a pin, to ensure that hot water is available at all times. A friendly spaseeba (thank you in Russian) resulted in a lopsided grin on the third day.
We opted for second class in a four-berth compartment but we were lucky enough not to have any fellow travellers on this leg of the journey though this diluted the experience somewhat.
You get to choose between platskart (open compartment with bunks, 3rd class), kupe (4-berth compartment, 2nd class) and spalny vagon (2-berth, 1st class). There are no bathroom facilities (unless you book flagship/premium trains). In 1st class you have a cubicle with your own toilet and basin; in 2nd class it’s shared toilets at each end of the carriage.
If I ever had to do the trip again I would opt for one (shorter) leg of the journey in platskart in order to have that experience as well.
Vanessa and I (re-uniting after our first trip together in 1995) opted to do the Moscow-Ulaanbaatar-Beijing (Trans-Mongolian) route of 7858 km rather than the classic Trans-Siberian route to Vladivostok.
Our route allowed us to experience three cultures. Our first stop was in Irkutsk, Siberia. We took a taxi to Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal. Our next stop was Ulaanbaatar, apart from longer stays in St Petersburg, Moscow and Beijing. This meant that we had to buy separate tickets in advance.
There are convenient overnight trains – not part of the route – that run between St Petersburg and Moscow.
In St Petersburg the opulence of the Hermitage at the Winter Palace defies description, we went by local bus to Peterhof and returned by hydrofoil, and we treated ourselves to lunch at Jamie’s Italian Restaurant.
Standing on the Red Square in Moscow evoked memories of the ‘Rooi Gevaar’ but once you lay eyes on St Basil’s Cathedral with its colourful domes all is forgotten. The iconostasis in the Kremlin blew my mind and stirred my soul. Not even in the shopping malls of Dubai do people shop like they do at Gum, the upmarket State Department Store.
After having resisted the temptation to have hot chocolate with vodka to celebrate the first morning awakening on a Soviet train, we inspected our grocery store supplies for this rail journey lasting more than 3 days. My stash included cold meats, herring, salads, yoghurt and cheeses (to be eaten on day 1 and 2), tinned olives, crackers and chocolates.
Nyet, not all trains have restaurant cars. Apart from packing your own meals – deciding what to get is part of the fun – you can shop at station kiosks. Instant noodles with a dubious aroma abound but turned out to be surprisingly flavoursome.
Perambulators and small hand-drawn trailers seem to miraculously appear on the platforms when the train chugs into the station. Babushkas sell pelmeni (dumplings), often with pork, pirozhki (savoury pies), bread, dairy products, sausages, pine nuts and berries.
Closer to Lake Baikal omul, a type of smoked fish, is sold. It’s by far the best smoked fish I’ve ever eaten.
Apart from pram-wielding matrioshkas many stations had resident dogs that knew train passengers meant tasty titbits and ear fondling.
Stops at train stations are anything from two to twenty minutes. Check the Cyrillic timetable in your carriage before you hop off.
I planned to write snail mail letters from my seat next to the window but it so happened that the views of the taiga and steppe; the activity at countless stations – tiny platforms with no-one in sight and others with huge factories bellowing smoke next to the railway line – the sight of swamps for kilometres on end, and the appearance of wooden peasant houses with, surprisingly, no wood stacks although winter was looming – were so engrossing that I donated my writing pad to the provodnitsa’s children.
Russia has nine time zones; our train passed through five from Moscow to Irkutsk. Russian stations and trains show Moscow time in order to limit confusion.
Halfway along the 2nd class corridor you will find one 220-volt socket – amiably shared by everyone – for charging camera batteries and cell phones.
After 77 hours we reached Irkutsk. Before that my Zubrowka bison grass vodka had run out. I was forced to downgrade to vile-tasting vodka from a station kiosk. Attempting to find wine only resulted in boxed plum wine though beer was plentiful and good.
Irkutsk was more run-down than I expected yet most enjoyable to explore on foot. We gave the museums a miss but visited all the churches – and speculated to where the treasures were hidden under communist rule. There were countless fur traders and we coveted reindeer boots but boarded our next train without adding these to our luggage.
Listvyanka is the closest lakeside village to Irkutsk. I still cherish the thought of standing on the shores of Lake Baikal. This lake contains nearly one fifth of the world’s fresh (unfrozen) water. A fish called golianka that becomes so translucent that you can read a book through them, lives in its depths. (Read more: In Siberia by Colin Thubron)
Unfortunately we neglected to take the view from the train into account when you travel along the shoreline of Lake Baikal. Our train left at 22h00 so it was covered in darkness. This is something I sorely regret – and this is where you should be making notes in order not to make the same mistake.
Travelling from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar takes 27 hours, much of it taken up by custom procedures and senseless waiting.
Ulaanbaatar proved to be a different kettle of (non-smoked) fish. We heard khöömi (throat-singing) at the Youth State Theatre, we ate sheep’s head at Modern Nomads, we gaped at the Gandan Monastery and we managed to evade the pickpockets and bagslashers who wanted to relieve us of our tögrög (Mongolian currency).
Our last train crossed the Gobi Desert where we saw lone horsemen, clusters of gers (Mongolian yurt tents), and two-hump camels.
The border crossing – and searching of compartments for smuggled goods – together with the bogie change took several hours.
Russian and Mongolian trains operate on the same track width but not China. Hence the carriages being lifted while new sets of wheels are fitted. Everyone lined up at the train windows and watched the operations in the bogie-changing shed.
En route to Beijing the train chugs through numerous tunnels. We saw walled villages but did not manage to see a glimpse of the Great Wall. Copious amounts of bubbly in the festive dining car no doubt hampered our efforts.
Once in Beijing we wished to get back on a train. Instead we had to embrace what the city had to offer. In Wangfujing Snack Street I ate one scorpion, one cockroach and a piece of centipede. We were footsore but gobsmacked at the Forbidden City. On Tiananmen Square people tapped us on the shoulder to have their photos taken with us.
The highlight of Beijing – predictably – was walking on the Great Wall of China, a fitting end to, what was, the number one trip on my bucket list.
|What you should know
· The Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway guide was indispensable.
· We booked everything ourselves through Real Russia (www.realrussia.co.uk) who I cannot recommend highly enough. They were affordable and offered visa assistance.
· Whilst planning our itinerary we often referred to www.seat61.com – a website about train travel.