Thu 5th June to Sun 8th June
(Usual disclaimer – drafting this on an iPad while in Siberia with some strange “autocorrections” and no easy way of linking individual pics yet… So please accept any dodgy grammar and rogue capital letters and I will curate properly when I can).
Here we go on the longest leg of the trip. Technically we are now on the Trans-Siberian railway, the Trans-Mongolian part having been the leg from Beijing to UU through UB
The first thing to workout is time zones and we arguably have at least three to consider. Our departure point in Ulan Ude is GMT+9. We set off 40 mins late around 18:00 so can expect nightfall and arguably bedtime in about 4-5 hours. All trains in Russia are timetabled against Moscow time of GMT+3. We are advised to set our watches to this as all the train information will be quoted against this. Most importantly are the times when the train will make extended stops at larger stations, where we can get off to stretch legs and the toilets will be locked 15 mins either side. Our destination on this leg is Kungur in the Ural mountains. This is GMT+4 and we are due to arrive at 09:35 local time Sunday morning, Using the scheduled start time of 17:23 in UU are journey comes in at 62 and a bit hours and will cross 4 time zones over 3 nights and 2 days. Sleeping will be interesting…
Our train is running the whole T-S route from Vladivostok to Moscow. Our carriage sadly appears to be one of the older ones, still 8 compartments of 4 beds, but just feels a bit smaller. There are no seats in the corridor and the only socket for the whole carriage appears to be in our compartment, right below my head, but it only works when the lighting circuits are turned on in the evenings. Having said all that, the toilets are clean, the hot water for drinks is hot, we have perfectly clean linen and the pillow and mattress is perfectly comfortable. We will be fine. The train does have a dining car – apparently quite expensive, to be checked out later. Prior to boarding we had stopped at a supermarket and loaded up with 3 days/nights of supplies, mostly consisting of snacks, drinks with a bit of fresh food at least for the first day or so. Technically no alcohol is allowed on the train, except in the dining car. However the etiquette seems to be, no problem provided it is in moderation and nominally behind closed doors. The fact that each compartment attendant has a side line in selling their own stash of beer at around 30% less than the dining car price, says what needs to be said. In hind sight we have all bought far too much – buying from the platform ladies and/or kiosks en-route is perfectly possible and barely any more expensive than the supermarket for basics.
Thu 5th June
Our first evening is relatively quiet as people settle into the journey. My compartment has three of us – Noel, Ksenia and myself, with the 4th berth allocated to an as yet unknown traveller. (Over the whole trip we end up with two separate Russian guys, both of whom more or less ignore us after the attendant has tried to explain why we are there) After some food and a few games of dice, connect4 and ludo, lights go out around 23:00 (local). We are awoken around 2.5 hours later to a stationary train and a lot of activity in the corridor. We are at Irkutsk and plenty of other passengers are getting off or on. To my relief our mystery companion does not try to move in and have to set up their top bunk at this time.
Fri/Sat/Sun 6th/7th/8th June
On the train. Seriously there is not much to report – the scenery doesn’t change much, at this time of year mostly grasslands, trees and settlements of every size from a single building to a 500k population city. The train stops roughly every hour or so. Stops tend to be a couple of minutes at smaller stations, 30 minutes at medium size ones and 45-60 minutes at larger ones. The medium size ones are where we encounter ‘Babooshkas’ selling their produce on the platforms. There are a lot of pastries with fillings such as sausage, cabbage or my personal favourite of cottage cheese. They also sell a lot of smoked fish, pine nuts ( a local speciality), other dough filled with mashed potato, pickles, fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, occasionally even fur hats and cheap fried caviar.
While there are other passengers in our carriage, there isn’t too much interaction – the language barrier is evident. There is one boy of around 10 (Mattve) who comes and chats, draws, plays games without his mother frowning but that is about it. Sadly no high stakes poker, backgammon etc. but then again maybe that is a good thing. Most Russians seem bemused as to why we would choose to be on this train for so long, when they are using simply as a means of transport. Our compartment attendant in particular does not seem to like us – we are the noisy 3 compartments… She does not understand why we are on the regular train when there is a tourist special (at crazy prices..) that we could be on.
Time simply passes with breakfast, lunch and dinner being consumed at arbitrary times. The dining car says it is open from 09:00 to 24:00 but no one can tell us if that is Moscow time or the ever changing local time. To be honest the dining car is fairly grim and expensive and fresh food from the babushkas or just station cafés, combined with our snacks, pot noodles etc. is a better option.
Although we end up on the train for 62ish hours, this is not a problem. Everyone has zoned into this method travel and most sleep perfectly well. An unbroken journey from Beijing to Moscow is something like 6 days. Before our trip this would have seemed like madness, but having done the best part of 3 days I can see how people do this. As part of my entertainment, I have saved a particular audiobook for this leg of the trip. It is Michael Palin narrating his ‘Around the World in 80 days’. The book includes the soundtrack from the TV series at various points, which is the perfect accompaniment to our train noise. Back in 1988 he made it back in one piece – hope we all do the same. Beijing or even Mongolia seems a lifetime away. Reaching Moscow in a few days will feel like a whole new experience.
Well Sunday morning finally rolls round and we get off the train at Kungur. Our attendant and a few of the passengers wave us off – the attendant probably to her relief – peace will once more descend on the service 99 from Vladivostok to Moscow