The Big Red Train Ride

Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Irkutsky District, Irkutskaya oblast, Russian Federation
Apologies to Eric Newby for stealing his book title but I could not think of anything better.
Having been out of contact with civilisation for some days I have a lot to write but am writing slowly as I know some of you can't read fast .

We have now been on the Trans Siberian train for a little over three days, the longest stretch on this adventure, and covered over 3200 miles at an average speed of 45mph.
There are three classes on the train, each carriage has two toilets and two attendants and is divided as follows;

First Class Carriages - 9 compartments of 2 people therefore one toilet shared by 9 people
Second Class Carriages - 9 compartments of 4 people therefore one toilet shared by 18 people
Third Class Carriages - 54 bunk beds in a dormitory therefore one toilet shared by 27 people.

The two attendants have their own compartment and one is on duty at any one time. Their job is to ensure the hot water boiler is kept going and to clean the loos.

If there are two or four of you then you share your own compartment, if you are on your own and travelling first or second class you will end up sharing with one or three strangers . The bookings system does not discriminate on sex so you could dream of being in a compartment with three beautiful Russian girls but inevitably you will end up with a fat British trainspotter with a BO problem and an Australian returning home with tons of luggage and an opinion on everything.
If you are in third class this is less of a problem as you can share the passengers from hell, if you are in first or second you are stuck with them. The only other issue to consider is the access to power sockets for your laptop/iPad/phone. Each compartment has one socket, I have no idea how many there are in a third class carriage but I suspect there is a great deal of congestion between the 54 users.

So if there are two of you go first class for privacy, your own socket and the cleanest toilets, if you are on your own then the camaraderie of third probably outweighs the toilet congestion.

Faced with this proposition we opted for first class with "services" which means you get dinner delivered to your compartment and you get an "executive pack" with slippers, toothpaste and, handy for the lady of the house, a sewing kit .

For the record the only beautiful Russian girls were spotted were in the GUM shopping centre in Moscow.

I have attached a picture of our cell (sorry - compartment) which has everything you need, beds, a table, power for the lap top and a TV with three channels of Russian soap. Strangely they don't provide a lock for the door from the outside for when you leave the compartment to go to the restaurant car or a walk along the platform but we were warned to bring a meter box key (£4 from B&Q) which allows you to secure the door from the outside, of course when B&Q arrive in Russia every burglar will be equipped to rob train passengers.
I have also attached, by special request from Clare, a picture of the toilet which is spotlessly clean but like all Russian bathrooms does not have a plug, when travelling in Russia you are expected to bring your own.

The hot water boiler is vital to the well being of the carriage, picture attached. It seems very old fashioned bearing in mind the train is almost brand new and what is even stranger it also seems to be heated from solid fuel. It is available 24 hours a day to provide hot water so you can make a cup of tea or coffee whenever you like. There is a restaurant car but we were warned that the quality of these can vary enormously, ours did not operate as a restaurant at all, all you could buy there was beer and crisps . They brought our dinner to our compartment each evening, a starter of meat slices or cheese slices, a main course of fish or very chewy chicken and two cans of beer. We assumed naively that each night they would take our order, we were wrong, what we selected on the first night was delivered every night. As a precaution we did bring a few bottles of wine to help the digestion.

Each night we moved our watches on two hours so psychologically the time passes more quickly than you expect. You go to bed at 23.00, by the time you wake up you find it is 10.00! It would be interesting to know if going East West would seem to drag.

The train stops every 3 hours or so, most passengers seem to be Russians doing shorter journeys rather than the full seven days to Vladivostok, we only did three and a half days and 5718km to Irkusk before taking a break for a few days. So some days we were in a full carriage, at other times we had the place to ourselves . At the larger stops the train is scheduled to wait for 20 minutes, this allows the wheel tapper to tap, the water tank filler uppers to fill up and the septic tank emptiers to empty (hopefully the last two don't get their pipes crossed). It also allows you to stretch your legs. The guidebook says that Russian women set up stalls on the platform to sell food and drink, this was wrong, they probably do in summer but not when it is below zero outside. You do have to be careful if you leave the train, if it is running late the stop time is shortened but this is not announced, you have to ask the attendant when you get off. Apparently it is not unusual to leave someone behind, stuck in the middle of Russia, probably with few clothes, and no means of catching the train up.

The Russians are very welcoming and helpful. Several times on the metro when we have been laboriously decoding Russian station names people have come up to us to offer help with no hidden agenda which is very different from India for example where everyone is targeting tourists with some scam or other. Even those selling tour trips or visits to nightclubs are open and honest, if you don't want their flier they quite happily move onto the next person. People on the train and the platform where you stretch your legs on route are the same, it makes being a tourist a joy not a hassle.

We planned this journey with the help of an excellent web site "The Man in Seat 61" (www.seat61.com) and the bible for all tourists on the Trans Siberian, a book by Bryn Thomas who describes the history of the railway, gives a good, concise guide to Moscow and Beijing and a description of all the places of interest on route. This is arranged in order along the line with the number of kilometres from Moscow against each entry. At every kilometre along the track there is a sign about the size of a number plate with the distance on it. The snag is that this sign is in most places very close to the train and flies past at 50 mph. After a while you become quite adept at squinting against the window and counting down to the next sign to read the number and thereby identify your exact position.

When we left Moscow it was about -1C, there was about an inch of snow on the ground and all the way into the Urals the view from the window was endless silver birch forests. After the second night we had crossed over the Urals (which are low hills rather than impressive peaks) and entered Siberia which is mostly flat planes (steppes) with fewer trees but probably two feet of snow.

This morning we woke to see a station sign telling us it was -17C, there does not seem to be much more snow and I am pleased to say it is nice and sunny. Inside the train it is a steady 25c, The hotels and shops in Moscow were just as hot. I have no idea why they keep them so warm as it must increase their heating costs and it makes the transfer from inside to outside even more of a shock. Everybody on the train was wandering around in shorts and tee shirts.

For the next two nights we are on the shore of lake Baykal, stand by for boring facts about the lake in tomorrow's exciting instalment of Gill and John go East.
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