The classic journey links Moscow with the port of Vladivostok on the edge of the Pacific, 9288km away. The Trans-Mongolian option joins the dots between China’s imperial capital of Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia into the main Trans-Siberian line at Irkutsk (and access to Lake Baikal).
With an average speed of 60km/h, the Trans-Siberian series are not for the travelers in a hurry. There is plenty of time to savor the slowly evolving landscape and opportunities to hop off and on the train at several fascinating places en route.
This is the big moment. Who among us has not heard of Vladivostok and its famed rail connection with Moscow? While we had passed on the idea of traveling the entire 9300 km length in one stretch to the seriously obsessed, we opted to spend the longest stretch of our current Trans-Siberian journey on the prestigious Rossiya Train No.
We had departed from Listvyanka in the morning after breakfast and got back to Irkutsk in good time to walk to the Tourist information center, leave our bags and undertake a whirlwind tour of the city before returning to pick up our bags and take the tram to the elegant green-and-white Irkutsk station. We were still anxious about food and water and stepped into the Mini Market opposite the station to stock up on water, bread and instant 3-in-1 coffee packets - great comforts to the traveler and needing only hot water which would no doubt be supplied in plenty in the excellent samovars on the trains.
The Russian railway system does not have the concept of a through ticket with "break journeys". Every leg has to be purchased as a separate ticket. Their excellent online reservation system (which has an option to switch to English) allows for advance purchase of tickets for the entire network.
Since this was our first time boarding in a train in Russia and since this was the most expensive leg of our journey, we opted to test the English skills of the ticket counter agents in Irkutsk. We were directed to one particular window and the woman behind hesitantly owned up to having a little bit of proficiency in that global language. Unlike in China, there is no control over who can enter the platforms (and when) and one can do as one pleases. Most stations have several expansive waiting rooms with electronic displays in Cyrillic (and English in the larger cities) indicating arrivals and departures. The platform number is only announced a few minutes before the train arrives and for this we waited at the main hall in front of the massive board.
A portly gentleman smartly dressed in uniform and hat stood outside our coach. The crowd seemed to have dispersed evenly across the coaches and there was no panicky jostling. He had an electronic device in his hand with the list of passengers and passport numbers (for foreigners). He waved away our printouts and the paper tickets and insisted only on checking our passports. Once he satisfied himself that the name and number matched, he waved us in with what we later learned were our berth numbers. Our strategy for the entire trip was to book a lower and upper berth on the same side of a 4 person compartment so we would have full control over one half of the compartment and could stretch whenever we wanted to.
Our providnik (male version of providnitsa - carriage attendant) gave us a couple of packages containing small bottles of water and some kind of pastry like item to welcome us to his mobile home. He also salaam alaik kum'd us a couple a times and a cursory glance at his name badge revealed a familiar name that we had encountered a few times in Uzbekistan. We asked him about that and he said he was from Dagestan. He dispensed with his hat and went about his duties which included checking passports and ensuring everyone was at their rightful place apart from offering us beverages, snacks and the like (not free as we learned). Our companions were a Japanese couple who were part of a larger group of Japanese in adjacent compartments. They were traveling from Vladivostok to Moscow and had only taken a single break in Irkutsk. Now they were going all the way to Moscow to catch a flight back to Japan.
We settled to the train's languid rhythm as the afternoon waltzed past in a sea of yellow and green trees. We were curiously wondering what we would get for dinner from the train's dining car. When we had booked our tickets online several weeks ago, we had noticed that you could purchase meals along with your ticket and were delighted to see that the drop down options contained the Cyrillic world Vegetariansky (or something like that) and seeing that it was just a few dollars, we had ordered 2 breakfasts, 2 dinners and a lunch to feed us during the journey. And being practical minded travelers, we did not have any expectations of this actually materializing on a Russian train. Our bags were well stocked with choice packets of 'add hot water' upma and poha - backup options just in case. We knew we needed some of those in remote Mongolia and it was now time to see how well we could cope with the food served in Russian trains.
Morning brought with it a little crisis. The two toilets on our coach became dysfunctional with no water. Despite the struggles of a staff member, the problem could not be fixed leaving everyone on the coach to venture to adjacent coaches to use the facilities. We had to travel several coaches before we found vacant toilets. We were surprised to find that the ones in the platskart (3rd class) were much more modern with shiny appointments compared to the one in our kupey coach.
We knew that one did not travel the Trans Siberian rail route for its scenic wonders alone. Sure, the Lake Baikal section was pretty, but once we got away from the lake and the endless taiga with its sea of trees took over, one found oneself looking for other ways to pass the time. Catching up on our Mongolia blog entries, for example. Other than that we were left to our own thoughts and books and phones. There is only so much polite conversation you can have with the Japanese. There were only a few stations where the train stopped, but these were welcomed by everyone like they were some big traveling circus. The longer stops offered everyone the chance to get down on the platform and take photographs of themselves and anyone who happened to pass by. The staff were the star attraction with their sharp looking uniforms. Thus the day passed as we passed by Krasnoyarsk, Mariinsky and then it got dark and chilly by the time we got to Novosibirsk.
Our dinner lady brought another younger woman from her staff to get herself photographed with us. We enjoyed this little flirtation with our own celebrity. We took careful note of the fact the breakfast was only served after 10 am. Since our departure point, Tyumen would arrive at around 8:30, we pointed to our receipt and asked her if we would get that before we disembarked. She promptly went away and fetched a young man and did a little dance for us to explain that he would bring our breakfast items the next morning as the hour is too early for her to disturb her slumber. We indicated our understanding in expressive sign language.
The young man did as he was bid the next morning and we got off at Tyumen after saying our goodbyes to our companions, provodnitsa and the train. Our connecting train to Tobolsk would not depart for another couple of hours, but it would arrive in an hour and stay for an hour at Tyumen station. We got nice coffees from a machine in the station and finally found good use for the printed tickets. The woman watching over the facilities at the station insisted on checking these before allowing us to use them. The square in front of the station presented an orderly appearance with neatly parked green buses and an adjacent park. Went for a brief walk near the park to view the monuments there before returning back to the station and then boarding the train to Tobolsk. 110E originated from St. Petersburg and was on its way to N. Urengoy on the northern Siberian coast. We were getting off at the next stop (Tobolsk), a mere 3.5 hours away. What drew us to that city was the reputation of its old Kremlin as being the most beautiful and dramatic with its hilltop setting high over the river and old town below. That story in our next...