Journeying on the 100-year-old Trans Siberian Railways

Red, orange and yellow, the endless Taiga
As if to mock the grey, colourless skies
Reflect on a placid stream, an Impressionist masterpiece
Did you know even the gentlest of leaves make a ripple?
As it gracefully descends to meet its end?
Did you see it? Oh, it’s already gone!
A blur going past this window-shaped world
So fleeting a moment
Like this journey… A metaphor, perhaps?
But I have no time for poetry now
The bubbling samovar awaits
To make a no-nonsense cup of chaĭ in motion
Black with no sugar like the Babushkas in the Platskartny prefer
I think I’m learning to love this bitter brew
Glowing wine-like in the sunlit glass
Seeped through the sweet-sour candy in my mouth
As the rhythm of the train lulls me into a trance
Another 50 hours to go
Day 40, train to Vladivostok: A gentle, soft-spoken man sits across our train berth on the last leg of our rail journey across the incredibly vast Russia. “I’m doctor of endoscopy,” Alexey tells us in the little English he knows. A little way into our Google Translate-aided conversation during our 12-hour journey from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok and he is showing us photographs of his wife and kid back home and glimpses of his life. The conversation steers to the Taiga forests that surrounds his home town and he reveals to us quite nonchalantly that he is also a hunter in his free time. “Oh, so you hunt birds… and deers?” asks Lovell. “Da, da, I hunt bee-ars,” he responds, in an unmistakable Russian twang, as if it’s all the same. Our mild-mannered doctor from Yakutsk single-handedly hunts grizzly bears for meat (like many Siberians do) and even matter-of-factly mentions that the skin of the ones he has killed are now carpets in his home! Just everyday Siberian things, you know?
Alexey the full-time doctor and part-time Misha (Bear) hunter.

Alexey the full-time doctor and part-time Misha (Bear) hunter

While I’m in NO way condoning the practice of hunting animals, meeting Alexey the full-time doctor and part-time Misha hunter, among other fascinating characters from all across this unfamiliar country, was one of those quintessentially Russian experiences we would never have enjoyed, if not for the railways. In a country that is so vast that 15 Indias can fit into it, the Russian Railways (Российские железные дороги or RZD, in short) is like a vital, pulsating artery running across the width of the country. A journey on these trains is the easiest way to earn more than a glimpse into the everyday lives of a people that popular culture doesn’t talk much about.

The Russian trains on a rainy day

The Russian trains on a rainy day in Moskva

Massive RZD engine. Little Priya

Awestruck by the sheer size of the RZD engine

Waiting for the train in Irkutsk

Waiting for the train in Irkutsk

A view of the Barabinsk station

A view of the Barabinsk station

When we decided to undertake the iconic Trans-Siberian Railway journey, we had to unlearn so many things. Firstly, the Trans-Siberian is NOT a single train which lets you hop-on and off along the way, as it is often assumed to be. It refers broadly to a basic network of railways connecting Russia’s West to its Far East. There are lines connecting Moscow to Mongolia, Moscow to Beijing and Moscow to Vladivostok, a Russian port city so Far East that it’s practically hugging North Korea & China and is across the sea from Japan. This is known to be THE longest rail journey in the world, spanning 9288 kilometres. And we made it to the other side.

The Vladivostok station

Posing at the Vladivostok station

This month, the Trans-Siberian railway line celebrates 100 year of its existence. Built between 1891 and 1916 by appointed ministers under the supervision of Tsar Alexander III and by his son, Tsar Nicholas II, this engineering miracle that practically connected two continents, has reshaped Russian history and modern history along with it. A whole century later, it still remains the world’s longest railway route.

We didn’t however sit on a single train for the nine days and eight nights it takes to get to the port city of Vladivostok. We decided to use the wonderful railway network to explore multiple cities and towns along the way to get a feel of a Russia beyond Moscow and St Petersburg. Enroute, we were pampered by Babushkas, regarded with curiosity as the two brown people who dined and slept among a sea of Russians and collected stories along the way.

This Google doodle movie whimsically captures the essence of everything we felt and experienced along the way. Just like the little Russian people (and the one conspicuous backpacker) in the video, we chugged past changing landscapes and regions, over endless cups of tea and incredible conversations that were mostly lost in translation.

Our Trans-Siberian journey

  • No. of days on the road: 56
  • No. of cities visited (only using Trans-Siberian trains): 12
  • Distance travelled by train: 10000+ kms
  • No. of hours on the train: 150+
  • No. of time zones crossed: 7

A few things about Russians we learnt along the way

Russians love conversing with you even when you insist you don’t speak the language. Sheepish exclamations of Rooskii ne ponimayu (I don’t understand) on our part were met with longer bouts of elaborate conversations in Russian, to which we contributed in the form of big, dumb grins.

Tea must be had, at all times. Every coach has a samovar at one end, with boiling water available around the clock, for free. RZD provides you with glass cups with ornate cup holders. This means, everyone on the train only needs to bring tea bags, green or black and good conversations. Sugar optional. The table between four berths become a community cache of candies and sweets brought by everyone to accompany the cups of tea that is consumed continuously, if not every half an hour or so. Coffees are usually reserved for the mornings and evenings.

Coffee & cake on the train

Having coffee and cake while the Russians were drinking tea

Teatime daydreaming

Teatime daydreaming

Long journeys on the Trans Siberian trains

Making the most of long journeys on the Trans Siberian trains

The Provodnitsa or the railway conductor is the boss of your coach, an epitome of the RZD efficiency. Every single coach has one. They are most often female, most often friendly and they always mean business. They allow you to enter the train only after checking your tickets, hand over your bed linen to you, keep your coach sparkling by scrubbing the corridors and the bathrooms clean, ensure you are up and awake on time for your arrival, keep the samovar boiling, don’t let you stray too far from the train when you get down at stations and even make hot cups of tea or coffee for you, if you wish to purchase them. Follow their instructions for a smooth, pleasant train journey.

Russians make the trains their home for the length of the journey. On the long distance trains, they come armed with big bags of food, entire bottles of coffee powder (not sachets), a big box of tea bags, snacks and meals for the journey, sunflower seeds to munch on, books full of crossword puzzles and pajamas to change into. We learnt to be comfortable among shirtless men on the warm trains, inebriated, happy old men who won’t stop chattering, meals being shared non-stop and a sort of homely intimacy they fill the carriages with.
The Platskartny (third class) carriage at bedtime

A scene from the Platskartny (third class) carriage at bedtime

The Russian passengers plan their day around the long stops the train makes. A chart at the end of each coach shows you all the stops the train will make during the day and the duration of each stop. This schedule is the subject of many conversations, with many Russians carrying charts of their own. Smoke and stretching breaks, food and beer refuel sessions and countdown to their own destinations are planned based on this.

Stretching legs at a long stop

Passengers stretch their legs at a station during a long stop

Russians want to share their lives with you even if you don’t understand a word of what they are saying. They will share pictures of their children, their jobs and their travels. Carry a few photos of your life with you. Where language fails, the images speak about you.

The Thinker - Past I

The Thinker – Part I

The Thinker - Part II

The Thinker – Part II

Sun-lit reading corner

Sun-lit reading corner

Window watching is a favourite pastime on long journeys

Window watching is a favourite pastime on long journeys

Evenings on the train

Evenings on the train

Railroad work in progress at the Ussuriysk Station

Railroad work in progress at the Ussuriysk Station

Selfie with the babushkas & devushkas on our train

Selfie with the babushkas & devushkas on our train to Yekaterinburg

Day 5, train from Kazan to Yekaterinburg: The two babushkas seated with us are relentless in their quest to find out more about us. Are we students? Are we on business? Why are we on this train? Where are we going?

We try to answer using animated gestures, a sort of universal sign language. It’s only our first long haul train and only a few days into our journey. We are yet to figure out how to go about this gap in communication. Usually an articulate and an eager talker, I’m reduced to mumbles and stutters as I try to express myself. Lovell sits across me, patiently listening to one of the enthusiastic Babushkas talk animatedly about her recent holiday in a Russian city. She shows him pictures of the said vacation on a tiny screen of a flip phone. Every single photo accompanied by a story. All 175 pictures of them! The screen read, 100/175… 160/175 as she continues conversing with us earnestly. A somewhat-English speaking Russian from the adjacent berth is called in as a standby as a translator every time the Babushka wants to make doubly sure we understand. Through the course of our 26 hours on the train, she makes us a flask full of aromatic jasmine tea using a fancy infuser, makes space on the table diligently when she senses it is time for us to eat, chastises us for buying bad quality and cheap corn chips — signifying her disapproval by making a large cross sign with her arms — and even offers to pay for the ice cream at a scheduled stop as we struggle to tell the vendor on the platform that we don’t have exact change. Finally, when we arrive at our destination, she bids dasvidaniya to us by giving us a flattened coin from Ekaterinburg as a keepsake.