Trip Start Sep 02, 2005
Trip End Dec 10, 2005

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Flag of Russia  ,
Tuesday, November 1, 2005


Between St Petersburg and Beijing, Brad and I travelled for 135 hours on trains! Sounds like enough time in a constricted space to send anyone a bit batty, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of our time in Russia/Mongolia/China.

We brought cards, checkers and mini-battleship for the long trip, but didn't once bring them out. The time passes too quickly and a few times Brad or I wished we could just stay on and watch Siberia role by for another day and night. Ways we spent the time include reading, writing, thinking (sometimes too much), singing Billy Joel (me) and Lisa Lobe (Brad), taking photos out the window of snow covered aspens and iced up lakes, looking at people, fighting, visiting the toilet, trying to communicate with Russians, drinking beer, sleeping and eating.

To begin with, there are several classes of train travel available in Russia, and because we were mainly doing overnight trips we opted each time for 'kupe' class. This is relatively cushy train travel. The third class option is a bed in an open train carriage, sharing with around 40 other people, often Russian or Mongolian traders with stacks of bags of stock. Kupe is a compartment with four beds (two sets of bunks), a small table, storage space and a lockable door.

Buying tickets for our first few trains was a challenging aspect of the trip, as most ticket sellers don't speak English and of course we had no Russian. We worked out after the second purchase that the simplest option was to write out the ticket request in Cyrillic script and hand it mutely to the seller, hoping our Cyrillic said what we hoped it did!

Many of the train and metro stations in Russia are works of art, and this is not just in large European Russian cities. The high ceilings of waiting rooms drip with chandeliers and murals depict victorious workers striding forward into a bright Socialist future.

The question at the forefront of our minds as we boarded each train was "Who will our traveling companions be this time?". We were really fortunate to share compartments with people from an interesting cross section of Russia society. St Petersburg to Moscow we had two gruff businessmen who spoke no English and communicated with us in grunts and humphs. A little boy in the compartment next door, Nikita, from Moscow would run in at intervals to repeat English phrases and questions his glamorous leather-clad mother had just taught him.

On the 46-hour train trip between Omsk and Irkutsk we first shared with a couple our age from a city on the Trans-Siberian route called Tyumen. They were traveling more than 1000 km to Novisobirsk to buy a cheap car which they would then drive home. The girl was silent but her boyfriend, who spoke English, flicked through my book of Russian short stories and told me that their representation of Russia was "Too serious and too dark."
"Give me your email address and I will send you a photo of real Russia, real people."

Our next travel companions were a young husband and wife and their eight month old daughter, Tanya. Brad won Tanya over - she wouldn't stop smiling at him for the whole trip! I think when they boarded the train none of us were too happy about the prospect of spending more than 24 hours together in a small box, but we all warmed to each other as the time went on, and we tried to communicate with phrasebook in hand and gestures galore. A 19 year old Mormon from Utah was in the carriage next to us. He had been living in various Russian towns and cities over the previous 10 months and spoke Russian impressively. He was the translator for our carriage. I think the Russian family took pity on us for our diet of 2 minute noodles. While declining our chocolate and instant coffee, they cut us off chunks of sausage; a Ukrainian 'delicacy' which resembled a kilo of raw bacon coated in herb, and a smoked cheese, which neither of us could stomach and Brad disposed of with all the skill of David Copperfield.

A figure who played a big role in our Trans-Mongolian journey was the carriage attendant, who's job description includes collecting tickets, keeping the carriage clean and helping you on and off the train. The relationship between the Western train traveller and the carriage attendant­ had a child-parent dynamic, with, on our side, a constant child-like attempt to 'push the boundaries' beyond seemingly ridiculous limitations and on the attendant's side­, nag nag nagging and constant sighs at our 'ignorance'.

Things we were busted for:

- Opening train windows.
- Putting feet on the door (ok, this one is fair enough).
- Tipping water in the wrong hole.
- Taking water from the wrong tap.
- Obstructing the attendant in his or her duty of vacuuming (for this we would be punished at times with a not too subtle whack of the vacuum head to the ankle).
- Getting off the train at a station break without hat or gloves.
- Being in the wrong place at the wrong time where the attendant was in a grumpy mood

I didn't mind this bossing so much when the attendant/parent fulfilled their end of the bargain but often they lacked in maternal/paternal instinct as well as basic hygiene.

For instance:

- Not cleaning the toilet, ever
- Kicking us out of our compartment so that they could have it to themselves.
- Locking the one clean toilet for personal use.
- Making fun of us, rolling eyes and muttering curses in Russia.
- When toilet paper ran out, refusing to replace with an entire roll, instead holding sternly while you broke of the required number of single ply metal-textured pieces (and you never took as much as you needed because you didn't want them to imagine you doing a number two!)

The final aspect that sticks in my mind is eating. We would board each train with plastic bags full of noodles, chocolate, milk powder and instant coffee, as well as water and beer, and Smash to keep up the vegetable intake.

There is a restaurant cart on most trains and this is where we would head when we could take no more MSG and preservatives. Most of the food on the menu would not be available, so you took what you could get. A lot of the food carriages were decked out like proper restaurants, with fake wood panelling and lots of decoration. The food we tried was pretty good. The other option meant waiting for the next train stop, in the hope that little ladies would be waiting to sell you anything from juices and crisps, to smoked fish, and even full meals wrapped in plastic, which they had just cooked at home.
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