Ever cautious with transport times, I allowed an hour on the metro to get to Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station, and a further hour to navigate to my actual train, thinking this would be fine. On reaching the station, I looked at my ticket to check the train number - 68- ready to identify it on the departures board and find the relevant platform... but there were several such boards scattered about and they all seemed to display different information! I approached several uniformed train guards with my ticket, but they all pointed me in different directions, and the random passengers from whom I tried to elicit assistance responded with shrugs or headshakes. As I plodded back and fore from one board to another I began to wish I had a travelmate so one could search while the other minded the bags - in addition to my normal luggage I was weighed down with what felt like sufficient supplies to aid Moscow through a major emergency, and my joints were not happy! My limited Russian vocabulary ('hello', 'potato', 'thankyou') was not much help and neither was my feeble grasp of the Cyrillic script. But suddenly the magic numbers flashed up on a screen: train 68, platform 2! Thank God the digits were recognisable! I allowed myself to be carried along with the tide of passengers now surging down the platform, many manouevring loads which made mine seem insignificant, and after ticket approval from a large and intimidating-looking carriage attendant I boarded, found my berth and dropped my pack, with relief.
Travelling 'platskartny' (3rd class) is not recommended in the sources I consulted while researching this trip: the Trans-Siberian Handbook, for example, describes it as 'cheap but rough'. Hmmm - cheap was all I could manage so I figured I would just have to tolerate the rough! In the event it turned out to be both comfortable enough and highly entertaining. The carriage is arranged in sections of six narrow berths in two tiers, two pairs facing each other widthways and two more across from the narrow corridor. It's certainly very crowded, especially with an excess of bags littering the floor, and with no opening windows it can get extremely stuffy - Irina had warned me that 3rd class smells of socks and of men who have been drinking too much... and she was right! But bedrolls and sheets are provided, and a hot water samovar facilitates the making of coffee, porridge, packet soup and instant noodles, my diet for the duration. The temperature seems to vary according to the whim of the provodnista (attendant) in control, so as far as Ekaterinburg I found my summer clothes and hair damp with sweat from stifling heating, while from there to Irkutsk there appeared to be no heating at all and I wrapped myself in thermals and blankets against the draught from the loose window.
3rd class it may be, but it's a luxury compared with the lot of the million-plus convicts exiled to provide labour in Siberian mines in the late 17th and 18th centuries for 'crimes' as minor as fortune-telling, snuff-taking and driving with reins (considered too European!). These unfortunates were herded cross-country on foot for months until the opening of the railway, when they enjoyed the relative comfort of being crammed into cattle trucks. So I was having it very easy!
The scenery varied little for the first couple of days: grey and misty; long sections of dark forest where the dense trees on either side obstruct the view; mile upon mile of 'taiga' , the swampy forest common over much of Siberia, with open pools of murky green water visible from my berth. (More than 30% of the world's trees grow on this plain.) On day three, though, the sky was bright and clear and, as we chugged through cleared, drained, cultivated areas the sun intensified the gold of the crops and gave the occasional groups of ramshackle wooden houses a quaint, homely air. We stopped at more frequent small stations, where traders appeared, selling snacks and drinks and fur hats from their carts and baskets. I would like to travel this route in February, the coldest month, and see the same landscape transformed by a deep white layer - I imagine it would be beautiful. But for now, I'm just happy to be in the protection of a railcar and not exposed to the wildlife as was George Kennan, who travelled this way in 1887 and reported being "so tormented by huge grey mosquitoes" that he was "blotted from head to toe as if suffering from an eruptive disease". Nice.
While the train rumbles on through trees and time-zones life becomes a drift through a loose sequence of snooze- read - eat- chat - snooze more... Passengers leave and others board, some dour and dismissive, but most of them slowly relaxing into curiosity as to why I am here. One baffled fella, with excellent sign language wonders why I'm on a train when I could have flown?
The majority of passengers are male and half a carriage of young, tatooed, shaven-headed lads in combat gear, laying into a hefty supply of alcohol, results in a lot of testosterone flying around. But they were all very good-humoured, despite their tough image, and when one of them, a little too vodka-soaked by midday, refused to be deterred by my linguistic incomprehension and persisted in harangueing me, the provodnista soon sorted him out. I have no idea what she said but I recognised her expression as one I have used many times in the classroom, and I wondered if she had missed her vocation!
Among my carriage companions on different stages of the journey were:
grandmotherly Lydia, concerned that I was eating too little, and determined to make me fill up on her sausages ( not the Linda McCartney veggie variety, I'm afraid!);
Deli, a gentle character, originally from Tashkent, with whom I held a lengthy dual-language conversation based on my world map and involving a huge amount of miming;
Larissa, still sprightly at 71, en-route to China to seek herbal treatment to help her recover from cancer and, as a retired English teacher, delighted to practise her language skills;
A foursome of student football fans, thinking nothing of a 3-day-each-way train trip to cheer on their home team, playing away. With their smattering of English they asked if I like punk music (not since the 70s), if I liked Rambo films (not ever) and which was my favourite football team (not on my radar!), and despite my clearly failing their credibility test, repeatedly gave me the thumbs up and told me I was "a cool girl"! They tried hard to ply me with beer and vodka but I had to politely decline, on account of not wanting to oversleep and miss my next stop. They happily donated me a team scarf and then, on learning of my planned route, excitedly gave me their email addresses, asking me to take and forward photos of the scarf in Mongolia, China and Australia. "The all of Novibirsk they thank you big," they assured me, as I unwittingly became a team ambassador!
ps - the photos I'm taking on the train are not good! I am not keen to get out my conspicuous big camera in a cramped carriage, so I'm using my small one, and also it's almost impossible to find a window open, which doesn't make for good shots of the countryside!
"Don't get to the station at the last minute," was the sound advice I had read in relation to taking Russian trains. "Never underestimate the time it takes to find your platform and walk the length of sixteen carriages before you can board."