65 Hour Trans-Siberian Journey-Siberia to Vladimir

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 11, 2006

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Flag of Russian Federation  ,
Thursday, August 24, 2006


I really had no a priori expectation of what the 65-hour Trans-Siberian journey across Russia would be like. After getting dropped off at Irkutsk's main railway station, I waited outside the station with my traveling companions for the train that would take us over 7000 km to the Golden Ring region, a circumferential area near Moscow of great historic significance. It was in the Golden Ring region where the Slavic culture and religion of today's Russia were born in the 1000's.

Our train was called The Baikal Express, named after the world's deepest body of fresh water, Lake Baikal in Siberia. The train was regarded nationwide as Russia's most modern long-distance locomotive. Getting a reservation of this particular train was like winning the lottery. We were very lucky. At the station, we were greeted outside Platform #6 by two provodniks (car attendants) sporting royal blue, neatly pressed uniforms: Ms. Olga Ulyarenko and Mr. Sergei Gresko. Working in 12-hour shifts, their responsibilities resemebled that of a conductor and chambermaid. They collected our tickets and were responsible for maintaining the sanitary condition of our particular car. Olga, a 4th year college student majoring in Railway Engineering, spoke marginal English and was doing her provodnik internship. Sergei, our grim-looking, reticent provodnik, was hardly seen smiling to any of the foreigners. Either he was persistently grumpy or introvertedly demure. I shared a four berth compartment with Graeme and Ange from Hamilton, New Zealand as well as Emil from Melbourne, Australia. This train had the air of luxury compared to the Mongolian and Chinese trains, which had rudimentary accommodations and NO air conditioning. As on all the trains so far, one could find a large samovar replete with hot water for tea, coffee, soup, etc. There also was an electronic billboard displaying the ambient interior temperature and time. One interesting fact about train time in Russia: all the hours were displayed according to Moscow time. No matter where the stations were located across the big land mass of Eurasia, from Moscow to Vladivostok, the train schedules and time recorded at all stations used Moscow time. Since Irkutsk was 5 hours ahead of Moscow, I found it strange to see dusk at 3PM or dawn at midnight.

On the train was a shower room for 126 Roubles (almost US $5.06) per 15 minutes. The water pressure was almost non-existent, and the water was more like a trickle than a shower. The restrooms were small, reminiscent of the grey, mechanical toilets on most airplanes. The dining car was elegantly decorated, but the service was painstakingly slow, perhaps a reflection of the primeval service industry in this part of the world. One had to wait 15 minutes just to receive a menu. Then, the marathon anticipation for one's food and check was unbelievable.

Throughout the 65-hour train ride, the mornings and evenings seemed to coalesce together without any dissemblance. I often slept, ate, or simply watched the landscape zoom past me in its hazy shapes and forms. Forests of birch and pine trees, as if in a dreamlike sequence, darted ambiguously past the window like an obfuscated mist. Once in a while, small Russian villages loomed in the distance. The plain, wooden unpainted houses were seen covering a patch of land, and then, they were gone, almost like in a bleary dream. Theses villages, lying in the desolate, bleak countryside, conjured up images of medieval peasant dwellings more than 21st century accommodations. Paved roads were rarely found; instead, dirt roads snaked across the rolling hills and through the provincial towns. Old vehicles from the 1960s were visible on the dirt paths running in slow motion parallel to the track.

One of the most memorable experiences on the train was the interaction with various people from the former Soviet Union. There were two ladies from Siberia sharing a compartment with my guide. They did not speak a word of English, but they were willing to converse to anyone capable of speaking Russian. When both of them found out about my profession (indirectly via my guide), they immediately had a lot of questions for me. Our conversation turned into a very intense consultation. One woman in particular had coronary heart disease in addition to a narrowing, or stenosis, in her carotid artery in her neck. She wanted to know what she should do because she was experiencing some symptoms. The other woman had varicose veins and wanted to find out about effective treatments. What I learned from this interactive experience was the enormous difference in medical care in the US and Russia. First of all, they were prescribed some antiquated, inefficaceous medications imported from Germany or Italy. When I told them of relatively better and newer medicines available in the US, they were surprised. They asked me how come they had read that life expectancy in America seemed to be longer than in Russia. I conjectured that it might partly be due to the advanced medical care offered in the US plus preventative medical measures implemented by physicians for their patients. After all, I told them that the US was the leader in biomedical research and clinical medicine. Also, people in the US were beginning to take better care of themselves through watchful dietomg and exercise. It made me realize how fortunate the American people were compared to those in this part of the world, where the system of medical care was maybe lagging 60 years behind.

These women also talked about the frustration of the democratic reforms in Russia. One of them was a veteran, and she lost a lot of social benefits with the dissolution of communism. She felt remissed about the pensions and free medical care that evaporated with the emergence of democracy and capitalism.

One of my Australian friends, Paul from Western Australia, also recounted his meeting a group of military service men in the dining car. All of them were there drinking into the morning hours. Suddenly, one military officer invited Paul back to their compartment for a secret transaction. Immediately inside, Paul was offered to buy literally the shirts on their backs for US $35. Paul politely declined, but one officer wanted to make some money very badly. He then offered to sell his military hat adorned with medals for US $55. Paul asked if the officer would get in trouble for losing his hat. The militaryman desperately wanted the money, so he lied. The transaction was made, and the fate of that officer was not known.

Then I also met a man from Uzbekistan. He spoke Russian very well in addition to other Central Asian languages. He lamented about the fact that the economic condition in his country was worsening. However, he told me that people in his country were making on average $1,800 USD per year. He had saved some money and now was living with his wife and three sons in Moscow. Because of his Central Asian/Turkish features, he also lamented about skinhead violence against minorities in Moscow; something of which he always had to be vigilant.

The last person was a small boy from Yekaterinburg, Russia, a town 24-hours by train away from Moscow. It was there that the last czar of Russia, Nikolai II and his family, were executed by the Commnunists shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. The 7 year-old boy's name was Nikita, and he was traveling with his 5-year old sister and aunt. He spoke little English, and he wanted to practice with all of us. He could not wait to meet his parents on vacation in Moscow. When asked what he would like to be when he grew up, he delightfully responded, "Truck driver like my father."

The train ride came to an end when we arrived in Vladimir, Russia at 1PM three days later. The town was a lovely reminder of the religious influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. We toured the town briefly and were transported to Suzdal for an overnight stay.
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