Pot Noodles on the Transiberian Express

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Russia  , Central Russia,
Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fortunately as I am writing this having survived the first leg of the journey I can confirm that this train was much more pleasurable and less murderous than Agatha Christie's journey on the Orient Express, although I suspect that she may have had slightly better meal options than a pot noodle.

Having done as much research as is humanly possible we had absolutely no idea whatsoever what our train across Russia was going to be like. Given that we are no longer 18 and need our beauty sleep we treated ourselves and travelled first class on the train.  From our research we knew that this meant that we didn’t have to share our compartment but had seen mixed reviews about what else it included like a private bathroom, TV or power supply.  The only feature that we really hoped for was a power supply to keep our phones and laptops charged to provide some entertainment for the journey.  To our amazement and joy we boarded the train and discovered that we were in one of the newer trains which included a plug socket, fairly comfy seats and bed and a blackout blind.  Sadly there was no private bathroom and not a sign of a shower in sight, but at least we were only sharing the bathroom with 14 other people rather than 30+ in second or third class.  Our rather middle class version of this journey is probably much duller than it would have been had we decided to sleep on a shelf in third class drinking vodka for a 5 days but sometimes luxury has got to prevail over mixing with the locals and having some stories to tell. 

As our journey started at midnight there was very little to see out of the window leaving Moscow so we set up our beds and got comfy for the night.  As comfy as you can be sleeping in a bed that is 6ft long, 2ft wide and moving at 50mph across Russia.  It is quite an odd sensation sleeping on a train, a bit like being in a flight simulator as you do get thrown around quite a lot but listing to the clunkety clunk of the tracks is strangely relaxing.

We awoke the next morning and my job for the rest of our waking hours on the train began.  I finally got to make full use of the only book that we brought travelling 'The Transiberian Handbook’.  Having lugged this across Europe on many occasions I questioned whether it was really necessary but it proved to be well worth the effort.  I could sit looking out the window and using the kilometre posts that line the entire route I could tell Tim where we were and provide him with a running commentary of useful facts.  Tim kindly fained interest for most of the trip.

Top Factoids

-         The town of Mendeleevo was named after the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev who frequently visited the area and discovered the periodic table.

         The town of Chaykovskaya was named after the composer Tchaikovsky, until recently it was believed that Tchaikovsky died of cholera but historians have now concluded he was blackmailed into taking poison to prevent his liaison with the nephew of a St Petersburg noble being made public.

         The railway line between Omsk and Novosibirsk has the greatest freight traffic density of any railway line in the world.

I am sure you can feel Tim’s pain enduring 5 days of these, considering that these are significantly more interesting than the others.

I was kept occupied for literally hours trying to spot a kilometre post to see where we were, unfortunately the train had a tendency to speed up so I couldn’t read them and then I would also get distracted looking at trees and houses and babushka’s foraging in the forest and forget what I was looking for.  I made it my mission to try and take a photo of a kilometre post and finally after more than 4000km I got one, a blurry one but a photo none the less.  Mission accomplished.

Each carriage has two attendants who are there to keep the water boiler hot, the bathrooms clean the rubbish bins empty and to make sure that we get off at the right stop.  Ours seemingly went a step further and decided to wake us up and hoover our compartment, Tim slept through the whole thing, brilliant.  What was funny about the attendant is that they would be in their uniforms for each stop along the way, and within minutes of being back on the track they would be in their tracksuits, and furry slippers.

We were fairly apprehensive about what 5 days on a train would be like, our room was 7ft by 5ft and whilst we could watch the world go by by day, at night there was not much to see.  The train did stop now and again and we had read about the platforms being full of babushka’s selling their home made produce and hawkers selling everything from slippers to fur hats.  I am not sure if we were just very unlucky with the time of day of our stops but we had nothing but the odd shop on the platform selling pot noodles, water and other necessities.  The only sign we saw of anyone selling anything was the stench coming from a few people with dried fish, to whom we gave a very wide birth and for some obscure reason people with bin bags full of cuddly toys.  I assume someone must be buying them as there were tons of them on the platform.  It was only our very last stop that we finally found what we had read about but by then we were fed and watered and had no need for any provisions, we did get some good photo’s though so we can’t complain!

One thing that we did encounter on the few stops we had were the third class passengers or the ‘vodka swilling great unwashed’ as we lovingly referred to them. On a few stops we had to cut short our daily exercise of a walk down the train as the smell of BO and the general sense of unease got too much, so off we went to the safety of our carriage. I am not saying that I smelt my freshest but I managed to wash my hair and have a wash using the soup bowl size sink in the bathroom.  Tim on the other hand claimed that he did not smell until I forced a packed of wet wipes upon him and sent him packing!   

The train did have a food carriage so whilst we had our provision we thought that we had better go and investigate.  It was hilarious as the tables were laid up like a restaurant and you were seated with a menu (luckily in Russian and English).  The only downside about this was the price, Russia had been generally very expensive all the way through but 500roubles (10) for a main was a bit steep for our traveller budget.  However the menu did have sandwiches for 50roubles which we thought were a real bargain, until they arrived.  We each got half a slice of bread which is already half the size of a slice of bread you would get at home, mine with two slices of cheese and Tim’s with two slices of spam, our faces must have been a picture.  We quickly finished our lunch and retreated back to our compartment for some dairy lea sandwiches and Cheetos.  We did however return for dinner later in the journey when the pot noodles had become a bit bland and the food was actually really good and well worth splashing out.  We even went wild and had a few beers.  It would seem that consuming alcohol on a train is much like on a plane as Tim though it was appropriate to pull a moony in 2nd class on our way back home.  I will spare you the photo, it’s not pretty!

Amazingly there is not much to tell about our train journey, we ate, we slept and we watched the world go by and we watched the landscape change as we travelled through the country.  Initially there were dense forests with small villages of wooden huts, next the scenery changed to open meadows with more villages of wooden huts, and then back to dense forests with huge scars from the logging industry.  We crossed so many huge rivers it was hard to keep track, but fortunately my Transiberian Handbook was there to keep me fully informed, just to give you all some more interesting facts (you never know when you might need them) we went through the Ural Mountains which divide Europe from Asia (sadly it was dark but the train certainly felt more bumpy), we crossed the Irtysh River which rises in China, we crossed the Baraba Steppe which is a vast plane of swamps and peatbogs; this is apparently a breeding ground for ducks and geese and every year hunters bag 5million birds!  We crossed the Yenisey River which rises in Mongolia and flows 5200km into the Arctic Ocean, we then went through the foothills of the Eastern Sayan Mountains which form a natural frontier between Siberia and Mongolia (you never know when these facts might get you a piece of cheese in Trivial Pursuit!).  One thing that was very annoying was that I could read all about some great bridges or sights along the way, but 50% of the time it was dark so we didn’t get to see it all.

It was quite unreal just how fast time went on the train, we were almost sad that it was over so fast and actually wished we had gone all the way to Vladivostok and then back to where we needed to be!  There is something quite cool about train travel, being able to eat, sleep, wash, stop and get off the train and just watch the world go by and the scenery change whilst getting to where you need to be.  What didn’t help is the amount of time zones that we crossed, every day we gained an hour but the strange thing about the train is that every station and stop was based on Moscow time, which by the time we reached Siberia was +5.  The reality of this hit us when we realised that we needed to change our watches to Siberia time as otherwise we would be getting up at 2am to get off the train.  As it was the 7am wake up was not much better.

Final fact from leg one of the journey: Irkutsk the town we are now staying in had a murder rate of 400 murders a year in the 1900’s with a population of only 50,000 people. Here is hoping their statistics are a little better now!!

We were expecting Irkutsk to be a sleepy little town in Siberia, with quaint little wooden houses and a relaxed way of life,,,, our first view from the train was a motorway over a huge bridge and a fairly good selection of big office blocks towering over a sprawling town…. Perhaps Irkutsk is not going to be quite the place we anticipated??!!

The sunrise over the train station was something quite special, made getting up before dawn that bit more worth it. 

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