Wednesday, 9 May 2012


3rd - 6th May 2012

The scenery from Irkutsk to Moscow
This train ride was to be a three day three night job on what is the best ‘regular’ train service from Vladivostok, via Urkutsk, to Moscow namely the Train #1. There are private trains which do an occasional bespoke ‘luxury’ service from either Beijing or Vladivostok to Moscow, or vice-versa, in the summer if you are happy to fork out over £14,000 for the trip! The #1 left Irkutsk at 1847hrs (L). I had a double berth compartment to myself and our carriage attendants were Olga, who turned out to be rather pleasant and helpful, and another woman who didn’t. They did eight hour stags on duty. The compartment was comfortable and clean, so absolutely no complaints there. The dining car was pretty average and had a comprehensive menu of which about half was available and all was expensive. Foolishly I had not stocked up properly on rations at the supermarket in just had a few slices of bread, cheese, pickles, some tea bags and two bottles of beer remaining from my previous supplies. This would not go far.
Off we set, blissfully and maybe just a little too obsessively, with absolutely no announcements or any other information for that matter. I began to suspect that secrecy and lack of communication, especially where foreigners are concerned, is still alive and well in the now CIS of Russia. Monkey Business had provided an excellent guide to many aspects of the trip including where we would be stopping and the time zone changes. Without this I would have been almost totally unaware of where we were, or what local time it was. The train clock was set on Moscow time throughout and there are 5 time zones to pass through from Irkutsk. The dining car worked on local time. Olga would occasionally let slip, after much persistent and tactful questioning, what station we were standing at and she even managed the occasional smile. OK, admittedly there was a slight language difficulty.
The duty of these carriage attendants, ‘provodnistas’ as I think they are called, is to show people to their compartments and to keep the carriage clean. The former took up about .00001% of their time, the latter they achieved by locking all uninhabited compartments ( 7 out of 10 in my carriage ) and all but one of the loos, and that one was only unlocked well after leaving a station and only ‘on call’ after lights-out. They also controlled the compartment lighting ( just a little bunk-side light clould be switched on after about 9pm ), the heating and some dreadful piped music which came on and went off at times of their whim and choosing. Other than that they seemed just to sit in their cabin or vestibule and .......I don’t know what they did. Played cards maybe, or wrote letters home. They occasionally did a little patrol up the corridor which might have been for security, or perhaps when they wanted to go to the loo and Olga stood outside the carriage door at station stops with a flag to wave.  As with all Russian ( and Chinese ) trains each carriage has a coal fired Samovar for a constant supply of hot water.

Left: Here is Olga with her flags in the 'attention' position. I never managed to see her wave one

I visited the dining car on the morning of the next day for breakfast. It didn’t open until 9.00am (L). They did a reasonably good plate of ham and eggs with a cup of tea ( 1 tea bag ) and two half slices of bread ( no butter or jam etc. ). It cost the equivalent of $12 which by any standards seemed a bit steep for what you got. 

Right: The dining car was quite attractive with old-fashioned Russian decor. I was about to take a photo of it when an ugly screaming harridan of a waitress ( possibly a retired salt mine guard ) yelled at me and I gathered, only by her gesticulations, that I was not permitted to take photographs! I tried to ask why not but of course no English was spoken by her, and no Russian by me. Eventually the only other customers in the dining car, a Russian couple, translated bluntly “photograph not allowed”. Unbelievable! I find it difficult to imagine what could possibly be the reason for this. I think that many older Russians in positions of petty authority are still paranoid about secrecy, and the great majority simply accept it. I took a photo anyway when she wasn’t looking. I have been examining it closely to see what hidden horrors are lurking therein. I only went back to the dining car on a couple of occasions ( bowl of borsch soup and bread...R 400 ) and there was nobody else there. Considering the surly service and extortionate prices I am not surprised. Russians sometimes seem yet to learn how to attract trade and often look as if customers are just a bloody nuisance, but they don't seem to care as long as someone pays their wages. I suspect this must be a hangover from the Soviet days.

The landscape passed by and we stopped at, I think, Ilanskaia, Mariinsk and Novosibirsk amongst other whistle-stops on the first day. There was never quite enough time safely to get off to obtain ‘supplies’ or even cash from an ATM machine, if indeed there was one ( because if I was to use the dining car at their rip-off prices I was going to run out of money; no credit cards accepted of course ), without risk of the train leaving without me. The second night passed with me having bought a couple more bottles of beer and my rations dwindling.

Right: The passing ‘scenery’ consisted of a wall of spindly trees close to the track. I am not an expert on trees, but these were predominantly silver birch with a number of pine and maybe spruce and larch mixed in ( don’t ask me for botanical accuracy ). The countryside was flat and so all you really saw, other than when passing the occasional station, was this wall of trees...the same type of trees. On and on, and on. Is this the taiga they talk about?

Left: There was the very occasional village in the same fashion as all the other wood built and impoverished looking Siberian villages. To say the least the countryside was a bit drab. I wonder what the locals do to amuse themselves?

Right: But the flat landscape only varied slightly with the density of the trackside trees.

Left: Passing the occasional town which all looked remarkably similar ( grey ) and some even had stations we stopped at. On the second day the train pulled in to Omsk, Tuimen, and Yekaterinburg/Sverdlovsk. I was down to my last bit of bread, a couple of bits of manky cheese, 6 tea bags and 400 rubles plus two more bottles of beer bought off a trolley service. In fact, an hour after 'Provodnista Bolshy' had removed all the bedding from the other bunk in my compartment we arrived in Yekaterinburg and a passenger moved in with me. Several empty compartments, but the system puts two 'singleys' together. Saves work for the cabin attendants I suppose, except that Prov. Bolshy had then to replace the bedding on the other bunk which she had just removed. My new companion was a middle-aged Russian medical equipment engineer called Andrei. He was a remarkably cheerful and pleasant character who spoke good enough English and who had been away from home for some time mending MRI machines in Siberia. He was due to get off again at Kirov at 0450hrs the next morning. We spent a bit of time trying to work out where the border between Asia and Europe was, somewhere west of Yekaterinburg, as we crossed the Urals and which, according to my Lonely Planet, is marked by a monument. We never did find it. I was a bit disappointed by the famous Urals. I had rather expected some dramatic hills if not mountains, but the countryside only became a little more undulating before it started to get dark. Andrei went to sleep early. His snoring was impressive. In a match with me I reckon the result would have been a close call with scarcely a decibel in it. We must have stopped at Perm during the night. This is the town just on the west side of the Urals which was infamous as one of Mr Joe Stalin's more gruesome 'gulags' to which many dissident scientists and intellectuals were sent and incarcerated. I woke up as Andrei wished me a fond farewell at whatever early hour he departed. 

Right: When I finally woke up and looked out of the window, expecting a dramatic change of view, I saw.......yes, just more 'same-same' trees. Perhaps they had a few more green leaves than the Siberian ones, but more or less identical and the countryside was flat again.

Left: A few more pines in the mix maybe....

Right: ......but on the whole more or less the same.

Left: It was noticeable, as was also the case in China, that most of all station buildings, fixtures and fittings are painted blue. Blue and white walls, corrugated iron roofs, pylons, lamp-posts, railings, doors, gates, concrete blocks, pipes, electrics boxes, barriers...all sky blue. I tried, unsuccessfully, to fathom out why. Perhaps Messrs Putin and Hu had invested their money in blue paint factories. Maybe blue paint is cheaper. Maybe its a lucky colour. I don't know.

Right: A change of scenery. The view out of the window at the back of the train.

Left: But mainly, until we got close to Moscow, it was similar to this. Just before we got into Gorkii on day 3, the last major stop before Moscow, we crossed the Volga river. It was over an impressive bridge and wide expanse of water but I failed to get a decent photo. Pity, it was about the only sight of major interest en route.

Right: There were often some form of guards ( railway police? ) on the platforms. I'm not sure what their role was and I think they were trying to tell me that I couldn't take their picture.  Doing the smiley vacant uncomprehending tourist act, not difficult, normally results in deflating their officious attitude and they just shrug their shoulders. Maybe the red-head lady was making a note to report me to someone.

So, arrived on time at Moscow Yaroslavsky station at 5.50pm and met by the efficient Monkeybusiness rep from their local agency partners, Marlis Travel, to be whisked off to a hotel.
Left: Just thought you might appreciate a final look at some more silver birch trees. I have a stack of similar pictures.
Next off to explore a bit of Moscow which, due to their funny writing, they spell Mockba.

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