The Trans-Siberian Express is the longest railway line in the world, connecting Moscow with the Far East across 5,772 miles with connecting branch lines into Mongolia, China and North Korea. In the early 90’s, our Operations Director, Matt Truin, threw himself into the Russian way of life and embarked on an epic and unforgettable Trans-Siberian Express adventure.
Find out about Matt’s railway odyssey in his own words:
Travel has always been running through my blood and for me, the more unusual the destination, the better. One of my first real adventures into the unknown was during my time at university studying Spanish and Russian. Part of my degree involved two 6-month placements, one in the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona and, in stark contrast, one in the regional Russian city of Yaroslavl’, 300km north-east of Moscow. After learning French and Spanish and finding them both relatively easy languages, I’d chosen Russian as a “challenge”. Every component of learning the language was certainly challenging, but having never visited Russia previously, nothing could prepare me for my 6-month Russian placement in the depths of winter.
My Russian family!
It didn’t take me long to settle into Russian life, or to get to know my “babushka” (Russian for grandma) who I lived with along with her family and numerous pets. Russian cuisine was how everybody imagined it to be in the 90’s, lots of borsch (a famous Russian soup), cabbage and potatoes. There were plenty of vegetables in the summer because most families had a dacha (country house) where they grew crops. During the winter, the vegetables became pickled. My favourite was definitely the pickled carrot and garlic – delicious! At lunch times we would be provided dinner in a stolovaya (dining room) where we were fed mashed potato and a frankfurter sausage – imagine having that every week day for six weeks, no variation at all, Monday to Friday. I honestly can’t eat any of those things any more after having daily servings for 6 months! In the winter, we often saw street vendors selling chickens that had become frozen together. The best way to separate them, by the looks of it, was to smash them against the floor. Food choice was very limited. I’m ashamed to say it, but our first visit to Moscow after 6 weeks in Russia was a mad dash off the train at 09.30pm to get to McDonalds before it closed. It was heaven. Today food in Russia is very different and home to some of the world’s best restaurants, but in the 90’s it was a very different story.
After our first term in Russia, along came the week that we were all so much looking forward to – our travel week. The group split up into different directions: Karelia, the northern region bordering Finland; the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg; the black coast resort of Sochi; and in my case the Trans-Siberian Express to Irkutsk. My end destination: Lake Baikal, the world’s largest, oldest and deepest freshwater lake.
The first task was purchasing our tickets. We’d quickly realised that there were two prices, the local price and the foreigner price. Our budget meant we were aiming for the local price and I got the short straw and was tasked with first attempt. With my shapka (Russian hat) pulled down and my deepest Russian accent I approached the counter and gave it a go. Without looking up the attendant gave the abrupt response “Kupe ili Platzkart?” (“Second or Third Class?”). Things were looking good for us to get the local fare and, as there were three of us, we opted for Kupe, a sleeper cabin. The price was given and my next stop was across the ticket hall with my stub to pay for the tickets. With the stub stamped to prove I’d paid the cashier, I headed back to my enthusiastic ticket agent who, again without looking up, printed my tickets and we’d done it! Moscow – Irkutsk here we come!
My return ticket for Moscow to Irkutsk (3,227 miles one way!), worth $53 in today’s money.
Late on a frosty February winter night we boarded the train at Moscow Yaroslavsky Station in Moscow and were welcomed by our carriage provodnitsa (train conductor) who pointed out the samovar at the end of the carriage – our source for constant hot water for the sweet Russian tea – and showed us to our cabin which was to be home for the next 3 and a half days, 3,202 miles, 12 stops and 5 different time zones!
Only the finest of sleeping arrangements!
For the following three days we wound our way across the vastly open Russian heartlands. On a train for this length of time, you meet a variety of different characters and get to see the endless vistas of open country-side: silver birch trees galore interspersed every few hours by the towns and cities along the route – some of them beautiful cities; some of them heavily polluted. I specifically remember the city of Omsk, one of Russia’s most polluted cities, with a forever present smog gripping the city and surrounding its countryside for miles.
Although our babushkas had given us some supplies for our journey, the station stops every 4-5 hours were an opportunity to jump off the train, run to one of the numerous sellers on the platform and stock up on whatever snacks we could get our hands on (these were always a mad-dash affair as we were super conscious of the train departing and being left behind!) My other two friends on the journey were vegetarians (something that didn’t exist in Russia – “it’s only ham!”), so they spent their whole journey from Moscow to Irkutsk, on bread and condensed milk.
Three days and four hours after departing Moscow Yaroslavsky Station, our Trans-Siberian Express pulled into Irkutsk one minute ahead of schedule after an epic 5000 kilometre journey. Fifteen minutes later, that same train departed to continue its journey to Vladivostok in the Pacific East (another 3 days, 2,570 miles and an additional two time zones away!) The difference from western Russia to this part of the country (close to the border with Mongolia) was apparent in many ways. The language, people, culture and traditions were different as it was on the border with Mongolia, so a lot of traditions from there had spilled over. However, the city of Irkutsk wasn’t the main focus of our visit to this region of Russia; we were headed for the beautiful Lake Baikal and the small village of Listvyanka which was to be our home for the next two days before getting back on the tracks for another 3 day Trans-Siberian adventure.
A small village on the shores of Lake Baikal.
Surrounded by mile-high snow-capped mountains, Lake Baikal still offers landscapes of unmatched beauty. The mountains are a haven for wild animals, and the small villages are outposts of tranquillity and self-reliance in the remote Siberian taiga (as the forest is locally called). With 331 rivers flowing into Lake Baikal and only one river flowing out of it, the lake completely freezes over from January to May/June. During this time, locals transform the lake into a super-wide highway, using it to get to different places – a much quicker venture than the usual, arduous journey around the lake’s shores. And with an ice-depth of over 1 metre, walkers, sleds, horses, cars and trucks fearlessly made use of the lake with no concern of being consumed by its deep and mysterious waters.
A trusty van braving the ice.
Throughout this season, fishermen have to drill through the thick ice-sheet to enable them to fish in the deep waters away from the shores.
Fishermen at work on the frozen Lake Baikal.
Soon enough, our 48 hours in Listvyanka came to an end and we headed back to Irkutsk to catch our train back to Moscow. At this stage, as we mentally prepared ourselves for the three days ahead, we were grateful of making the decision to only go as far as Irkutsk and not Vladivostok – 12 days on a train had quickly lost its appeal! Lake Baikal was stunning, unspoiled, and a completely different side to the Russia we’d gotten to know in Yaroslavl’.
We found the peace and quiet of Lake Baikal to be the highlight of our stay in Russia and was a once in a lifetime experience never to be forgotten.
If you enjoyed reading Matt’s travel diary, why not check out Miguel Chamorro’s adventure to the heart of evolution in the Galápagos or Katie Lee’s awe-inspiring return visit to earthquake stricken Nepal or how Domino Panton-Oakley weathered the rough with the smooth when it came to transport.
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