This was to be our biggest stint on the train, totalling approximately 60 hours, 4000kms and three different time zones. Unfortunately, since we had problems booking our tickets, we booked rather late, and were unable to book a top and bottom beds on this leg – we were stuck with two top bunks! Fortunately, we were sharing the cabin with some friendly women, including an older Swiss woman who spoke English! Another tourist is not normally cause for celebration, but for whatever reason, we haven’t seen any others so far. Some of the other carriages have young families, or men soaked in the stench of vodka and body odour, so we we’ve been lucky twice now. Sadly that luck is unlikely to continue all the way to St. Petersburg…
The train we caught today, 099ЭА, actually makes the entire Vladivostok to Moscow journey, though with much less luxury and comfort than the 001/002 ‘Rossiya’ flagship train. Unfortunately, the cabins were ever so slightly smaller than last time, and my bed was uncomfortably short at first, but in time I managed to find a way to position my self without crouching. Sitting on the bottom bed also wasn’t possible this time, with the top bunk low enough that I had to hunch or tilt my head to fit.
I just want to get a disclaimer out of the way first. The photos from the train aren’t great. Firstly, the windows aren’t particularly clean (especially not after rain), secondly, the train is constantly moving, making it hard! The train line is essentially one enormous long construction site, with lopped trees and access roads the entire length. The train is also (surprisingly) electric, so it’s awesome not having diesel fumes travelling back into the cabin, it sadly means power lines the entirety of the journey.
Every so often we’d come across a cluster of small wooden houses, seemingly existing in the middle of nowhere. The houses were generally in a poor state, and we were genuinely curious about inhabitants – especially during winter!
The land seemed to be very sodden, almost a continuous boggy marsh. The grass was growing in small spherical clumps, and vehicle tracks looked to sink deep into mud. We weren’t sure if this was the result of the snow melting, recent rain, or the natural state – I was just glad that we were on the train, and not driving.
Even with the seemingly unchanging landscape, there was something compelling, almost addictive, about watching it pass by. On it’s own, it was nothing extraordinary, but the prospect of catching a glimpse of a beautiful grove of trees, or a wild river kept my eyes glued to the window (and my camera by my side).
The tiny wooden houses were decorated quite curiously, with a raw timber exterior, but with lush pastel blue and green window sills. I loved how vivid it looked, and turned what would otherwise look like a derelict house into a home.
Try as we might, we weren’t going to be able to carry seven meals on board with us, so at some point we were going to have to visit the on-board restaurant. The food on board the train from Beijing to Mongolia last year wasn’t great, but was entirely edible – if somewhat expensive. Sad to say, the food here was much the same – palatable and basic, which would be forgivable if it didn’t cost a premium. My meat and vegetable stew (450r – $12) was tasty enough, even if the meat had more in common with leather than I’m accustomed to. At least they have quite a wide variety of beers available, making ordering a wonderful game of roulette. This Chinese rice beer, Dragon (150r – $4), was wonderfully light and refreshing.
And, for the remainder of the evening light, there wasn’t a great variety in the scenery, some beautiful rivers, tiny little wooden villages, open muddy plains, small thickets of trees (and giant logging/lumber yards) and rolling hills covered in oceans of trees. Long into the distance.
Even though the bed was (slightly) less comfortable than last night, I rapidly fell into a deep and long sleep. Maybe it was the beer – more likely it was not suffocating in a sauna. So, even though I woke in early dawn, I felt fresh – at least for a while. Outside there was a wonderfully thick fog giving a wonderful mysterious feel to the world – the wooden houses now reminded me of something from a fairy tale.
I’d also noticed what looked like a purple tinge to the undergrowth, which slowly intensified until the little flowers were like a disjoined sea of purple. I was fortunate enough that the train happened to stop in this section, and one of the carriage doors happened to be open, allowing me to finally photograph comfortably. The only other place on the train that allowed me to not shoot through a dirty window was the toilet, which had a window large enough to open, however I didn’t want it bad enough to lurk in the toilet to take photos…
It was also about now that I was getting the hang of the train schedule, estimating when we were going to stop next (and most importantly for how long). During the longer stops, the carriage attendants allow us to get off for a quick stretch of our legs. I would say it was also a breath of fresh air, but with all the smokers making the most of the opportunity to smoke, it was no longer quite so fresh.
We packed quite lightly as far as food was concerned – tea and electronics were a different story. I actually found myself waiting for the restaurant carriage to open so I could put something in my stomach (other than biscuits and chocolate – the few items of food we did have the forethought to purchase). I didn’t really understand what we could (and couldn’t) order, so went for one of the set menu items, plus a ‘gourmet meat sandwich’. Clearly some advertising gurus had massaged the English menu, as I’d call a slab of ham on a slice of bread neither ‘gourmet meat’ nor a sandwich. It was however sustenance, and that is what I desired most of all.
I brought a small tube of Vegemite, not because I’m a hopeless addict (I’m truly not), but more because it’s one of the few things I can share with non-Australians. And, when I say ‘share’, I mean ‘watch them screw up their face in disgust’ because they’ve expected chocolate, or they’ve spread it too thickly. I however failed in my attempt at international relations this morning. Not to mind, it went will with my ‘cheese sandwich’.
In the next booth across sat a rather ‘merry’ Russian gentleman, who was soon joined by an equally chatty friend – who just happened to be finishing off their first bottle of red wine of the day …at 10AM. Communication was extremely limited, though we did managed to tell them where we’re from and our names. The thinner man (in the ‘Jake Walfskin’ shirt) was quite proud to tell us that he spent ten years in prison (explaining where his tattoos came from) for counterfeiting Russian rubles! The other, drunker man welled up almost into tears talking about President Putin, which I took to be due to pride, not hatred. Apart from being three-sheets-to-the-wind, they were funny and nice enough, and really just happy to have a chat with us – even if it was mostly ‘to’ us, and less ‘with’ us.
After breakfast the fog of the morning lifted, and for the first time since Vladivostok we saw blue skies. We’d moved away from the swamp-like plains of yesterday, and instead had progressed into more dense woodland. The deciduous trees were still barren, and the grass was still mostly brown, so the snow couldn’t have long been melted.
And not long after making that astonishing deduction, we started to see patches of snow in the shadows, eventually progressing to considerable coverage. Being inside the heated carriage it was hard to tell how cold it was outside. With the sun shining, it didn’t look especially cold, however the occasional pond still had layers of ice.
Coinciding perfectly with lunch time, the train made a 20-minute stop in Yerofey Pavlovich, giving us enough time to finally get out and find some of these food vendors that Lonely Planet are always talking about. Sure enough they were there, babushkas selling home made Russian food. Not knowing what anything was, we took a gamble and bought a few of everything. We bought some truly amazing boiled potatoes, but weird meat/dough patties weren’t going to win any awards – except possibly for levels of salt.
I tried my luck buying some bread and cheese for my breakfast tomorrow from the small shop fronts, however they only sold in units of ‘family of four for a week’, so I’ll just buy it from the restaurant car again tomorrow morning.
We were lucky enough to stop three times in the space of four hours, and we started to feel like giddy children on a school excursion, jumping off the train and running up and down the platform to see what we can find – usually the same babushkas selling meat/vegetable/dumplings, and basic general stores.
It was also a good chance to see some of the interesting people on board the train. Sadly with zero Russian, interactions were limited to ‘hellos’, smiles and posed photographs. There was also a surprising number of young men in military uniforms, among other interesting fashion ensembles…
The scenery remained largely the same, generally following a wide and wild river, the same trees, and the same small wooden villages. But still, my camera and I stayed affixed to the window, hoping to chance upon something remarkable.
The third of the stops timed almost perfectly with dinner, so we stocked up on some Russian dumplings and some meat-filled fried bread. Both delicious, but also contenders for the salt award. At least the saltiness made for a good excuse to sample another random Russian beer (though, I’m guessing this one was Czech). Risa had wanted to try a beer called ‘BAD’ on the menu, turned out it was (the American) Budweiser. Not sure if it was a type-o, or a description.
And, unsurprisingly, the train and time kept moving, and the scenery remained the same. But different. More taiga, more river bends, more wooden villages, just the occasional bonus frozen pond. And so on until the light faded, and the view outside was dark.
The day started with a jolt, as the train (possibly intentionally) came to an ungraceful halt at the town of Chita. We had moved into the next time zone, and were now only five hours ahead of Moscow. However, with the enormous time zones, time of the day means little. I’d wanted to quickly explore around the Chita Station, but mistakenly I thought that we were going to arrive at 9AM, but it was actually 7AM, and I had to rush to get ready.
It was much cooler than it had been, so much so that the tiny gap that was left from not shutting the window completely was letting in a freezing draught that was chilling my head during the night. The blankets and cabins are nice and warm, so much so that I roamed around the Chita station in just my thongs, tracksuit pants and a thin t-shirt – which combined with my bed-head I guess is why so many people were staring this morning. In my rush out of bed, I forgot my watch, so I wasn’t quite sure how much time I had. We made a quick stop in the grocery store for some much needed fresh fruit, recently missing from our diet.
I then jogged like a crazy man in my thongs through the puddles out of the station, and across to the beautiful blue church whose golden spires shone above the station. There was still a fair queue of people trying to board when I left the station, however there was a strong sense of paranoia and fear that if I strayed too far I’d run the very real possibility of being left behind, so I snapped a few photos, and shuffled back to the train as fast as I could. The train was stopped for nearly thirty minutes, so while a fear of being left behind was healthy, in this instance it was unlikely.
Chita seemed to stretch much further than it’s 300,000 population would suggest. The concrete apartment towers, and the smoke stacks of industry were a world apart from the forests and villages of yesterday.
From Chita the train ascended to 1000m, the highest point on the journey. The vegetation also seemed to change, gone were the deciduous trees, and in there place lush green pine trees. Gone were the muddy swamps, and in there place enormous grassy steppes.
I thought it only looked colder today, as the wonderful sunshine we had yesterday had gone, and the skies were filled with dark grey clouds. I can say that it was genuine amazement when the drizzle turned to sleet, and eventually to giant flakes of snow, eventually turning the world outside to white. We are prepared for the cold, and have packed accordingly, however it’s nearly summer and it was starting to feel like our time in Kyrgyzstan all over again.
A lunch-time stop in Khilok sadly was void of babushkas selling their homemade food on the platforms. It’s hard to predict when you’re able to buy food from the station, and when you need to rely on the restaurant carriage. At least the sun was shining (even if it was bitterly cold). It’s always interesting seeing the different styles of station buildings, as there seems to be no set formula that they follow.
Petrosky-Zavod started with enormous crumbling ruins of an iron works that seemed to stretch for kilometres (and sadly not photographed). The station had an enormous mural to Decemberists jailed here after their failed uprising in the early 1800s.
The train intersections here have a brutal method of stopping cars from crossing the tracks when a train is coming. Not only do they have a boom-gate that lowers, but to make sure that a car doesn’t ‘accidentally’ bust through that, two large hatches lift up from the road, making it seemingly impossible for vehicles to cross.
It was late in the afternoon when we finally came to a stop in Ulan-Ude, after travelling through the suburbs for nearly thirty minutes. Our roommates both departed here, so we said our good-byes on the platform. We’d been lucky so far, and hoped that it would continue.
It was a 25-minute stop, and since it was nearly dinner time, we searched for food. Unfortunately there were no babushkas selling food (possibly regulated in the larger stations/towns), but there was a crowd of other passengers (including the restaurant staff) headed to a small café (which I regret not photographing the exterior of, but it is just outside the station) to buy some buuz (Mongolian dumplings). Two Russian guys that we’d seen a few times in the restaurant carriage, and had a bit of a conversation with (if you can really call it that) were also there, and ordered some buuz for us (and then posed for a photo with Misha the bear). I also bought a hot dog, which our Russian friends advised against (by pulling a face of disgust) – I really should have listened to them, as not only did it look horrible, it tasted even worse. The buuz however was fantastic, probably better than the ones we had in Mongolia, mostly because it didn’t reek of mutton.
We took all of our food to the restaurant car. I thought that the staff might have been upset about us BYO-ing, so we bought a beer to wash it down. They were busy finishing off their buuz and didn’t seem all that fussed.
We returned to our cabin, and found two new room-mates sitting and eating dinner. A Russian man, and a Russian woman. The man, whose name we weren’t able to understand, studied to be a translator during the 1970s, and who hasn’t spoken English since, was an interesting (and borderline eccentric) character. He couldn’t believe that he was the first Russian person that we’ve met who spoke English! But, amazingly, he was.
Mid-sentence in conversation, and by complete surprise, we were right on the shore of Lake Baikal! When I originally booked the tickets I assumed that we’d be travelling that section in the dark, which at the time made us quite sad, as it’s often said that it’s the most scenic of the entire 9,000+kms. It was incredible just how close the line gets at times, mere meters from the water edge, with waves lapping right to the edge of the window.
And, to make it even better, we were travelling through just as the sun was setting! It was beautiful. I was trying to think why it was different to a regular sunset over the sea (which we’ve been lucky enough to have seen a few while in Western Australia), but the only thing I can think of was the flat and calm surface. But, having to photograph it through dirty double glazed windows on a moving train was killing me. I even caved and tried to photograph from the bathroom where the windows open enough to point a lens out of, but for whatever reason both of them had their windows locked… Yes, I was willing to stand in a room that smelt like piss to get a clearer photograph.
And just when the sun had sunk behind the hills, the sky started to blaze and I didn’t think it could get any better… it got better. That chunky stuff at the water’s edge – ice! Hard to believe, but there was still ice floating around in the middle of May!
I’d spent so long with my face pressed against the right hand side window for so long that I completely missed the beautiful snow capped peaks just sitting there on the left hand side! The light was rapidly fading, and it was a shame to have missed them glowing pink during the last brief moments of sunlight.
I can easily see why this short section is considered one of the most scenic. In the 4,000kms that we have travelled so far, it’s easily the most exciting landscape, but who knows what else the next 5,000km have in store…