When I dreamed of taking the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was of a shapeless, formless route through a very large expanse of nothingness, with few landmarks and merely the awareness that Moscow was at one end and Vladivostok at the other.
In practice, this was not far off.
Although the line is a single route, with a couple of variations at either end, there are multiple ways to take the Trans-Siberian railway. Deborah Manley’s brilliant Trans-Siberian anthology (given to me by a lovely colleague) draws together many of these accounts. Early explorers in the 1900s traversed the entire route solo, or in pairs, with woollen underwear and a piano room for accompaniment. Today’s Western tourists seem most commonly to do it in groups, more or less in a single run (perhaps with one or two stops); not entirely a bad idea since exploring Russian cities solo with only a few hours to spare is trickier than one might anticipate. Hardy budget travellers go third class, armed with packs of cards, pot noodles, and chocolate for bartering.
But since the pound is currently extraordinarily strong against the ruble, we paid around £350 each for the whole journey, most of which we’ve spent in second class. This is equivalent to China’s soft-sleep: four people to a private compartment, with locking door, and bottom bunks which convert to sofas during the day. (First class, only available on some trains, is a private two-person compartment; this was one luxurious step too far). The clue here is not to pay for one of those naff tours advertised at the back of glossy travel magazines, but DIY through the Real Russia website, for absolute autonomy, fair prices, and fantastic assistance throughout.
The commonest time to go is during the summer. It’s a popular route, but we had no idea what this meant in practice; popular like Machu Picchu, with hoards of tourists shoulder-to-shoulder at the Sun Gate? Or popular like the Galapagos Islands, deeply covetable but comparatively empty? We presumed (and feared) we would be surrounded by fellow Westerners and, this being perhaps the most famous train route in the world, treading in the footsteps of so many illustrious travellers before us, that the road would be paved with English-speaking Russians, tourist buses to city centres, taxi drivers flagging us down and hawkers on every corner.
In practice, this was very far off.
We departed Moscow unceremoniously. For this first leg, we had opted for “seat only” which turned out to be essentially a commuter train, albeit a bloody nice one. Massive leg room, plug sockets, TV at the front – it was snazzy all right. But being a commuter train, it left from one of Moscow’s smaller terminuses (like Euston to St Pancras), and felt like taking a quick jaunt to Reading. It was hardly the illustrious, flag-waving, We’ll-Meet-Again send-off of my imagination: pulling away from Moscow’s gothic-lite Yaroslavski station, the famous Trans-Siberian departure point, bags already strewn across the wood-panelled compartment and babushkas setting up across from us with steaming urns of tea. No; the train was brand-spanking new, the TV was on, the businessmen sat with briefcases beside us. But then, we were only headed to Nizhny Novgorod: a mere five hours away, and practically next-door by Russian standards.
The Trans-Siberian stations were originally built out-of-town (actually, they probably were the town in many cases) and now sit on the fringes of the since-expanded cities. Nizhny is on the confluence of the Oka and Volga rivers (the latter the longest river in Europe: now you know) and at first glance was depressingly bleak and concrete. From Berlin’s mild golden hues and nip in the air, Niznhy was in the grip of an autumnal freeze, with frosted grass, steel-grey skies, and wind whipping off the water. We trekked along the chilly riverbank to a bridge likely not designed with pedestrians in mind, and headed blindly towards the Kremlin which my research had promised to be most beautiful. It wasn’t, really – it was quite nice – but not what I was expecting.
That’s because it was actually the Pechersky Ascension Monastery.
Humbled by our efforts and confused by where we were, since Wikitravel had promised the city to be really rather nice, and so far it categorically wasn’t, we saw in the distance a street which looked ok, and turned that way instead. This was the “old town”; like most Russian cities, a mix of beautiful churches and communist architecture, with a golden-domed church rising above all.
Eventually we were drawn like moths to a flame into a coffee shop which despite the liberal use of English in its decoration, didn’t have a staff member which spoke the language, so we enthusiastically ordered sandwiches and ended up with:
And after we’d got crazy full on Caesar salad, we stumbled on to a craft beer place (I know, seriously, but we found it by accident, honest guv) where we greeted with cheers from a table of local Nizhny men for – what – not being American? (“No, we’re British” is generally a very well-received answer). I’m not entirely sure. But it seemed largely positive. Still, we drank our beer, and left, passing by an English pub which we later learnt are all the rage at the moment, and not actually intended for tourists as we had assumed; but either way, we categorically did not enter.
We are still yet to meet a single other Westerner since our arrival in Russia, but the sporadic tourist-friendly joints do certainly suggest that they are a common sight. Perhaps they’re all just far too sensible to travel in October. It’s gnawingly cold outside; albeit unseasonably so. Even the locals are kitted out in ear-covering hats, thick leggings, and padded coats with fur collars. I can only imagine how they’ll fit extra layers into their ensembles in the coming months. My coat certainly has no room for spares.
The next train was our first overnighter, taking us through recent snow melt and low levels of ice, into the city of Perm at 9:30am. Or was it 11:30? On Russian trains, there are three different time-zones of which to keep track: Moscow time, to which the train schedules adhere; the city recently departed (whose time one is probably keeping at present); and the city where the train is headed (whose time one will shortly be taking on). The point was, we had just a few hours in Perm, accompanied by a Lonely Planet guide whose author had apparently never visited. It’s small and gridlike with a few national “monuments” including a statue of bronze ears (?!), all of which which had been enthusiastically compressed into a couple of walking tours (aided by red and yellow lines painted directly on to the roads and pavements) but nothing particularly memorable.
As with other destinations, we aimed for one thing, found another, walked around in circles and ended up at a microbrewery. No really, I SWEAR we’re not doing a beer tour of the northern hemisphere.
One broken-down tram and a power-walk to the bus stop later, we were back at the station and off to unofficial Eurasian border city, Yekatarinburg: more on that in the next post.
I am slowly getting the hang of recognising Cyrillic letters, although Peter is infinitely better than me at pronounciation and remembering the correct words. Navigation remains confusing and time-consuming but we get there eventually. Although I am genuinely baffled how I ever managed to travel in the past without screengrabs of Googlemaps, and the geolocater on my phone.