Another short journey from Perm to Yekatarinburg, at just six hours, leant itself to an afternoon spent rubbing shoulders with the proletariat, i.e. a casual jaunt in third class.
This is more like hard-sleep, or how I spent my time travelling in China: open corridors with nests of bunks. In Russia, the wider track gauge means a larger compartment, with double instead of triple bunks, but an additional perpendicular row lining the corridor. Peter and I had two of these corridor-skirting bunks, the lower of which raises to become a table and two seats during the day. We spent most of the journey playing Scrabble, which lends itself well to a train journey because whilst one person is considering their move, the other can stare out the window.
The scenery on this leg was relatively interesting (and I do mean “relatively”). Occasionally Peter or I would rouse one another from our vocabularical (is that a word? it should be) musings to look at a craggy bit of rock or a line of snow-covered fir trees silhouetted against the darkening sky. But it wasn’t long before the light was gone and we were trundling along through solid blackness, focussing on the game at hand.
Later, we discovered that these vaguely hilly bits, the slight undulations and occasional cliff-like feature were, in fact, the Urals.
I can imagine that taking the train from east to west, this “mountain” range would provide a much-needed visual break from the monotony of the scraggly tree-covered plains which make up most of southern Siberia. But coming from Europe, where mountains and trees are very much the norm, they were so unremarkable as to be easily ignored. Indeed it was only on the train from Yekatarinburg that I remarked “I hope we don’t pass the Urals tonight whilst we’re sleeping and miss them”, only to discover that we’d already passed over them and had, indeed, missed them.
Yekatarinburg was a refreshing and unexpected pause on our journey, in which we spent an entire night and the better part of a day. Luxury! Larger and more cosmopolitan than Nizhny or Perm, but less frenetic and cramped than Moscow, it was a truly pleasant (if frozen) place to spend our first significant break from the railway, and somewhere I would happily return.
This city marks the unofficial boundary between Europe and Asia, although many places claim that title (perhaps the Urals are the natural point?). Frankly I’d already made the mental transition in Perm, when I was forced to part with 15 rubles for the honour of using a whiffy squat toilet.
At our accommodation, the Gold Hotel (as with others, essentially a converted flat with no signage outside to speak of) we were treated like long-lost family and given gifts as we departed: two calendars, an orange, a bag of spicy cheeses. My book suggests that such generosity is a common occurrence and for travellers to bring presents from home to avoid any awkwardness. But with six months’ worth of stuff, we’ve embarrassingly neglected these essential items and had nothing to give in return to our kindly host, so left him empty-handed but for the promise of a fully-deserved glowing review on Booking.com (surely worth its weight in gold).
On the train to Krasnoyarsk, in an attempt to restore our giving/receiving karma, I tried to ply our cabin-mate with the one London-related item I had in my possession: a Paperchase sticker. He was less than impressed and then began a (presumably unrelated) discussion of how some 16-year-old Russian girls are desperately keen to move to London.
It’s pretty important to make friends with one’s compartment companions in these situations. When four people are shoved together into a closed cabin for a couple of days, avoiding eye contact only lasts so long. On the train from Yekatarinburg to Krasnoyarsk, we managed it for approximately 15 hours (8 of which were spent attempting to sleep) and then in the morning struck up conversation with Evgeniy, who had previously denied the ability to speak English. But, like most Russians who claim to be only “so-so”, he was in fact very good, and considerably better than the average English person attempting their GCSE-level Spanish (ahem).
It was pretty fascinating and eye-opening to chat with a young Russian about his opinion of his country. Conversation ranged from Russia’s involvement with the Ukraine (it is a Russian country, they are essentially Russians, they have no culture or money, therefore no reason to leave, and it’s not only obvious but understandable that Russia would do anything necessary to keep them as part of Russia – for their own good) to the world’s opinion on Russia (we don’t know how much they have to offer) and Russia’s manufacturing ability (no good at little stuff like electronics but great at big stuff like tanks and rockets). He had lived in various cities; all in Siberia. He didn’t own a passport and had never left Russia, and was pefectly happy with that. People travel all over the world to find what they want, he said, but sometimes they don’t look around them. At least, I think I correctly understood what I took to be a pretty deep and not inaccurate statement. But then later he was talking about Russia’s multi-cultural identity and I said “Yes, Russia is a big country” and he said “You say it is big, but . . .” and it did make me wonder how anyone could possibly suggest that Russia’s not a big country so I wouldn’t trust my interpretation of his comments if I were you.
We picked up little titbits from him, alongside his debatable stance on the Ukraine. The stock phrases they learnt at school, including “London is the capital of the Great Britain” which explained the three non-English-speaking Russians who had responded to our home city with precisely those words. The correct pronounciation of various words, which I promptly forgot. Russia’s interest in sport (all of them, apparently). The sad realisation that the endless forest which been trailing alongside the railway for days on end wasn’t in fact the “taiga” referred to by countless previous travellers. This was merely regular forest. Taiga is denser, darker, more solid; these trees had light shining through and occasionally made way for snow-covered plains which also, sadly, weren’t tundra. Like taiga, tundra is found further north, and it’s not only endless but featureless, without even scrubby grasses, and it’s not possible to lay track upon it either. So perhaps global warming has well and truly kicked in over the last 50 years, or all the dreamy descriptions I’ve read have been woefully misguided. Or, obviously, Evgeniy was the one barking up the wrong silver birch. Regardless, for a couple of Brits used to a smattering of trees here and there, and much taken with Germany’s considerable forests, this endless wooded nothingness remained as mind-boggling as it had all along.
Because it does feel endless. The trees may be straggly but they are beautiful; the exact same species (silver birch and a species of fir) which I saw in Lapland. Indeed, this is technically the same forest stretching all the way along that line of latitude from the North Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
Few things break the monotony – and it is monotonous – bar the odd hamlet or railside cabin. In these fist-bitingly sub-zero temperatures, nobody braves the outdoors unless strictly necessary (and it’s only October! And the snow only arrived last week!). Outside of railway stations I’ve seen just two people walking alongside the tracks. Most excitingly, bears, tigers, leopards and wolves live in these woods and I keep convincing myself I’ve glimpsed a muzzle but it’s usually just a log. Shame really.
Periodic cities of approximately 1 million pop up along the railway line at rarely less than six-hour intervals, emerging from the snow with a flurry of street lights and apartment buildings, and vanishing equally as quickly. Perhaps most astonishing is that these cities are equivalent in population to Liverpool, Manchester, or Glasgow – mostly springing up or growing enormously in the last century, thanks to the life blood of the railway – but few people outside of Russia have even heard of them, let alone visited. Certainly I’d never encountered their names before planning this trip. If an American tells you that they hail from Salt Lake City then they fully expect you to know that it’s the capital of Utah. But have you ever heard of Novosibirsk, which has two and a half times the population of Salt Lake City? Did you know that Novosibirsk is the de facto capital of Siberia? And that Siberia itself (just Siberia!) is bigger than the entire United States and all of Europe (bar Russia) put together?
Besides these remote, unfamiliar metropolises, the more interesting sights are found in the occasional villages. Ramshackle but brightly-painted wooden houses pop their technicolour heads above the snow, small but magnificent through the leafless trees. I’d noticed the Russian penchant for colour in Moscow, adorning everything from church roofs to apartment blocks, and was delighted to realise that it’s a country-wide affectation. Traversing this mammoth railway I have learnt that if anything unites Russia’s cities of Europe with her hamlets of Asian Siberia, it’s a resounding love of colour, and for that I am happy.