The Trans-Siberian, part 4: Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, or oversized heads and overheated trains

The Trans-Siberian, part 4: Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, or oversized heads and overheated trains

It’s strange to think that I was disappointed by the lack of snow when we reached Moscow.  I’d heard that they’d had their first flurries some days previously and had hoped for a white carpet on arrival, but of course by that point every flake had melted.

I needn’t have worried.  Out on the steppes, the snow was perhaps 6 inches deep which to me already made it feel like Christmas but for the locals is just the beginning of what threatens to be a long, hard winter.

Snowy scenes at sunset
Snowy scenes at sunset

I’m surprised by the accounts I read which suggest that the scenery is consistently dull or unchanging from the windows of the Trans-Siberian.  I haven’t taken the Trans-Mongolian – often touted as the most scenic of the three sub-routes (along with the Trans-Manchurian) – but this latter part of the journey, which is unique to the Trans-Siberian (the first two-thirds being a single shared route before the others branch off), is beautiful and varied.  Whereas the Siberian plains just past the Urals are undoubtedly flat, here – the steppes, I presume – undulate alongside the railway.  Patches of trees, occasional steep-sided crags rising next to the train, frozen rivers, thick taiga in the distance, and pockmarked glacial valleys (minus the glaciers, long-since departed) wend their way through the scene and provide a continuously distracting backdrop.

Our impressions were undoubtedly helped by the early, patchy blanket of snow which gave texture and brightness to an otherwise monochromatic land.   But perhaps it’s the visual fatigue brought on by a seven-day journey which leads the single-go travellers to speak wearily of the view from the windows.  It certainly reinforces the notion that to travel Moscow-Vladivostok in one go is a massive waste.  Apart from the interest of the cities themselves, and providing the opportunity to experience a number of different trains and passengers, regular stops help to prevent the potentially monotonous scenery from ever losing its impact.

Either way, I can wholeheartedly recommend late October as a time to visit.  The sky is clear and the winter sun shines with remarkable strength, even if it never reaches its apex and hangs idly as one might expect of late-afternoon, even at midday.

trees-trans-siberian-view-landscape-autumn-winter

Despite their cold beauty, the steppes are nonetheless harsh and violent, a difficult place to live.

But people do live here.  Periodically, hamlets appear, or very occasionally single shacks.  As a child I loved Little House on the Prairie but, coming from London’s urban sprawl, surrounded by the rolling hills of the home counties, could never grasp the concept of these massive wide-open spaces.  Now, I think I can.

The Siberian equivalent of Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood?
The Siberian equivalent of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood?

These ramshackle wooden dwellings, often visibly twisting, sit on carefully delineated plots, with fences marking out dead-looking gardens which bear no immediate difference from the snowy scrubland on the other side.  Almost all come with an outhouse.  Bright colours dominate, even out here.

train-view-trans-siberian-snow-siberia
No bright colours in this picture sadly but you can still spot an outdoor loo

Our train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude was one of the oldest and least well-designed varieties we had encountered.  At least, we reasoned, as we banged our way into the cramped, wildly overheated compartment, we were only on board for eight hours and would be sleeping for most of it.  Our spirits were somewhat dampened when a woman came and sat on the opposite lower bunk, holding a 6 month old baby.  No problem, we reasoned, smiling at the kid and gamely wiggling our fingers.  This was clearly grandma saying goodbye.  Then a younger woman came in – the child’s mother.  Since there was already an unrelated man on the top bunk, we started to worry: who exactly is sleeping the lower bunk?  And as the train started moving – shouldn’t this child have been returned to its guardian and rightful place on the platform by now???

The two women started as they meant to go on, getting us to move our stuff from where we’d carefully stowed it so that they could make room for their gigantic, bulging canvas bag which they unashamedly made Peter manoeuvre into place.  Once they’d pointedly taken up three-quarters of the compartment (for a single person), they began passing the child continuously between them, shoving a dummy in its mouth at the slightest provocation but – to my surprise – bringing not a single toy for the poor thing to play with, as he grasped hopefully at a plastic water bottle, light switch, and my necklace.  They kept gesturing to the two of us sitting on our bunk, seemingly pissed off that we were there; but what could we do?  We’d bought our tickets weeks previously and had nowhere else to go!  The two women banged around as much as they could to make it clear they were unhappy with our presence (without disturbing dear Junior) whilst we sat and read our Kindles and wished we were somewhere else every bit as much as they did.

Views from the train in happier times
Views from the train in happier times

To escape their bickering, I stood in the corridor watching as the train wended its way around Lake Baikal – this, of course, entirely in the dark since we had once again managed to buy tickets which covered the most memorable part of the journey during the middle of the night.  That said, there was something quite enchanting about pushing through the deep darkness, studded with flickering lights of the hamlets along the water’s edge, watching a tiny distant glowing cavalcade gradually materialise into a train heading towards us around the most southerly point of the lake.  We were lucky enough to be travelling under a full moon, which glittered on the water and gave a serenity to the scene which was not emulated behind the compartment’s closed door.

Eventually the older woman was installed on the bunk with the sleeping child in between her and the wall.  Frankly I’d have been terrified I would smother it but I don’t suppose there was an alternative. Except, OH YES, there WAS an alternative to the situation at its most basic level, which would have been for them to have hired four bunks – i.e. an entire compartment – for the family.  Instead the younger woman was further down the carriage with three friends, living the life of Riley whilst we total strangers got the joy of a griping infant and his overbearing grandmother in a compartment hotter than the face of the sun.

Of course they regretted their decision when we clambered from our bunks at 5am to pack our bags for an early departure from the train and the effervescent little tot was inevitably roused from slumber by our movements.  He demanded food and attention.  They mixed up a bottle of formula and shook it all over my coat.  We disembarked shortly after to see the mother having a smoke outside on the platform.  Nice family.

In Ulan-Ude, nowhere was open, and we were utterly exhausted.  A combination of the family from hell and sweltering carriage (in the middle of Sibera!  I know, but really.  Apparently the air conditioning breaks down rather regularly) meant that during the five hours we had with the lights off to try and get some sleep, it had been fitful, if at all. After installing our bags at the station, we sloped into town hoping that the 24-hour bar on top of a local hotel served food and coffee and not just vodka.

We went via the town’s most famous monument: the world’s largest Lenin head.  Yes, you read that right.  Here I am for size comparison with a gigantic rendering of Lenin’s bonce in stony form, at dawn in Ulan-Ude:

Have you ever seen a bigger statue of Lenin's head? Well, have you?
I mean, have you ever seen a larger statue of Lenin’s head? Well have you?

After using the remainder of our energy for comedy photos, we trooped off to the bar.  But in my sleep-deprived state I got the locations on the map mixed up and took us instead to a coffee shop which didn’t open until 8am.  By now it was 7:30 and EVERYTHING WAS CLOSED despite the good people of Ulan-Ude milling about on their way to work without so much as a dumpling for sustenance.  After the blistering train, our teeth were now chattering with the sub-zero temperatures and it wasn’t entirely certain whether we’d survive the next 30 minutes.  Thankfully we found one open place: a ridiculously overpriced supermarket, inexplicably filled with western goods.  It’s not even been three weeks since we left the UK but already I was nearly brought to tears at the sight of Maille mustard and Sacla pesto.  I blame the sleep deprivation.

WESTERN FOOD!!!!
Not pictured: the glorious shelf dedicated to Heinz tomato ketchup (and some suspicious Russian variations)
. . . and also a pot of caviar and a spoon
. . . and, lest we forget where we are, a pot of caviar and sour cream with a spoon for on-the-go gourmet snacking (you’ll find it located in the yoghurt aisle)

We stocked up on food for the immense journey ahead which took a pleasant half-hour in the perfectly-heated shop which at first I thought was equivalent to Waitrose but actually was closer to Harrods Food Hall (with prices to show for it).  By this point the cafe was open and we stumbled blindly through the doors, falling into a booth and gasping for coffee.

Ulan-Ude is fascinating for its largely Buddhist culture.  It’s the capital of the Buryat culture – fur traders, initially – with a great museum and, at barely 100km from the Mongolian border, a real mix of ethnicities.

Of course, we didn’t see any of this.  Our next and final train was due to leave at 2:30pm and we were so completely out of it that with the best will in the world, we were more or less incapable of any physical movement.  Every time one of us half-heartedly suggested getting up and going to the museum – or a walk around the immediate vicinity – or another café – it was met by a pitiful “just another 20 minutes” and eventually it was 1pm and time to leave.

We had been forced to cram the journey into a shortened period of time thanks to my delayed gallbladder operation before we left, and the need for Peter to be in Melbourne for a wedding in early November.  I’d managed to get stops in all the places which looked interesting but clearly, they weren’t long enough – in an ideal world we would have had at least a night in each place, enough to recover from the stress of embarking, disembarking, packing up, and getting our bearings in a new city.  But sadly, despite the long-term nature of this trip overall, we didn’t have the luxury of time at this point, and casualties such as Ulan-Ude were inevitable.  Frankly I’m amazed that we’ve managed to make as much of the stops as we have.  It’s probably mostly down to my inner sergeant-major taking over: “Come on, off we go, this bus, that stop, get on, get off, sit down, look over there, take a photo, be happy, smile more, no less, buy this water, back on the bus, back on the train, off we go, bye bye Siberian city”.  I fear that this is probably what Peter has taken away from the experience so far.

At this point I should probably add a disclaimer: it doesn’t have to be this way!  For those considering taking the Trans-Siberian themselves, who have just a two-week holiday from work in which to do it, my initial recommendations would be as follows.  If you’re time-poor, fly to Moscow.  Don’t bother with the initial trains from London unless you have always had a burning desire to travel overland as far as possible (as I did) or an extra week at the beginning which you can genuinely spare.  Do as many stops as you can, but ideally staying in each one for at least a night, or a full day.  I can’t help wondering whether Yekatarinburg and Krasnoyarsk, my favourite stops, had unfair advantages because they’re the two cities where we spent the most time.

It’s more than possible to do this trip in two weeks without burning yourself out.  And in all honesty, I generally found the time schedule significantly more sustainable – even enjoyable – than Peter did.  This was his first time experiencing long-term train travel and he likes the opportunity to chill out and get his bearings before moving on; something which I need to do less and therefore hadn’t factored in as much as I probably should have done.  And ultimately it would have been far more bearable but for the uncontrollable elements: one’s compartment-mates, the temperature of the train, the frostiness of the provodnik.

This was a tough stint.  But it hasn’t lessened my thrill of the journey overall.  I’m still a Trans-Siberian fan and I’d happily do it again!

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