Stereotypes abound in this world and I for one am guilty of perpetrating them. Not only as a writer viewing others but as a subject, too; I embody the clichéd icy Londoner, the stern glarer, the queue-obeyer, the tea-drinker, the user of phrases such as “I reckon” and “how brilliant”. Knowing this, it’s hard not to wonder just how many stereotypes are actually based in fact.
Still, whilst we roll our eyes every time a film baddie has an English accent, at least we’ve got James Bond as a counterweight. Meanwhile, the poor Russians aren’t nearly so lucky. They’re portrayed as Soviet thugs with treetrunk necks; heartless, alarmingly accurate assassins; or one-dimensional, single-minded Cold War-era spies hell-bent on enacting a communist global society. And in the real world, British media is filled with Muscovite oligarchs taking over London’s property, war-mongering in the Ukraine, and Putin on a horse. It’s not really helping their global brand.
Perhaps this is why Russia is a relatively unpopular tourist destination. It’s a rubbish reason, of course. The vast majority of people we met were incredibly kind, generous, helpful and sweet, even when we couldn’t properly communicate. Suffice it to say we encountered very few of the clichés (or at least, the thugs and assassins were extremely good at disguise) . . . that is, until our final night on the Trans-Siberian.
Our last journey was the big one: 66 hours, no breaks. The train was of middling quality (no restaurant car, we discovered to our dismay: pot noodles and chocolate spread on flavourless Russian bread would be our sustenance) but was more spacious and had everything else we needed. I might go so far as to say the beds were better than on the more upmarket equivalents.
We originally embarked to find our bunkmates already installed: an elderly couple, he with no teeth and missing several fingers; she at a least a decade his junior, and dutiful in her role as his marital slave. We shared with them for some 48 hours, during which time he lay on the top bunk and completed a book of Cyrillic word puzzles whilst she sat on the bottom bunk and stared aimlessly into space; she hadn’t brought a single thing for entertainment. Three times a day she would surreptitiously help herself to a small snack before he swung down to her level (he was remarkably agile for a single-thumbed, six-fingered septuagenarian) whereupon she would submissively sit beside him and watch whilst he noisily slurped at whatever meal she had whipped up from her box of tricks, hidden under the bunk. A chicken leg, a pot noodle, bread and cheese, slices of sausage; she provided it, he hoovered it up, she occasionally brushed crumbs from his lap and he would bat her hand away with all of the consideration given to an irritating fly. And during the entire activity – indeed the whole time they spent on the train – barely a word was exchanged between them.
A few times I caught her staring at us, thin-lipped and silent, and presumed that it was with disapproval. Admittedly, we don’t speak Russian; our guffaws can be loud; and it’s probably comical to see two comparatively large people folded into a single bunk, leaning against one another whilst silently engrossed in their e-readers. I’ll admit that it’s not a particularly Russian travelling position. But towards the end I twigged that it might be with sadness; that Peter and I had a closeness which perhaps she and her husband no longer shared, if indeed they ever had. But as they approached their destination, sitting on the bunk, packed, prepared and shod for their onward journey, I noticed them exchange what amounted to almost an entire conversation. He spoke, she laughed; she spoke, he laughed; and I was happy to witness this moment of tenderness, however brief. She backed out of the compartment with all of their luggage, and smiled at us for the first time in the two whole days we had shared together.
After Mr and Mrs Silent had departed, we had a few blissful hours to ourselves and then, in mid-afternoon, Nikolai arrived. His brisk efficiency at stowing his luggage, making his bed, whipping off his shoes and cracking open a beer in more or less a single movement suggested that this was a man of some Trans-Siberian experience. Indeed, he was: working one month on, one month off as a civil engineer on the railways of huge but remote Sakhalin Island. He was returning home to Vladivostok. Nikolai shared his Russian lager with us and then Peter, keen to ensure that for once we were the givers rather than perpetual receivers, brought out his precious bottle of Oxfordshire ale: a present from his brother-in-law, carried all the way from England and saved for just such an occasion. We stumbled through a few sentences (Nikolai’s English, as ever, far better than that for which he gave himself credit), the beer disappeared, and just as I was wondering if we would have to crack open the bottle of milk stout I’d lovingly purchased in Nizhny Novgorod, Sergei arrived. He was our fourth bunkmate, and a colleague of Nikolai’s. Jolly, friendly, and enthusiastic, he shook our hands and immediately produced a large water bottle which did not, in fact, contain water.
It contained vodka which Sergei proudly explained was 80% proof, and could be bought in 5 litre batches for 10,000 rubles – or £10.
Things started to fall into place.
There’s one more cliche I haven’t mentioned above. Not spies or thugs but, far sadder, raging alcoholics: starved of entertainment on the endless steppes, with easy access to ridiculously cheap, eye-wateringly strong vodka. One hopes that such a stereotype is grossly exaggerated, but recent studies suggest that a quarter of young Russian men die from alcohol poisoning. It reminded us of Chris Moss’s ominous 2007 words from my Trans-Siberian book:
“Many Russians handle the four to seven day ride by getting wasted. At any time of the day, men (and only men) skulk out of their compartments with vodka-blasted eyes, groaning and blithely ignoring all those vast steppes” .
Within about 10 minutes, our compartment had filled with two, three, four, five more of Nikolai’s and Sergei’s homeward-bound workmates – two more of whom were also called Sergei, I swear to god I’m not making this up – already half-way through a long journey home, and each displaying variable levels of drunkenness. They mostly introduced themselves to Peter (ignoring me), and then attempted to ply him with cheap, fiery alcohol (at which point I was perfectly happy with my reduced social status). There was a large carton of wine. There were more beers. There was another batch of vodka. They politely, though constantly, helped themselves to our water with which they slightly diluted their alcohol (“to stop burn”). Eventually I felt left out and had a slug of the wine (not the worst I’ve ever tasted by a long shot) – although I carefully avoided the hard stuff.
They became rowdy, joyful, raucous, introspective. They flailed their arms and gave life stories in stilted English, which (for reasons I can’t quite fathom) improved as the alcohol increased. They asked us about our dreams, and told us that theirs were of good lives for their children; success and happiness. When I said that my dream was to travel, and I was doing it now, one of them regarded us with intense seriousness and declared us to be his “heroes” since we were doing something he never could. Quite apart from the financial aspect, getting visas for just about any country outside of the former Soviet bloc is more or less impossible for holders of Russians passports, which is definitely something I take for granted as a UK citizen. I complained bitterly about the process of getting my Russian visa, but such hoop-jumping is a rarity for us, whilst it’s a reality for them more or less everywhere in the world. I really must be more grateful.
And all through this, the alcohol flowed; down the throat of one man in particular, one of the multiple Sergeis, a martial arts instructor (having appeared in a Russian film as such, he proudly told us five minutes into our preliminary conversation), a father, a Vladivostokian born and bred; a broad-shouldered, physically intimidating man with wide-open smiley face and putter-away of the most astonishing amount of alcohol. Its potency was such that we watched his transformation from cheerful man and proud father to bellowing, word-slurring, bottle-clutching drunk with alarming speed.
Alcohol is technically banned on board the Trans-Siberian but it seems that all one need do is pull the compartment door closed and sweet-talk the provodnik. The latter seemed to be Nikolai’s job, as he watched his colleagues head rapidly downhill to Wasted Town whilst he remained in the corner, largely sober, and increasingly taciturn. At one point we found ourselves alone in the compartment with him as he tried to express his feelings about the situation. Limited by the language barrier, we watched with sadness as he gave up in frustration, although it was evident that he felt powerless to stop these men and their destructive reliance on booze. It wasn’t really any surprise to learn that he was, in fact, their boss, and had no intention of spending time with them once they’d gone their separate ways at the train station. “This is small Russia” he kept saying; although whether he meant they represented only a small minority, or that they were a typical example of life in a small town, I’m still not sure.
At Khabarovsk, a city 30km from the Chinese border, we were assured that the train would stop for a hefty 40 minutes. Two of the Sergeis insisted on us leaving not only the train but the station for photographs out in the darkness. So we did, giggling and terrified that the train would leave without us but gamely playing along, wrapped in whatever layers we could grab as they pulled us from the carriage.
After a few hasty snaps in front of the local monument, we were ushered back to the train whilst the two men disappeared. Peter clambered up into his bunk and I tucked myself into my usual spot on the lower bunk next to the window. Not long before the train set off once more, the Sergeis were back with yet more alcohol. But it was hard to be angry since through the boozed-up haze they’d made the effort to buy some local smoked fish, specifically for Peter and I to try – and an entire roast chicken. Shortly afterwards, the provodnik appeared, apparently putting her foot down over the unfair levels of noise and rampaging up and down the corridor. Several men surrounded her in the corridor, good-naturedly arguing their case (these women are not to be trifled with and know how to stand their ground) whilst Sergei The Alcoholic stood framed in the doorway, facing her, his back to me. Suddenly, to my horror, I realised that he was lifting his t-shirt and grasping the handle of a particularly chunky knife, tucked into the waistband of his jeans. From my spot on the bottom bunk, I reached blindly up to Peter, hitting him where I could and frantically pointing; heroically, he leapt down to try and calm the situation. Sergei laughingly gestured that he had only brought out the knife to cut up the fish, which he duly did, drunkenly slicing his thumb in the process, whilst the muttering provodnik moved away thanks to Nikolai’s soothing reassurances.
After that the mood was well and truly changed and although I never felt personally unsafe, it was hard to return to the previous jovial atmosphere. Drunk Sergei, unaware of the repercussions of his actions, insisted on opening two more bottles of beer and then the small vodka picked up from the station forecourt. Slightly Less Drunk Sergei, sensing our nervousness, endeavoured to remove his unwilling friend from our compartment. Finally – after a huge amount of persuasion and persistence – he managed to prise the vodka away and send him back to his own bunk to sleep it off. After returning two or three times, he finally settled down.
And after that it wasn’t long until the four of us went to sleep ourselves (the Sergei in our compartment clambering up fully-dressed onto his barely unrolled, unsheeted mattress).
The next morning they disembarked a few hours before we did, remarkably awake, searching for mislaid belongings; for them, just another night on their monthly commute.
Shortly afterwards, I was gazing out of the window when, all of a sudden, I was looking at the sea. We had travelled under the English Channel – part of the Atlantic Ocean – and here we were at Amur Bay – on the fringes of the Pacific. Vladivostok appeared on the horizon, tower blocks and cranes spilling down unexpectedly steep hills. Exhausted, pensive, humbled, desperate for a shower, we quietly watched it crawl closer.
And so it was with their empty bottles clanking in our rubbish bags, hair smelling of spilt beer, fish bones crunching underfoot, that we unceremoniously completed the Trans-Siberian railway.
And Vladivostok itself? Revelatory. Cosmopolitan, small but beautiful. Comparisons with San Francisco are perhaps overenthusiastic but not entirely wide of the mark. Streets are wide, sometimes tree-lined, occasionally pedestrianised. Buildings are grand and decorated, closer to Moscow than any of other cities we’d visited. Surrounded by water on three sides, it feels open and fresh, with salty breezes blowing a sense of adventure that their deeply landlocked Siberian cousins can’t emulate. It’s larger than I’d anticipated, and an active port, with cruise ships, ferries, ocean-going liners, and even warships all making regular appearances in the bay.
The day Peter left, I took a long-winded bus all across the city, primarily so that I could cross the spectacular Russky Bridge – the longest cable-stayed suspension bridge in the world (whatever that means) – to rural Russky Island. Since it’s only recently been connected via road to the mainland, the island is still largely undeveloped, and in its windswept remoteness, feels like the last bastion of the Eurasian continent. So it was to my utter astonishment when I discovered it to be home to the gigantic Far Eastern Federal University.
In fact it has 41,000 students (Manchester, for comparison, has 38,000) on a vast campus that was as unexpected as finding a bike rental on the moon.
I slipped inside to use the loos and borrow the wifi at which point I did a bit of googling and learnt that the university was technically off-limit to foreigners. Then, of course, I was paranoid that the security guard was looking at me so I took the stairs instead of the lift, which meant I found myself exploring an echoing stairwell of a possibly out-of-bounds university on a random Russian island on the western edge of the Pacific thinking “How exactly did this happen?” and “I don’t know Robyn, but of all people I’m not overly surprised that it happened to you”.
It felt like a fitting end to the Trans-Siberian, a journey filled with unanticipated discoveries and underappreciated locations. And there are far worse places to end up after such a mammoth journey. Restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels abound in Vladivostok, and the hilly streets are ripe for wandering. Still, as with most of the places we visited, it remained as difficult as ever to line up the knowledge that we were further east than China, yet still surrounded by almost universally white faces; the only touches of diversity from the few Koreans who had popped over for a holiday.
Happily, though, the city was every bit as evocative as I had hoped. Possibility hung on the sea-tinged air. Locals call their home “the end of the world” and it is: but one only need switch perspectives for it to be the beginning of one, too. If nothing else, what I’m learning on this trip is just how close, and how far away, the rest of the world can be.