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.
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.
We are rattling through the seasons this trip.
In the (comparatively) brief time it took to reach Krasnoyarsk from Yekatarinburg, autumn had become winter.
We stepped on to the platform at 6:40am (brief moment of horror when our tickets said arrival at 3:40am until we realised that was Moscow time; by comparison a lie-in until 6am seemed positively luxurious) and with horrified grasping of frozen extremities, headed speedily into the station to stow our bags.
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.
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.