Posted from Vladivostok, Russian Federation.
This past Wednesday morning, I finished the longest single journey of my life. Nearly seventy-two hours in third class (called Platzkart in Russian) on train number eight, on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
My train left first thing in the morning from Irkutsk, so after bidding my hostel owner Dmitri “dasvidanya” (Good-bye in Russian) I ventured to the station with another gentleman from Korea who was taking the same train. We quickly found our respective wagons and we were on our way. This being my fourth train ride, I had the “train entering” protocol already figured out. As you approach the train, you need both your ticket and passport in order to board. Since it was morning and the train was coming from Novosibrisk (a fairly large city west of Irkutsk, near to Tomsk) most of the occupants were asleep. In Platzkart, each compartment is open-air (No doors) and contains six beds with one of the beds converting into two chairs and a table, while the other four beds have a table already set up for them. I’ll publish pictures from China when I am able, so you can see what I mean. When you enter you quickly find your bed from the number on your ticket, stash your luggage in whatever space you can find (this process can be difficult in a full train, especially if you’re trying to be quiet) Since my train was only partially full, I easily found a spot for my backpack on one of the top racks.
Next, you find a bedroll which contains a pillow on one of top racks and lay it out on your bed. Then you sit quietly and wait for the wagon conductor to deliver your linen (bottom sheet, top sheet, pillow case and face towel) and re-check your ticket. After this process, you make your bed and then you’re good to go. Sometimes, this is easier said than done. I was lucky as my bed was on the bottom of the four bed compartment side, which are the two best beds in the six-bed compartment. The other two beds of the compartment have walls at the end and having slept in them previously, there is barely any space to stretch out for a man of my stature. Also, the top bunks are pretty rough. Not only do you need some degree of gymnastics skills to get to them (no ladders, just areas you can hold onto and push yourself up from) they are relatively cramped and hitting your head on the rack above you is not uncommon. The absolute worst beds are the ones next to the door that leads to the wagon toilet. People are constantly coming, going, slamming the door, making a ton of noise and hitting your feet with the door. I discovered this on the ride from Kiev to Moscow. Since it was the morning and I had little sleep the night before, I surveyed my surroundings and noticed three other guys in my compartment (two older, one younger) and laid down (with ear plugs of course) and tried to ignore the orchestra of snoring coming from the other compartments as well as the bed next to mine.
When I awoke, I noticed that my other compartment mates were already up and moving about while I glanced out the window and was greeted with a fantastic view of Lake Baikal which the train was passing by. (see previous post) I lingered for a bit before making the first of many, many cups of tea (glasses with little metal holders courtesy of the wagon conductor) with hot water available from a cistern at the end of the wagon and sat down and did my best to shake the sleep from my mind. I found out through my beginner Russian that all three of my mates were from Krasnoyrask (a place between Novosibrisk and Irkutsk) and one was named Vladamir, the other Vasil and third name one escapes me. At this point in the trip, it is just a matter of keeping yourself entertained and I had a good sixty-eight hours or so to discover how.
The first thing you notice about the wagon is the smell. It starts off non-offensive, but gradually gets worse as the hours tick by. However, since it is gradual, it is not immediately noticeable. For starters, nobody showers for three days so the place gets a nice tinge of body odour to it. Also, Russians tend to eat some aromatic foods and it just so happened the first food my compartment mates started to eat was a handful of intact dry-fish from Baikal itself (which they cleaned and de-boned in the compartment) Mix this smell with vodka, garlic, unwashed linen, stale cigarette smoke, fresh (and not so fresh) meats, cheese and all the food of the World, unwashed clothes and a variety of feet and you have yourself one truly unique stench.
Second, you notice that since it is winter, the heat in the wagon is relatively sporadic. I believe the wagon heaters themselves are coal powered (with a variety of garbage.. yes, I saw the water cistern’s fuel compartment stuffed with trash) and I believe they put the day’s allotment in during the early hours of the morning. You notice this because the compartment heater is conveniently located right next to your head and belches a blast furnace straight into your face first thing in the morning and you usually wake up with your mouth feeling as if you’ve being chewing on the whole of the Gobi Desert. At other times however, with many people going in between the wagons to smoke (between the wagons is like a freezer) the compartment gets a bit chilly and I found myself with my sweater on more than once. Other times, it was sweltering. The various men in the wagon dressed for it, some with their shirts off and others often just merely hanging out in their underwear. Yes, I’m dead serious.
Next, food and drink becomes quite the event on the train, with everyone usually sharing in your compartment. The food is usually meats, cheese and bread cut up in various fashions (we were comparing our knives at one point) for lunch and dinner, while dehydrated noodle bowls (think Mr. Noodles) with hot water are the choice for breakfast. The drinks are usually water and juice, followed by copious amounts of libations. After lunch, you’re usually quite full and with nowhere to go and not much to do, I often put my Ipod on and took a nap.
Afternoons are times of figuring out how to pass the time. I played a lot of cards (and I mean, a lot) with my compartment mates during the afternoon. Even though I understood little of the process, through trial and error they taught me their card game called “fool” and we often played for a few hours each day. Even in the evening after a nap, the cards were out again and the game continued. I noticed a lot of people in the wagon passing the time with this game.
After getting my clock cleaned more often then not, I usually retreated to my books. I cleared through a book on Chechnya I bought in Tomsk (A Dirty War By Anna Politivskaya) and am about half-way through another I brought. I also did some research on Vladivostok (my destination) and China (my next travel destination) Other times, I just sat and listened to my compartment mates talk to each other. I could often pick out words with my knowledge of Russian and did my best to figure out what they were talking about. Like most guys, their conversations usually consisted of alcohol, cars and women. Some things just never change no matter where you are.
Lastly, when all else failed you could just stare out the window. The beautiful expanse that is Russia never failed to delight. At times I was passing snow covered plains or birch trees as far as the eye could see. Other times there were massive snow-covered mountain ranges with various degrees of sunlight hitting them. At one point, they seemed to be coloured pink in the setting sun. The sunsets too were nothing short of spectacular, with the sky seemingly blood-red at times. You notice too that the train goes through barely any tunnels. During the entire seventy-two hours, I counted two tunnels than lasted for no longer than thirty seconds each.
The train stopped at various times throughout the trip. Since the wagon conductor usually ignored my questions (rudeness, I tell you) I found out through my compartment mates how long the train was stopped for. They were my “canary in the mine” and when they started to bolt in the direction of the train, I quickly followed. Usually, they went to the nearest store next to the tracks to buy beers. I often perused the hawkers/merchants that would line up next to the train selling their wares which could be anything from food, drinks, trinkets and even caviar. Also, I needed to stretch my legs and walk a bit. Being in a compartment all day, the lack of exercise starts to get to you.
Other times, I ventured to the restaurant car on the train. Since it was very expensive to buy anything there I did not stay long or go very often. Also, the train bobbed and weaved like a drunken sailor on shore leave so that made writing in my journal impossible (I made notes about the trip on my Blackberry. Thanks Kate!) Also, wandering the train cars was generally frowned upon. The wagon conductors of each wagon often questioned me with the tone of a Drill Sergeant and I would just say “Restaurant” and they would let me pass as if it was the password to continue. Also, noticing I was an English speaker, most just thought I was some harmless traveller.
All this pretty much keeps you occupied. However, by the end of the three days I was feeling like a giant pile of unwashed rear-end and was looking forward to getting off the train for good. My train arrived in Vladivostok at around six am on Wednesday morning, where my newest couch-surfing host, Denis, met me with his car and drove me back to crash at his place while he ventured off for boxing training and then to work. Noticing how clean his place was, it could not have been better. After taking one of the sweetest showers of my life, I crawled under the sheets of the bed he had laid out for me and slept the rest of the morning away.
Vladivostok itself has been quite the experience. I have one more day left here (tomorrow) of my three nights, then I am off to Harbin, China as I have to leave the country on Saturday when my Russian Visa expires. However, since it is very late and I seem to have acquired a moderate form of a strain of the Russian flu, my time in Vladivostok is a story for next time. Until then.