The Trans-Siberian railroad linking Moscow to the Pacific Ocean was completed a century ago and remains the longest railway in the world. This journey traversing Russia was an attraction for us on its own right – and also had the benefit of getting us from Asia to Europe.
Our train pulled away from Ulaanbaator on Tuesday and was scheduled to arrive in Moscow the following Saturday.
Four days was a bit too long to share a 4-berth second class cabin, so Sarah and I paid a slight premium for a private first class one. Our money was well spent – the compartment had a lockable door that turned it into a very small hotel room. The cabin was stately, with two couches covered by green felt facing each other, a small table fixed underneath the large window, and mirrored paneling on three walls. Bedding and pillows converted the couches to beds at night. Electrical outlets lined the hallway and the end of the carriage had a samovar filled with hot drinking water. During the peak season the train can be fully booked weeks in advance, but because we were traveling in October, we had the first class carriage (and more importantly, the bathroom) to ourselves.
Our carriage was staffed by two middle aged female attendants, called provodnitsas, who vacuumed the halls, cleaned the windows and scrubbed the bathroom daily. Neither spoke a word of English yet managed to communicate by pantomiming. They were very helpful, locking our compartment when we wondered off, and letting us know when the bathrooms were being locked. At each station stop they would don their official looking jackets and stand outside the carriage smoking cigarettes.
The train chugged along for several hours at a time, stopping occassionally for two minutes to three hours. Arrival and departure times of station stops posted on the wall (albeit in the Cyrillic alphabet) were adhered to throughout out trip. During the longer stops we were permitted off to stretch our legs, buy food and drink, and take a few pictures while the locomotive was being swapped out and safety personnel tapped the wheels with a metal pole.
Around midnight on our first night the train crossed the Mongolia-Russia border. Mongolian officials conducted immigration on board, examining our passports, looking us up and down several times, peering under our seats and in the top compartment over our beds (why would someone stow-away into Russia?) before bringing a small dog through the aisles to sniff for who knows what. Outside on the tracks were a few guards perched with guns. After our passports were returned to us, the train moved across the border and the process was repeated by Russian officials with a larger dog.
After the border crossing our ride proceeded smoothly. Train travel is very relaxing – time passed by quickly watching the scenery gradually change and the kilometer posts indicating the distance from Moscow decrease. Siberia wasn’t the barren tundra I was expecting, looking not much different than New England in the fall.
Had we been able to obtain a longer visa we would have broken our journey at Lake Baikal; everyone who had been there said it was their favorite place in Russia. The train did run along its banks for several hours before stopping at a station 500 meters away. (The prodvanista denied my request to run down to the shore.)
The stop was short but we were met by young girls selling smoked Baikal fish.
We had heard mixed reviews about food served on the train and station stops, so we boarded with four days worth of coffee, tea, instant noodles, bread, cookies and crackers and other junk we quickly grew tired of eating. Fortunately a few stops did have food; hot cabbage and potato pierogis were far better than another cup of noodles.
We had one amazing, but expensive, Russian meal in the restaurant car of beet soup and salmon blinis.
When we weren’t enjoying the view, we read, played cards and chess or hung out with the five other Western tourists on the train – one American woman who left at Lake Baikal, and four Americans and Australians sharing a second class cabin.
After crossing the Ural mountains and the Europe-Asia border – Sarah saw the white obelisk marking the continental crossing but I missed it - cities grew larger, appeared more frequently, and were accompanied by electric billboards and traffic jams.
Eventually we were on the same tracks as suburban commuters on their daily train to Russia’s capital. Shortly thereafter we arrived in Moscow, covering a distance of four thousand miles three minutes ahead of schedule.