One Aussie’s unique experience of travelling through a country bathed in white.
Darryl Carlton wanted to try something new. Of all the trips he could have gone on, he decided to experience Russian culture and get in touch with his wife’s roots in one of the most authentic ways: a journey on the Trans-Siberian. Darryl shared his journal entries with RED Magazine so we could have a glimpse of what it’s like travelling from one side of the largest country on earth, to the other.
Thank God It’s Friday: Day 1
My day started 18 hours before my departure on the Trans-Siberian express when I flew in from Beijing. My 24-year old son, Nick, and his girlfriend, Jess, were already in Moscow staying at Hotel Metropol, a five-minute walk to Red Square. When I caught up with them, the French actor Gerard Depardieu was holding court in the main lobby. He is just one of a long line of celebrities that have stayed at this famous hotel, along with Joseph Stalin, Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson.
We spent the morning exploring Red Square and its surrounds. St. Basil’s Cathedral is an extraordinary building—an explosion of colourful domes. The GUM shopping centre reminds me of Galeries Lafayette in Paris. It carried the same labels—only with an extra zero on the price tag. Moscow is, by any measure, a modern, sophisticated European capital. The brick-paved streets around Kremlin and the architecture dating back to the 1800’s give the city centre undeniable European sensibility and class.
At GUM we stocked up with essentials for our journey: salami, bread, cheese, crackers, fruit and wine. We lugged all ten of our bags through the Yaroslavsky railway station for our departure to Vladivostok. The subway system in Moscow is full of bronze statues, beautiful frescos and pillars decorated with stainless steel taken from fighter planes after World War 2. Stalin extolled the subway stations as “palaces for the people.” It was his intention for people to travel to work in a luxurious setting that reflected the glory of their endeavours and the wonders of the socialist state.
We hopped on our train and silently slipped out of Moscow—no announcements, no blaring of horns—and began our 9,400-kilometer journey that is the Trans-Siberian Express.
We travelled first class in two berth cabins. Nick and Jess were on their own and I shared with Nikoliavic, a Kung Fu sensei travelling to Novosibirsk. The train moved slowly and I could feel the tension of work and deadlines drifting away as we made our way across the snow-covered landscape. Within an hour out of Moscow we were in the middle of a sparsely timbered countryside. The old-fashioned timber houses had additions that looked like they were built by a well-meaning but inebriated uncle, in stark contrast to the modern satellite dishes on their roofs.
Nick, Jess and I ate a late lunch of salami, cheese, bread and wine and felt completely relaxed. No phones, no emails, and no deadlines for six good days. Our ‘provodnitsa’ (attendant) came around offering tea and quickly returned with souvenir teacups for sale at 3,000 roubles.
After nearly three hours of travelling, our first stop at Vladimir P coincided with the dinner service. Nikoliavic joked with the food attendant that I had an affliction and couldn’t communicate as a civilised human being. He then imitated a kangaroo and said “Australee” as he pointed to me. We had a good laugh.
For dinner, we ate delicious borscht and grilled chicken on buckwheat. My roommate and his friend got three beers and opened up their packet of smoked fish. The aroma was enticing and the taste—soft and flavourful. Smoked fish on the Trans-Siberian express—who am I? Russian? We clinked our bottles as I declared “nasdrovia!” which everyone found pretty funny.
It Must Be Saturday: Day 2
My wife Olga called me early in the morning from Vladivostok but I had very little concept of time at that moment—only light and dark. In Moscow, the streetlights went off at 10AM. At 4PM, they were back on again. The train had no such easy indicator of time.
I went exploring through the restaurant car, only to be stopped by an attendant stoking the coal fired burner that heats the carriages. As I walked between the cars, I was assaulted by the snow and ice on the slippery metal steps, which provide a convenient but unsteady passage. Dressed for the warmth inside the cars, this brief interlude shocked me and reminded me that I was approaching Siberia.
At that point the only unpleasant experience on the train was the smoking area that let the rancid stench of cigarettes circulate through the cars. It cleared quickly, but it was still an unpleasant ten minute distraction while the only smoker in our car made his regular visit to the area just safely isolated from the frozen connection between carriages.
The carriage was laid out with a front room and en suite for the attendant. The passengers then had their cabins with a narrow walkway on one side. The décor was modern but lacked the flamboyance I had seen in pictures. The beds were comfortable, narrow and very firm, but more than adequate for the purpose. During the daytime, it could also be used as a sofa. Most people seemed to leave theirs in the bed position but I found the lack of a backrest a bit uncomfortable when not sleeping. There was a little table between the beds and a power socket just below the table. I was able to keep my phone, Kindle and computer charged during the trip. There were two toilets for passengers, both well kept and with just enough room. If there was a shower on the train, I hadn’t yet discovered it.
In the morning, my traveling companion was joined by a friend and it was time for tea. It turns out that the enterprising Nikoliavic was importing tea from Ceylon and luckily, I was provided with a very nice sample for breakfast.
Searching for lunch, Nick, Jess and I made our way to the dining car only to find a completely dark room with a lone figure asleep under blankets in the bar area. We were quickly ushered out, realising that on Saturday it opens at 12PM. Since we stocked up in Moscow, we were able to have a snack in our cabin. Olga called, and we all took turns talking to Sasha, my daughter, who reminded us to wear beanies when we arrived in Vladivostok.
Eventually, we had the most perfect Russian lunch aboard the train: borscht, blini with salmon and blini with caviar and sour cream. We enjoyed the borscht so much we returned at dinner to have some more. Come night, the dining car transformed into a laser light adorned disco, straight out of some B-grade Hollywood movie. Two other patrons sat alone at their tables and the cook and waiter played cards at the bar. In perfect Russian I announced “tree borschta pajalusta”, holding up three fingers and pointing to the picture on the menu. Nick was impressed with my command of the Russian language—after nearly ten years with Olga I finally managed to order soup with a combination of sign language and rudimentary words.
Sunday: Day 3
The next half-lit winter morning we left Omsk on our way to Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia and the third largest in Russia. There appeared to be slightly less snow here, with the trees and bushes standing bare. You could spot the occasional patch of brown grass, where as yesterday we only saw the pure white of a snow covered land. Even in winter, Siberia is not the frozen wasteland of Western imaginations.
Olga organised for her friends in Novosibirsk to resupply us with essentials for the rest of our journey. I felt just like one of the adventurers setting off to conquer the American West. We hoped to avail ourselves of a quick shower at the station in Novosibirsk and return to the train before it slipped silently away. Jess had already indicated that she was incapable of showering in five minutes and would let this opportunity pass to not risk being stranded in the middle of a Siberian winter.
As we approached Barabinsk, Olga called and informed me that we had not yet arrived in Siberia, and that only after Novosibirsk could we consider ourselves to be entering the “sleeping land”. At the train station, I ventured outside to make some breakfast purchases from the babushka carrying bags of fish and piroshki. I bought six piroshki of undetermined contents. It was incredibly cold venturing from the warmth of the train to the stark openness of the train station. As we left the station a big revolving news sign informed us that it was negative 29 degrees Celsius. It made me question: what industries exist in these towns? How do people get to work each day? How do you maintain productivity when you can only work outside for half of the year? These questions puzzle me to this day.
In Novosibirsk, Rita and Sergei provided us with two large bags of apples, chocolate, bread and ham. Rita spoke to the attendants and we found out where the shower was. As soon as we departed, we each took turns showering.
At dinner, two very drunk, but friendly, young engineers assaulted us. They were on their way to work at some secret military installation working on nuclear missiles, or perhaps they were just trying to impress Jess. The restaurant manager hustled them away to protect us from the less attractive elements of Russian society.
I went to pay for dinner, carefully stepping past the fallen down drunk cook. When I turned around, Nick and Jess were sitting with another passenger called Anthony who was trying his very best to communicate. The gang exchanged stories and devoured an entire bottle of vodka, naturally.
Monday: Day 4
Last night the carriage was extremely overheated to 30 degrees. I woke up after an uncomfortable night’s sleep with a miserable cold. As we made our way south, the temperature outside started melting slowly. It was -21 degrees in Novisibirsk, -16 in Ilanskaya, and -10 in Ikortsk.
Tuesday, Christmas Eve: Day 5
We hopped off at Chernysh to stock up on supplies for Christmas day. The frozen ground underneath our feet crunched as we dashed across the rail tracks to the brightly lit and well-stocked shops. They had a tiny window that only opened long enough to pass money through one way and retrieve acquired bootie through the other. It was then slammed shut to keep the winter out.
Wednesday, Christmas: Day 6
The journey on this side of the Urals was much more rough and turbulent. The tracks seemed to be uneven, causing the carriages to bounce up and down and occasionally lurch to the side. As the engine hit its breaks, all the carriages, one after the other, absorbed the shock in rough succession. Food, bottles and cups of tea slid precariously across the little tables of the coupe. Outside of our windows, it was evident that Siberia was less affluent than western Russia. The villages were more rundown with much greater distances between habitations.
With no discernible roads, we wondered how these people commute, or if they are even able to undertake jobs in the same way we understand employment. What do these people do out here, particularly in winter?
Thursday: Day 7
As our last evening on the train approached, we were looking forward to arriving in Vladivostok. As much as we enjoyed our adventure, a six-day undertaking without stopping is a lot of time on a train. We were all feeling the effects of no exercise, borscht with sour cream every day, rich blini with smoked salmon and caviar, and salami and rye bread.
At this point I felt like I would do it all again, but I would double the duration with at least three overnight stops. Lake Baikal definitely would be a priority. Or perhaps Novosibirsk, or Yekaterinburg. To make the most of the journey, to truly see Russia, you need to get off the train. You do, however, see a very particular slice of Russia on the train, like the drunk restaurant manager falling down, slurring in incoherence, or the grumpy Russian attendants incapable of smiling. Or the friendly waiter, who spoke no English, yet continued to hold long conversations with us in Russian, despite the language barrier. The young engineers, drunk, stumbling about the train, racist and sexist but inoffensive. Or the thug who thought it was acceptable to block Jess in the corridor until she elbowed him aside. The young woman covered almost entirely in black fur, who carried an expensive handbag and wore designer shoes while she made her way toward the second class carriage. Or the “babushki” lining the stations with bags of piroshky, smoked fish and caviar at each stop.
I can now say that I have completed the longest train journey in the world. I have crossed the entire continent of Russia, from Europe in the West to Asia in the Far East. This journey and experience shared with Nick and Jess was irreplaceable. Traveling through Russia, through time, in a winter so completely different from anything we would experience in Australia is a memory I will have for the rest of my life. It was a fabulous journey and an excellent decision. Here are some survival tips if you chose to embark on this Trans-Siberian adventure.
Survival Tips for the Trans-Siberian
- Bribe early and often. Bring gifts that you can offer to your roommate and the train staff. Make these peace offerings early to ensure support during the trip.
- Bring the essentials: baby wipes, camping knife, forks and spoons, a thermos for tea and coffee
- Make alliances with locals. Find a Russian friend who can act as an intermediary when you need the train staff to help you out.
- Bring an eye mask and ear plugs to shut out the noise.
- Wear very light clothing and slippers since the carriages are overheated.
- Bring lots of food and water. Even if you bought the meal tickets, they only serve one proper meal per day, and the serving time is highly variable. The restaurant car does not operate until 2:30PM.
- Bring small notes for buying food at the various stops.
- Find the shower. It cost us 150 rubles per person.
- Print out the train timetable before you leave. Convert local times, and be sure you know how long each stop is for. They don’t announce departures.