On the evening of our last day in Moscow (29 Sep) our guide Alexey accompanied us to Yaroslavsky Station (Яросла́вский вокза́л) where we stocked up on supplies to last us for our imminent 80 hour train ride. We were the first to arrive in our couchette but by the time we’d packed our bags away and gotten settled our room-mate for the next three and a bit days had also arrived.
Her name was Svetlana. She didn’t speak a word of English but it’s amazing how much you can communicate without a common language. It certainly increased our very limited Russian vocabulary! She described herself as a babushka and later revealed she was 71 years old, although we insisted she was surely twenty years younger. She told us about her three children and seven grandchildren and insisted we have five children of our own. She became increasingly more motherly as the days wore on, insisting we wear warmer clothing and feeding us food from her supplies, including homemade cheese. We never quite worked out exactly where she was going – not quite as far as Vladivostok but further than us (Irkutsk). I wish I could watch a replay of the night we first met with English subtitles: I’m pretty sure what she said when she established we didn’t speak Russian was something along the lines of, “Just what am I going to do stuck on a train for days on end with you two who don’t speak a word of Russian!”
We visited the restaurant car on our first night. There weren’t many people there and when the staff saw us they almost seemed amused to have new customers. The food was alright (I had a hearty stew covered in melted cheese, Alex had borscht) but we got more into the Trans-Siberian spirit of things for the following two nights. The train makes a number of often quite lengthy (up to half an hour) stops along the way, where you can hop off and either buy cup noodles, snacks and drinks from little booths on the platform, or fish, piroshki and dumplings from local women offering them. They’re not pushy, the food is cheap, and they’re honest about giving you the right change (when you get confused and can’t comprehend how cheap it really is).
One morning an elderly but spritely man poked his head into our compartment and said something in Russian. I gave my standard apologetic smile and when he realised I spoke English his face lit up and he said, “Ah!” He paused to corral the words he wanted to use next then proudly declared, “We will have a good English lesson today, yes!” When we laughed and smiled he repeated it again before disappearing down the corridor. A couple of hours later he came back for his English lesson, which was really just a request for coaching on the pronunciation of “pen” versus “pan”. He said the “pa” in pan is difficult because there’s no equivalent sound in Russian.
Finally we arrived at Irkutsk, deep in the heart of Siberia. It was early in the morning and we hugged Svetlana before saying “до свидания!” (goodbye). One of our guides for the area, Katya, collected us from the station and drove us to our accommodation where we gratefully showered for the first time in 4 days before being served a welcome hot breakfast.
During our stay in and around Irkutsk (3-5 Oct) we visited Lake Baikal (the largest fresh water lake in the world – roughly the size of Belgium), an open air museum of wooden architecture (buildings salvaged from the building of a Soviet dam), a баня (Russian sauna), a Buryat (native Siberian) settlement where we met a local shaman, as well as sights around Irkutsk itself (churches, statues and monuments). The itinerary was organised by Real Russia as part of their Classic Trans-Mongolian tour and I think it helped us to get a lot more out of the area than we probably would have done if we’d been doing things by ourselves. Both our guides, Katya and Ivan, were young, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable.
Siberia wasn’t anything like I’d expected. Irkutsk is quite large and has a youthful vibe thanks to being a university town. Lake Baikal is beautiful with crystal clear water and clean fresh air. It wasn’t barren, desolate or freezing – in fact it was actually quite sunny and warm while we were there. Of course, everything we saw was within an hour’s drive of a main train station: given how large Siberia is I’m sure there are many stretches of land that fit the image I had in my head, but there probably isn’t much point in visiting them for that exact reason.
Up next: the third and final instalment (of the Trans-Mongolian portion of our 5 month journey at least): Mongolia.