|And I thought that walking around the Annapurna for 300km was tough. This was actually tougher. Imagine a place where you are locked up 24 hours per day, eating your own grungy food out of plastic bags, sleeping on hard mattresses with three of your newest friends, working on your gymnastics skills every time you go to the toilet, and being let out for a short walk, 23 minutes in length, 2 times per day. Imagine also that you also have a "warden" whose job it is to make sure you don't stray from the rules, makes you lift your feet while she vacuums, and orders you back into your cell when the walk break is over. Pretty much a prison, right? Others in the group described it as like being shackled to a chair while watching the nature channel 24/7.
Welcome to the largest leg of the Trans-Siberian rail journey.
Up until now, things were great. We had a wonderful stop in Mongolia, which was followed up by the natural splendour of lake Baikal, deep into Siberia's eastern reaches. But this stretch, which measures almost 6000 km from Irkutsk to Moscow, is marked only by the incredible continuity of the birch forests, which are punctuated by the odd soviet city with its characteristic urban smokestack coal fired power plants. It can get incredibly, incredibly, boring, and you find yourself desperately looking forward to the next "7'th inning stretch", which is always hours away. It does make for the development of good Sudoku skills however. I was not a player up until now, but Rachael from out last tour in China graciously donated her little book to our Siberian cause, and both Kristine and I had a crack at a few. That and planning our European itinerary took up the majority of the time. Maybe I'm sounding a bit harsh though, because the journey really is incredible, simply due to its scale. I'm amazed that the Provonitza's (carriage attendants) do the journey back and forth regularly for employment. One stupendous highlight was a very small white obelisk that market the boundary between Asia and Europe which few by in the blink of an eye (Hey, one has to get excited about something!). At long last, we had left Asia behind...
Before we left, we stocked up with goodies for the trip and there were some wonderful salamis and cheeses at the market in Irkutsk. As is required, we purchased the critical bottles of vodka that are ubiquitous to the trip - one cannot ride the Trans Siberian without sharing a number of shots with the locals. Turns out there are hundreds of different vodka's in Russia, and the way to tell the best one is the one that has no odour at all. And there are plenty of them. They are very good. However, they are very strong. A number of folks in the group spent half the evening staggering back from the dining car while trying to find the correct cabin. A right of passage on the Trans Siberian.
As the train rumbled down the electrified line, we passed many grand soviet cities including Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Ekateringburg (to name a few), all of which are huge in scale, and gave away their secrets of urban decay since soviet times as we approached the various stations. There are many dilapidated buildings and long shuttered factories along the rail lines. Yet, the journey offers something very special - a feeling that you are doing something that not many people choose to do - and a real appreciation for what the word "vast" really means (and coming from a Canadian, that's a big deal I think!). There are incredible rivers that are crossed like the Yenisei and the Ob, along with the Urals. Boredom aside, the landscape is very beautiful, and you stare out the window for hours imagining the many places where you would like to build a cabin and just sit out on the porch watching the sun set in front of you. The journey, if anything, is contemplative in nature.
Many of the stops were only 2 minutes long, so there is no disembarkation. But on the longer ones, it is basically a race to find drinks and new food before the Provonitzas beckon you back onto the carriage. This was really fun, especially for Kristine who had to sharpen her bargaining skills with all the old babushkas that wait at the stations to sell their baking and garden produce. It was a quintessential Russian experience I think to buy tomatoes and peroshki's off the platforms. Way cool. Locking of the toilets on the other hand is not way cool. Every time you pull into a station, and for the duration of the stop, the toilets are of course locked because, well, they discharge onto the tracks, and no one really wants "pooh-pooh" station or anything like that. So, you sort of have to plan all your pit stops so to speak. This can be exceedingly difficult, because you cross 5 time zones from Irkutsk to Moscow, and the train schedule is written all on Moscow time (another Soviet holdover I presume). Hell, it's pretty much a Sudoku puzzle trying to figure out what time you can and can't take a piss!
And finally after 1001 hours on the rails, the steel horse pulls into the end of the line buttresses at one of the nine Moscow stations. Yes, nine. As we exited our carriage, we marked our watches and wondered if we would be able to keep walking after 23 minutes, as that was the longest we had explored the platforms over the last four days. Alas, we were still alive, and on the 24th minute, we stood in and amongst the grandeur of Moscow's "Three Stations Square" where, oddly enough, there are three strain stations. I like Moscow already...