Day one on the Trans-Siberian Express. We reprised our first night in Moscow and had breakfast at our local chocolate and coffee house. Rather than describe the culinary delights, I took a picture. Then we paid the hotel bill in cash (as ‘requested’) and in return a fixed price yellow cab was ordered on our behalf.
The Tuesday morning traffic in Moscow was even more fixed than the price. Our taxi made as much progress through the gridlock as it could and then abandoned us a short walk from Yaroslavskaya station. My two travel companions walked a few steps behind me to enable me to be propositioned by a well-dressed woman whose approach to two subsequent propositionees did not leave me feeling especially highly valued.
We dutifully put our bags and ourselves through security at the door to the station, and again at the entrance to the platforms. We were directed round to the long distance train platforms on the right where we noticed most people walking round the side of the station building totally unencumbered by the security services.
I had been unusually cautious about the time that all this would take to accomplish and so we had time to kill. We scoured the forecourt for chewing gum to buy and something to eat (corn on the cob, it transpired) and were successful on both counts. Groups of people with an interesting selection of luggage and accompanying paraphernalia began to drift towards Platform 4. In the distance a tender truck could be seen pulling a many-carriages train into that platform. Our train was about to arrive.
Russian trains were never like this. The only other time in my life I travelled on a Russian sleeper was over twenty years ago. I was doing some work in Riga, Latvia, introducing training for banks and banking there, and our local contact had been approached by someone from St. Petersburg looking for similar training. He arranged for four of us to make the overnight journey there with a winning pitch.
Late in the evening we went to the central station where Mr G. met up with some men in leather jackets who had access to tickets. We went into the station and found that virtually the whole of Riga was there, milling around with the intention of going somewhere, anywhere, where the grass was greener or the snow whiter. Shortly after midnight we tramped onto our train.
Even with temperatures of around minus thirty outside, the carriage was stiflingly hot. Russian pop music was piped into the compartment with a volume control but no ‘off’ button, and Russian pop music in the early 1990s was not something to stay up all night for. The train was impressive, like something out of those old Casey Jones re-runs I watched on TV as a child. For me it summed up Soviet technology: brilliantly functional, but aesthetically bereft.
The scariest thing about that train was moving about it at night. In the wake of the economic and political collapses, there was no stewardess, no Provodnitsa to mind each carriage and no hot water to keep you replenished with drinks. You walked from one carriage to the next in pitch darkness, stepping across two moving metal plates with snow blowing in around your face and legs. There were no border police interested in the train or recognising the new border, so when we tried to fly home from St. Petersburg a few days later, the passport officers were very reluctant to let us fly because there was no proof that we were actually there in the first place.
This Moscow train was something else. Not only did we have a Provodnitsa, but there was a male Provodnik as well, complete with hot water samovar. Instead of piped music there was a flatscreen television set (albeit only with a selection of raucous Russian TV programmes). Unlike the descriptions on the net, there was plenty of room beneath the seats for all our suitcases, and small cupboards and clothes rails built into the headrests. Hell, there was even a functioning plug to allow all our mobile devices to be on continuous recharge. I did get a nasty flashback the first time I stepped between carriages, but that passed.
The fourth person in our compartment arrived just after us. We greeted him warmly and he seemed relieved to find we were travelling all the way to Vladivostok so he would not have to face a constant churn of room-mates. He also helped us recognise and work the various cunning pieces of design technology in the compartment. The Trans-Siberian is a place for slow conversations and quick camaraderie. We learned nothing more about Y except that he was from a town west of Moscow and was travelling to work on the Chinese border. We had plenty of time though, to get to know each other later, even if neither of us could speak the other’s language.
I took a blue notebook with me on the journey to record what I saw and experienced, having gleaned from the Internet that I would probably be unable to recharge my mobile devices without loitering for hours at a solitary plug in the carriage corridor. At the front of the book a wrote “#notice”, twice, in case I forgot to. The first things I noticed would be there throughout the whole of this journey: the skinny trees that had first appeared in Poland; flimsy rusted electricity pylons; allotments and dachas along the side of the track; collections of brick and wooden buildings with corrugated iron roofs; rows of garages with three foot high metal stove pipes sticking out through their roofs.
The first station nearly took me by surprise. I noticed the build up of housing and saw the small golden domes of the churches appear, but was too late with my phone-camera to capture them on the way in. I jumped down from the carriage to take a photo of the station’s name sign “Vladimir” and couldn’t miss a man in shorts with a serious camera around his neck prowl past me to capture a couple of locomotives. He seemed to be English but it felt too early in the journey for opening conversations.
We set off again and three types of flowers appeared by the trackside, none of which I could put a name to: small arrowheads of purple glove-shaped flowers, single yellow flowers with six symmetrical petals, and groups of small white flowers with only angel-dusted pinheads of white pollen at the top of each stem. An airline meal of buckwheat with an unidentified meat in a tomato-based sauce was delivered to each compartment to complement an earlier picnic bag.
We’d brought a wide selection of teas, instant coffees and chocolate sachets with us and quickly learnt to borrow stakans (glasses in a metal cup-holder) from the Provodnik to make our drinks in. We’d also brought a narrower selection of packet soups and noodle-based instant meals with us for lunch each day, but quickly lost the taste for these delicacies.
By the next stop at Nizhnii Novgorod I was ready for the station: camera and notebook both poised for action. An outdoor museum of elderly black locomotive engines preceded the stop, several people wandering around between the exhibits, and a couple sitting on top of one of them.
We passed by what looked a little and large pairing of neighbouring churches on the way out of town and as the first day came to an end we moved seamlessly through our first time zone. The time in the outside world moved one hour ahead of the train, which along with the rest of the railway network was sticking religiously to Moscow time.