The Lonely Planet says that as well as being an OK place to visit, Habarovsk also has the distinction of being the coldest city of over half a million people anywhere on earth. For me, it will always have the saving grace of having provided us with the first French fries we have seen on our seven day train odyssey, French fries that I didn’t even have to eat to benefit from. Just stepping into our compartment holding them and some steaming nuggets of chicken raised my status as travelling companion for some time!
I woke just in time to find that we were crossing the Amur river on the longest bridge in Siberia – bringing a gap some two and a half kilometres wide. However cold it might be in winter, Habarovsk looks like a prosperous town with plenty of new industry and new housing in evidence. There wasn’t much happening on the platforms so I went outside the station for a quick explore. That was when I found the Golden Bird fast food emporium. I also found my first free wifi for some considerable time.
We are heading due south now to Vladivostok, skirting the Chinese border. My mobile phone provider gives me a nasty moment when they welcome me to China. The border is only a few kilometres away, but I’m sure we have stayed on the right side of it. We are travelling through some sort of wetland: swampy, marshy land, with plenty of nondescript greenery and plenty of rain.
We stop at Vyazemskaya in the middle of a thunderstorm. The sodden hawkers outside look to have an attractive catalogue of wares, but they are huddling under umbrellas, absolutely drenched, and without any custom. No one leaves the train. The Provodnik opens the carriage door but doesn’t even bother to lower the steps or put on his full uniform. I consider jumping down into a massive puddle masquerading as a platform, but it’s not even worth considering. As we pull away the bedraggled station building comes into sight. It’s under some process of renovation and they don’t seem to have found its name sign yet.
We continue heading south. The rain eases slightly but I can’t bring myself to show much interest in the passing scenery. It’s the seventh day and I just want to get to our destination now; get to any destination really. I lie down on the vacant upper bunk and fall asleep. When I wake it’s still damp and green outside. Looks like swampy terrain. We pass an army camp to remind us that this used to be a very disputed border. We slow down slightly as we pass a railway gang working on the adjacent track, taking advantage of the fine summer weather. Looking east out the corridor window I can just make out the coastal mountains in the mist, grabbing all that moist air and turning it into rain.
There is a short stop at Ruzhino where the Aussie-shorts family get off. Seems like we are now the last people in our carriage. The Provodnik starts to clear out each compartment in turn and sets them out for the return journey. One of the toilets is blocked and there is no one left to unblock it for. Except us.
Before we left home we watched that film Transsiberian. At one point Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer try to go from their carriage to the restaurant car but on opening the connecting door they find that the rest of the train is missing. Only their carriage is attached to the engine. They have been kidnapped by Ben Kingsley. It begins to feel that lonely. At the next bend in the track I check that the rest of the train is still there. It is.
We trundle on without any great enthusiasm. We start tidying up our things and organising our cases. Anything to make the destination seem nearer. I look up just as C and a new girl in a beige outfit walk past our compartment. It seems that we are not alone after all.
The damp, dismal weather continues. We arrive at Ussuriisk, the last scheduled stop before Vladivostok. The Provodnik, being an astute kind of person, thinks I’m mad, but I jump out of the train anyway to snap this penultimate station. It’s still pouring down. I get soaked and my shoes get waterlogged stumbling through several unseen puddles.
The train, so punctual in the first two thirds of our journey, is now running about half an hour late. We are due in at 12.40 train time which, having travelled through seven time zones in seven days is now twenty to eight in the evening, local time. Seems more likely that we’ll get in around ten past eight. We’re all packed and more than ready to go. V is already fretting about my next choice of hotel. Surely it can’t be as ‘interesting’ as the one in Moscow? We pass the 9147km sign, which means that we have just over one hundred more to go. It can’t go quickly enough.
We ask ourselves whether we would do this again. It’s probably a question best answered with a bit of distance from still doing this journey. Actually, we probably would take the Trans-Siberian again, though maybe not the same route or direction. We both fancy going the other way, from east to west, and doing the Mongolian route from China through to Moscow. But not all in one go.
We did this one without breaking the journey, partly because I wanted to, and partly because we were constrained by starting dates and having to link up with the weekly ferry to Japan. It’s certainly been an experience, but there’s a couple of places I’d have liked to have spent more time in, to have more of a look around: Novosibirsk and Lake Baikal to name but two.
When I can see out the window through the rain, it looks like we must be getting close to our goal. We count down the kilometres and chase along the banks of one last river. We begin to pass the beginnings of coastal resorts that have clearly been wanting development for some time, but haven’t yet had sufficient attention paid to them to fulfil their potential. The incessant rain hampers our vision, but the build up towards the approach of a major city is still perceptible as we pass villas , houses, and appartment blocks.
Our train pulls into Vladivostok at last. Seven days and six nights on the rails. We exchange final words with C who is planning to catch the same ferry as we are, and with the Provodnitsa and Provodnik who are both there to cheer us on our way. The Provodnik finally introduces himself to me. He is not Russian, he says, as he tells me his name. It is not a typical Russian name. He is from Turkistan.
We lug our luggage off the train and struggle up the metal flights of stairs to street level. I make a beeline for the nearest taxi driver. I tell him the name of the hotel and the street it is in and show him the blurred names on a torn piece of paper soaked by the rain. It’s not far from the station but I’m not being a Sherpa in a monsoon.
The taxi driver is wary of me. He loads as much of our luggage as will fit in his boot and fits the rest on our knees. He asks me several times if I have roubles, if I need to change money. Yes I have, and no I don’t. Then he tells me he has no change and asks if I have small enough denominations to pay him the exact fare. Yes I do, I tell him, several times. No sooner has he finished his inquisition than we arrive outside the hotel.
I help unload the taxi, pay the fare, exactly, and steer my travel companions towards the hotel door. Only when we have negotiated ourselves and our luggage safely into the building do I pick up the expressions of utter disbelief on their faces. V and S are looking around them, bewildered. What is going on?
They are shocked. This hotel has a lobby, a reception, and even a lift.