Day 1 June 27
0300: Cab from our hotel to Ekaterinburg station. Any fears of feeling drowsy are dispelled by our cabbie Misha, who insists on carrying out an elaborate conversation through the translator app. This involves him speaking into his phone, passing it behind for us to read and then give our replies, all the while driving at fairly breakneck speed. He invites us to Ekaterinburg in winter. "We will make snow figures together!" Very tempting, Misha, but a Siberian winter, snow figures or not, isn't my idea of fun.
0330: At the station, we see there's no escalator to our track (very odd because they are in almost every public space) so we lug our luggage, appropriately enough, up to Track 3. There, waiting for us, is Rossiya, Train #002, the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok. Our provodnitsa (carriage attendant) Tamara checks our tickets helps us haul our luggage up and settles us in. She explains the carriage features: how the seats become beds, the cubby-holes with the towels and the little toilet kit. The cabin (we picked a two-berth compartment) is clean, has lots of hooks and storage space (yes, all our luggage fitted in), lights, power sockets...and the door has a full-length mirror because, well, why not.
0200: And we're off! Right on time. Perhaps appropriate here to explain how train timings work in Russia: All timings on all trains at all stations are in Moscow time. Our train's scheduled departure is at 2am from Ekaterinburg, which is two hours ahead of Moscow, so it's 4am local time. But all public clocks -- including the clocks in Ekaterinburg station and those on board the train -- are set to Moscow time. Mealtimes should be interesting; we were given lunch just after 10am, which may have been lunchtime at the place we'd stopped. It should make life interesting as we go on, and local, Moscow and body clocks all struggle to keep pace with each other. Anyway from now on, unless specifically mentioned, all times are Moscow time. There's no need for all of us to lose the plot on this. Anyway, first is sleep.
0930: We wake up and have breakfast. Part of the fun of travelling on the Trans-Siberian is shopping for food to be eaten on the train: It's a long journey (even our two-day version) and there's no point taking chances with the restaurant car and whatever station fare is on offer. So we fill a picnic hamper: bread, cheese, salami, peaches, plums, tomato, cucumber, chocolate and a little more cheese because one really can't have enough cheese. And, because it seems to be the done thing, instant noodles. These are obviously not the Koka or Wai-Wai versions; they seem from the packaging to be very meaty and probably without the spice. So breakfast is peach and cheese. It might seem abstemious but that's good because...
0945: Our new provodnitsa, Anna, comes and reels off a set of instructions/questions/commands (it's a thin line between one and the other in such cases). We try and use the translator but she waves it away with. We agree to her instructions/questions/commands; it seems the least problematic option. And so...
1008: Anna comes in with lunch. It seems a trifle early but we imagine this is what Test cricketers go through in Kolkata, where lunch is at 1130. It's also huge -- a bowl of soup, a bowl of barley and meat, a plate of meat, cheese and cucumber. We struggle to finish, our resolve stiffened by the prospect of a rebuke from Anna. I should add here, my responses to such situations have been shaped by a flight I took almost 20 years ago on Uzbek Airways from Delhi to Tashkent. It was like the state bus to Jalandhar, possibly a converted military transport plane, and I still remember entering the aircraft through the hold and seeing a spare tyre there. But the cabin crew were at another level. I remember asking for extra milk for my coffee and being told "No" in a note that suggested, If you ask again you're going to join that tyre in the hold. So my default response is to reach into my inner meek Bengali (never far below the surface) and acquiesce.
1002: No this isn't me playing more mindgames with the time, it's just to keep the story flowing. This is Ishim, the first stop where I'm awake. It's bright and sunny, and smoky -- the platform is filled with passengers packing in their nicotine quota for the next few hours. I get my share of Vitamin D -- and of nicotine, too, which is unavoidable if you stand around for long. But there really isn't any need to stand around: The platform has one shop and that's it.
Through the day: The countryside is flat and featureless; very few rivers or lakes, sometimes trees only in the distance. We haven't been through a single tunnel and I can't even recall a single bridge we've crossed. The countryside is mainly green but of course for six-odd months of the year this same stretch is a white expanse. The train hurtles due east, chasing the sun, and in summer with its almost endless daylight, we feel we might pass the entire journey without encountering night.
1730: Barabinsk seems unpromising from afar but the platform is relatively buzzing with activity. There are many traders milling around, selling either fur (hats, gloves, scarves) or pirogies (meat patties) or smoked fish. The fur hat is comfortable but at R3000 seems a bit pointless for Bangalore winters (my monkey cap will do just fine). The fish, though, is interesting and we get a trout-sized one for R100. The skin is leathery and inedible but the flesh beneath is perfectly cooked; my guess is it's just salt and smoke, nothing else has gone into this.
1915: We head to the restaurant car to investigate dinner possibilities only to find we are 15 minutes too late: it shuts at 11pm local time, which is sensible in one sense but confusing in others. But we have plenty of food, and we open two packets of instant beef noodles. They are filling and tasty, though it's doubtful when, if ever, the bits of beef were last on a cow.
2030: Time to wind down. It's 0030 local time and 2230 in Ekaterinburg, where our journey began. Night has fallen, contrary to our expectations. It's been a long, interesting day, with many firsts (smoked fish on the platform) and hopefully a couple of lasts. The train has crossed time zones with the expert ease of an Olympic hurdler and as we prepare to turn in there's a full moon shining brightly through the Siberian woods, there's a cloud of condensation rising from the ground and the scene is utterly beautiful.
Roll on, tomorrow.
Day 1 food intake: One peach, two plums, some chocolate, a bottle of tomato juice, some cheese, a slice of salami, a packet of instant beef noodles, two mugs of tea, a bowl of soup and (most of) a bowl of barley and beef.