Day 2, June 28
0530: A bright, sunny start to a new day. There are flowers, undulations and elevations, even a bridge across a narrow river; there might be a tunnel too at some point! Amazing how the scenery has changed; there are small communities, clumps of five or six houses, each with a tiny garden with flowers and presumably vegetables too, to be stocked up for winter. The bleakness has given way to rolling downs, inviting and hospitable and bearing no sign of the six months of harshness that exist here. Still no sign of animal life, though; nothing since we saw some ducks in a pond yesterday.
0730: Over breakfast - fruit, followed by a sandwich of tomato, cheese and salami - I thought I'd answer the question some of you might ask: Why the Trans-Siberian? Well, I guess it's the ultimate journey for anyone who loves train travel. We've all heard about it as kids - the vastness, the scale of the journey, the exotic names (and, as kids, Vladivostok allowed you to imagine you were saying something else). It also gives me a chance to see (in a minute way) Siberia, which is such an integral part of any Russian story.
It has a tragic history, of course, as the place of exile for any who opposed the ruler, whether the aristocratic Decembrists who opposed the Tsar in the December rebellion of 1825 or the millions who were shipped off here to the gulags. The very word "Siberia" conjures up images of labour camps, freezing conditions and man's wretched inhumanity to man. One form of torture in the gulags was to simply tie up the prisoner, toss him outside in temperatures way below zero, throw some water over him and leave him for the winter.
Which led me to think about trains in general. For most of us in India, trains and stations are a happy place, spelling family holidays, travel, reunion. The sound, the sight of a train, the stations, the food - it's all been romanticised, from Ray to "Ratlam ke galiyon". I live next to the railway line in Bangalore and the sound of the train and the occasional whistle are comforting.
In this part of the world, though, the sight of tracks evokes something darker in my mind, images more somber and tragic. For a couple of decades 80-odd years ago, the trains in this part of the world were used to deport, extern, banish, pack off. Whether to concentration camps or, in the Soviet Union, to gulags as part of forced displacement programmes, a very different world from Agatha Christie's trains. Perhaps it's the relative solitude - a pair of tracks stretching into the bleak distance; or perhaps it's the sterile, almost utilitarian function, no bustling families with bundles of luggage, no wailing kids being tugged along. They are all at airports now.
It's hard to forget, too, that in many parts of the world - south-east Asia, parts of Africa, even Sri Lanka - the construction of these railway lines came at a terrible human cost. The tracks were laid by indentured and slave labour, prisoners of war, the "railroad gangs" of American folk songs; the weakest and least privileged sections of society.
0900: Krasnoyarsk, one of the last big stops in daylight hours before Irkutsk. It's midday local time and it's hot - the app says 26 degrees Celsius but it seems far more. The locals have dealt with the heat by shedding their clothes, the men walking around bare-chested and the women going as close to it as possible. The line at the platform shop is for ice cream and cold drinks. I buy a "samsa" - a meat samosa but in the shape of a very large and flat Bangalore puff (or "puvz", as it's called there).
Through the day: The samovar is the most important part of the Trans-Siberian. It dispenses hot water through the day and night, allowing Russians (and anyone else) to drink the endless cups of tea they love. Also great for instant noodles, instant porridge, instant cocoa, instant anything. All you need is the packet, the samovar will do the rest. In fact it's an essential part of all public spaces in Russia; maybe southern India, which has a similar fondness for hot water, can pick up a trick here.
1130: We decide to investigate the restaurant car. We'd made the trek last night too, only to find that it is the last bastion of independence on the rail system, running defiantly on local time. So though it was 7:15 PM by every other railway coordinate, it was 11:15 PM in the restaurant and past working hours.
The journey there is an adventure in itself: We must pass through the "planskartny" open sleepers, similar to the Indian 2AC. As you walk through you must duck the feet, of the especially tall passengers, sticking out of the upper bunks, negotiate the tangle of feet on the ground and then deal with the tangle of smells from what everyone's eating. Stew, noodles, kimchi, cheese, processed meat, fruit. The air is redolent of garlic and what Indian schoolboys would call "toejam". (Hint: It's not edible.)
At the restaurant car we meet Ira, the manager/server. She knows no English and dismisses the option of using the translation app. We want to eat, I indicate. No comprendo. I make the universal knife-and-fork gesture. "Yum-yum?", she asks? Yes (or at least we hope so). Every table is empty but she seats us at one below which are stacked cases of beer, so there's no leg room. But there's also no room for argument. What do you want, she asks. Chips would be nice.
She grabs me and marches me to the kitchen, where a couple of minions are cooking. She points to a piece of chicken. Yes, I say. Then she marches me to her "bar" and picks up a packet of chips. It has a picture of prawns on the cover but Ira, possibly feeling I wouldn't get it, makes a high-pitched noise that I can only assume to mean prawns. The chicken arrives. It is a Siberia-sized piece of chicken on a Siberia-sized plate, surrounded by mashed potatoes and salad. It might keep me going till the World Cup final. But it's hot, it's fresh, it's reasonably tasty and, with the help of a bottle of Spaten lager, I try and do justice to it. Ira is happy, I'm happy.
Looking for the World Cup: One of my aims in taking this journey was to see how the World Cup played out in those parts of Russia that weren't venues. Well, on the TSE it hasn't registered. There is no TV and the cellphone signals are only at stations so following the football consistently is a challenge. And in any case, as that brilliant Argentinian video showed, if you are a football fan you will not leave the grid. I was told there were a couple of German fans on the train but, not surprisingly, they have made themselves scarce.
1320: Ilanskaya. My colleague Sharda has researched and found that we are now, at 96 degrees East, almost outside the "Indian zone" - that is, beyond the country's easternmost longitude of 97 degrees East. Our journey began in Ekaterinburg, which at 60E is approximate to Herat in Pakistan; it will end at Irkutsk, 104E. Speaking of degrees, it's 34 degrees Celsius in Ilanskaya and the sun is scorching. Time to head back inside.
1630: Bump into Sourabh, an expat living in San Francisco. He and his friend are also getting off at Irkutsk, but immediately boarding the Trans-Mongolian to Ulan Bator - that's another 24 hours. Then they explore the Gobi desert before flying back home. He's spent time in Beijing and thought Moscow would similarly be a lot of heavy Communist architecture but, like me, was blown away by its grandeur and grace.
The provodnitsa: They are the carriage attendants but they do all the work: Sweeping, swabbing, ensuring the loos are kept clean, and ensuring the passengers are fed. I saw one cleaning the windows in the corridor at 10 PM(!), and Tamara and Anna would regularly re-stock the loos (which are as clean a couple of days into the journey from Moscow as they probably were at the start). They are with the train start to finish, and that's a long journey. From what I understand, they work in shifts, and when not on duty are resting in their cabin near the samovar. Conventional wisdom suggests you're best off keeping on their right side.
1950: Lights out, six hours to go for Irkutsk. It's definitely that point in a long train journey when you feel the need for something more than a facewash, but at least the aircon has been working fine. I wonder what it's like in the planskartny.
0240: Irkutsk. The end of the line for us. An epic journey, made in great comfort. I can't say I would do it again, because I think I've seen whatever there is to see on this journey, but I would recommend it for all travel and train buffs. We are greeted by bright sunshine and the prospect of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. First, though, I need to get used to stable ground. An hour after we have deboarded, I'm still swaying gently to the train's rhythms.
Day 2 food intake: One peach, two plums, cheese, bread and sausage, a monster-sized chicken dish, more cheese, a bottle of Spaten lager (brewing since 1397), lots of Coke, half a samsa.