A chapter about travel along the Trans-Siberian railway, from my book Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home:
If you don’t speak Russian and if you decode Cyrillic gingerly, one letter at a time, it’s not completely effortless to come up with bottled water in Ekaterinburg, but it is possible, and I bought six litres.
The kiosk, alongside a tram stop, was just big enough to be a walk-in affair, not big enough for four, let alone our steamy tensome. The boys in front argued over what beer and candy to order one each of. I motioned for six bottles way up high on a shelf and all kinds of consternation rippled through the mottled impatience behind me.
In a few hours Mirja and I would be climbing aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia. We’d be a week en route, so we needed all kinds of stuff.
As soon as I had all those bottles, though, I calculated we could get everything else at the train station. Six litres of water is heavy.
Today was Labor Day in the U.S. On the edge of Siberia, autumn held full sway. E-kat’s denizens plodded by cold and damp in an insistent, heavy shower. A lot of the older folks wore long coats. All day the rain beset.
Every account of coming upon the Ural mountains speaks of disappointment, and for good reason. The dividing line between Europe and Asia is just hills, really, and Ekaterinburg nestles just beyond their eastern slopes.
The Atrium Palace Hotel Ekaterinburg looked so nice on the internet that we mused back home that it had to be either German or mafia owned. Well, it wasn’t German. It was E-kat’s only “5-star,” with glass elevators and snuggly, fluffy Scandinavian bedding and BBC World on TV.
Still, it had its Russian characteristics: There was the hourly rate, Rule #2: “If you stay for less than six hours, you are charged for twelve hour accommodation.” And Rule #7: “The guests who troubled a lot before can not be allowed to stay at the hotel.” Hard to know if the guys in track suits grouped around the lobby drinking coffee were part of the problem or there to enforce the solution.
Mid-rises glowered down on ancient Siberian carved–wood houses. There wasn’t much spring in E-kat’s civic step. Down Ulitsa Malysheva, a second-tier comrade (maybe it was Malysheva himself) stood statuary guard near a canal. The flowers at his feet had long since conceded to summer weeds.
Old and dusty women tended the old and dusty local history museum. They turned the lights on and off as you moved through the rooms. The Communism section was closed.
During the revolution, in July 1918, The entire family of deposed Czar Nicholas was shot while holed up at the home of a merchant named Ipatiev here in Ekaterinburg – then called Sverdlovsk – and some days later the besieged Bolsheviks burned and buried the bodies outside town.
In 1977, local Sverdlovsk party boss Boris Yeltsin ordered the Ipatiev House destroyed. Fourteen years later Yeltsin, then in the Kremlin, financed exhumation of the bodies from the burial pit, and exactly eighty years after their murder, on July 17, 1998 the bones of Russia’s last Czar were laid beside the bones of previous Czars in the crypt of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. In the museum, black and white pictures of Nicholas and Alexandra were pinned up alongside diagrams of skeletons.
In a dainty candle-lit Orthodox church-let, hardly big enough for the two women inside, Mirja and I bought a tiny cross and a few icons. With a glass, the women inspected the back of each, like kids examine trading cards, and they proclaimed one Nikolai and explained of another, “Blogodot Denyaba.”
E-kat’s youth did a kind of country swagger beneath a huge billboard for “Ural Westcom” Cellular – written in Latin, not Cyrillic. Every kid in town walked up and down the sidewalk drinking big brown half litre bottles of beer. Maybe it was because they could.
Muddy Ekaterinburg, east of the Urals.
If your baseline was vodka, pivo (beer) was positively a soft drink in comparison. None of these young people – old enough to aspire to fashion and to drink and flirt and smoke – none of them remembered the days of vodka and The State. They were all eight or twelve at the Soviet Union’s demise.
The train station was white, granite and huge, a city block long and probably more, but it was hard to see why – they only used a tiny slice of it. There was just time to lug our stuff into the steamy waiting hall, and before you knew it, up rolled train number two, the Rossiya.
Here was a moment of some import. They told us our first class compartment was “very expensive,” but we didn’t care about that (it wasn’t that expensive), we just wanted to find it very empty. And so it was.
The woman under whose iron will Trans-Siberian lore demanded we cower – the provodnitsa – while no nonsense, appeared kindly enough as she studied our tickets, nodded, and handed over the key to cabin nine, between cabin eight, with a baby, and the toilet.
Inside – impeccably clean. Mirrors on each wall made a not very big space bigger. All six lights worked – the overhead fluorescent, lights on the walls, and tiny reading lights over each bunk.
The window was structurally shut and it was warmer than it needed to be. Satiny print curtains covered the window but Mirja moved them above the door. That way we could have it open and see out, but people in the corridor couldn’t see in. Brilliant.
A small writing/eating table. Bunks with bedding, the rough blankets in a Scottish tartan pattern.
Home sweet home on the Trans-Siberian.
A samovar sat at the provodnitsa’s end of each car (ours with bits of drying, fresh-picked wild mushrooms arrayed across the top) to provide water for chai or coffee. I’d remembered every possible gadget, but I’d forgotten plates and towels. I stole a towel and paid good money for plates from the hotel, but there was a plate with sweets and sugar and packets of chai, and a towel for each of us.
All the hubbub and noise of the station mixed with a sustained period of fiddling and adjusting as we fell over and bumped into one another, settling into home for the next several days.
Ours was the last unoccupied cabin in the carriage, so it made sense it was down at the end by the toilet, and Mirja rather liked the idea because it was convenient. And the toilet flushed with water, there was ready cold water in the wash basin, and there was even a roll of toilet paper, at least to start. They scrubbed it down sometimes. It didn’t even smell.
The baby next door kept waddling down to peer into our compartment. His parents, bless them, kept the kid quiet.
Everything eventually settled out and darkness came up to close around the Rossiya as we moved east of E-kat, in the rain.
Movement and noise, action and business at every stop. Traders crowded under the lights with food, furs and shawls. The Europeans and Americans popped onto the platform to stretch and take videos of the locals, and the wheels were checked and the kiosks thrived (and they were well-provisioned) and then the Rossiya groaned back to life and pulled away, and everything aboard settled back into the torpor induced by the rhythm of the rails.
I slept from 1:00 a.m. and as I drifted in and out I saw Mirja sitting by the window gazing out at the countryside far into Siberia. The clouds pulled back, because later you could see that somewhere there was a moon. By 5:00 I was ready for coffee and sunrise but Mirja wanted darkness for a little while more, and I fell right back and slept until 10:00.
You could wash your hair in the wash basin if you had a sink stopper, and even feel positively fresh in the morning, as pale blue sky, high, benign clouds and beautiful white birch trunks rolled by. Shrubs and some of the smaller trees were giving over to yellow leaves.
During the night we’d stopped at Tyumen and Omsk, and by now we’d entered a region a hundred kilometers from Kazakhstan called the Baraba steppe.
The guide book: “It appears as if there is a continuous forest in the distance.” Right about that, so it does….
“However if you walk towards it you will never get there as what you are seeing are clumps of birches and aspen trees that are spaced several kilometers apart. The lack of landmarks in this area has claimed hundreds of lives.” The Baraba steppe extends 600 kilometers.
Barabinsk train station.
By afternoon we’d reached Barabinsk (population 36,000), 1222 kilometers east of Ekaterinburg, founded a hundred plus years ago around the construction of the railroad, which curiously missed the older town of Kuibyshev, in view in the distance to the north.
Must’ve been 68 or 70 degrees, perfect air, as we all clambered out to stretch. They sold tons of some particular flayed and dried fish. The good people of Barabinsk still looked thoroughly European, not a bit Asian.
Alongside the rails, cabbages stood ready for picking and there were acres of sunflowers, but everything – plants, people, stray dogs – clung tight to civilization as represented by the rail line. Beyond lay nothing. We never saw a tarmac road between Ekaterinburg and Novosibirsk, over 25oo kilometers.
East of Barabinsk a particular aquamarine colored paint took hold of all the buildings. Siberian Green. The sky settled into a deep blue with puffy clouds, the kind of pollution-free weather you don’t get anymore back home.
The dining car menu spoke four languages, using “mith” for “with,” as a sensible cross between the English “with” and the German “mit.” On the theory that they can’t hurt you with soup, we enjoyed chicken noodle. The whole dining car smelled like last night’s party. Old beer and cigarettes.
The idea of keeping up with the hours fell away. The timetable showed local time and Moscow time, and we were either fifty minutes early or four hours ten minutes late, take your pick, at the next stop.
The sun slanted in as the Rossiya chugged into and out of the biggest city in Siberia, Novosibirsk, at 1.6 million, here solely because of the construction of the Ob River railroad bridge. In Novosibirsk boulevards were made of real tarmac. There was said to be an enormous opera house, and somewhere nearby was the purpose-built city of Akademgorodsk – a city of scientists.
Housing blocks stretched out, too many to count. Since this was a mere settlement in Czarist times, and didn’t really get going until Stalinism was the style, Novosibirsk was just flat plug ugly.
Out on the platform, Roma beggars displayed whining snotty children as evidence they were miserable.
Sunflowers hung their heads with nowhere to point. Pumpkins lay on the vine alongside the cabbage fields. All the hay was cut and piled in heaps tall as houses. Smoke rose above a few chimneys, but the temperature was bracing, and in light of the months to come you’d think they wouldn’t bother with fires.
It was morning, early, barely six, but already the villages stirred, those that rose up the rainy hillsides outside Krasnoyarsk. Children played on the gravel track.
A man all in gray, smoking, walked a sodden path, coat flapping at his flanks – a scene that could have taken place in the last century – or the one before that. From compartment nine Mirja and I took it all in – the mists in the trees, the elderly people clustered at the storefront door, the birches steadily losing their autumn fight, the smoke rising from this odd shack or that.
A battleship gray sky defined the whole world.
The Rossiya crossed the mighty River Yenisei, that rises in Mongolia, bisects Siberia, and means “wide river” in the local Evenki language. The Yenisei waterway energizes Krasnoyarsk industry, and the bridge across it brought a dramatic start to our day, as the clack-clacking sound of crossing the bridge jolted us awake. The train was still quiet as Mirja and I took drinks from the samovar.
She drank the chai provided in a heavy glass mug she got from the provodnitsa (whose name was Lydia Ivanova), and I, rather less in harmony with my surroundings, enjoyed Eight O’Clock brand instant coffee in my Evernew brand silver titanium 400 mug.
In Greenland, each settlement presents its worst side to arriving visitors. Since the only contact there is by sea, your arrival by boat is met by benzene storage tanks and refuse waiting to be hauled away. There was a little of that first-things-first frontier utilitarianism in these villages, too.
Giant metal gantries extended the power grid right straight over and through residential areas, and a hundred TV antennas sprouted, and then over time listed randomly over the rooftops.
After Novosibirsk, especially east of the River Yenisei, the Rossiya would crest a hill and we’d stare down at birch and aspen forest as far as the eye could see, broken sometimes by patches logged for firewood.
In valleys the sky was slate. Only from hilltops might you peek at distant pale blue, which might foreshadow improving weather in the afternoon – or might not.
By now it was easy to spend hours between stops in a dreamy half-consciousness – just be still and the movement of the train would do the work of the hypnotist’s pocket watch. Over the course of the week I dipped in and out of epic dreams starring everyone I’d ever known and featuring vague, unfulfilled intimations of desperate evil.
The hypnosis of the rails made travel across the taiga deeply restful. Hours slipped happily by. I imagined that in winter, with the darkness, that would be all the more true.
Kilometer 4375, Ilanskaya. Twenty minute stop. It felt good to get out of the train and stand in the rain. As you began to miss refrigerated drink, the cure was ice cream from the kiosks. Here, kerchiefed babushkas sold cucumbers from a bowl and the provodnitsa bought carrots. The baby next door was the star of the train and everybody played with him at the stops.
Buying dried fish on the platform.
By a town called Taishet, the music from tinny speakers on the platforms had ceased to be repetitive, cloying Russian pop. It had an Asian, maybe Indian rhythm. The Rossiya didn’t stop for long, just three or five minutes.
Taishet was once a gulag transit camp. The factory in Taishet where prisoners once died creosoting railroad ties still operates.
We planned to leave the train for a few days at Irkutsk, so one morning before her daily vacuuming tour, I visited Lydia Ivanova’s provodnitsa den down by the samovar and the drying mushrooms to make sure of our arrival time in Irkutsk. It sure was 2:25 in the morning. I had written “Irkutsk” in Cyrillic on a card and I said “pazhalsta,” or please. She smiled and turned away from her gossip magazine. I pointed at the word, my watch, and turned up my palms and shrugged.
She asked, speaking fast Russian and gesturing, “Moscow time or local time?” and since I knew how to say the word Moskva, I chose Moscow time and she clucked “nyet nyet nyet” and wrote it for me in local time (2:25 a.m.) and then in Moscow time (9:25 p.m.).
5:00 p.m., Nizhny Udinsk, kilometer 4680: A big stop. Fifteen minutes. The taiga had been running dense and hilly, and Mirja had been reclaiming sleep in bulk.
I shook some instant coffee into my mug and stopped at the samovar by the door. First we were trapped on a narrow siding, then a local train pulled away that opened up a long promenade of kiosks across the tracks.
A whitewashed building painted “toilet” was bigger than most houses, with six multi-paned windows along the side. The usual scruffy commerce went on beside the train, and three girls with high, Asian cheekbones and reddish hair panhandled. Only two, really, and very quietly. The other was too meek.
They were insistent, but not even faintly in the way of the souk, and they slipped away of their own volition just before Lydia Ivanova, Provodnitsa-in-Chief, strode up to shoo them away.
Basic provisions, gossip magazines, a newspaper. Things to pass the time were for sale in the kiosks. And cassettes: bootlegs with typed covers like Captain Jack ’97, Dance Rocket Part 2 and Hit Hammer, and several with women in lurid poses.
Gray and chillier now, and for the first time, in patches, the birches were completely yellow.
At dusk, lights glowed from inside the old wooden Siberian houses and smoke rose straight into the air from the chimneys. We sat before the window and considered compartment nine in carriage seven of train number two our own personal traveling theatre.
Typical house along the rail line.
The mist-green of the taiga and the soldier-blue sky merged in the fading light, and the light in the compartment reflected on the glass an image of the accumulated odds and ends of travel: Ms. Ivanova’s heavy, stout glass, chai bags and books and sugar cubes. Reading glasses and a roll of tissue, hot sauce and a plate and aqua minerale. Plastic cutlery and half a pack of raspberry sweet crackers.
Now we were stopped in front of an unlit stretch of track and people bustled about. Someone came and someone went, but it was all in the dark and we couldn’t tell. Was it Zima?
No, it was too short a stop. Zima would be more important than that, and then it would be four hours 53 minutes to Irkutsk.
But Zima never came. No cluster of lights ever suggested suburbs, and the Rossiya hurtled on through the dark. So I did the sensible thing. I went to buy some beers.
In the restaurant car, Sasha exuberantly proclaimed our friendship. He sat with the lady in charge. Muscles bulged from his t-shirt, which was inexplicably drenched with sweat. He ordered three bottles of wine for himself. The attendant had to do the invoice on a calculator and in longhand and deliver the bottles before it was my turn, giving Sasha time to uncork and decant a couple of glasses.
“Sasha, Weelyum,” he shouted and stuck his finger in our chests. I had a gulp, we professed friendship, and I turned to find every eye in the restaurant car, amused, on me.
I pointed and explained, “Sasha.” They smiled and agreed.
Finally it was time to get back to our berth and break out the bags and fuss about, because we’d be getting off the train in four hours, or three, or five.
I am sure only God will ever know why, of all the world’s music, Funky Nassau (“Mini-skirts, maxi-skirts, Afro hair DOOs….”) ran in a continuous loop through my brain from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk.
And then Zima came to us as a slight strip of concrete between two trains populated by smoking Siberians, and nothing more.
The night provodnitsa said it was ten till seven Moscow time. According to Lydia Ivanova, day provodnitsa (who must have been kicking up her heels at this hour in the provodnitsa lounge), arrival in Irkutsk was expected at 9:25 Moscow, 2:25 Irkutsk.
At 2:00 I tried the bar car for a last minute take-away pivo. At 2:00 a.m. it was a rockin’, smoky, all-Russian party car.
The short-order cook by day ruled tonight, and he rose from beside Ludmyla, his puffy-haired paramour, and wondered what kind of pivo I wanted, starting to tick off Baltica,…. And I said Melnick (which means Miller) and he went to get some.
Ludmyla was convinced I was a secret Russian.
“Russki!” with a wag of a finger and a suggestion that we would all have champanski. But by now we were minutes from arrival in Irkutsk.
I paid the smiling short-order cook and smelled like a smoking factory as I bumped back down the corridor, and I got in the way of a woman entering the toilet. She stepped back – in her nightie – with her husband.
Flustered, I summoned the Russian “Spaseba,” and she replied, “Not at all” in flawless English.