Pot-noodleing & backgammoning across Siberia
Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
96Trip End Apr 16, 2011
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We entered the carriage to many curious glances from the locals and a more than slightly surprised "Tourista?!?" from the Provodnitsa (the carriage attendant) who clearly thought we had arrived at the wrong carriage, but then perked up significantly as the realisation came over her that this meant she could sell us drinks & food at tourist prices and maybe even flog us her bunk in a private cabin for enough money to put her three daughters through university
It was our first experience of an authentic Russian banya (sauna) - but one fuelled by the heat of the sun through the windows of the train carriage and the multitude of hot sweaty bodies crammed into the open compartment (see the picture!). Lacking an ice-pool, we bid a hasty retreat to the (slightly cooler) restaurant car and drank cold beer until we could summon up the courage to head back to our bunks. Fortunately, this 1st leg of the journey was only 15 hours of duration and we were soon disembarking in the Tatarstan capital of Kazan which, it turned out, was even hotter than Moscow.
After a failed attempt to upgrade our tickets to the more usual 2nd class which involved significant shoulder-shrugging, annoyed gesturing, gabbling in Russian, “Nyet, Nyet” and requests for millions of dollars from railway staff (only finished when a very helpful 13 year old girl who seemed to be the only person to speak English within a 100 mile radius intervened to translate) we set off to explore Kazan. There was a very impressive Kremlin complete with Russian Orthodox church side by side with a brand spanking new mosque, a few very pretty churches, a riverside beach and a McDonalds with free Wi-Fi.
After one night in Kazan we then re-boarded another train for our marathon 50 hour journey through to Krasnoyarsk during which the temperature finally cooled enough for us to be able to sit on a train in relative comfort. Despite being a completely random choice of stop-over city (eliciting puzzled looks from anybody, Russian or foreign, to whom we mentioned that this was where we were stopping) it was a fun stay. The Bandit had pointed us towards a ski-resort outside of town where in the summer you can get a chair lift to the top of a hill and do some walking in and around some rocks and also use a swimming pool (yes an outdoor swimming pool, in deepest, darkest Siberia). The perfect antidote to sitting on a train! We'd read in the Lonely Planet though that tics carrying the fatal japanese encephalitis virus are a problem in the area so we did our walk in suitable anti-tic clothing including socks tucked into trousers - see the photos for our full glory.
By the time we boarded the 3rd train (24 more hours) to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal we felt like seasoned 3rd class travellers, surprising the provodnista (who was giving us the usual incredulous “tourista?!?”) by quickly and efficiently packing away our stuff, setting up our bunks and insisting that we will pay 30 roubles like everybody else and not 50 roubles for the drinks, thanks very much you cheeky chappy.
The train journeys themselves were..... well interesting. Perhaps it was because of the slightly random route we had chosen or the fact we booked direct with a Russian travel agent, but we seemed to be the only foreigners on every one of our three trains. We know this with some certainty as we hung out in the restaurant car waiting for someone to show up and walked slowly down the train listening at carriage doors for English voices (or any voices apart from Russian ones!)
Fortunately, we were well equipped to amuse ourselves, alternating between reading, backgammon games (Gordon is winning 9-2), listening to audiobooks and watching DVDs on the laptop as well as alternating our location between our compartment(rammed full of people) and the (nearly always 100% empty) restaurant cars
Finally we arrived in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal looking forward to doing something other than sitting on a train or waiting for the next one! It’s been a long, hot and at times wearying but absolutely epic trip!