It’s all about size. The Transsiberian is of course the longest railway in the world by far, but it’s big in every sense. The trains themselves are long, with an assortment of coaches for sleeping, feeding and servicing including one which burns coal for the internal heating system. It presumably, too, generates some power for the lights because at the frequent engine changeovers, the electricity stays on – something that Amtrak cannot manage at Philadelphia station when there is a change from diesel to electric power.
So at the stops, which are also lengthy – half an hour at all the main places to allow for maintenance checks, crew changes though not the poor conductors and catering staff who stay on for the whole journey, and the purchase of food by passengers – sacks of coal are delivered onto the train. It means that at the stops, there is a lovely smell of roasting coal swirling around the station.
The stations themselves are big with platforms that extend as far as the eye can see and footbridges that tower over the lines, far higher than seems necessary. The station buildings themselves, however, are generally modest but always heated, thank God, and are the only source of station names as the individual letters making up the name are generally – but not always – attached to the roof. There are no name plates on the platforms but fortunately the information is not needed – only a watch and an ability to count forward from Moscow time for the train makes Swiss punctuality seem rather lacking. The train always seems to be on time but the schedule is given in Moscow time which is seven hours behind Vladivostok, and the only indication that an hour has been gained or lost is a little – one by the station name on the timetable conveniently posted in each carriage in Cyrillic letters of course. Indeed, my recommendation to anyone thinking of doing this journey is to learn the Cyrillic alphabet if nothing else, although a bit of Russian helps enormously, too.
The train averages around 30mph and never reaches more than, I would guess, 60mph. Presumably there is no point going faster than the frequent freight trains – huge too, with trucks far larger than ours given the greater loading and track gauge – which represent the main usage of the line. Passenger trains, though, remain important since with few airports and a road that is just too long to drive, as well as being impassable in places in winter (though information on its precise condition is hard to come by despite Putin opening the previously untarmacked eastern section a couple of years ago), the railway is still the main link with the outside world.
We – my partner Deborah and I – have reached Ulan Ude after two and a half days in the train from Vladivostok. The journey starts at night, apparently because it runs next to the Chinese border on the early stretches and there is still a sensitive relationship between the two countries. Although why being able to see into China over the huge Amur River which makes the Thames look like a stream is a security threat lives only in the imagination of those for whom paranoia is part of the job description.
We were travelling not in the famous Rossya, train number 1 which does the whole journey but rather in a ‘local’ service that only does half the journey, running between Vladivostok and Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. There were, therefore, no tourists, especially as it is November but nevertheless the train was suprisingly well occupied.
Breakfast was a let down – a big one. I had assumed that since our ticket had said 3 meals were paid for, but it meant as we learned that we were getting 3 meals, lunches, on the whole trip. Therefore when we wandered into the deserted dining car at 10am, and asked for porridge or eggs, we were offered only bread, some tasteless cheese and jam that had never seen any fruit. Worse, they decided we were a soft touch and charged us £11 for these measly pieces of bread and a hot drink each. Some odd item of 192 roubles –nearly £4 – had unaccountably been added to the bill. All presented with a smile. The waiter had even put a chocolate on our table, unasked, for which he charged us! Never again.
The lunches were just on the positive side of edible ‘fish, chicken or pig’ our friend the waiter offered and certainly the fish seemed the best bet, though its provenance was rather doubtful. It all came in a plastic container to be eaten in our compartment, presumably because they wanted to keep their dining car to themselves. Fortunately, it was preceded by soup that was excellent if somewhat greasy, though I am partial to a few oily globules on the surface on my broth.
The scenery on that first day was pretty dull. The snow had not yet arrived in the far east and yet the leaves had long gone and the grass was now dead and brown. There are, too, a surprising number of buildings, mostly run down wooden shacks or pretty squalid little houses as over the past century life has inevitably migrated to the railway. There was not a single farm animal to be seen, as presumably they were hidden away in the wooden shacks or the climate was simply too cold for them to flourish.
On the second day, the view from the train was actually rather beautiful if stark much of the time. The snow had mostly settled, a smattering of very cold granular flakes which do not soften the contours as much as in Europe but nevertheless create a series of wintry scenes that could grace any xmas card.
A minor disaster had struck in the middle of the second night, two young men came to use the bunks below us. We had been promised that it was very unlikely that our four bunk room would be required by other people given that it was November and we were traveling on normal service trains, but this promise proved to be as unreliable as the meal service. There was nothing wrong with the two young guys, Andrei and Ilya, who spoke a bit of English,but four people in those cramped compartments are a tight fit. Fortunately, we found a deserted one in which to spend the day watching the wintry scenes before returning to our beds for, so far, the best night’s sleep.
And then we arrived at Ulan Ude, a true Asiatic town at 11 am, with the temperature at minus 8.