All this talk of Trans-Siberian-ing and still not a single photo of the trains we rode. But here it is, finally!
Why I Fell in Love with Traveling by Train
As a mode of transport, the train is extremely therapeutic. Maybe it suits a nua sai (dialect for ‘lazy bum’) like me because I would totally be in the supine position forever if I could — I literally wrote a whole bunch of my college essays in my PJs on the bed.
But there’s something about the rhythmic roll of a train, as your body rocks back and forth ever so slightly along with the carriage, as you inch closer and closer to your destination.
I read a great deal on the train, having spent a total of 114 hours on it. They weren’t particularly intellectual or ‘literary’ choices (I found Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series extremely bloated and poorly edited). It was a Zone of Pure Choice and I loved it.
I also slept a lot — something I miss now that I have started work. I would read till 4 or 5am, and wake up around 2pm. A complete role reversal, since Alan normally wakes up much later than me. Something about being on a moving vehicle just lulls me to sleep. As a baby, my parents would pop me in a car whenever they needed some quiet alone time.
It was a great time for reflection. I suppose when you have nowhere to go, journal-writing is a perfect platform (geddit?? hurhur) to sort out your thoughts, and the direction you hope to see your life move towards. In a way, that helped work out some of my pre-work angst about salary and going back to Singapore permanently.
Our Very First Train Ride
We almost missed our train. As soon as we boarded and put our bags down — huffing and puffing and a thin layer of sweat all over us (pretty gross considering you don’t get to bathe easily here) — the wheels under the carriage started turning. One has not experienced such a potent mix of Gratitude and Relief until one has Almost Missed Her Connecting Train in a Country Whose Language She Cannot Speak.
I can’t even remember why we almost missed it — there wasn’t even buffer time, we had to transfer from a couple of metro stations, complacency, perhaps a suicidal desire to live life on the edge… Nevertheless, we made it in the nick of time (with a judgmental look from our provodnitsa, or carriage attendant).
(Oh, Alan just reminded me over Skype why we were late: we were having a long breakfast conversation with a cool Australian-Chinese dude who was auditioning for various music schools like the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Actually, he got in already, he was just deciding between that and some famous St Petersburg one. Whenever I meet people like him, I often question what I’m doing with my life. And why I didn’t pay enough attention to piano classes. Sigh – I just looked down at my stubby fingers in utter resignation…)
Things You Should Know Before You Get on a Train
Anyway, we started unpacking our things. I haven’t been to Tokyo but living aboard a train is pretty much how I expect a cramped hotel room in Japanese cities to be like. We bought tickets to a coupe, or second-class, compartment, which is essentially :
- 4 bunks – 2 upper, 2 lower
- 1 table
- Typical trains have storage spaces under the lower bunk, and deep shelves on the top
You don’t want to keep lifting/lowering the bunk to get to your stuff, so figuring what you need is essential. We had:
- A giant bag full of food supplies (lots of cereal, Kinder Bueno, bowls and bowls of instant noodles I never want to eat again, magic spices like black truffle salt and peri-peri pepper — so classy, I know)
- Toiletries – toothbrush + paste, comb, wet wipes, toilet paper (just in case!), powder
- Jumper/sweatpants for cold/sleep
- Entertainment material like cards, books, laptop etc
- Note: the train company provides clean sheets and a face towel
- Note 2: on one leg, we were bunked with a Swiss journalist who had packed delicious sausages and chocolates with him — a compact, yummy food source (the food, obviously, not the journalist)
We were quite kiasu (‘scared to lose’) when we shopped for our food. We didn’t want to pay for pricey food on the restaurant cars, and the instant noodles they sell onboard are slightly marked up. So yeah, we looked like super hungry children carrying this GIANT bag of noodles, chips, HONEY STARS and chocolates. On one leg we even decided to buy like three bottles of mineral water and a 1.5l bottle of apple juice. We looked like a pair of thirsty hippos.
The end result was that our side of the room (I took the upper berth, he took the lower) often looked like a warzone.
People We Met
The good thing about the train is that you can meet all sorts of people and end up being close because, well, there’s nowhere else to go. The bad thing is that there’s nowhere else to go.
Meet Yellow Shirt Guy.
I’m not trying to be mean (okay, maybe a little) but HE HAD THE WORST SMELLING FEET IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND. It was like a mix of sweat and rotten eggs and used socks.
I thought my nose would adjust after a while but it never did. I think that’s your body / brain’s way of telling you that you are putting yourself in mortal danger cos of toxic fumes and all?
Alan and I decided to watch Anastasia (super fitting!) on the train and the smell got so bad that we had to use our blankets to cover our noses. At my breaking point, I went over to his sleeping body, took the pillowcase off his pillow, and wrapped them about his ankles.
Temporary relief, till he kicked them off about an hour later.
But hallelujah, around 7 or 8pm, Yellow Shirt Guy was rudely awoken by a provodnitsa, who prodded him and kept pointing in some other direction. Next thing I knew, we were no longer under nasal assault as he moved his belongings out and a young mom and her baby moved in.
Obviously the baby would start crying once he got into our cabin. But that one I didn’t mind so much la, cos the mom looked super tired so my heart went out to her.
Thankfully, the people we met on the train were really nice (not so much Yellow Shirt Guy, who seemed perpetually cranky). We had broken conversations with our bunkmates, Sergey and the Mom, as we tried to figure out where everyone was going, where they lived, what they were doing.
Sergey spoke a bit more English, and it turns out the Moscow-based doctor (??) was on his way to meet his grandmother 🙂
On our other leg (Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk) we met a really cool couple from South Africa, Theresa and Jacques. This leg was much longer (around 4 days) and so we ended up talking a lot and playing some variation of Goldfish.
Turns out they are kinda school sweethearts too! It’s mushy and gaowei but I hope that I can still travel around on exotic adventures 5, 10, 50 years from now with my other half. 😀
Stepping Out for a Stretch
When you’re cooped up on a train for days on end, you’ll take any opportunity to get out and move your legs a little bit. Or to use proper restrooms — even if they charge you US$3 to enter and you normally balk at giving S$0.20 to the ‘toilet uncle’ at rundown shopping malls back home.
Most of the time though, we were just crossing fingers to find some exotic local delicacies. We had read that at longer rest stops (the times are posted somewhere on the train, and are accurate almost to the minute), babushkas would flood the station with smoked fish and jellies and strawberries.
These sightings were actually pretty rare, though, which was just as well. We spoke to a few of our fellow passengers onboard and they said they didn’t buy much food cos they expected plenty of vendors to be out on the street.
Alan and I found this lady selling what can be best described as caramel-filled waffle sticks, and fairly priced at US$1. Fattening, obviously, but so melt-in-your-mouth good.
The train still remains an important mode of transport, since it’s reliable and affordable enough for most Russians. In the third-class carriages, which most Russians take, berths are open-air and not separated by cabins. Alan and I walked over one time and it felt extremely crowded, but the passengers were all chilling / sleeping / ignoring the heat.
Two good things about traveling is that it has slowly made me less picky (and not sweat the small stuff), and to be grateful for all the things I have. It’s still a constant lesson in progress, though.
I loved cracking open a gap in the top window and have the wind rush in as the train raced by. This gush of fresh air would often be followed by spectacular views, which I’ve been told are even more gorgeous during winter, when covered by a blanket of fresh, white snow.
I stayed up later than all my cabinmates every time, and it was during these hours that I had all to myself that I would just spend a few minutes staring out the window, trying to make out the faint silhouettes of looming trees and empty villages. I don’t think that work has been very rat-race-y yet, but I do miss feeling ‘being comfortable with my insignificance’ if that makes any sense.
This post has been super long, so I’ll end off with a nice photo of Alan reading on a corridor chair (which he later broke) and a video of myself being even more un-athletic than I already am (it’s also good if you want to take a 3D tour of what the train/carriage looks like).
Mini-interview with Alan, following which Klutz-Rachel attempts to get back on her bunk bed. (For the record, I never had a problem climbing up till this video hahaha.)
We bought our tickets from British and Moscow-based company Real Russia. The staff speak English and were extremely helpful; we were even refunded more than 200 pounds after one of them discovered that prices for train tickets had gone down!